Kara stood in the nearly-empty command center, watching with a knot in her stomach as GalSpan ships dropped into normal space. The comm crackled as the squadron of BattleAxe fighters reacted to their presence with an overwhelmed fear. In spite of the actions they had already taken, and their commitment to a cause, they were still simply miners.
She turned from the window and keyed the address for the entire station. “GalSpan ships have entered the field. Leave any remaining equipment and get any personnel aboard the transports.” She shot a glance around the room, meeting expectant eyes. “Let’s get out of here.”
Her mind went in a thousand directions. GalSpan would, naturally, open fire the second a transport jumped. The Axes, French and Jack would have to give them enough room to get the final few transports away. They were massively outgunned. The destroyers were expected, the massive white ship and the one with the long neck, however, weren’t even classes with which she was familiar. They brought far more weaponry to bear than they could muster; but that was why they were fleeing their home.
Her thoughts went to that word home. She had only lived in two places in her life- here, in the Messier system, and growing up then going to New London University. Each step to date had been filled with promise and excitement, a new opportunity. This, she supposed, was much the same, at least in the sense of opportunity.
She was far less optimistic in this case.
The lift opened into the hangar, and Everett was instantly at her side. “All levels are clear. We have two more shuttles, plus one for the command staff, and evac is complete. The transports are holding on your orders.”
“Good. Once all the shuttles have docked, we will all jump together.”
“Shuttles launch in fifteen, half hour to docking. Do we have enough firepower to stall them that long?”
“I think we’re about to find out.”
The rear ramp of the shuttle rested on the steel deck of the hangar. She strode up it, unthinking, until she stood just inside it, turning to look back at the deserted station. The word home floated through her mind, just for a second, as the ramp raised, and closed, sealing Messier Station away forever.
* * *
When most planet-bound people imagine an asteroid belt, they picture a bunch of huge rocks floating around, all spinning so close to one another that ships could barely weave between them. Reality, as is so often the case with such imaginings, is a vastly different affair. Asteroids hung in space, often kilometers apart. Messier was GalSpan’s flagship mining operation, delivering vast amounts of raw minerals for production, not simply because it was such a large field- which it was- but because they we large and well-spaced, easy to build a structure around, mine in, and extract all that was worthy.
GalSpan did nothing without careful consideration, not from the products sold throughout the Empire, to shipping lanes and the ships traveling them, nor those producing the goods carried. GalSpan, as an entity, took great pains to keep those workers in line. Wages were set; living expenses- housing, food, all the rest- were finely-tuned, keeping workers in one spot, be it in mines or farms on colonies, for generations.
All that consideration, all that control, eventually took a toll, and even an entity as large as GalSpan had to pay. Entities such as GalSpan did not like to pay.
Lee Drake stood at the bridge of the Black Drake, looking out the wide semi-circular window at the asteroids, dull grey structures built around them, like massive spiders hugging giant rocks. On the far side of the field was Messier Station, round and tattered, the former home of nearly a quarter million miners and their families. Three transports remained, V-shaped hulls with offset engines barely visible in the distance. Most of the miners were long gone; each transport carried a thousand people or so; they would be dealt with in time. Matters at hand were more pressing.
“They’re not responding, sir.”
He glanced at the comm officer without moving his head. “I do not expect them to.”
“What should I do, sit?”
“Order the task force into position. Weapons ready.”
“Should I order them to engage?”
“Not just yet. Let them make a mistake.”
A small squadron of fighters, some different craft modified for their needs, moved in position to counter.
“What about those Dynamiq ships?”
“I am quite we can manage them. Have the Hornet launch fighters and to move to an intercept trajectory, destroyers to block those fighters.”
He shot a glance to the tactical display, seeing half the French ships moving to shadow the fighters. In a perfect universe, those ships weren’t there, but Lee knew as well as anyone, it was far from perfect. And imperfections could be overcome.
* * *
Maggie Bennett watched from the bridge of the Corsair, flagship of the Dynamiq fleet. The group of a dozen dreadnoughts had come as some sort of mix between token of good faith and promise of future orders and political statement, but most of that was not her concern.
Her role at Dynamiq was frequently nebulous, but such was the nature of expanding companies. She pitched in to do everything she could, believing in what they were doing. GalSpan set the market for nearly every consumer good in the galaxy; spaceships no exception. French trade was nearly crippled due to it and trade agreements with the British Empire. Dynamiq aimed to change that.
Surveying the weight of GalSpan might, she wondered if that was even possible.
“Split the group, six through twelve form up around the transports. Everyone else, move to intercept.”
“Yes, ma’am.” They banked to port and ahead, moving past the station. She watched it pass to starboard, the three final shuttles departing it and making their way to the waiting transports. Ahead was the GalSpan task force, including the massive Hornet. She had heard of it, but seeing it in person staggered her. The gaping maw at the fore opened, and Havoc fighters flew out, two squadrons moving to flank the miner’s BattleAxe squadron.
“Maggie, Jack is calling.”
“Put him on.” The comm officer nodded, and the voice of the freelancers came across the overhead.
“We need to buy the transports time to jump. As soon as they are clear, we will follow.”
“When should we engage?”
“As soon as the shuttles dock. Maybe another five minutes.”
“We’ll be ready.”
* * *
“Shuttles are docked, Jack,” Kara said. He sat up a little straighter, as much as the restraints allowed, and throttled up. “Goldie, give me a firing sequence on each of the destroyers.”
He flipped up the safety covering the missile launch button, took a deep breath, and pressed it a dozen titmes. Missiles shot from the tubes, flaring in front of the ship and rocketing towards their targets.
“So we’re going now?” Maggie voice came over the comm, sharp and harried.
“Thanks for the signal.”
“I usually do this alone, okay?”
“Where do you need us?”
“See what you can do about the fighters.”
“Cole, are you there?” he hailed the BattleAxe squadron leader.
“Dynamiq is going to try to keep those fighters occupied. I need you to concentrate on the destroyers.”
“You got it.”
The fighters moved ahead, banking to move against the destroyers, who were already reacting to his attack. He turned to starboard, attempting to get behind them while the fighters attacked from the front. He targeted the nearest one and armed lasers, opening up on the engines. Shrapnel tore off as he poured fire into them. The engines trembled as fuel cells exploded within, sending pieces of metal flying into space.
The destroyer returned fire from the blisters on the rear, long lances of red barely visible as they flashed by. He rolled back to port, spinning out of plane with the rest of the ships. The destroyer rolled with him, bringing the guns in the midsection to bear on him. The ship rocked as they found their mark, shaking as armor burned away. He jerked back to starboard, pulling up and circling away, pressing back into the seat as gee forces multiplied.
“How are we doing, Cole?”
* * *
“Doing our best, Drake.” Cole hauled back on the stick, depressing the thumb trigger for the mining laser mounted above the cockpit, thick beam melting the armor. Vapor rushed out, igniting so briefly as the vacuum sucked it into oblivion. “Lots of fire, though.”
“They’re not here for sightseeing.”
Another destroyer filled his view as he pulled up, having moved into a position above him. He pulled hard to port to avoid it, coming within meters of the grey plating. He managed to squeeze a couple shots off at the gun emplacements as he came entirely too close to them, but after navigating the asteroid field for years, he was used to tight maneuvering.
Asteroids don’t fire back, though.
“I’m hit!” Cole’s eyes shot around to see the starboard engine tearing off Whitey’s craft. It shook, clinging by the last few bolts and welds, before ripping off, spiraling away from the conflict. Another BattleAxe dodged it, just barely avoiding it.
“Get clear, Whitey,” Cole said, too late, as the disabled fighter was torn to shreds. He swore, turning his attention back to what was before him. “Hey, Drake, their fighters…”
“I see them.”
One destroyer was down; two squadrons of fighters were moving in.
* * *
Kara all but ran down the ramp of the shuttle as soon as it was locked onto the deck of the Amunet, jumping off before it was fully descended, carrying across the docking bay in low gravity. Everett was fast on her heels, omnipresent tablet before him.
“They’re engaging the destroyers,” he said.
“Let’s get up to the bridge. Tell the captain to prepare to jump.”
They were underway by the time they reached the bridge. The buoy floated directly ahead, strobe light slowly rotating, almost lost among the distant stars. It drew closer, imperceptibly at first, but steadily as they accelerated.
“Ma’am, the Hornet is moving to intercept.”
“Have the Dynamiq dreadnaughts to intercept.”
“Group A is engaged with the destroyers. Group B is already moving.”
“Good. How long until we are clear?”
She looked to the tactical display, the blue dot representing the Hornet moving to across, between the silver buoy icons, Britain to the left, the buoy marking the path to their destination on the right.
All they had to do was get up to speed before the GalSpan warship could get to them.
“Destroyers breaking off from the main group.”
“Can the fighters contain them?”
“We have lost three already. The rest are doing their best, four destroyers inbound.”
She swore. “Wadjet to point. Get Thoth out of here, they are unarmed.”
The helmswoman turned to look at her. “I’m sure they’re shaking in their boots at us.”
She smirked. “We may be small, but we are mighty.”
* * *
“They are tiny. Squash them.” Lee grasped the overhead rail casually, wrapping around the whole of the bridge of the Black Drake. The Hornet was already nearly in range, and four destroyers were closing. “Get them in the way. Do not let them jump.”
“Bring us over top of the destroyers. The line is failing. We have to press.”
Death in space was messy. Lee watched it unfold before him, the miner’s modified ships using their mining lasers to tear through the armor of the destroyers. The Thantos was in the throes of death before him, oxygen tanks detonating, blowing the seams of the destroyer out into space. Plates of metal of composite spun, burning red edges cooling in the void.
To date, Lee engaged in much more clandestine dealings. It invigorated him to be on a true battle line, out of the shadows, the blood of those who pledged fealty to the goals of GalSpan spilled in his cause. Or, at the least, were bought to its cause.
He reveled in it.
“Move us in position to intercept the transports.”
They banked port, pulling across the row of destroyers. He could see the three transports, accelerating, carrying thousands of miners who dared defy their betters. He sneered as he watched; who were they to challenge those wiser and more powerful than themselves? He determined to see them spilled into space and replaced with more complicit workers, ones which knew their place.
“Fighters approaching, sir.”
“Fire at will.”
A missile traced a path towards them, exploding with indifferent effect aft of the bridge. The ship which fired it pulled up, arcing up and away. Lee smiled as a salvo from the cannons drew a bead on it, tearing it apart. He wondered what that pilots last moments were like, as he realized his fate, doomed to be shredded in the cold black of space, and for such a pointless cause.
It was delightful.
* * *
“Deb!” Lou shouted as her BattleAxe disintegrated under heavy fire. He followed Chad in close to the rear of the ship, twin triangle nacelles of engines set to either side and below, in an inverted V.
“Don’t lose focus, Lou,” Chad said, voice steady. “Take starboard. Hit anything you can.”
“Okay.” He pulled that direction, then angled back in to get a better shot. He kept as close to the hull as he could, inside the range of the big guns. His mining laser cut a swath in the armor, glowing red and cooling fast. The ship tapered to a narrow cylinder, bridge at the front of it. He set his sight on it, trying to bore through the thick armor.
Vapor shot out in a geyser. The hole wasn’t large, but he was through. He gave a shout of excitement, the hull rushing up on him. He hauled back on the stick, thrusters firing with all their power. They slowed him just enough, bottom of his fighter hitting the bridge with a solid thunk which reverberated through the airframe, but did no damage.
He pushed the throttle forward, again clinging to the hull of the larger ship. The text of the ship’s name scrolled past, Black Drake in large black letters.
“Hey Chad, isn’t that freelancer named Drake?”
“Yeah, he is.”
“No coincidence. That’s my brother’s ship,” Jack interjected
“You betrayed us?”
“Don’t worry about me, kid. We may be related, but we are nothing alike.”
“I hope you’re right, Drake.”
“Believe me, I hope so too. “
* * *
“They’re getting picked apart.”
“I see that, Goldie.” Jack keyed the comm from the conversation with the fighters. “Kara, how long until you’re clear?”
“The Hornet is going to get there first.”
There was silence. “I know. The Dreadnaughts will give us cover.”
He watched them pulling closer to the Hornet, firing the occasional ranging shot, but still not near enough to draw a clear target. The bristling ship would have nearly a minute of being able to target the transports, even if they were approaching jump speeds; it was more than enough time for the massive cannons to destroy the transports.
That was to say nothing of the Black Drake, moments behind the Hornet. He was never optimistic about what was happening here, but he chalked that up to his cynical nature and gave the miners a chance.
At least some of them got away.
* * *
Chris Rutherford surveyed the battle from the spherical cockpit of his Havoc fighter. He had taken his squadron to a position above the solar plane, looking down on the ships, lights flashing between them as they set to destroy each other. Their orders were to keep the Hornet and Black Drake clear of enemy ships until they could engage the transports.
Here they sat, engines idle, hanging in space, watching, waiting. The trap was closing around the transports; there was no chance of them making the jump once the Hornet brought its guns to bear.
The time to act had come.
“Last chance to change your mind, gang.” Banshee Squadron was his pride; assembled from the best GalSpan employed, under his command. The Hornet was home to them, where they escorted GalSpan transports, protecting them from pirates. That employment came at a price.
The cost was too steep for him.
“We’re with you, boss.”
“Banshee squadron, engage the enemy.” He eased the throttle forward, quad engines responding. “Make sure those transports get clear at all costs.”
* * *
“I see it. I don’t understand it.” The broad-winger Havoc fighters were tearing into the Hornet from all directions. She was taking heavy damage; they knew her weak points and had no reason to expect the salvo of missiles launched from the small craft to be targeting her.
“Showing her main engines offline and several hull breaches.”
“Time to jump?”
“Two minutes thirty.”
She inhaled slowly through pursed lips. “We might make it,” she said under her breath.
“Fighters hailing us, ma’am.”
“Put them on.”
“Mining ship, this is Chris Rutherford of Banshee Squadron, requesting to join you.”
“This is somewhat sudden, Mister Rutherford.”
“I understand that. We haven’t had a lot of time, either.”
“Two minutes, ma’am.”
“I thought GalSpan treated people in your position fairly well.”
“Indeed. Some of us feel that shouldn’t come at the expense of others.”
“A noble notion.”
“We’d like to join you.”
“One minute thirty.”
She nodded at the helmsman. “You understand if I don’t trust you.”
“There’s no coming back from this. Either we come with you, or we die here.”
The Hornet was cracking, pieces of hull blowing off as oxygen and fuel detonated within.
“We are transmitting coordinates.”
“Ma’am, Black Drake is moving to block our path.”
So far their armor held against the peppering of shots which landed, but there it was, bleeding vapor from damage, but within the minute left, it would be dead ahead of them.
* * *
“I see it.” One thing about Lee; he was tenacious. He could never lose, either. He would put himself and his crew right there purely out of spite.
“I never liked losing, either, little brother,” he growled. A plume of vapor was shooting out from the helm of the ship, a crack in the armor.
“Goldie, we’re jumping.” He gripped the throttle, squeezing the lever on the side of it and shoving ti past the sublight stops. The engines spewed blue flame, slamming him back into the seat, control stick vibrating in his hand at the unmapped jump.
All it had to do was fly straight.
“You got it.” Klaxons blared, warning of the obstruction in their path.
* * *
Lee grinned. A few seconds more and they would be dead in the path of the transports, colliding at monumental speeds. It would be glorious.
A warning blared. “Collison imminent.”
“No, sir,” the terrified helmsperson stammered. “It’s…”
* * *
The briefest of detonations was visible, just a flash as the transport rushed past, clearing the buoy and the speed of light at the same time, quickly multiplying to many times the speed of light.
“We are clear, ma’am.”
“Thank you,” Kara said softly.