In a separate sector of the free belt – but one not too far from Caligula in relative terms – the battleship Cyclops was cruising for Hawke Six (the furthest-out rock in the Protectorate). Cyclops was the only Imperial capital ship in the Belt – remember, we didn’t even have any at the Belt colonies any more. Its job was to travel around showing the flag, and theoretically, to be ready to smash any pirate bases that were found by the cruisers we had out there.
But, as Captain Christian ‘Mik’ Mikaelsen would tell you (and as he told me several times over his two years on patrol) the pirates were always far too smart and far too quick to get caught by a ship with Cyclops’ laser power. He did a lot of menacing, and was able to protect entire colonies by simply being in the area, but for the two years of his command, Mik hadn’t seen a single fight.
The last ten days, however, were threatening to change all that. Having lost contact with Earth, Mik had done the sensible thing before heading for a friendly port: he’d commed ahead to the Protectorate – the ally nearest to his cruising sector – to see what was going on. You might think this was a common-sense approach to a comm blackout situation, but believe it or not, not every Captain with the opportunity to contact an allied port did so. In Indiana’s case, there was no communication because the ship was out of range of any rock other than Caligula, but with exceptions like that aside, a number of Captains simply didn’t contact friendly ports by comm when they lost touch with Earth. I don’t know why, but they didn’t.
That’s not true, actually. I heard one such Captain’s excuse on this subject – he thought it would have been detrimental to Imperial security to reveal his inability to contact the Admiralty. I don’t know if I buy that, but whatever my judgment, he certainly didn’t comm an ally to see if they had any information on the silence… and of course, every one of our major allies in the Belt could have explained it to him.
Wes Pellew had spread word of the war – remember, Caligula had known about it.
Anyway, pardon that minor rant. Christian Mikaelsen had called Hawke Six, and so he knew about the threat. His ship was now cruising at best speed to Hawke Six to link up with whatever Defense Command ships rallied there, and he was personally spending many long hours on his bridge, just in case there was trouble.
And, go figure, we join him as trouble arrived.
“Sir… getting a distress call… urgent…”
Mik was sitting in his chair staring rather intensely (he can get this intense stare sometimes), but he blinked and looked up at the report, “Really? Helm, stand by for course correction. What’ve you got, Finn?”
The Lieutenant Commander at Sensors and Communications was frowning and leaning over one of his technician’s shoulders, “No double check that… one moment, sir…”
Mik got to his feet and walked slowly towards the bank of consoles, watching the seemingly baffled Lieutenant Commander with a patient but eager gaze. In two years of cruising so far, Cyclops hadn’t so much as received a distress signal – such was the uninteresting life of belt cruising in a ship too scary to tangle with.
The Lieutenant Commander abruptly looked up, “Sir, it’s from Banff, they’re taking fire from a squadron of unknown ships…”
Mik stopped in his tracks.
Yes, he’d been warned in his last message from the Protectorate that open hostilities had begun with Mars, but somehow intellectually knowing that didn’t equate with being ready to hear that one of Defense Command’s ships out here was taking direct fire.
Mik nodded after that very brief, thoughtful pause, “Confirm that. And pass coordinates to helm.”
The Lieutenant Commander nodded to his technicians, and now two of them rechecked the feed, making sure it was marked with all the right transponder codes. The information was then passed on to the helm.
“Coordinates received, Captain. Should we adjust course?” the Helm and Navigation Officer turned back from his consoles.
Mik nodded, “Head toward the signal source, maximum thrust. What’s our ETA?”
“About… forty minutes, sir.”
Hopefully that would be time enough. If this was some sort of Martian attack, forty minutes could be far too long, but a call like this could also be a baited trap. Caution was definitely in order.
“Confirming, sir. Banff’s tags, correct sending protocol… the signal looks legit.”
Mik’s expression tightened, and he nodded once, “Get us there, redline the drives. Finn, signal Hawke Six and inform them of our situation. Ask them to pass word on to our embassy and to distribute a warning to all Defense Command traffic that there might be hostile ships in this area. Then send to Banff to hold on, we’re coming.”
The Sensors and Communications Officer nodded, turning to his techs again and slotting them to various duties encompassed in Mik’s command. The Captain then turned to the officer of the watch, “Let’s go to general quarters.”
Cyclops turned hard to port, and its powerful drives pushed hard, getting the big battleship up from its leisurely 165 kps cruising speed to its maximum of 193 kps. It may not sound fast compared to a frigate, but for a battleship that was pretty good indeed.
Captain Christian Mikaelsen rode to the rescue.
But Banff was destroyed, entirely, within minutes of sending the signal. One of the corvette’s data recorders did survive, though it wasn’t found by a salvage crew until almost a year after this incident. What we learned from it, though, was that Commander Fred Herwig had been heading for Hawke Six to check in, much as Mik had been.
Herwig had only been three months into his cruise of the Belt, and on his latest route he’d been poking around space not far from where Indiana had been – just a little further down towards the Protectorate. After two failed comm check-ins, he’d been heading for a friendly port, though we don’t know if he knew about the state of war. He certainly didn’t check in with Hawke Six before heading there, because their comm records show no communications with Banff after war was declared… but he could have found out elsewhere. The recorder we salvaged told us nothing about Herwig’s signal history.
We did get a good look at Banff’s sensor data.
Four ships had appeared on its scope, cruising in formation, and before Herwig was able to react to them, his ship had lost one drive pod to enemy fire. Banff put up a good fight, but there wasn’t much it could do to save itself. The distress signal went out, and the ship died.
And Banff, we found out later, wasn’t the only victim of this sort. But I suppose I’ll get into that more later.
By the time Cyclops hurtled into sensor range of the debris field, there was… well… nothing but debris.
On the bridge of the battlewagon, Mik wasn’t at all comfortable with what he was seeing. Pacing back and forth before the main monitor, he kept his eyes moving between his officers and the displays of wreckage.
“Come on, Finn, any survivors?” his question sounded frustrated, but I don’t think anyone could blame him for that.
For the record, Defense Command ships had not been attacked during their independent belt cruises since the fall of the Syndicate, and even in that time it was rare for them to be hit, and almost impossible for them to be completely destroyed.
“Not seeing any beacons from life pods. No active drives from small craft…” the Sensors and Communications Officer shook his head as he moved between the consoles he oversaw.
Mik let out a sharp breath and shook his head. It was tough to accept that no one got off that corvette alive.
“Any sign of the attackers?” his question was again sharp.
A pause ensued as Lieutenant Commander Finn Yaalon consulted his technicians, and then he looked up, shaking his head, “We’ve got nothing on scope, sir. Not so much as a drive wake.”
“Right,” Mik rasped the word almost under his breath, then turned to Helm and Navigation. “Heave to, prepare SAR operations. Launch both fighter squadrons, put Star Squadron on recon – I want a three-hour sensor buffer around this area. Burst Squadron will assist with the search for survivors.”
The orders came quickly, and Mik’s well-trained crew began executing immediately. He was counting on the fact that nobody dared mess with a battleship, and using that fact to allow for a search for survivors. His Star (F-194 Starlight) Squadron would fan out away from the wreck site, watching for a return by the original attackers, while his Burst (F-184 Starburst) Squadron would help sift the wreckage to see if anyone had lived through Banff’s loss.
“Signal Hawke Six and request support of any Defense Command ships in port,” Mik turned back to the main screen and stroked his beard (I know beard-stroking might sound cliché, but Mik pulls it off).
Cyclops hove to and looked for survivors. None were found.