"Captain on Deck!"
The automated warning was superfluous as the bridge crew of the Shakespeare Class Battlecruiser 'Lady Macbeth' were well aware of their Captain's presence as any well trained crew should be. Axel Cresswell glanced around, everything was in its place, 'And a place for everything too.' He mused silently.
"Report!" he ordered Commander Bill Williams, his second in command.
"They're 2 hours out and closing. Looks like they'll hit the Mars docks first," Williams replied.
"Damn, anything else able to join us to try and stop them?"
"The Cormorant is inbound from Saturn, but even then she's approaching from the wrong side of the Solar System. Be at least 3 hours before she can get to us. All others were out patrolling near the Oort Cloud"
"Wouldn't make much difference anyway. She's what, 30 years old if she's a day and only a destroyer escort to boot."
"Well we're 20 years old, Captain, or we wouldn't be patrolling the Earth, Mars gap, we'd be out with the fleet trying to punch past the Hornath squadrons defending Gomesia."
"Someone's made a big mistake, Bill," murmured Axel, "Intel or the politicos who ordered the assault out of system with 80% of the fleet. Hell, even the General Staff who came up with the plan in the first place. Couldn't they see that if we could take a chance so could the Hornath?" He demanded to no-one in particular. "OK, run me up to speed on our flotilla condition"
"We're running at the top speed of our slowest unit," Williams replied, "The light carrier Damascus reports that the faulty G Drive will be repaired within the hour though. Not that it will prevent us getting to Mars ahead of the swarm. The escorts all report no major issues to efficiency."
"So that's it then?" Axel mused. "One nearly decommissioned Battlecruiser, ten Destroyer escorts, and a light carrier with six fighters to face a standard swarm of 64 vessels, 70% of whom outgun us with ease?"
"Yes Sir!" snorted Williams. "Going to be a close run thing," he said with a sardonic twist to his lips.
"Anything on the defences at Mars?" Axel asked.
"Usual mix of neutral particle beams, ballistic missiles and kinetic weaponry," Williams replied. "All strictly first generation stuff, probably won't last past the first Hornath salvo, though they do outrange shipboard weapons by a large margin. We're likely to lose the yards and I doubt the Hornath have managed to sneak in this close without a plan to destroy as much of the infrastructure on Mars as possible."
"How they got here is a matter for another day and for others to decide," mused Axel. "The Hornath have consistently shown how innovative they are despite their seemingly slower rate of technological growth. Hell, we more or less gave them the G Drive during the first battle of Alphacent and look how long it took for all their ships to be equipped with the Mark II version that we adapted from them!"
"Careful, Sir," Williams said. "Didn't you know the war was almost won? Why I saw it announced by opposition secretariat Manson on the holovis just the other day when he was talking about budgetary cuts on the bloated military overspend."
"Won? For fuck's sake, we don't even know where the hell the Hornath homeworld is!" thundered Axel. "Ten years of war, over 1 million dead in the fleet alone, 3 million civilians on Alphacent, 7 million on Corado, half a billion on New Eden before we even knew where one of their planets was!"
"I take it you don't subscribe to the general view that Gomesia is their homeworld?" asked Williams.
"No, there's no way that planetary system could support the number of units we've engaged since the war began, we've colonised just over 30 worlds and barely hold our own in any engagement mostly due to their crap tactics and technological deficiencies," stated Axel. "I think we've been lucky. They could have steamrollered right over us in the beginning had they wanted too, despite their weird jumpdrive."
"Well, there are a number of ways to cheat the C Barrier," stated Williams. "I have to admit though a system where you have to jump in one ship at a time along with the nausea it produces simply to avoid interpenetration doesn't work too well for me."
"I suspect that's how they got into our system though," said Axel. "Unless they've developed a cloaking screen."
The flotilla finally reached Mars with the Hornath swarm still over 20 minutes out. Deploying in the standard formation with the escorts forming an outer layer around the Lady Macbeth and the Damascus.
"Sir!" Sensor operative Ensign Mathers called out. "There's an anomaly in the swarm formation, it's non standard and formed around this ship."
"Interesting," muttered Axel. "Any ideas, Bill?"
"Looks like a converted freighter," said Williams. "Ground forces, perhaps?"
"Doubt it," said Axel. "Even if they packed them in as tight as sardines there's no way they could have enough to hold anything against the marines groundside."
"Planet killer then?"
"Possibly," said Axel. "Daren't take the risk of allowing it too close to Mars though. If it is a planet killer the loss of Mars would cripple the war effort. We'll have to chance taking it out beyond the orbital weapons and hope to God that what's left can hold off the Hornath till the outer guard reach here in 10 hours."
"Change course to twenty-five point nine, stat ten," ordered Williams. "Defensive formation 112. Damascus, launch when just outside their weapons envelope, then get the hell out of here."
The first pass was brief and highly destructive to both sides, though the Hornath could afford the damage to their swarm far more easily than Axel could to his flotilla.
"Bring us around behind them," he ordered, "and concentrate fire on that ... Whatever it is!" he continued. "Course seventeen point one, stat five. Losses?"
"Too many," said Williams. "The Hornath concentrated all their fire on us. Fortunately our screen performed admirably and most of their ordnance missed us by a wide margin, chasing decoys or deflected by mirrochaff. Unfortunately we lost 3 of the escorts, Ajax, Agamemnon and Ulysses. All our fighters survived though and are heading to Damascus to reload. Good news is we took out ten of their escorts, though it appears they deliberately moved them into the path of our weapons aimed at the unknown."
"Very well," said Axel. "Take us in again and try to pick off any units screening the unknown."
This time it was far worse. Thousands of kilometres away, the battered destroyer Hermes drifted. Her stern was heavily damaged from laser and kinetic fire. Her engines were dead.
Just past her drifted the shattered hulk of the destroyer Bellerophon. Plasma fires flickered all over the ship, life pods and lifeboats shot from her damaged bays. Suddenly, the ship blew up with all the fury of an exploding star. One second the million ton ship was there, and then the next she was gone taking over half her remaining crew with her.
The Lady Macbeth had not been so lucky avoiding fire either, with over half her launchers gone there was no way the ship would last much longer.
The air was thick with smoke as the crew rushed to put out the few electrical fires that had flared up from the damage the ship had taken. Turning back to the main screen, Axel saw several Hornath S class battlecruisers closing on his damaged ship, firing their missiles as the range dropped. With a quick glance at the tactical screen, he gave his orders. "Take us through them!" he ordered Williams.
"Yes, Sir. Turning to twenty-nine point thirteen, stat ten. Going to full military acceleration."
On the main screen, a Hornath D class destroyer drifted past. Suddenly her bow missile tubes started launching missiles at the Lady Macbeth. The missiles quickly boosted to maximum acceleration and detonated. Even as the Lady Macbeth's stern lasers opened fire, she was rocked as the missiles energies slammed into her ablative armour, which dispersed the energy back into space.
"Sir! Fighters targeting the unknown. Dear God!" cried Ensign Mathers.
The explosion was massive, catching both fleets with the Hornath swarm taking the brunt of it.
"Report!" called Axel.
"Bad," said Williams. "All the fighters, and 5 destroyers. Only the Vespa and the Torment remain in fighting condition. The rescue crew on Amadeus report the entire bridge destroyed, though the auxiliary bridge survived. Unfortunately it's being run by a Lieutenant and two Ensigns with nothing but stern lasers to fight with. We are also down to fifteen missile batteries on the starboard broadside and nine on the port. Starboard energy mounts six through nine and portside mounts fourteen through seventeen are destroyed. Boat bay three has been destroyed and we have damage in the auxiliary bridge. Most of the portside armour has gone too. The Hornath's losses were far greater, though not enough to stop them wiping us out on their way home, certainly not enough to hurt Mars. They still have seven S class and 4 D class and are heading on an intercept course."
"All missile batteries go to rapid fire. Damage repair crews to auxiliary bridge. Can't avoid them so let's make them pay!"
As the ship settled back onto a direct course with the Hornath, the missile launchers started spitting their fury out faster. Soon over one hundred missiles were closing with the Hornath battlecruisers. While incoming missiles closed with the Lady Macbeth, with counter missiles went to rapid fire, trying to destroy as many of the incoming missiles as possible.