"Three-Zero-zero" ... the broadcast was interrupted by static, momentarily replaced by the sound of explosions and shouting over the communication frequency. "One-Five, we are taking heav-... Fire ... we can't.... longer... we are... withdraw" the communication ended abruptly.
Ronin remained focused as the Pathfinder cruised at hundreds of kilometres a second towards the Imperial Dreadnought Nobilis Historia and her amassed fleet; IMPACT glancing blows and fragmentation blasts from anti-ship missiles detonating off her hull, shaking the deck violently.
"Captain. We have lost contact with Gamma Group." CoRE announced. "We are no longer covered by their Anti-SPARTAN countermeasures. Switching to solo-battlenet control."
The Old Man took a few moments to think about everything they had done up until this point. Over the millennia he had witnessed the rise and fall of the very thing that gave him purpose once. He had witnessed his people be betrayed by their government and he had watched Aquarius plunge into the dark grip of fascism formed from the corrupted seed of the very thing he had always risked his life to protect.
The Old Man didn't care for his life. He knew that CoRE would continue on if he should fall in battle; the C-AI had maintained duplicate backups on all major EPF capital ships, one of which was installed on the Eridonia's Hope; who was leading the surviving forces of the EPF Fleet in the defence over Coron, some millions of kilometres behind them, under the shadow of the Empire's war fleet he was to confront alone. Amiori was commanding the defence from the Hope's bridge; he knew they were in good hands. She would continue the Kociero legacy, should his 'gut instinct' fail him from the first, and last, time.
Stop thinking about death, Old Man, he thought. There is too much to live for. Too much at stake. There would be time for those thoughts later, but now - there was much work to be done. Shaking off his thoughts, the Captain snapped out of his daze and squinted towards the crosshair on the Pathfinder's navigation Heads Up Display; the centre of which was roughly in alignment with the trajectory of the Imperial Fleet - which was cruising at a similar forward velocity. The intercept, should it happen, would be very fast and potentially very violent.
But that was all part of the plan; since for as mighty as she was, Pathfinder would only have a matter of seconds to approach the Nobilis Historia before being ripped to shreds by her close and medium-range cannons, and those of her extensive escort. Should the data provided by his daughter fail: this would be the last moments of the legendary warship and her undying, Semperiternalis Captain.
"One Hundred Thousand Kilometres from intercept." CoRE Announced; knowing the Captain needed to take some time to think about those 'human feelings' that the AI often failed to understand. Humans were still very much enigmatic to the synthetic mind of the AI, even though he had known his brother for over a thousand years.
The Old Man adjusted his headset's mouthpiece before interacting with the holographic console before him; taking only one hand from the Pathfinder's control column to do so. It was important to get a feeling for the haptic feedback from the manual control - despite being completely unused by essentially every other star ship, Ronin had insisted that his control station feature such a feedback mechanism. Captains these days didn't get to 'know' their ships, he often thought. Besides, his track record on manual helm control of the two million mass-ton warship was good enough to prove its worth.
Taking a moment to gather his thoughts, the Old Man flipped the Headset's manual control. "This is Kociero. You are all aware of the gravity of our situation. Over the years I have come to trust each and every one of you to do your duty without even asking. I have never doubted any of you. I know each and every one of you know exactly what to do, and you would follow me to the end - should it be necessary."
"This time is different." He paused, squinting again as he made small adjustments to the Pathfinder's cruise trajectory, nodding to CoRE's holoform who instinctively knew to optimise the drive output accordingly.
"Today I do not expect you to follow me to the end. Today, I do not wish for you to follow me to the end. Today, I need you to carry on without me; I need you to stand with my daughter and continue the legacy we, each and every one of us, as fought for. That is what I expect."
The Pathfinder's small crew took a few moments to take in what their Captain was saying. Marines clutched their communicators and engineers paused momentarily. The Bridge staff looked to the captain as he spoke. Within moments, they resumed their duties as expected of them. Sempers or humans, they were brothers and sisters in arms.
"Commander Vai, take Dragon Team to the docking bay. Board the 'vette and make ready for departure, I will be with you shortly. Everyone else: occupy your stations and do your duty. Iva, you will have to work with CoRE to get Pathfinder away from the Historia after we have left. There is no time to wait for our return, I am sure you are all aware that even we cannot absorb the brunt of an entire Imperial Fleet long enough to find out if this gambit paid off. If it does: you will know. If it does not: you are to return to Coron immediately and tell my daughter what has happened. She will know what to do, and she will lead you like I have lead you. CoRE has the deck." The Old Man finished speaking into the intercom; flipping the switch on his headset, before taking it off entirely and placing it gently on the command chair as he stood up.
"CoRE, take it from here. Punch out on my signal when Dragon Team is suited up and ready to depart." The Captain ordered, his voice course, yet calm. Almost as if he didn't believe he would survive - but apparently that didn't bother him.
"Captain?" CoRE exclaimed, concerned. The C-AI had never, once, doubted his brother's judgement in the heat of combat but the odds were so heavily stacked against them; he felt it necessary to express his concern.
"Good Luck." The AI added, de-materialising as marched towards the exit bulkhead at the rear of the command deck; leading to the central elevator system.
Pathfinder's cruise engines glared brilliantly in the depths of space as she accelerated on the final stretch of her one-way trip into the Jaws of Hell, towards a fully assembled Imperial Navy assault fleet lead by the most powerful warship in Aquarius, the Pattern-3 Retribution-class Dreadnought, Nobilis Historia. The Old Man remained silent, calm and collected as he rode the central elevator along the spine of the ship to the hangar bay. The elevator had seating on either side, with harnesses for high-speed de-acceleration; but the Captain preferred to stand, instead simply grasping the overhead rail as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other, frowning.
As the Elevator deaccelerated into the Central hangar access terminal, the captain punched an override into the door controls; opening the elevator's doors as it was still moving through the entrance tunnel - the atmosphere hitting his long black hair; flailing it behind him as the pressure doors sealed the primary tram-way from the pressurised access tunnel; the main elevator shafts were not routinely pressurised with atmosphere as it introduced unnecessary resistance to the movement of the elevator tram.
Jumping onto the terminal deck before the elevator had even stopped, he was greeted by a pair of Semper Marines from Dragon Team - the Pathfinder's elite boarding-action squad, and Ronin's personal guard, made up from his most trusted and veteran brothers and sisters from the Sempertinalis Project.
"Captain Kociero." one of the exo-suit clad marines exclaimed, saluting. "Commander Kasake and the rest of Dragon Team are aboard the Sidewinder, awaiting your arrival."
Ronin returned the salute, gesturing to the central hangar access bulkhead as the three men hastily marched towards it. "If you have any concerns, now is the time to express them, Sempers." The Captain spoke, glancing briefly to the two marines beside him; whose helmet visors were retracted to reveal their battle-scared faces.
"No concerns, sir". One of the marines replied, nodding to the Captain as he clutched his MX9M Repeating FIMD 'Carbine' variant; pushing the bull-pup magazine assembly as to ensure it was fitted correctly.
"We have your back, always, sir." The other replied. Their voices were course and deep, like the Old Man's, devoid of fear or emotion, only dedication and determination to serve the Captain until their dying breath. Indeed, such devotion might just be needed today.
"Outstanding". Ronin replied, nodding as the trio approached the access door to the hangar; placing his hand on the access pad which let out an confirmatory chime before the display turned green with the words "AUTHORISED"; moments later the heavy-duty Category A Bulkhead began to retract into the overhead port, to the hissing sound of atmospheric pressure normalisation and hazard alarms.
Pathfinder's deck shook violently once again, this time it was sufficient for the three men to lose their balance; the two marines dropped onto one knee to stabilise themselves; their massive armoured knee armour clanking as it impacted the nanopolymer deck plating. Ronin missed a step but steadied himself promptly, looking up towards the overhead of the hangar as debris tumbled from the cables and trusswork overhead, sparks from shorted electrical junctions illuminating lengths of ducting and bundles of optic 'nerve' cables linking various ship systems.
"It is time." The captain said as the marines flanked him into the central hangar. The Sidewinder was large enough to take up most of the several hundred square-metre hangar; the Albatross-class light-corvette was much larger than most other ships that could dock - unable to land on a pad-platform, instead it was suspended overhead with enormous magneto clamps - these would lower the hundred-fifty metre vessel into the exit berth of the hangar upon lift-off as she was too large for a manual launch.
The central access ramp on the Sidewinder's dorsal side was retracted, and firmly extended onto the boarding platform from the central platform of the Hangar. A couple of EPF engineers wearing helmets with visor-guards saluted the captain and his marine escort as they approached the ramp, after of which the engineers retreated to the launch control room across the boarding ramp - which was shielded from the immense heat generated by the corvette's thrusters on launch.
Ronin stopped just short of the ramp as Pathfinder's deck shook again, less violently this time, likely a near miss from a Hornet MRM fragmentation warhead, but it was still sufficient to rock the docked Sidewinder in her cradle, which groaned loudly as the magneto clamps strained to absorb the inertial forces.
"We are ready for launch, Captain." the voice of Commander Vai Kasake's voice crackled over the Captain's headset communicator. Clutching his hand on the ear-piece the captain glanced over to the launch control room; gesturing thumbs up to the engineers for launch as he followed the two marines up the boarding ramp which retracted into the hull behind them, close with a mechanical clank and hiss as hermetic seals engaged, isolating her internal atmosphere from Pathfinder's.
As the airlock sealed over the ramp, Ronin hastily made his way to the bridge of the corvette with the two marines, who took up positions on either side of the access door; clutching overhead rails. "I trust everything is in good order?" The captain asked, taking position beside Commander Kasake, who himself was clad in Old Federation 'Titan' exo-suit marine armour, holding his helmet under his left arm.
"Like old days, Ronin." He replied, nodding, as he turned the two marines. "Sempers, take your positions in the loading bay. Have Dragon Team ready for immediate boarding action."
Ronin tied his trenchcoat to his belt, to keep the distinctive flares out of the way, but still reluctant to actually remove the garment, which had become something of a 'lucky charm' to the Old Man since his service with the Old Federal Navy. Taking a seat on one of the relatively small command bridge's harness-equipped chairs, he turned his gaze to the Commander, who had suited up his helmet; which would create a fully environmentally sealed connection to the exo-armour, however his visor was retracted sufficiently so he could place his own eyes upon his Captain.
Ronin looked away for a moment, as the Corvette's pilot flipped a few switches on the overhead console, before pulling a large lever on the central dashboard; which began the launch process as previously orange lights on the interface flicked to green, the words "READY FOR LAUNCH" blinking on the simple status diagnostics heads up display below the main holographic interface on the flight control panel. The pilot flipped up his visor and leant round to face the Captain; giving him a confirmatory thumbs up to which the captain nodded in acknowledgement.
"Punch it." He said, turning to face Kasake who inserted the magazine into his MX9M Carbine with tactical precision, pulling back the charging handle with his other armoured hand to feed the first of the 9.1mm kinetic rounds into the chamber.
"How do you want to handle this, Captain? The way I see it, we have two options. We go in guns blazing and take them by surprise, hitting the bridge from the internal access way - based on the plans Amiori provided, it is a fairly direct route. Of course, I do not expect the Imperial marines to simply allow our little boarding party to meet the captain face to face, so perhaps we could go in quietly, like that time during the 'Phoenix where we dropped the Hammer out of cruise, snagged her skipper and came back in time for tea without firing a round." Kasake explained, laughing to make light of the situation as "STANDBY FOR LAUNCH" indicators flicked on around the deck, red overhead lights turning to amber as Sidewinder's lateral thrusters flared up to assist the magneto clamps in pushing her out of the berith as the Pathfinder shook violently, taking immense fire from the rapidly approaching Imperial cruiser formations ahead of the fleet.
CoRE's countermeasure systems were almost ineffective, and the battlecruiser was taking a battering from medium-range particle ram fire and anti-ship missiles; the latter of which were starting to break through the Point Defence System and hit the hull directly; her shields were already collapsed.
Ronin thought for a moment, looking forward out of the Corvette's bridge cockpit canopy as she was slowly lifted down the access berth; the internal lights from the hangar soon replaced by the frigid darkness of space and the occasional flash of a particle-ram impact on the Pathfinder's hull; her armour was almost critical, chunks of debris began to break away from each impact as the mighty warship began to de-accelerate from hypercruise. At this point, the Imperial Fleet was almost in visual range; as the Sidewinder's cockpit cleared the exit birth and her forward spotlights engaged, the distinctive blueshifts of incoming IMPAC fire glared past, some impacting the Pathfinder, some glancing and blasting back out to space at a slight angle. A single one of these projectiles would completely destroy the Albatross-class light corvette. Lucky for Ronin and Dragon Team, however, it was unlikely the Imperial Fleet was expecting such a bold manoeuvre.
But of course, Freedom Lies in Being Bold.
"This is what happens." Ronin spoke firmly, gripping the overhead rail as the pilot gestured to strap in, the corvette had cleared the berth during hypercruise and was about to engage her own cruise engines to move ahead of the Pathfinder' whose inertial gravity field was still towing the small vessel along underside.
"Our intel suggests that Historia's shields, electronic systems, weapons and primary propulsion can be disabled immediately by a successful attack on her A-H-S. Assuming CoRE succeeds, we will have a narrow window to approach her primary docking bay - which CoRE will open for us. We will have the element of surprise, but not for long." The captain continued, loading his own MX9M carbine, which he had pulled off the ready-rack on the Corvette's loading bay. "Once inside, Dragon Team will hard-disembark and secure the central access corridor to the ship's spinal elevator. I will accompany Dragon up until this point. Considering the Imperial marines will already be alerted, I don't expect a covert approach to work on our insertion." He paused, clicking the magazine into his MX9M, flipping it onto its side to pull the charging handle back, before flipping it back and gripping it; feeling its weight in his hands.
"And from there?" Commander Kasake asked, pausing shortly after to brace himself as the Sidewinder's cruise engine engaged and she began to pull away from the Pathfinder.
"You and Dragon Team will create a diversion and draw the counter-boarding operation towards the central reactor cores. The Imperials will believe we are trying to sabotage her reactor. You will hold them in combat for long enough for me to slip away and infiltrate the command deck. I will co-ordinate with CoRE on the Pathfinder, who will continue, assuming my daughter's data is solid, and at this point, I would have no doubt of that, we will have a green light to take control of the dreadnought." Ronin paused, looking to Kasake with a stern expression, portraying feelings of man with a rage building inside him for centuries.
"Upon which time, CoRE will reset the shipboard computer and I will plug into her control systems. We will then turn her own guns against the Imperial scum and teach them a lesson in Old Federation naval doctrine."
"Understood, captain!" Kasake acknowledged, his visor fully sealed over his face as he clutched the overhead rail; the corvette was shaking violently as she pulled away ahead of the Pathfinder's cruise wake, about a hundred kilometres, both ships only moments away from being almost on top of a division-sized Imperial Fleet.
"Captain Kociero?" The pilot turned briefly to face the captain; who looked up. "CoRE on Pathfinder reports short-range personal communicators are down. Imperials are jamming our broad-spectrum systems. He says once we breach the five-hundred click zone we will be flying blind..." The pilot was interrupted by a powerful shockwave from a nearby anti-ship fragmentation detonation, acting instinctively, the pilot pulled hard on the control column; metalic moaning and structural stress sounded throughout the corvette's flight deck as she narrowly avoided the blast; fragments flaring up on her forward shielding array. Alarms sounded as the ship board computer reported "WARNING: SHIELD COLLAPSE IMMINENT!".
"Understood!" The captain shouted in reply, making his voice heard through the noise of continued anti-ship fire, as even the headset communicators were almost drowned out by impacts now hitting the corvette's hull directly. "The Imperials don't know where are coming, Pathfinder's signature will mask us up until that zone, but don't let it get to your head, pilot. The second we break from cruise, the escorts will light us up with precision close-range weapons fire, so I need a hard-burn under the dreadnought's ventral side."
"Sir, with all due respect, how do we even get close enough to land?!" the pilot shouted back concerningly, moving the corvette away from another fragmentation blast. "We're twenty seconds out! Comms cut with Pathfinder, we're on our own, they will detect us any moment."
"Pilot. Keep to her underside, hard-burn in at full throttle and maintain one-zero-zero clicks on approach, if you follow her contours as the Pathfinder begins her approach, you will avoid the laser batteries, they will be too busy moving to track her. The point defence won't flag you immediately after the A-H-S is taken offline, so it will take about thirty seconds for the fleet's battlenet to reboot and synchronise with another vessel. That gives you thirty seconds to plow this bucket of bolts into her main hangar, do you understand, pilot?!" The captain spoke calmly but firmly, his voice sounded confident- a trait that often inspired his crew and heightened their morale in the face of impossible odds - like directly assaulting an Imperial Dreadnought and escort fleet with little more than a light corvette.
"Understood, sir! We are on approach now! Hold onto something!" The pilot exclaimed as he pulled hard back on the cruise-drive control, forcing the Ablatross out of hyper cruise in a 'hard burn' which shook the flight deck violently as red warning lights flashed on the various control interfaces; indicating dangerous levels of inertia on the corvette's spaceframe.
The rapid de-acceleration lasted a few seconds, the darkness of space, illuminated with particle-ram tracer fire and fragmentation warhead detonations was abruptly replaced by the rapidly approaching form of the nearly three kilometre long, five million ton dreadnought, Nobilis Historia, which cast a shadow on the corvette as it completely occluded the Corona System's massive Red Giant star. The distinctive crimson-red tinted hull panels of the mighty warship glistened in the light from the other side; the ATIS symbol clearly visible on her massive armoured belts.
Moments later, the Sidewinder's pilot punched full throttle, on impulse cruise, still drifting a couple kilometres a second from the hard-burn, before slowing to around a hundred metres per second; hugging the lateral lines of the mighty dreadnought; so close that her hull panels and protruding masts and systems flashed past as the corvette skimmed her hull, towards the ventral hangar. The flight deck of the corvette remained silent, no one spoke as the pilot focused on his job, ignoring the myriad of proximity collision warning tones. This was the moment, the time to make or break.
Sidewinder skimmed over the ventral midships section of the dreadnought, which was flipped vertically relative to the gravity generator on the corvette's deck; giving it the appearance as if the massive warship was 'upside down'. The Heads up display indicated the location of the central hangar; which was on the ventral side of the ship's bow. The corvette had approached from the dreadnought's stern as the Pathfinder's intercept trajectory met with the Imperial Fleets, giving enough time for the small warship to swing round and move quietly along her underside towards the bow - the front of the ship.
The pilot pushed down on the column, forcing the ship to move close to the hull as she de-accelerated, almost certainly close enough for the crew on the dreadnought to easily observe the corvette in visual light through any open portholes or observation decks. Manual control wasn't common in space combat; but the Pathfinder's EPF crew had always trained for such extreme manoeuvres by hand, following the Captain's example. Indeed, Sidewinder's pilot executed the maneuverer perfectly, performing a half barrel roll and coming out just below the dreadnought's main hangar.
"Brace for insertion!" The pilot exclaimed as Ronin and Kasake slung their guns over their shoulders and charged to the corvette's loading bay to meet up with the rest of Dragon Team.
There was no way to precisely determine if the Pathfinder had succeeded, or even, survived, the opening attack since all communications and sensors were being actively blocked by the Imperial Fleet, but the very fact that they were still alive was good enough evidence that the Nobilis Historia's shields and defensive systems had been disabled as planned. Right under the belly of the beast, the corvette pulled up into the open hangar, much to the surprise of Imperial flight deck technicians who were likely rushing to figure out why the hangar's exterior blast door and shielding had disengaged without notice.
"We're clear. Go, go, go. Repeat: We are clear! Go, go, go!" The pilot shouted as the hundred-fifty metre corvette breached the atmospheric regulator shield, helium plasma thrusters throwing out superheated energy into the flight deck as she rotated on her axis to bring the loading bay ramp access towards the hangar's central platform. "We'll give you cover!" the pilot added, flicking the corvette's chin turret to manual control as a targeting reticule and heads up display flashed onto the cockpit display. A separate control column retracted from the console in front of him; moving neatly into position alongside the flight controls. Placing his hand on firmly on the gunnery stick, he rotated it; the D-class chin-turret swivelling automatically to track the reticule's target.
The Corvette's external ramp opened hastily, atmospheric pressure releasing clouds of vapour from inside the vessel as she hovered over the dreadnought's massive central flight deck; she had moved forward from the exit birth so that the exit ramp could contact the deck itself; allowing Dragon Team to disembark directly onto the central flight deck.
As the ramp extended, it contacted the metallic deck with a powerful clank, releasing sparks as the corvette's imperfect hover, given the circumstances, moved her slightly out of alignment. Dragon Team's dozen fully exo-suit clad Semper Marines ran down the boarding pad, un-phased by the powerful down-blasts of helium plasma from lateral thrusters on either side of the corvette's large wingspan, spreading out they took cover behind some cargo containers; training their weapons on the bulkhead terminal into the ship's elevator system.
Ronin followed shortly after, still clad in his armoured trench coat, but this time he had an atmospheric re-breather mask over his nose and mouth, but was still very much exposed to the air. Better that way, better to 'feel' the blood on your face. It's personal. The Captain hastily gestured to the Semper Marines to advance on the door, shouldering his own MX9 Carbine on the opening before taking cover beside Commander Kasake, who was giving orders over his suit-net system; which used a local encrypted radio link that was able to function thanks to the Dreadnought's own internal shielding systems - it was clear the Imperials were unprepared for a marine insertion. Excellent.
"Captain Vahdior, take your squad and hold position on that bulkhead. Await orders." Commander Vai ordered, gripping his rifle in one hand over his shoulder as he pointed to the bulkhead; moving out of cover momentarily to train his rifle on the opening as the power armoured marines of Dragon Team took up positions on either side. "Captain." He said, turning to face the Old Man, who was carefully sweeping the hangar with his Carbine's combat optics. "We are in position. It's your move."
Ronin gently took his hand off the grip of his MX9; instead resting the barrel on the container behind which they were taking cover. With his free hand he gestured to the Commander to wait, then pointed towards an overhead balcony across the far side of the hangar, overlooking the entrance bulkhead. The Captain adjusted his sight slightly as the Semper Marines radioed through Dragon Team was ready to breach and clear. Placing his hand back on the grip, he clutched it tightly, held his breath and squeezed the trigger.
Ronin let off a single round; which penetrated the observation window on the control room opposite the balcony; the crack of an FIMD firearm discharging echoed throughout the hangar as the Sidewinder's landing gear impacted the flight deck and her lateral thrusters disengaged; there was no way the corvette was leaving the bay for now.
The observation window cracked with the impact, moments later a blood spray stained the transparent nanopolymer composites as a single Imperial engineer slumped over a control column and fell to the deck.
"Get ready for contact!" The captain shouted as the bulkhead retracted with force; Dragon Team's marines on either side training their weapons on the opening as a full squad of armoured Imperial marines emerged from the atmospheric vapour clouds; their weapons discharging towards Ronin and Kasake's position; FIMD rounds impacting the containers, the distinctive metallic crash of 4mm sub munitions clinking of the deck as Kasake took cover; Ronin closed one of his eyes and placed his head firmly down the targeting optics despite near misses sending sparks flying across his vision. He took a second shot, the round found its mark and pierced the helmet visor of one of the marines helmets, knocking the soldier off his feet; hitting the deck with force as he violently clutched the hole in the front of the helmet, screaming in pain as blood poured out of it and into a pool on the floor.
"Open fire!" Kasake shouted, leveling his MX9 carbine and letting off a few short, controlled bursts towards the Imperial marines, who had formed a defensive line in the bulkhead terminal. Dragon Team's marines opened fire, adding their own controlled bursts to the weight of firepower; dropping several Imperial marines before being forced to take cover from the return fire.
"Tango down." Kasake exclaimed, taking cover behind the container, fissile-smoke trailing out of his weapon's barrel; which was hot enough to create heat-distortion in the air. "Welcoming committee?" He asked, ejecting the mag from his MX9, clicking into his armour's tactical magazine rack and replacing it with a fresh one; slotting it in skilfully into the weapon before turning his gaze to Ronin, who had also exhausted his magazine. Dragon Team's marines had retreated a few dozen metres to take cover behind containers on either side of the port as the smoke cleared, Imperial marines obviously taking cover in the bay as they regrouped; likely underestimating the size, equipment - and training - of the Pathfinder's most elite Semper marine force.