Starflare – First Blood (Rest of the Story)

This is the rest of the story. Click here for the beginning

Before Watkins could answer the comms officer spoke up.

“Incoming message from the warship,” he said.

“Put it onscreen,” replied Shepherd.

The screen flared to life showing a young man who couldn’t be older than thirty.  Despite the situation his voice was calm.

“This is the captain of the Freedom Protector,” the man said.  “There are no traitors here.  Our worlds have never belonged to the Kingdom.  Under the Accord we received certain protections at excessive cost.  We only signed up because we were forced to.  Since then the Kingdom has steadily eroded our rights.  Our worlds have decided that enough is enough.  The Accord is no longer worth the cost.  We have dissolved it and returned to being independent systems.

“As for your threats… any attack on our forces, especially our civilian ships, will be treated as an act of war.  If you persist with that course of action then we will be forced to destroy you.”

The transmission cut off abruptly.  Shepherd fought to keep his cool.  The arrogance!  He took a deep breath, then another.

“I want that ship destroyed.  What did he call it?  The Freedom Protector?”

“Yes, sir,” replied Watkins.  “We don’t have that name on record.  They must have changed it.”

“No matter.  We know the type.  Send in the fighters.  Those rebels won’t ever have faced more than a few pirates.  Let’s show them what facing a real force is about.”

The fighters reached the rebel warship within a few minutes.  Intense defensive fire erupted around the large ship, disrupting the fighter’s approach and preventing them getting clean launches for their torpedoes.

Shepherd frowned as two fighters disappeared from the screens, destroyed by the barrage.  Another soon followed.

“Break off the attack,” he growled.  “It seems they’re better trained than we expected.  No matter.  Send those two wings after the Hummingbird.”

“But sir, that’s a passenger liner!” said Watkins.  “There are plenty of freighters we could attack without killing anywhere near so many civilians.”

“Exactly.  We need to make a statement, and I want to drag the rebel warship off course.  In case you hadn’t noticed, they’re currently heading straight for us.”

“They can’t possibly hurt us, can they?”

“No, but I’d rather keep them trying to defend their own ships.”

“Captain,” said Wade.  “All the civilian ships have their shields below baseline.”

“Excellent,” replied Shepherd.  “Then they’ll be all the easier to defeat.  You see, Watkins, they have no idea how to fight a battle.  Look at them now.  The ships are scattering when they should be clumping together near the warship.  It wouldn’t be able to protect all of them, but by running they make our job much easier.”

Watkins stood silently for several seconds, then shook her head.

“Sir, permission to speak freely?”

“Now?  Really?  Can’t it wait?”

“No, sir.”

“Fine.  Permission granted, but make it quick.”

“sir, I think you should reconsider attacking the Hummingbird.  You’ll be killing thousands of innocent people.  Is that really what the Kingdom stands for?”

“Thank you for your honesty,” replied Shepherd.  “However, I disagree.  No one in that convoy is innocent.  Your views are noted.  Now, you will coordinate the attack on the Hummingbird.”

“No, sir!”

“No?  You are refusing a direct order under combat conditions?”

“Yes, sir!  Attacking that ship is wrong.  I can’t be a part of it.”

“Very well.”  He nodded to the two guards on the bridge.  “Secure the first officer,” he said.  “I want her to see this battle before I pass judgement on her crimes.”

The guards snapped off a salute then moved to secure Watkins, who offered no resistance despite knowing she was as good as dead.  Refusing an order under combat conditions was a capital offence.

Shepherd ordered Wade to coordinate the attack, then sat back to enjoy the show.  The fighters were soon in range, battering at the Hummingbird’s shields and quickly knocking them down completely.  They’d been at minimum levels to start with.  Three of the fighters unleashed torpedoes.  Shepherd gestured to the guards.

“Make sure she watches,” he said.

The torpedoes quickly reached their target, smashing into the shieldless ship and driving deep before detonating.  The explosions ripped the liner apart so quickly that no escape pods were launched.

Shepherd glanced at his first officer, shaking his head in disgust at the tears in her eyes.  Her failure had its plus points, though.  She would be a perfect example to the rest of the crew, and he’d found out about her weakness before it really mattered.  He suspected others would demonstrate the same flaw as the realities of war hit, both on his ship and in the rest of the fleet.  Some people just didn’t have what it took.

He watched as the rest of his fighters closed in on their targets.  Another six ships would soon be wiped out, then the fighters would all move on to their next targets. 

The first enemy the fighters reached was a freighter.  The fighters started to pepper it with fire.  Shepherd grinned as the freighter’s shields lit up… then it was gone.  For a moment Shepherd still grinned, pleased by the ease of the destruction, then he frowned.  There was nothing left.  There was no wreckage, and there’d been no explosion.  The ship had simply vanished.  A nagging suspicion was forming, one which Wade confirmed…

“The freighter jumped to hyperspace.”

“Impossible.  There’s no way they could have charged their hyperspace engine that quickly.”

Three more civilian ships vanished.  Then a dozen more.  Within a minute every civilian ship was gone.  Shepherd demanded to know what had happened, growling at his officers.  His good mood had completely evaporated.

Laughter was the last thing he expected to hear, but laughter he heard.  He swung around, ready to lash out… then realised Watkins was the one laughing.

“What’s so funny,” he snapped.

“The civilian ships.  Their shield levels.  You wrote it off as them being unprepared for what was coming.  You were wrong.  They were completely prepared.  They were pouring energy into their hyperspace engines, keeping them charged so they could leave quickly when needed.”

“Bullshit!  If that was the case, why didn’t the Hummingbird jump away?”

“They didn’t want to.  Don’t you realise what’s just happened?  One of our mightiest warships just descended on an innocent convoy, destroyed a liner with thousands of people on board and then watched helplessly as the rest of the convoy escaped.  I’d bet there wasn’t really anyone on that liner except a few brave crew.  You’ve been played for a fool.”

“Impossible!  How could they possibly have known we’d be coming?”

“How did you know they’d be here?  What information led us here at this time?”

Shepherd didn’t answer.  It had been a tip off from within the rebellion, something passed on by a supposed sympathiser.  Ice flowed through Shepherd’s veins as he recognised the truth in Watkins words.  He’d envisioned himself as a hero leading the charge against the traitors.  Instead he’d be presented as an incompetent monster.

“And you still underestimate them,” said Watkins quietly.

“What?”

She nodded towards the screen

“The warship is still coming and its shields are fully charged.”

“And?  We can easily withstand anything they throw at us.  If they won’t run then our fighters will make short work of them.”

“Yes.  Our fighters.  Our whole navy is built on the concept of overwhelming fighter power.  We have other ships but the carriers rule.”

“Everyone knows that.  What’s your point?”

“That is my point.  Everyone knows that.  Including the Accord Worlds.  When they declared independence they knew exactly what they’d be facing.”

“I fail to see how that matters.”

Shepherd kept the acerbic tone of voice, but some doubt was creeping in.  She was right.  The rebels would have known what they had to face.

“We inspect all their warship designs, of course,” Watkins said.  “And the ships themselves when they are completed.  Did you know I spent a year on one of those inspection teams?  We had a low opinion of their work, I can tell you.  Their ships were full of bad design work.  Empty areas between sections which they insisted on leaving in place as shock buffers, even though we told them they’d never work.  Areas they insisted on adding as extra storage which made the designs clumsy.  Capacity for a crew compliment way beyond what they actually needed.

“Almost everything about the designs was comically bad, and we laughed at them, felt superior to them.  Now I think the joke might have been on us.”

“Stop talking in riddles.  What do you mean?”

“When we first saw them we were suspicious of the poor designs, wondering whether they could be re-engineered to turn the ships into carriers, but it wasn’t possible without a complete refit.  The areas near the hull were far too small to be used as hangars for even one or two fighters.  The large storage areas in the centre of the ship could have housed fighters but there would have been no way for them to launch.

“So we laughed at them and let them build their hodgepodge ships.  And then we ignored them.  We kept an eye on their overall shape in case any were majorly refitted to become carriers, but none ever were.

“We were wrong.  All those spaces were there for refits, just not in the way we’d imagined.  I’ve just worked it out.  Those ships could never be converted into carriers, but they could be turned into something else.  Carrier killers.”

“Preposterous!”  He stared at her for a long moment before speaking again.  “Nevertheless, it would be stupid to take chances.”  He turned to Wade.  “I want every fighter we have targeting that rebel ship.  Launch the reserve flights.  I want that ship destroyed.”

“Yes, sir,” replied Wade.  “It will able to fire on us in thirty seconds.  First flight of fighters are engaging now.  Wait… something’s happening to the enemy ship.”

“What?” snapped Shepherd.

“Sections of the hull are opening up.  Lots of them.”

“Big enough for fighters to launch?”

“No, sir.  They aren’t hollow anyway.  I’m reading… no… it can’t be…”

“Spit it out!  What is it?”

“Weapons, Sir.  Each of the new openings is housing a weapon.  Some of them are firing… they’re anti-fighter weapons.  We’ve lost four fighters… seven… ten…”

“Call them off.  They need to coordinate.  Order all the fighters into attack pattern Sigma.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“You’re still missing the big picture,” said Watkins.

Shepherd fought down the urge to order her removed, or shot on the spot.  She’d provided valuable information so far.  Maybe she had more.

“What am I missing?” he asked.

“Well, for a start, they only fired about a quarter of their weapons.  Why do you think that is?”

“Because they didn’t need to use anymore?”

“You really think so?  Or maybe because the rest have a different purpose.  Look at the energy readings.  Those aren’t anti-fighter weapons.  They’re packing a big punch.  Care to place a bet on which big target they’re going to use them on?”

Shepherd stared at her for a long moment, mind whirling, then forced his attention to the battle.  And it was a battle, he could see that now.  His forces had total superiority in the number of fighters.  The battle should have been over before it began, but Watkins was right — the rebels had modified their warship to nullify that advantage.

Should he run?  He couldn’t believe he was considering it, but there was a possibility that the Royal Talon could be destroyed.  He wasn’t sure whether the propaganda value of its destruction would be worse than that if he ran, but if the Talon was destroyed and the rebels kept quiet then the Kingdom could lose more carriers in the same way before they knew what was happening.

He realised it was a moot point anyway.  To get away in anything like a reasonable time the Talon would need to pour power into its hyperspace engines, draining almost all power from the shields.  That would be suicide against the powerful weapons of the rebel warship, especially as it would still be at least ten minutes before the Talon could jump.

The Talon rocked slightly as the rebel warship unleashed its first blast.  Several more strikes landed, followed by a dozen more.  He glanced anxiously at the shield levels and was relieved to see that while they were dropping it wasn’t that quickly.  As long as the Talon kept pouring power into its shields it could take a pounding like that for ten or twenty minutes.

Shepherd watched as his fighters closed on the rebel ship again.  Several fighters were lost and a few had to peel off but seven managed to unleash both their beam weapons and a torpedo.  Two more fighters were lost as they tried to pull clear.

He held his breath as the torpedoes closed in.  Two were destroyed by point defence fire straight away.  Another three followed, but two managed to strike the rebel ship’s shields.  Its shields held but had taken a battering.  Another five or six torpedo hits and the ship itself would be exposed.

The rebel ship maintained its attacks on the Talon all the while, slowly eating away at the shields on Shepherd’s ship. Not fast enough.  His fighters would destroy the rebels’ shields well before the Talon’s fell.  He turned back to Watkins.

“You see,” he said.  “Carriers are still the supreme warship, despite any tinkering the rebels carry out.”

She ignored him, staying focused on the unfolding battle.  Shepherd shrugged, hiding his annoyance at her lack of reaction, then went back to studying the battle himself.

Another wave of fighters was closing in, thirty-two this time.  That meant more of them should manage to unleash torpedoes and that more of those torpedoes should make it through.  Maybe even enough to cripple the enemy ship.

The defensive fire was more accurate this time, taking out six fighters, but that still left more than enough lining up to fire their torpedoes.

The rebel ship fired its main weapons once more.  This time the Talon didn’t even vibrate.  Shepherd smiled.  This was it.  The Talon was holding out and its fighters were about to strike a decisive blow.

He looked at the display again and frowned.  The fighters… where were they?  And where were their torpedoes?  He shook his head, not understanding.

“Where are the fighters?” he demanded.

“They’re gone,” replied Wade.

“I can see that!  What happened?”

“The rebel ship… it fired its main weaponry at them.”

“Rubbish.  Fighters are much too agile to target with heavy weaponry.”

“Not when they’re all lining up to launch their torpedoes.  They had to fly steady for several seconds.  The rebels were waiting for them, sir.  They must have been.”

“Damn it.  Send out new orders.  Tell the fighters to form attack pattern Zeta.”

“Zeta, sir?  Are you sure?”

“Of course I am!  And don’t question my orders again unless you want to join Watkins.”

“Y… yes, sir.”

Zeta pattern.  The fighters would try to get in close to the target, evading all the way, and let their torpedoes go at close range.  That removed the requirement to aim carefully and greatly reduced the chance of the torpedoes being destroyed.  However it carried far more danger for the fighters — partly from getting so close to the enemy but also because they might end up caught in the blast from the torpedo.

Fighters closed with the rebel warship.  There were no distinct waves now, each fighter was choosing its own path.  Some went for fast and mostly direct approaches while others spent far more time evading, and so more time closing.

Fighters disappeared from the display as they were destroyed.  Shepherd struggled to keep track of what was happening.  Were the losses higher than expected?  Would enough ships get through?

Several fighters launched their torpedoes early, choosing safety over the mission.  All three torpedoes were destroyed by rebel defensive fire.  Shepherd swore that those pilots would be punished if they survived the battle.  Other fighters continued to do their duty.

Three fighters got close enough to unleash their torpedoes at point blank range.  One torpedo exploded under defensive fire, taking out the fighter that had launched it.  The other two reached the rebel warship and detonated, taking a sizeable chunk out of its shields.  One of the retreating fighters was destroyed by enemy fire, but the other managed to get clear.

More fighters swept in, but the rebel warship was proving effective at destroying them before they could unleash their torpedoes.  And all the time the warship was chewing away at the Talon’s shields.

The lopsided battle continued, the single rebel ship fighting back against the swarm of fighters.  With nothing more to do directly, Shepherd became caught up in the runs of individual fighters until Wade called for his attention.

“Captain, we’re running out of fighters.  More than seventy percent have been destroyed or badly damaged and another six percent have used up their torpedoes.”

“That still leaves plenty,” replied Shepherd.  “What’s the problem?”

“The others… most of them… they’re surrendering to the Rebels.”

What?  How dare they!  I’ll have them executed!  I’ll have their families executed!”

“With respect, sir, without those ships I don’t think you’ll get the chance to.  We’ve got almost nothing left to throw at the rebels and if we do send the remaining fighters in they’re almost certainly going to be destroyed.”

“Send them in,” growled Shepherd.  “They might get lucky, and maybe they’ll shame some of the deserters into remembering their honour.”

“Yes, sir.”

Wade gave the order.  Shepherd watched as the few remaining loyal fighters charged towards the rebel ship… and were destroyed long before they could launch their torpedoes.  None of the fighters who had surrendered made a move.  The cowards truly had no honour.

The Talon continued to shake as the powerful rebel weapons struck its shields, chewing away at them.  The Talon could return fire soon, when the rebel ship came within range of the its much shorter range weaponry, but it would make little difference.  The Talon’s weapons were designed to see off fast moving fighters, not massive warships.  That’s what fighters were for.

The seconds ticked by.  It wasn’t long before Wade called out that the shields were failing.  The Talon shook far more as energy blasts struck its hull through the failing shields.

“Shields have gone,” Wade called out.  “Estimated time for recharging to minimum level is… four minutes, twenty seconds.”

Shepherd shook his head.  That was far too long.  The rebel warship would rip them apart long before the shields came back on, and would simply knock the shields down again even if that didn’t happen.

Wade spent the next minute calling out system after system that was damaged or destroyed.  Weapons, shield generators, drives and more.  Shepherd made certain he was sitting straight.  Death was certain now, but he could choose to face it bravely.

Then the pounding stopped.  Warnings were flashing across all the bridge control boards, but the attack had ceased.

“What’s happening?” Shepherd demanded.

“I… I don’t know, sir,” replied Wade.  “They’ve stopped firing but they’re still heading for us.  They’re slowing a bit but they’re still going to make contact within two minutes.”

Shepherd stared at the screen for the next minute, trying to understand what was happening.

“Are they going to ram us?” he asked.

“You’re still underestimating them,” Watkins said.  “Even now.”

“What do you mean?”

“I told you they’d made a perfect anti-carrier warship.  I told you about the things we laughed at.  Have you still not figured it out?”

“Figured what out?”

“They aren’t trying to destroy a carrier.  They’re trying to capture one.  I told you they had space for far more crew than they needed, but that was wrong.  I just figured it out.  That space is for assault troops, not crew.  They’ll sweep aboard this ship with overwhelming force.”

“No!”

“Why else would they be holding back from destroying us, let alone getting so close?”

Before Shepherd could argue a huge impact struck the ship.  This didn’t feel like the impact of weapons, it was something far stronger and more decisive.

“Enemy ship has collided with us,” Wade shouted.  “They’re staying in contact.  I’m getting multiple stress warnings.”

“How does first blood feel, Captain?” asked Watkins.  “Not only have you portrayed us as monstrous killers of civilians, you’ve thrown away an entire carrier’s worth of fighters and let the enemy capture your ship.  Is your victory everything you dreamed it could be?”

“What are you?” he spat back.  “A spy?  A saboteur?  Were you planted here to help this happen?”

“How dare you!  I’m as loyal to the Kingdom as anyone else on this ship.  More loyal than most!  That doesn’t mean I’ll stand by while you commit an atrocity against civilians.  I did nothing to cause this situation, you created it all on your own.  Maybe if you hadn’t been so keen to make an example of their civilian ships you’d have been more prepared for what happened.”

“Rubbish!  I did what was necessary.  I…”

“Captain!” shouted Wade.  “Security is reporting multiple breaches on delta deck.  That’s only five floors from here.  What do we do?”

Shepherd took a deep breath and stared around the bridge.  It was an open space with no real cover.  No one had ever imagined the need to defend it.  If any enemies got aboard a carrier, and that in itself was highly unlikely, then they’d attack through the hangar bays — that’s how the logic ran anyway.

The areas around the hangar bays and airlocks were designed to be easily defended, built with fortifications and areas of deadly crossfire.  Shepherd now realised that outside of those areas the ship offered few defensive positions.  They were still better than the bridge, though.  Pulling out his side-arm, he made his mind up.

“Order every crew member to arm themselves and get to the breaches.  They are to ensure no enemy escapes the area.  That goes for all of you too.  I’ll seal the bridge after you’ve left, and remain as the last line of defence.”

Some of the officers exchanged nervous glances, while others saluted and started to move.  A glare from Shepherd was enough to get the stragglers moving.

“Captain, what about her?” asked Wade, pointing at Watkins.

“Secure her in place.  She won’t be a danger and I don’t want her offering the rebels any more help.”

“Yes, sir!”

Within two minutes everyone was off the bridge.  Shepherd activated the controls to lock it down.  Now no one was getting in without his permission.  Not without breaking in, at least.  He glanced around the bridge again.  The unnatural quiet dragged at his soul.  He’d never been alone on it before.

“You can’t stop them, you know.”

Almost alone.  He turned to face Watkins.

“You might be right,” he replied calmly.

“You have to hand it to the rebels.  They got their propaganda, they proved their tactics, and now they’re going to capture not only a carrier but all the knowledge its officers carry.”

Shepherd stared for a moment.  She was right.  Losing the Talon would be bad enough, but the knowledge the rebels could gain was far worse.

He stepped close to Watkins and raised his gun, pointing it at her head.  She stared him in the face, smiling slightly.

“Thank you,” she said.  “I might not agree with how we treated the Accord Worlds, I might quite admire what the rebels are doing and, I sure as hell hate you and everything you were willing to do… but I’m not a traitor.  I don’t want them learning anything from me.  Go ahead.  Don’t let…”

The sharp crack of a gunshot rang out.  Her body slumped to the ground, blood already pooling.  Shepherd nodded to himself.  Despite her words he was fairly certain she would have told the Rebels anything they wanted to know.  She had most probably been bluffing when she encouraged him to shoot.  It didn’t matter.  She was gone now.  She could tell the rebels nothing.

Which left one source the rebels could gain top level classified information from — Shepherd himself.  He wouldn’t give away anything willingly, he knew that, but he also knew that there were interrogation techniques that could break almost anyone. given time.  Even if they didn’t break him, could he face days, weeks or even months of such interrogation?

No.  He couldn’t.  He stepped away from Watkins and sat in his chair, glancing around the silent bridge.  The Kingdom would beat the rebels, he had no doubt of that.  It might be harder and take longer than everyone had assumed, but the Kingdom was far larger and could bring far more resources to bear.  In time the rebels would bow down once more, or be destroyed.

That was for the future, though, a future for other people.  And a problem for other people too.  Shepherd lifted his gun, placed it under his chin… and fired.

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