Commander Bruce Arama had never fought a major fleet action before, but he was pretty damned positive that battleships weren’t supposed to explode when they were twenty seconds outside their own engagement range.
“Incoming lasers from the Martian battleships!” his Sensors and Communications Officer barked instantly. “Incoming debris!”
The next second lasted an eternity as Bruce figured out what had happened, and what he had to do. Medusa, the ship he’d been screening, was in pieces – and some of those pieces were flying right at Adelaide.
“Walter, spin and climb, get us out of the way of the debris, then close us up with Warlock!” he didn’t sound calm as he issued those sharp orders, and Walter Borjigin didn’t sound calm as he barked the necessary commands to his Helm and Navigation crew.
But Adelaide moved in time. The next corvette over, Ararat, didn’t, and one of Medusa’s drive pods slammed into it with ferocious speed, snapping the small ship’s neck and instantly decompressing many of its sections.
What the hell was going on?
Kelly Monahan’s grin had died instantly, and Shauna Cass’ heart seemed to stop as she stood still on Texas’ bridge.
“Return fire,” she rasped out of instinct, but Monahan shook her head.
“We’re not in range!”
Then Warlock bucked under her, and she was jolted out of the frame of her bridge viewfinder.
“What the hell is going on?” Shauna demanded in a half-yell, and the fact that she dared to ask such a question on her bridge was a clear sign of how acute her shock was.
No one had an answer, but Warlock had taken two lasers in the starboard drive pod. Having seen what happened to Medusa, Warlock’s Helm and Navigation Officer had been ready to dodge fire, and thus had saved the ship from being crippled… but thirty-two Martian lasers were crossing the battlewagon’s bows.
Then the third battleship fired, making it forty-eight beams.
Shauna didn’t know how, but the Martians had built bigger battleships, with longer-range lasers.
Three of them.
And they were charging down at her force the way John and the Bonnies had hit Grand Admiral Garvey’s battleship squadron during Glorious February.
In that second there were a thousand questions filling Shauna’s mind – how… what… when… why… who…?
And of course, there was no time to even attempt to answer them. The fact that the Martians shouldn’t have had the ability to do what they’d just done – to blow a Defense Command battleship (albeit an aged one) to pieces in one volley, beyond our maximum range – didn’t matter. Shauna had to deal with what the Martians were doing, not what they should have been able to do.
“Frigates advance quickly, torpedo solution on the nearest battlewagon!” she barked, and Captain Tong ordered Texas to increase speed to 198 kps for the torpedo run.
“I’m in range… shoot!” Kelly Monahan made the report and gave the order to return fire in the same breath, and the Forge Squadron gave its first answer to the Martians.
Warlock’s crew was impeccably trained – the ship was Marlene’s second battlewagon from the Venus Squadron, after all. Both of its lasers rammed home on the center battleship in the Martian line, and the behemoth wasn’t able to sidestep the hits as smoothly as Warlock had just seconds prior.
Shauna felt a very brief few seconds of relief as the lasers connected – she was in engagement range, thank God. She could fight back.
But now it was one battleship against three, and they were clearly bigger and tougher than anything Defense Command had ever seen from the Martians…
“Destroyers and destroyer escorts closing to engagement range!” Texas’ SCO denied Shauna any time for relief or questions.
Her eyes darted up to the main screen, and she saw the icons of the Martian escorts surging ahead, no doubt instructed to intercept her frigates and keep them from launching against the new battleships.
“Corvettes forward, we need to break their screen!” Shauna gave up trying to protect Warlock in that instant. When the odds had been two against three, trying to protect the battleships had been most important. Now that she was down to one, it was more critical to get her frigates into torpedo range. It was the only chance they had left to even the odds.
The six… no, five corvettes started to push forward behind the frigates, and as laser range was reached, a chorus of ‘shoot!’ came across Battlelink. At least the frigates still had a range advantage over the destroyers…
Two of the Martians sustained moderate damage, but then the frigates and the corvettes ran smack into a wall of energy fire, most of it being generated by the third Martian battleship, which had turned its interest away from Warlock.
Texas was forced to sidestep and drop at full speed, a move which severely tested the ship’s artificial gravity and Shauna’s grip on the bridge rail.
Sichuan was destroyed by a direct hit from two of the battleship’s lasers, and Hubei was caught by two destroyers and crippled. Texas and Gansu were suddenly the only two frigates left in the Forge Squadron, and they weren’t the only ones suffering.
The lack of coordination that came with a new squadron was evident in this fight, and Earnest became a victim of it. While the ship was professionally-crewed and one of Marlene’s best, it was still at the center of a formation that was closing in too tight. The nervous skippers of the Reserve-crewed corvettes had clumped together in a frankly amateurish manner, so when three of the Martian destroyers and four of their DEs locked on, there was no room for maneuver.
Earnest went first, being completely destroyed as lasers converged on it. Darwin was knocked into a tumble when one of its drive pods was burned through, and then a DE chased it down and finished it off with a missile. Loyal and Hobart succeeded in keeping good spacing between them, and fighting as a pair, they managed to burn through a Martian DE with their lasers. Then one of the Martian battleships swatted Loyal like a fly.
At the very same time, Albury charged in against one of the destroyers that was attempting to track Texas and unleashed a small torrent of mag fire… just enough mag fire to get noticed, without doing any damage to the larger ship.
The rookie mistake cost Albury a drive pod, and then a reactor overloaded and ended the lives of everyone on the brave little ship.
Captain Tong managed to get Texas back around and burned right through the destroyer that had killed little Albury, but then two DEs closed on the frigate and again kept it well away from the battleship it wanted to attack.
Only Adelaide remained near Warlock.
“Two destroyers closing with missiles, Bruce!” Fuentes was at her operations station, directing the fire from Adelaide’s lasers, and now she had two Martian targets to pick from.
“Focus fire on the one to starboard,” Bruce replied with no pretense of calm, then looked up to Captain Monahan on his screen. “Ma’am, missiles incoming, we’ll try to stop them.”
Monahan wasn’t paying any attention, as her ship was again being pounded and dodging madly to avoid Medusa’s fate.
It was around this time that fifty F-174 Sunbursts and F-184 Starbursts rushed into the space around Warlock and Adelaide – the planes from Akagi were joining the fight. Captain Holbrook had launched them on his own initiative, and as they arrived Bruce allowed himself a moment’s hope – with fifty planes offering strafing support, they could keep missiles off Warlock’s back.
While Adelaide and now several squadrons of fighters tried to keep her ship from being stabbed by the destroyers, Kelly Monahan roared orders to shoot at the Martian battleships again.
She wasn’t allowing herself to think that all hope was lost. Things didn’t look good, but there was still a chance… there had to be a chance. It was unlikely, but Warlock was a hell of a ship. If any battlewagon could take on these three Martian behemoths on its own, it was…
It was Bonaventure, but Bonnie wasn’t here.
Warlock exploded as the lasers from two of these seemingly-unscathed Martians converged on its lower bow pod, and pierced their way into the ship’s fighter ordnance bays. The amount of armor those beams burned through to cause that secondary explosion was considerable… but they did it.
Thirty-two laser beams, the strongest lasers we’d ever seen from Martian ships. Ever.
“Debris incoming again!”
Bruce didn’t even think as he heard the report – he didn’t have time to think, “Walter, climb and break. Warn the planes and get them to follow to cover us.”
With their primary targets gone, the Martian battleships turned on the smaller survivors of the Forge Squadron, and there weren’t many to choose from. Mags… or whatever the Martians were calling them… started raining in lethal numbers, and the fighters ended up absorbing altogether too many of them.
Of the fifty-odd planes that Akagi had launched, thirty-three were caught in the downpour and died.
Adelaide took some hits, but the determined little ship climbed out of the targeting bracket the Martians had set for themselves too quickly to be disabled.
Then the battleships opened up with lasers again – but this time they’d noticed the two carriers that had been hanging to the rear.
Akagi and Kaga evaporated in vicious fireballs, the same way Yorktown, Hornet and Essex had a couple of years prior. The age of the carrier was well and truly over.
As those bright explosions distracted some of the Martians, Shauna did the only thing she could do: she ordered the retreat.
Texas and Gansu managed to close together, and then the two frigates poured all the thrust they could out through their drive pods. Accelerating to a desperate 202 kps, they climbed and turned towards the Forge.
Hobart followed them, burning its new engines for all they were worth, and making a shaky 203 kps on a matching course.
Adelaide was the last to turn away from the Martians, and Bruce found himself breathless as he realized the Martians would have a solid ten seconds to shoot at him as he crossed their front on his run towards the Forge. There were no other options of course – he had to head for the Forge…
Those ten seconds passed like ten hours… but they all passed.
The Martians had had their fill for the moment, and in an act of magnanimity on the part of their commander – who was himself quite shocked at his success – they let Adelaide fly away, dozens of demoralized Sunbursts and Starbursts clouding around the corvette.
One of the most astounding defeats in the history of the Defense Command Navy was complete.
The Martians’ prized Tharsis-class battleships – Olympus Mons, Pavonis Mons, and Arsia Mons – had joined the war.
They now began launching search and rescue craft.