“We are now at an altitude of 81 miles, sir. This is the highest-angle powered orbit we can maintain and still sustain weapons locks with our birds on self-guided maneuvers.”
“Very well. Do we have a target package from Black Queen yet?”
Lieutenant Commander Flynn settled at the conn. “Signals, open an encrypted single beam channel to the garrison. Use Comsat Eleven as your origin point.”
The starship Constellation’s powerful short-range antennas zeroed in on the tiny communications relay satellite Flynn had ordered into orbit only hours before. The device was about the size of a medium-weight suitcase but was packed with precision electronic circuitry with one purpose, and that was to efficiently and quietly relay Skywatch communications from orbit to ground and back. The COMSAT or “communications satellite” was the workhorse of the fleet’s command and control systems. It was the device the Signals Corps relied on above all others. Ground bases could launch them in a pinch, but they were at their best when a ship like Constellation could park them in advantageous orbits over the battlespace. They were practically impossible to target and could relay datalink and hundreds of communications channels in LOS beams that were equally difficult to intercept or jam.
“Affirmative, sir. Channel open.”
“Black Queen, this is Fortitude. We are in position and awaiting your target package.”
“Affirmative, Fortitude. Weapons hot in sixty seconds.” Komanov turned to the garrison’s signals station. “Notify Cavalier Four their signal is tango. Engage all hostile targets.”
“Aye, ma’am.” The signals tech switched comm nets. “Cavalier Four, this is Black Rook. Your vector is one six five. Signal tango. Weapons free. Engage all hostile targets.”
The reply from flight leader Lieutenant Charlie “Wampum” Ellis came back instantly. “Affirmative Black Rook. Cavalier Four vectoring one-six-five. Ground units on the scope. Engaging enemy targets at time out delta minus five five.”
Komanov activated the direct contact option on her headset. “Ensign, I want Gator and Bongo on a two-minute ready alert.”
“Aye, ma’am.” Within seconds, activity was underway at the garrison flight platform to prep two additional spacecraft fighters for dust-off.
Only a few miles from the garrison’s electronic frontier, nearly two dozen Yellowjacket fighters swirled in the lower atmosphere like a flock of shining metal ravens. Their flight leader synchronized the new orders from Constellation’s COMSAT not far overhead and identified his targets among the ground forces bearing one six five true. Lieutenant Ellis brought up his tactical display.
The battle computer analyzed the enemy formations and identified what Ellis and his fighters were facing. There were at least six Cecrops siege units surrounded and defended by at least two mechanized batteries of medium assault armor units code-named “Tantalus.” The Sarn main battle tanks were remarkable for their independently-operated point defense. Unlike the previous generation of ground assault units and the Skywatch marine SX-4, Tantalus armor could fire its main guns in one direction while its point defense could turn and engage incoming missiles, aircraft or spacecraft approaching from a completely different vector. Komanov’s unusually effective intelligence operations rapidly concluded these ground forces were very likely the attackers that had regrouped after retreating from their engagement with the downed starship Exeter.
Operating in close coordination with the Tantalus formations were the same class of ground-based rocket launchers T-Hawk Black had encountered along the Starhaven coast. Skywatch Command had re-designated these units with the code name “Javelot.” They were essentially Sarn starship-grade kinetic point-defense batteries each mounted on a woefully underpowered ground transport chassis. “A raccoon carrying your wife’s vacation luggage” was the way infantry marines described them. Sarn engineers had only gotten half of their ambitions right.
Javelots were highly effective provided they hit their targets with their first barrage. Because Sarn military hardware had not yet matched the Alliance’s ability to miniaturize power systems like the Von-Mansfried reactor and its numerous derivative designs, the Javelot was forced to operate on long-outdated power generation technologies like ion batteries and capacitance banks. Their rockets were also not rail-guided, but used solid propellant activated by a relatively fragile electrical launch system. This was a classic power-systems vs. yield tradeoff they were forced to accept in order to get a light anti-aircraft and anti-missile system fielded. Light sarn ground transports were simply incapable of mounting the kind of power units starships could support. They were good for one solid blast, followed by one or two more provided they survived long enough. Of some concern was the fact they carried Sarn infantry command and control and some of their ground units’ scanner banks. As such, they were the best and the worst at the same time: priority targets, but rarely worth the ammunition required to destroy them after their first shot.
“Fourjacks, this is lead. Your vector is one six five. Range one niner zero nautical miles downrange. Target selection package is locked in. Engage Triple-S. Accelerate to attack speed.”
Acknowledgment signals caused all the Squadron Four icons on Lieutenant Ellis’ tactical display to switch from green to blue, indicating the entire squadron had joined the data net connecting the targeting, SRS, ECM and automatic defensive systems of all 21 Tigershark pilots and the 14th Infantry garrison. The combined circuitry of all the systems provided detailed target selection and identified enemy units by type. Moments later, with their interstellar drive fields engaged, the half the Argent squadron was on an intercept course at 200 feet altitude and an airspeed just over Mach 30. The other half climbed to an altitude of 110 miles to prepare a vertical missile dive.
The first indication the Sarn ground units had that an attack was underway was the wall of kinetic missiles that came screaming over an intervening ridge northwest of their position. Ground-based anti-aircraft and orbital-engagement platforms snapped into firing position, attempting to target the tiny weapons, but their reaction times were insufficient. By the time the Tigershark weapons’ ground avoidance courses were acquired, Sarn units only had fractions of a second to react. Rockets and point defense fire howled into the air over the Parris Stead, but they could do little except flash past Argent Squadron Four’s initial attack wave. The kinetics were simply moving too fast and were vectoring in on impossibly acute attack angles. In short, they were doing exactly what they were designed to do: be three yards ahead of enemy defensive fire.
The angry little missiles sliced through the lighter units’ battle screens, causing blinding strobes to pop off in the nitrogen-rich atmosphere. Two ground-shaking detonations caused orange fire to bloom into the sky as the first wedge of Jacks rocketed overhead. Energy weapons strafed the pock-marked surface of Bayone Three. A violent cyclone of dirt and rocks exploded into the air behind the attack craft, momentarily blinding some of the ground units and their short-range targeting pickups. Guns and missile launchers pivoted to engage as the fighters passed. A second wall of debris kicked up by the atmospheric shockwave trailing the Tigersharks slammed into the forward-most formation of enemy armor, causing lightning and ionized particles to spider across the battlefield. Darkness fell momentarily as Sarn units turned and accelerated in all directions.
The lowest-altitude fighters abruptly swerved away from each other, forming a three-pronged evasive formation that sent equal-strength formations to distant positions. Their second salvo would attack from numerous approach vectors. It was immediately clear to the enemy what Lieutenant Ellis’ pilots considered priority targets. Their timing was precise to within a few seconds. Just as the first wave exceeded maximum weapons range, a second wave came raining out of the sky over the hapless Sarn ground forces. Lieutenant JG Francisco “Hombre” Gallegos was leading the vertical approach wedge, and his attack pattern was textbook Argent.
The Yellowjacket fighters that formed Gallegos’ force took full advantage of their interstellar drive fields to perform a run what would have ripped an atmospheric aircraft into confetti. From an altitude of just over 115 miles, they banked over one by one and followed each other back into the atmosphere of Bayone Three. By the time they reached maximum attack velocity, every fighter was trailing fire for miles. The temperature against their battle screens registered as high as 3800 degrees Fahrenheit before they reached the lower atmosphere. The synthetic sound and ambient systems roared and heated the cockpit simultaneously making the pilot feel as if he or she had become a re-entering meteor. Lieutenant Gallegos howled a war cry as he pulled the releases on his armor-piercing rockets and then hauled back on the controls. With the boost provided by his fighter’s re-entry velocity, the four warheads were traveling at nearly 28000 miles an hour when they struck their targets.
Gallegos’ fighter pulled into a horizontal course moments before impact. An apocalyptic thump caused visible shockwaves along the ground as Shark 13 screamed across the battlefield with a hurricane of fire and debris swirling into the sky behind him. A massive synthesized explosion sounded in Gallegos’ headset. The fighter’s drive field absorbed the equivalent of more than 150 Gs while the lieutenant’s flight gear absorbed the rest. Hombre watched as his fighter’s life support systems strained to keep him conscious. White-hot light bathed the Starhaven countryside all around him as his wingmen zeroed in on their own targets.
Ten other fighters in the lieutenant’s formation performed almost identical maneuvers. Spherical orbs of destructive energy miles in diameter detonated and collided over the battlefield. Armored units the size of small shopping centers were thrown into the air like toys. The explosions were audible more than 100 miles away.
Just as the conflagration subsided, Ellis and the first wave re-acquired their targets and howled in from at least five different directions. Short-range air-to-ground missiles leaped from the wings of the inbound attack wave, burning the sky as they acquired and surgically impaled Sarn anti-aircraft units and hastily-built antennas. Explosions engulfed swerving ground units, knocking power systems off-line and blasting armor from the sides and tops of vehicles.
Fighters flew through fresh explosions as another pair of Ellis’ pilots banked into attack runs from two miles out. A full barrage of concussive-warhead missiles blazed out of the clouds and rained down on the unprepared formations. Two more Javelot vehicles went up. Tantalus armor units positioned nearby fought for the initiative. Two of the medium tanks half-slid/half-powered down a precarious hillside to reach a firing position before the third pass. The one that didn’t make it in time was blown sixty feet into the sky by a ground impact. The quicker one actually reached optimum range with several seconds to spare.
As the two Argent fighters screamed overhead its main gun and point defense swiveled mongoose-quick in tight coordination and its penetration emitters blanketed the sky with electronic pulses. Ensign Briggs and Lieutenant JG Hathaway spiraled into evasive maneuvers an instant before the low-slung tank opened up. Lethal energy bursts tore into the sky. Briggs took a glancing hit along his starboard wing. His drive field failed momentarily. Every warning light on his HUD and console display lit up simultaneously. The momentary lapse in control and velocity gave the nearest Cecrops unit a clear shot at a range of just under two miles. The enormous siege unit fired an energy blast that was visible more than 30 miles distant.
Shark 11‘s battle computer made the decision to try and save its pilot’s life in less than a hundredth of a second, but even that wasn’t fast enough. The two megaton blast and the accompanying atmospheric implosion from the heavy Sarn armor disrupted the fighter’s drive field. The spacecraft tumbled out of its protective shields trailing fire and debris. A howling sound echoed across the battlefield. The next shot from the Sarn medium tank was a direct center-of-mass hit on the fighter’s number two engine. Shark 11 detonated. Debris trailed out of the fireball for more than ten miles. Smoking pieces of ducimite and ablative contact armor covered the deck in all directions.
Hathaway winced at the ugly explosion off his port wing as he pulled into a vertical course. The pilot’s gravity compensation systems fought to keep him conscious as the tiny vessel’s drive field strained against the real space equivalent of more than 31 Gs. Shark 17 hurtled into Bayone Three’s ionosphere, high enough to trip the proximity approach alarms for the Constellation’s birds. Then Hathaway rolled off and dove back into the fray.
“Captain, squadron formation Cavalier Four reports they have engaged Sarn ground units at surface coordinates nine one mark ten.”
“Very well. Weps, you promised me an update.”
“Affirmative, skipper. Black Queen’s target package is identified and locked in.”
Captain Flynn swiveled to face his forward display, which depicted a precise representation of the Bayone Three surface as seen from the Constellation’s vantage point at just over 80 miles altitude. Her pilot was using the ship’s navigational and propulsion systems to hold her in what Skywatch crews referred to as a “powered orbit.” From a purely mathematical standpoint, planets of any given size required any object to maintain both a minimal altitude and minimal velocity in order to remain in orbit. Too low or too slow, and the ship would eventually either re-enter the atmosphere or impact the surface. Orbit, essentially, was the act of falling without ever reaching the ground. As long as sufficient speed was maintained, the ship would fall but never touch the ground, since the planet’s surface would always be receding from the ship’s position due to its spherical shape.
Orbital mechanics and piloting were among the most fundamental skills spacecraft pilots had to master, as there were always situations where even a starship might lose power, requiring a pilot to “dead stick” the craft to a safe course or position. On the flip side, due to the fact that a fusion-powered starship had a virtually unlimited fuel source, applying continuous thrust against any dynamic combination of momentum, gravity or acceleration was one of the more effective ways a combat spacecraft could maintain an advantageous position without having to worry about altitude, speed or the various scientific facts about a planet like gravity strength, atmospheric depth or diameter.
Constellation had been tasked with a space-to-ground assault against a battalion-sized Sarn formation southwest of Komanov’s garrison. Just north of the enemy position, designated “Zone Two” was a defensible and elevated vantage point Sixth Armor had identified as “J-Point.” “Powered orbit” was the principle Flynn was currently using to keep his ship just far enough over the horizon to be untargetable by direct fire weapons within roughly eighteen miles of Zone Two. Flynn’s ship would still be targetable by missiles, but that was part of the calculated risk.
“Opinion, Mr. Talbert?”
Flynn’s weapons officer brought up a parametric view of the battlespace on the main screen. “We’re going to have a ready defense window of roughly sixty seconds, sir, and we’re just going to have to hope that one ship’s electronic counter measures can confuse their birds long enough for our satellites to target them.”
“How many mounts do we have in range?”
Flynn muttered a curse. “We need ten times that many to engage their ground units.”
“Agreed, sir. Perhaps Captain Tarcus can pick a few of them off before they get a targeting solution.”
The captain studied the display for a moment. “Or we could fire and run. At the very least we might be able to outrange them.”
“The problem with that plan, as you know, is that we’ll clear their energy weapons’ horizon if we vector for deep space.”
“Or we’ll have to contend with atmospheric interference if we try to decrease their angle of attack,” Flynn replied. “In other words, we’re stuck.”
“New contact! Threat board just went active!”
Flynn jumped from the conn. “Position!”
“Eight zero mark one six one. Designate hostile Aztec Two One! On intercept course and closing!”
“Two megaclicks! Inside weapons!”
Flynn focused hard on the parametric tactical map. He had seconds, if that.
“The hell with positioning! Helm, hard over! Give me a high-energy pass, course one four mark six! All ahead battle speed!”
The Tombaugh-class missile destroyer leaped out of her carefully prepared ambush and accelerated across the upper edge of the Bayone Three atmosphere.
“Stand by RAM-600 alpha wave! Fire on waveform acquisition!”
The moment Flynn’s ship cleared the Zone Two horizon, all her targeting systems went active, bathing the ground formations in a blistering storm of acquisition signals.
“Holy mother of– sir! It’s the Constellation!”
Marine Captain Leonard Tarcus looked up from his artillery status readings and almost let the half-cigar fall out of his face. “What the hell is Flynn doing!? Tigerman! Get your ass in gear!”
Tarcus’ driver scrambled into his shock couch and fumbled with his helmet. The captain keyed the combat frequency commlink. “Hogs, this is Lunchwagon! Saddle up and charge all weapons!”
The formation of Razorback superheavies were parked right at the edge of the highest practical J-point ridge. The Sarn units were roughly 40 miles away, which would normally have put them in optimum position to be carved up like a holiday pheasant by Sixth Armor’s main batteries. But now they were all trying to evade the Constellation’s attack run, and the further they got from where they started, the more the Tarcus’ careful plans were being fed into a high-speed shredder.
“They’re scattering, sir!”
Razorback One cleared its protected crevice like it was competing in the 100-yard dash. Tarcus barked into his headset as his shoulders and neck were pulled back by the acceleration. “All units, engage! Get them sons-a-bitches before they get away! Fire at will! Fire at will!”
What happened next had to be seen to be believed. The battalion of SX-15 superheavy marine armor broke from cover like a startled herd of untamed mustangs. Tanks peeled dirt and rock from under their massive treads as they raced along the incline to the less steep grade east of their chosen engagement position. Hog Two led the charge. Its nearly 20,000-ton bulk pulverized an outcropping composed of almost solid granite before it half-slid, half-accelerated down the side of the ridge like some kind of bizarre snowboarder. A wall of gray dust rose from the lower slope as two more units disappeared into the haze. An enemy missile screamed overhead and slammed into the rock wall only a few yards from where Sergeant Wooley’s tank had been. After a clumsy and altogether Razorback-like maneuver down the ridge, Hog Two hit dirt and surged forward at a speed of nearly 50 MPH while its gunner fought for a clean target.
Hog Four wasn’t quite as graceful. It was tank three on a path wide enough for two. It only took about 80 yards before it ran out of road and rolled sideways into the wide-open sky over the base of the ridge. The immense weapon tumbled down the rugged face of J-point, rolling over and over until it crashed into solid ground. A good 1500 tons of loose rock, shale, dust and dead plants followed, burying the inverted tank to a depth of almost 100 feet. While its battalion-mates roared along the ridge overhead, there was a moment of relative quiet as the dust settled. Some might have concluded Hog Four was out of commission, but if they did, they weren’t familiar with the Razorback way. The tank’s driver activated the unit’s dorsal ground-pressure jets. A percussive sound followed, which turned another five tons of stone and dirt into glass before physically throwing the mighty weapon into the air. Hog Four landed hard on its treads, bouncing across the broken stone like some kind of fantastically overbuilt off-road vehicle. A moment later those same treads came to life, spinning in place as the hard-packed rock and sand exploded in all directions. Hog Four shot out of the cloud, trailing smoke across the J-point perimeter as it raced to catch up with its battalion-mates.
The tiny metallic gleam in the slate blue sky was the only indication something unusual was happening in the upper atmosphere. Before the Sarn formation had made it even a half-mile, the Constellation’s birds were veering into their terminal maneuvers. Tantalus and Cecrops point defense systems twisted and rose skyward, desperately trying to overcome Flynn’s sudden surprise attack and his ship’s powerful electronic targeting systems. White-hot lances of plasma energy whispered into the sky from nearly two dozen combat units. Ugly orange splotches of fire and trailing fuel ignitions filled the wide volume of open sky over Zone Two as dozens of RAM-600 warheads were ripped out of the air.
Captain Tarcus bellowed over the battalion command net. A steady stream of profanity and colorful metaphors accompanied the altogether unbearable thunder of an entire Razorback formation as it barreled over trees, loose rocks, mud and at least one fifteen-foot-deep pond. Sixth Armor had a fine vantage point to assess Constellation’s battle damage, and from where the SX-15s were, things didn’t look good. Only ten missiles from the first wave had reached their targets, and eight of them were deflected by Sarn battle screens. Based on the absence of a second wave, the captain feared their missile destroyer wasn’t going to get another shot any time soon, which put his formation in an even-money matchup with an enemy battle line that was no longer at a disadvantage.
Exactly four seconds later, nineteen hard-charging Razorback SX-15 superheavy tanks fired as one.