“I say again, this is the starship Sussex! Two days out of Missouri station! We are under attack!”
Captain Heston Stone motioned to his signals officer as he rose from his post at the conn and approached the bridge viewscreen.
“Sussex, this is Montpelier. Confirm your position!”
The entire bridge crew listened carefully as the channel sizzled and popped with static. Stone’s signals officer quietly patched the cruiser Black Prince into the channel. Now both captains were hearing the unstable transmissions.
Finally a modulated voice shouted through the interference. “-ection five! What is your location, Mont–” The words dissolved into meaningless noise. The tactical display on the viewscreen updated. A circle closed around the estimated position of the crippled starship. Its location was well inside the Rho Theta system.
“They are close to repeater twelve, sir. Just inside the orbit of Rho Theta Five.”
“Negative. They are stopped in space. Indeterminate contacts near the same location.”
“We can’t get a bearings match or emissions at this range, captain,” the concerned-looking young woman said. “Their transmissions may be jammed.”
"80% or more, sir.” The look on the signals officer’s face was fraught with concern. Of all the people aboard, she knew what that kind of interference might mean. Stone got the message at once.
“Get me a channel to the Black Prince,” he said as he sat heavily in the conn station chair. The tactical view faded and was replaced by the familiar gray-haired visage of Captain Jocelyn Vice.
“Sussex is a light cruiser. They have some firepower, so if they are under attack, whatever decided to take out after them probably has some punch, Hes.”
“What is she doing in this region of space?”
“Probably assigned to some kind of non-combat mission for one of the unmanned outposts. Maintenance surveys, perhaps?”
“Signals, transmit our logs for the last three hours and the position of Sussex to Argent. I want fighter cover and an rescue corvette if we have to evacuate their crew. I also want a report about what’s on or orbiting Rho Theta Five.”
“Joce, I’m all for going in loaded for grizzly,” Stone sighed.
“Let’s keep in mind Rhode Island responded to one false distress call already. Sarn commanders can be tricky, and we can’t afford to get caught out of position. Is it possible she was ordered here by Admiral Left Hand?” Captain Vice was referring to the mythical officer who always seemed to be out of step with the rest of the fleet.
“Signals, update that transmission,” Stone said. “Send along our recommendation for caution and get me a sitrep on Rho Theta. It might not be a bad idea if Hunter threw in a Nemesis so we can get a clear picture of just exactly what is out there. We’re coming about, Black Prince. Let’s see what we’re up against.”
“We’ll be right there with you, Montpelier. Vice out.”
“Helm, plot an intercept course. All ahead emergency flank. Tactical, I want us in an attack posture by the time we arrive. ETA, pilot?”
“If we utilize the Missouri gate, sixteen minutes at maximum speed.”
“Very well. Set course for Rho Theta. Battle screens to maximum. All power to weapons!”
The heavy hull of the battlecruiser Montpelier rolled to port and rocketed forward on the power of her six finely tuned fusion engines. Her sister ship Black Prince stayed in tight formation. The two vessels were formidable on their own, but operating in tandem gave them the ability to synchronize their point defense, missile shields and electronic warfare suites. From a combat standpoint, they were essentially one enormous weapons platform with the unique ability to be in two places at once and still protect each other.
The fundamental difference between the cruiser captain and the battleship captain was that the former concentrated their combat operations on the protection of other ships in formation while the latter concentrated on firepower projection and target priority. The whole point of the battle group, at least as Skywatch saw it, was to create an opportunity for a capital platform like a battleship or a carrier to deploy heavy weapons or force projection without fear of direct counterattack. It was the electronic screen formed by the escort ships that gave the group its resilience and simultaneously made it so dangerous.
The technique was so powerful that it had come to be employed by nearly all ships, including, most recently, fighters, gunships, corvettes, pinnaces and sloops. This became an even more crucial element of ship design when improved electronic warfare systems were developed. For a ship like Argent, with her ability to launch fighters, gunships, bombers and corvettes from her flight decks, the screen formed by all those transmitters, targeting systems and interference modules grew into an iron shield when it was all interlinked by the new data systems. Commander Tixia’s “Jackrabbit” anti-missile system was one of the first expressions of the “new approach,” as the weapons designers called it. When all the fighters had jackrabbits, they became a bristling hive of point defense not only for themselves, but for all the ships in the formation.
Simulations revealed that a well-coordinated squadron of pinnace-class missile boats could take on up to 50% greater tonnage in a long-range fight if they employed the newest electronic warfare doctrines. Once that discovery had been confirmed, admirals ordered efficiency tests for every formation assigned to every major banner. The result was an estimated 20% increase in both survivability and combat effectiveness across every order of battle from the most obsolete fighters all the way to the new X-cruisers.
That wasn’t enough to assuage Captain Vice, however. She was busy studying the tactical situation over Rho Theta Five, and what she saw wasn’t encouraging. The system’s primary was a K-type blue giant with roughly 200 times the energy output of Sol. Ultra-high-frequency communications, like those necessary for coordinated defense, were a constant battle to keep calibrated. The “solar wind” coming from Rho Theta itself was hurricane force compared to what fleet elements would find in systems with more mild yellow and red stars. It wasn’t beyond Skywatch’s capability, of course. Four of the seven planets in the system had been home to automated survey stations, simple scientific exploration outposts and defense emplacements for decades. Rho Theta Three had a class two orbital supply station which ostensibly served as the access point for the entire system. Some of the facilities were civilian and some were owned and operated by transitional local governments. The defense bases were all Skywatch. The two things they all shared were reinforced outer frames and shells and heavy radiation shielding to minimize the effects from the system’s primary.
The presence of that orbital supply station was consistent with Captain Stone’s cautious instincts. The Sarn had long envied the human capacity for industrial enterprise, and when they weren’t trying to occupy Core manufacturing and extraction facilities, they were infiltrating them to learn their secrets. While whatever had been discovered on Rho Theta Three must have been at least marginally valuable, what was in orbit around the planet was definitely valuable enough to the Sarn to risk entry into Core Space. Opening fire on a Skywatch starship, however, was likely not worth the risk, especially considering what had transpired the last time the Star Empire and humanity had come to blows.
RT Five was somewhat unique. It was an odd gas giant with an orbit that was nearly 29 degrees off the ecliptic formed by the other six planets. Between its wild gravitational gyrations and the primary’s massive energy output, navigating within the orbital path of the big planet was always fraught with adventure. When its 24 moons were added to the calculations, things got downright exciting.
These things were always on the mind of any captain prepared to navigate in the Rho Theta system. But that wasn’t the only thing that concerned the skipper of the Black Prince. Captain Vice had seen far too many situations where old-fashioned battlespace awareness had been delegated to what the propeller-heads called “smarter” machines, only to have everything go straight to hell at exactly the wrong time. She listened politely when advised to take advantage of technology, but she also relied on her own instincts when it came to battles of position in deep space. She commanded a mighty ship. The Inferno-class command cruiser was designed to be the heavier and more firepower-oriented stablemate to the Pershing-class strike cruiser. The former was designed to match enemy platforms somewhere between heavy cruiser and pocket battleship, while the latter was better suited to operate alongside marine units as fire support against ground targets and battlestations.
Heston Stone was even more of a dinosaur than his fellow battle group captain. Neither cruiser skipper would be content to let machines make decisions. That was one among many reasons they had been selected by Jason Hunter for this mission. Specialists and scientists at HQ were quick to believe the Argent captain would give them the benefit of the doubt when it came to “new ways” of prosecuting old-fashioned wars. What they found instead was a man eager to listen and even more eager to challenge their presumptions: A development Marcus Roarke, for example, wasn’t expecting when he questioned the captain’s position regarding the “three against one” dilemma.
By now the two-ship formation was bearing down on the Missouri jump gate. Skywatch had expanded far and wide largely because of their discovery of a huge network of physical “gates” in and near most of the star systems within reach of the Core Worlds. They hadn’t been constructed by humans, nor were they the work of any of mankind’s neighboring species like the Sarn or the Yersians. The “jump gates” as they came to be known, had either established or simply taken advantage of stable wormholes between stars. The wormholes allowed starships and other vessels to “travel” across huge distances in the physical universe while covering only tiny fractions of those distances in the wormhole’s dimension. Physicists speculated this was accomplished by “bending” space.
Not long after the gates had been tested with unmanned probes, one rather famous professor demonstrated the concept of a wormhole for the benefit of the Core Worlds government using a piece of paper. He would draw two dots at opposite ends of a letter-sized piece of paper and explain that the distance between them is how far a starship would have to travel to get from one to the other. Then he would fold the paper in half with the fold dividing the two dots, one on each half. When he brought the two halves together, he would show how much closer the two dots were. He would then explain that a wormhole would be the same as jumping from one dot to the other across the empty space between the two halves of the folded paper, rather than traveling along the paper’s surface.
In practical terms, this meant that a trip between the Blackburn gate in the Bayone system, and the Missouri gate at the edge of the Rho Theta system would only take about 12 minutes clock time inside a wormhole. In normal four-dimensional space, the journey would require nearly 20 years, and that would be only if a Skywatch starship equipped with a Cantlon drive field could reach the speed of light.
At the behest of some rather prescient and forward-thinking scientists, communications arrays were integrated into the gates, making it possible to transmit and relay data from one star system to the next in seconds rather than years. This made it possible to establish exploration, industry and defense across many star systems at once, which was the key advance that gave rise to Skywatch itself.
At the moment, at least as far as the captains of the Montpelier and the Black Prince were concerned, the Missouri jump gate was the most important device in known space, because it was going to make it possible for them to get to Rho Theta in time to rescue the crew of the apparently disabled starship Sussex.