Updated: Feb 24, 2021
A large silhouette emerged from the dark side of a planetoid in the Tempest Sigma system, on the boundary of the Tempest Ridge, right on the edge of known space. As they grew closer, smaller shadows were cast on the debris fields scattered in open space, they were the escorts.
A brilliant terminator of light unveiled the lead silhouette, moving quickly across its surface as the 1.2-million ton Endeavour-class Battlecruiser entered visible space, reflecting light from Sigma's bright main-sequence star. Followed shortly by several escorting EC91 Hammerhead corvettes, maintaining a close formation around the larger capital ship.
"Hunter Group. This is Eridonia's Hope. We have arrived at checkpoint Huntress. Maintain formation, watch your spacing and keep an eye on scanners." Captain Raiko's voice crackled over the intercom, broadcasting to Hunter Group; a detachment of the Federal Navy's 1st Rapid Reaction Fleet.
"Our intelligence indicates a Federal Navy outpost stopped transmitting in this area approximately quarter-cycle prior to now. Details are strictly need-to-know. I know we didn't have time for a full briefing before deployment so just stick to the books. You know how it works: command isn't deploying the Big Guns if this isn't serious." Captain Marcus Raiko, of the Endeavour-S2A-class Battlecruiser, Eridonia's Hope, looked back to his bridge staff, before placing the intercom back on the console.
"We have a job to find out what's going on here, and that is what we are going to do."
Eridonia's Hope's Lateral propulsion jets fired, sending blue-tinted hot plasma outward, as the enormous warship rolled on her axis, slowing down to about half speed, revealing five of her nine, triple 31-inch Kinetic batteries; which rotated on their mounts following the ship's central targeting computer. Flanked on either side by two pairs of Hammerheads, whose own weapons scanned the empty space beyond Sigma's fine particle debris field, leaving blue plasma trails behind them as they cork-screwed around the battlecruiser.
"Group. Watch your spacing. I'm pushing co-ordinates of the Outpost now, check your scopes." Captain Raiko squinted as he gazed out of the cruiser's bridge observation deck; as two of the EC91's passed overhead.
"Ellie, anything on the directed main antenna? We just received the co-ords for the Raven Outpost, should be on LRS now." He asked, facing the manifested holoform of the Ship's native Artificial Intelligence, E.L.I.3, or "Ellie" as called by the crew.
"Negative Captain. The LRS is not detecting anything anomalous, or the Outpost itself. However, fine particulate debris is interfering with our scanners. It is of my understanding, that this deployment was not planned, might I advise an element of caution. Our weapon systems are standing by". The AI replied, with its distinctive metalic reverb, bringing up a combat-system diagnostic of the warship's main battery.
"I know. It's got the crew riled up, you don't send a 'devy to a remote system following some even more remote Navy outpost that half of the board doesn't even know exists, for nothing." Marcus replied, scrutinising the Long Range Scanner readout on the holodisplay, overlaying the view outward into space beyond the foredeck of the Eridonia's Hope.
"Captain." Ellie spoke out, moments before the deck was filled with the distinctive tone of the LRS, exclaiming "Contact Found".
"We have the Outpost on scope. However, I am not detecting any signs of activity. We must approach within two hundred klicks before I am able to provide detailed analysis of the situation there. The particle field is disrupting the Micro-Scanning-Laser Aarray's ability to provide feedback". The AI reported.
"Understood. Helm, ahead full. Hunter Group, keep it tight and don't drift too far. Our Point Defence is in optimal synchronisation."
The Battlecruiser's main drive fired into full power, a bright blue stream of drive-plasma blasting from the stern of the ship outward several kilometres into space, as the warship accelerated forwards.
"Steady. If we ride the top of the debris field we will arrive just above the Outpost. Ellie, forward anything you see to the overlay. Don't filter anything, nothing slips through. Otherwise, any ideas on what happened here?" Marcus ordered, standing from his Command Chair and approaching the barrier to the observation window, exerting a bit of effort as the lateral movement of the 12-million ton cruiser created a fair amount of inertia.
"I don't know. As you are aware, intelligence from Command is minimal, they know as much as we do. According to the transcription from the signal we received, the Outpost didn't report anything strange before the distress was pulsed. But the message didn't contain any information pertaining to the station's potential assailants. One could suspect an electronic failure or power system malfunction on the platform." The AI paused a moment, bringing up a holoform projection of a late Expansion-Era "Honeywell" Class Remote Outpost Platform, typical of those deployed in the rim sectors.
"ORP-3 Honeywell." Ellie remarked. "According to our limited briefing this is the classification of the station that resides in this system. They are approaching the millennia-cycle mark and many were scheduled for decommissioning."
Marcus raised an eyebrow. "I think we both know Command doesn't deploy the 1st Rapid for a dodgy rim sector platform. Much less a battlecruiser" He replied.
"I am aware. However Command is likely not taking risks after the incidents in Delta. It is a proven tactic to deploy a large warship like Hope initially, to assess the situation."
"Are you expecting something, Ellie?" The captain asked, concerned.
Before the AI could respond, Contact Found tones sounded across the deck. The normally white light of the bridge pulsed red momentarily as a deeper, warning tone sounded.
"Alert. Multiple Contacts on Long Range Scanners." The verbose LRS speaker exclaimed, as the Captain turned to Ellie and the sensor staff.
"Bring it up. What are we dealing with?" He ordered, returning to his Command chair, which rotated and elevated to face the observation window. "I want tracking data on everything, right now."
"Captain. We have at least six confirmed capital-class mass signatures on Space Density projection. There are another eight signatures which I am unable to confirm. There is a high probability they are sub-capital. If you asked me for my assessment, I would say this is a flotilla of unknown space craft of substantial mass." Ellie reported, calmly and devoid of any detectable emotion.
The LRS readout overlay engaged over the observation heads up display, showing the real-time locations of the newly detected signatures. Hunter Group was approaching fast, skimming the surface of the debris field; their drive plasma jets forcing up enormous plumes of debris behind the task force.
"Helm. Switch to Manual control, my station. Comm, maintain radio silence, no long range outbound comms. All hands battle-stations". Marcus ordered, as the helm staff acknowledged, engaging full manual control of the battlecruiser. A control yoke unfolded from a compartment underneath the captain's control console, to which Marcus gripped firmly. The white bridge lights were replaced with a warmer white-orange running light as the warship's battlestations alarm sounded.
"Time for a bit of flying." Captain Raiko remarked. "Group. We have contacts on LRS. Pushing data on short-wave now. Watch your spacing and stay sharp. I'm still deciding on how we play this."
"Ellie, I need a full analysis right now. Run those signatures through the Naval database, everything you have, right now." The captain ordered, pulling up on the column slowly and to the left, as the cruiser's forward thrusters engaged, slowing the vessel as she banked portside, coming down along the side of the debris barrier. "We can use the debris to mask our signatures until we're right on top of them. Whoever they are".
"It might be more of a case of, 'whoever', Captain. I am detecting no matches to known vessel mass signatures in the Naval Database. We are either looking at as of yet unknown capital-class signatures, a fault in the database, a government coverup or a impossible arrangement of LRS-spoofing asteroids moving in a directed formation right towards us." The AI replied calmly as the Eridonia's Hope moved ever closer.
"Fantastic". Marcus commented, concentrating on guiding the 12-million ton spacecraft along the edge of a system-wide debris field. "Hunter Group, loosen formation to about a klick, but maintain PDS synchronisation."
The four escorting Hammerheads obeyed, hanging back a bit behind the battlecruiser, but still close enough that their Point-Defence weapons can cover their charge.
"I'm bringing us around. Ellie, you've got gunnery. Firing solutions please. I'm taking no risks with being prepared. You know the drill". The Captain's voice indicated an element of nervousness, that the AI would no doubt pick up on, but likely refrain from commenting in order to not provoke its human captain.
Eridonia's Hope blasted away from the debris field, sending particles in a focused jet for several kilometres into the field, four smaller jets were visible alongside her, as her escorts maintained their formations. The nine main-battery turrets rotated to face the unknown signatures; their triple-barrel 144-inch Mass Driver cannons elevating and correcting their alignment to focus on the best possible firing solution in broadside, as the cruiser circled round into open space where she would ultimately confront the situation.
"Captain. We are no longer masked by the Debris field. They have likely detected us, but I am not picking up any indication of directed electromagnetic scanning within our radius. This is highly anomalous" Ellie spoke as its holoform manifested beside the captain, gesturing toward the HUD.
"Helm, back to auto. Maintain this course and run standard combat routines. Gunnery, I want firing solutions from Ellie into the Harmonics system and ready to punch in five seconds, but don't charge our caps until I give the order. Last thing we want is to give them the impression we want to fire first." Marcus ordered as he turned to face Ellie's holoform, frowning.
"Update please, if you would."
"Yes, Captain. We are soon approaching visible range. The closed signature is on an intercept trajectory with us, approaching at approximately three-hundred and twenty eight metres per second. I am detecting subtle trajectory alterations of this mass reading in-line with such a trajectory based on our own movements. It is quite clear they have detected us and are now moving to start an interception." The AI responded calmly.
"However, no such communication attempts have been received or detected by our LRS or directed short-wave scanner arrays. We are sufficiently far from the debris field to allow unhindered analysis of electronic activity within our effective radius."
"Okay. I'm making a judgment call. Comms, break that silence. Open a ELRC line with Naval Command, Ellie prepare an encrypted comms package and update them. We need new orders right now, and if I'm walking into a trap I want some backup." Captain Raiko ordered firmly.
"Communication sent, Captain". Ellie replied a few moments later. "Current orders?"
"Charge weapons capacitors and shields, gunnery I want batteries one through five, topside, sabot and concussion, load one, two. Give me a crosshair, if you would, gentlemen."
To be continued....