Chapter Twelve

Shadow Leader M’Trang was back before the Elders again.

“Esteemed Elders, although we are missing one information installment, we have all the information that we need to take out the Human settlement on G’Dranu, what they call New Alexandria. The final installment of information that was lost to Human treachery was only additional updated information that is superfluous to our requirements to wipe out the Humans.”

The senior elder with gray whiskers protruding from his face replied, “But Shadow Leader, would it not be prudent to wait until we have the latest information before launching our strike?”

“Excellence, we have a window here. The Human’s 15th Fleet has returned to Tau Ceti and disbanded. Many of the ships are due to enter the shipyard for repair and refitting. There is no force that can be brought to reinforce the Humans at New Alexandria before we have wiped them out and put our own defenses in place. When a Human force arrives in three to four weeks time, it will be too late to do anything but realize it is a situation that they cannot change. We might lose some forces to their attempts at revenge, but they will be unable to change the situation. We will have extended the frontier and provided a defensive buffer for our major systems G’Sren and K’Nol. It will remove that vulnerability. We also gain a listening post into Human space.”

Another Elder said, “Understand our concerns, Shadow Leader. The 27th Battle Group you propose to employ is our only main force in that region. Reinforcements are enroute from other regions, but will not be available to go in with them at the time you propose. They won’t arrive until several hours or days after the initial assault takes place. The assault force will be on its own. There is always a danger of our forces being destroyed in detail if we have miscalculated and the Humans are stronger than we have assumed.”

“Elders, it is crucial to strike when I have recommended. If we hit them at that precise time, we will catch them during one of their major planet-wide feasts. It is their Founders’ Day, when they celebrate the first Human colony ship’s arrival. Their military will be on maximum leave. Their defensive fighters will be participating in exhibitions, demonstrations, and flyovers. They will be unarmed, unprepared, and easy to destroy. If we wait, even a day, they will be back to full readiness and we could suffer significant losses. The 27th Battle Group is the only force available to strike during this period of Human vulnerability. We must take advantage of this opportunity. It will be another year before this will come again.”

The third Elder chimed in, “Very well, Shadow Leader, where do you plan to be during the battle?”

“Elder, I will join the 5th Battle Group. It will arrive within 12 hours of the start of the battle and will be the defensive force to hold off any Human counterattack while the 27th mops up the last of the Human resistance. I will be on the Shadow Scout Destroyer, J’Fawd. Shadow Force has put it at my disposal for this operation. I will join the 5th Battle Group as they pass here in two hours.”

“Go then, Shadow Leader. May the killing spirit of the K’Rang lead you to victory. Prepare to assume governorship of the Human world with our blessing. You have earned this honor. Try not to destroy too much of the essential infrastructure. We will need it. It is less expensive to modify the Human facilities to our needs than to build them from the ground up.”

The Shadow Leader swelled with pride at the honor, bowed, and left the audience chamber. A governorship was much more than he had ever hoped for. It put him in the line for promotion to the nobility. Now all he had to do was sweep aside the Humans on G’Dranu.

Preparations for the upcoming patrol had consumed most of Kelly’s very long day. The captain was spending more and more time at Scout Force HQ with the admiral lately, and that left the burden on Kelly. The chiefs were a great help, but there were many decisions that required Timmon’s okay, but couldn’t wait, so Kelly practiced the age old technique of “You bet your bars.”

It required deciding things for the captain and hoping you got it right. The captain kept telling him that he had complete faith in Kelly and just to use his own judgment. He told Kelly to make decisions on his own, without thinking what would the captain do. LCDR Timmons kept certain matters of command authority under his exclusive purview, but those had mainly to do with disciplinary matters that only the captain of the ship could exercise.

Kelly found the initial decisions to be nerve racking, but he was becoming accustomed to it. He no longer provided detailed briefings of what he had decided during the day to Timmons when he returned in the evenings. The captain trusted him.

The next day, the captain went off to Scout Force HQ as usual. Kelly was beginning to worry. He could tell that something big was up. He had noticed tension building in LCDR Timmons’ face for several days. Kelly searched the intel reports and found nothing there that would cause such worry. Of course he didn’t have access to all the information. Strict need to know was observed in the Fleet. He had gotten access to close hold information enough in his service time to know there was a lot more out there.

After Kelly returned from lunch, Chief Pennypacker caught him at the bottom of the ramp, “Sir, Captain said for you to report to HQ as soon as you got back. He said not to bother to change.”

Kelly looked down at his coveralls, decided they were clean enough and headed to HQ. LTJG Taylor him met at the door. “Good to see you again, Kelly. Follow me, will you? The briefings have already started.”

Kelly entered the command conference room to find the captains and execs of all the in-port Scout Ships. The captains were at the main table and the execs in the theater seats in the back. Kelly took a seat at the end of an open row.

Admiral Craddock was at the front speaking, “Fleet intel says that the K’Rang are massing their forces near three of their main worlds. Fleet thinks they are going to try an assault into the Scutum Sector in 30 to 60 days. A data device recovered by the Vigilant on a K’Rang merchant ship, a copy of that data found on New Amsterdam, and another K’Rang data device also brought to us by the Vigilant, finally have been decoded. It was a particularly crafty code hidden in some partial schematics. The data in the code gives all Galactic Republic defenses from the Scutum Sector to here and beyond.”

“Some of our agents in the K’Rang Empire have gotten word out that the K’Rang have been building large numbers of the torpedo ships that the Vigilant came up against. In addition, they have created a small fighter drone that is controlled remotely from a mothership held to the rear of their battle formations. Each of these motherships carries 100 of these drones and pilots capable of operating up to 30 drones at a time. Our agents tell us they are probably on a par with our F-48s. Unlike our fighters, though, they carry a large antimatter charge warhead in their nose that can cut through our capital ships’ shields and armor plating. They are both fighter and anti-ship missile.”

“Now for our plan. Fleet is reconstituting the 15th Battle Fleet. It will consist of seven Carrier Battle Groups. The 19th Battle Fleet will be brought forward, with an equal consist. They will become the 1st Combined Fleet under Admiral Chang. It will be the first major test of the transporter ring that’s orbiting over our heads. The technicians are working feverishly at this time to increase the diameter of the ring so that it can transport a carrier. We should know in a day or two if this will work. If so, we will have a nasty surprise for the K’Rang. In addition to the two Battle Fleets, we will also have three Battle Cruiser Groups and three Assault Landing Groups in sector. That will give us over 170 ships and almost 1000 fighters, attack ships, landing ships, and support ships. The 21st Battle Fleet will be brought here to the Antares system and held in reserve.”

Kelly was impressed. If the Fleet could bring all those ships into the sector, the K’Rang would be immensely outmatched and outnumbered. He waited to hear what their mission in this endeavor would be.

“Scout Force will deploy ten ships deep into K’Rang space. We’ll have a slightly unusual mission from what we are used to. We’ll have a direct combat mission, instead of just sneaking and peeking. We are to provide early warning to the Fleet of any K’Rang reinforcements. We are also to take out as much K’Rang commerce to the three main staging worlds as practical. Create as much havoc as you can. Our goal will be to interdict commerce to and from these three worlds in order to accomplish two goals. The first goal will be to reduce K’Rang ability to support the assault into the Scutum sector. The second goal will be to tie down as many K’Rang ships as we can, to keep them from reinforcing the invasion fleet. The K’Rang are going to advance directly into a buzz saw. They are going to send out a general alarm and call for reinforcements. Our mission is to make that a difficult proposition for them.”

“If we’re to accomplish these goals, it will be imperative to maintain our force as long as possible. This means you are going to have to be kind enough not to get yourself destroyed, at least not for a while. You will need to be bold and cautious at the same time. I ask you not to take undue risks unless the benefits are so great as to make it desirable. Stay safe, gentlemen. This is not the last battle we will fight with the K’Rang. We’re going to need you back. Look for easy targets or ones you can get away from quickly, if things don’t go your way. Remember that we want to put a large hole in the K’Rang Fleet roster, not ours.”

“Are there any questions? If not, I’ll turn you over to Captain Hasselrode to give you your individual patrol zones. Good luck and good hunting.”

The entire room came to attention as Admiral Craddock left the room. Captain Hasselrode activated a holographic display of the space in which the battle would take place. He highlighted the patrol zones of the ten scout ships that would be taking part in the operation. The Vigilant wound up with a patrol zone astride a major space route between two of the home worlds. Kelly brought this area up on his pocket terminal and started looking for places to ambush the K’Rang. He found a planetary nebula with an extended streamer of charged gases that would work for their purposes. This charged gas cloud from a long-dead star would hide them nicely. The only drawback was that the tendril was intermittent and extended deep into K’Rang space. It would be a long way back to GR space if they had to run for it. Escape might be difficult, if they should come to the attention of a large K’Rang force.

The three local planetary systems offered some hiding places from which to spring an ambush, but it would be tough to get in past any defenses. If they could, they would do some real damage. Getting out again would be the problem.

Captain Hasselrode informed them that the missile launcher would be mounted in their cargo hold and each ship would carry 20 anti-ship missiles, in addition to their turrets and guns. This would give them a significant standoff range, and make their task a little more survivable. Now all they had to do was figure out how to sneak through the K’Rang frontier defenses.

After the briefing, Kelly and LCDR Timmons walked back to the Vigilant in silence. This mission was not the thing to talk about in the open. Their success or failure would be decided by how much secrecy they could maintain.

When they got back to the ship, they went directly to the captain’s cabin. Chief Watson was waved in. The holographic projector on the conference table was activated. The captain quickly briefed Chief Watson on their mission. Kelly brought the patrol zone up on the star chart. He highlighted all the possible ambush locations and known defenses. The largest defensive obstacle was the frontier itself. There was an extensive web of sensors and space mines stretching for hundreds of parsecs. It couldn’t reasonably be gone around. It had to be gone through. How to do it?

The captain turned to the hologram and said, “The frontier will be the key to this mission. The device we got from the K’Rang couriers no longer works. The K’Rang probably changed the codes. We are going to have to find a way through the frontier that won’t get us killed or tell the K’Rang where we are going. Are there any suggestions?”

Chief Watson walked up to the display. “You know sir, there is a way we could blank out large sections of the K’Rang frontier. It would require some coordination and our timing would have to be precise, but it could be done.”

“What do you have in mind, Chief?”

“Well, I don’t know if there are any around because we have much more effective weapons now, but an old thermonuclear device could do it. When they go off they radiate an electromagnetic pulse that fries electronic circuitry. Most of our stuff, and I imagine the K’Rangs too, has circuit protection that shields the circuitry, but it shuts the system down and has to restart. This gives about 30 seconds to a minute to do what we need to do. If we could fire a nuclear warhead at the frontier and set it off in the midst of their sensors and mines, it would blind them for about a minute. We could be through and gone by the time they came back on line.”

The captain rubbed his chin and said, “Good thinking, Chief, but we need to get through in a less spectacular way. We need to use finesse, not brute force for this one. We want to be as unobtrusive as we can.”

Kelly looked at the display. He thought he saw a way to get through.

“Captain, remember our hiding spots when we were patrolling in the Scutum sector? These asteroids here. They were mostly nickel and iron and about the size of a scout ship. Why don’t we go in there and throw a few of them at the frontier until the K’Rang stop reacting? The best way around an alarm is to convince the guy watching it that it’s malfunctioning. It probably wouldn’t take but about three of them before they get tired of flying out and investigating. In addition, if we concentrate in one area we could probably take out enough mines to pass through them.”

“How do you propose we ‘throw’ these huge rocks at the fence?’

“We latch onto one of these big rocks some distance from the frontier with our tractor beam. We don’t have to get them going all that fast. We accelerate them slowly toward the frontier. Once we get them up to speed, we cut them loose and turn away. We then find a hiding spot to watch the reaction. If we do this in four or five places along the frontier, we could pick our spot after the K’Rang get tired and go home. Besides, they can’t have an unlimited supply of mines and sensors to replenish the frontier with.”

“I like it. Now as long as we don’t wind up with some overconscientious K’Rang sector commander, it should work. Let’s do it.”

The Vigilant went back into dry dock to have the missile launcher and guidance electronics installed. The upcoming mission energized the yard crew. Their past sleepy performance was replaced by a crisp efficiency. The Vigilant was in and out in two days.

Kelly went to his quarters and reviewed ship’s status. All sections were reporting ready for combat status but weapons. The missiles would not be loaded until the last minute and that would happen in space dock-the further from prying eyes, the better. The galley was fully stocked with provisions. All the freezers had been replaced with the new stasis lockers while last in dry dock. They gave the ship a full two months of fresh provisions on top of the dry storage. Kelly and Cookie had searched the ship for additional space to store dry rations. Every nook and cranny was crammed with cans and food packs. Kelly estimated they could stay out for three months with all they had aboard, plus the replicator. He hoped they wouldn’t need them, but it never hurt to be prepared.

The sensor section had fine-tuned their scanners and receivers. In addition, they had received their wartime viruses, trojan horses, and other malicious code to use against K’Rang computers. Fleet was going all out. As Chief Blankenship liked to say, “No more Ms. Nice Guy.”

Kelly made a note to check the cargo bay to inspect the mountings, electrical, and data connections for where the missile pod would be installed. He then got his dress uniform ready for tomorrow and turned in.

Tammy’s ceremony wasn’t until 1400. He got up, had a quick breakfast, and inspected the hold with Chiefs Miller and Blankenship. It took several hours and Kelly noticed toward the end that he had but a short time to change and get to Tammy’s promotion ceremony.

Kelly arrived in time to sit down next to Tammy before the Shuttle Detachment Commander entered and the room was called to attention. Commander Ellington told them to take their seats. He seemed to take great pleasure in introducing Tammy. He talked on at great length about her piloting ability, her stellar performance at transition training, and how she brightened up the detachment with her smile. Finally, he called her up and instructed the yeoman to post the order. Kelly joined her on the stage. While her promotion order was read, Kelly and CDR Ellington removed her ensign rank insignia from her collar and replaced them with LTJG insignia. CDR Ellington shook her hand. She turned toward Kelly. Kelly made to shake her hand. She pulled him close and gave him a big kiss. The room broke out in applause.

Tammy kept Kelly by her side throughout the reception and asked him to escort her to her quarters when it was over. Kelly found a waiting shuttle and the two went to the Q.

Tammy pulled Kelly along. “You’ve got to see my new quarters. They are so spacious compared to my old one.”

Kelly was impressed. Tammy had done well. She had upgraded from a room and bath to a full suite, consisting of a kitchenette near the entry, a large sitting room, a full bath, and a bedroom. Tammy invited him into her bedroom, but he had to disappoint her. He had duty tonight and could not stay.

Kelly rode back to the Vigilant. Once there, he changed back into his coveralls and supervised the quarterdeck watch. As it was a quiet night, he spent it studying the firing circuits for the missile system. The system was tied directly into the ship’s sensors. The 20 missiles were constantly updated on targets around the ship and all that was required was to designate which target and launch. The missiles would fire clear of the launcher, move toward the last known target location, acquire the target, close within 3000 km and then, terminally active, home into the target. If it lost track, it would search for the target until it found it or timed out and self-destructed. It was a very effective system. The missiles were resistant to decoys and jamming. They could reach speeds up to power 7 FTL during the terminal homing phase. They had a range of up to 100,000 km. The warhead was an antimatter/matter explosive that could take out any ship up to and including a fleet carrier.

Kelly looked at the schematics and saw where the data circuits ran alongside other ship circuits and, more importantly, where they ran singly. He also looked for where redundant circuits existed, making sure that none passed through the same cable raceway. Kelly made notes to trace the circuit paths throughout the ship. He wanted to make sure that not any single bit of damage to the ship could disable the system.

The engineers had done their job. Kelly eventually assured himself that the system had been intelligently integrated into the ship. He went off duty with a good feeling about the missile system.

The Vigilant would be a very formidable warship in the enemy’s rear areas. She would be hard to detect and would carry very lethal armament.

Kelly turned in for a few hours sleep.

Kelly allowed himself to sleep in the next morning. When he awoke, the captain had been summoned to a commanders’ call. Kelly spent the rest of the morning physically tracing the missile system wiring throughout the ship. By noon, he had put his hand on every critical missile firing node in the ship.

Timmons came back just after noon and called Kelly and Chiefs Watson and Miller into his cabin. He had Cookie make a sandwich run to the base dining facility, so they could get right to work on what the captain had picked up at the commander’s call.

“Guys, there’s been a slight change of plans. Kelly, the admiral liked your idea of using asteroids to lull the K’Rang into a sense of complacency so much that he is integrating it into the operation. He is changing how we will infiltrate into K’Rang space. We were going to infiltrate singly, but now the admiral wants to divide the ten ships into two groups of five and penetrate en masse along two avenues of approach. I will command one flotilla, Task Force 121, and Ron Davis of the Vehement will command the other, Task Force 122. You may now refer to me as Commodore.”

“Admiral Craddock has improved slightly upon your idea, Kelly. The old cruiser Agamemnon will be moved into an area near the Scutum sector asteroid field. It will be allowed to go into reactor overload and explode. The explosion will provide cover for all the asteroids crashing through the frontier. The K’Rang will pick up on the explosion and the news reporting. Each flotilla will send several asteroids through the frontier. We will each concentrate enough of the asteroids to force two holes big enough for five scout ships in tight formation to run through. We go through in two bunches, through two large rips in the frontier and peel off to our individual patrol sectors once we get inside.”

Kelly sat up, “I like it, sir. It’s simple and explains where the asteroids came from. I hadn’t thought about that part of it.”

“That’s why the admiral gets paid the big credits.”

“We will be positioned here close to Scutum and Vehement’s flotilla will be over here, closer to Sagittarius. All we have to do is chunk some rocks through the frontier in several places before we push the big bunch through and follow them in. We should be in and through before the K’Rang realize what is happening.”

“TF 121 will consist of us, the Valiant, Voracious, Victorious, and Virulent. Ron will have the Vicious, Vindicator, Vanguard, and Vengeful with his Vehement. The flotillas disband once we breach the frontier and move to our assigned sectors.”

“Chief M, I want you to check out the tractor gear. I want it to be in top shape when we leave. Kelly, coordinate with the other four TF 121 COs to set up practice for the helmsmen in formation flying. It’s not something we teach in piloting school. You have more experience than any of us in this. We’ll be leaving in three days. So get moving.”

“How tight do you want the formation, Cap..errr…Commodore?”

“I want less than a ship’s width between ships.”

“That’s doable. It will be easier if you let me adjust the ships’ navigation computers. I can program them to maintain a set distance from each other. The captains may need some convincing, though.”

“You’re my expert at this. If the COs give you any trouble, tell them to see me.”

“Aye aye, Commodore.”

Two days later the helmsmen were practiced and competent in close formation flying in the simulator. Kelly had programmed the ships’ computers to maintain the set distance, but the helmsmen were good enough that it probably wouldn’t be needed.

On midnight of the second day, the two flotillas lifted off, well in advance of their scheduled 0600 liftoff. Admiral Craddock felt it gave them a security advantage to leave earlier than officially scheduled. Once in dark space, Commodore Timmons gave the order for the five ships to close up for close formation flying. Practice in the simulator was good. Practice in real flight was better. They flew an hour with the computers helping and an hour with just the helmsman in control. Then they switched helmsmen and did it again and again, until all three helmsmen on each ship had a turn.

The commodore chose an “X” formation with the Vigilant in the center. It would be the tightest formation. They would be crossing through the frontier without their navigation shields on, so the K’Rang wouldn’t be alerted to their presence. They would need to stay in a tight formation to be able to squeeze through the hole they were going to punch in the frontier.

On the third day, the two flotillas split up and moved to their assembly areas to await the Agamemnon’s demise. Each ship had picked several large asteroids and moved them into position in preparation. As a safeguard, the commodore had each ship move into position on the back side of their asteroids from the direction of the impending explosion.

Two of the five ships were positioned at a distance from the other three, with their sensors at full sensitivity. They scanned deep into K’Rang space for the presence of any K’Rang patrol ships. Nothing was found. As intel had suspected, the K’Rang were leaving their attack route into the Scutum sector empty so as not to telegraph their invasion plans. This would make infiltration that much easier.

The time for the Agamemnon’s reactor overload had arrived. There was no blinding flash, only a brief electromagnetic pulse that passed over the flotilla to signal the end of a proud old ship. The flagship of Admiral Okasan at the Battle of Taurus in the first K’Rang War was now a diversionary tactic and the first action in the latest K’Rang War.

The flotilla sprang into action immediately, sending the first small asteroids into the frontier. They accomplished the intended effect. Several small holes were punched through the sensor and mine fields. Kelly watched the sensor readout on his monitor and watched several self-propelled mines activate and impact on the asteroids. The resulting shattered pieces took out even more mines.

After the second group of small asteroids was sent through the frontier, shredding it even more, the final large group was put in motion and the flotilla moved into formation behind them.

The large asteroids plowed into the weakened frontier, forcing a large hole. The flotilla passed through effortlessly into K’Rang space. As they passed through, Chief B unleashed her electronic attack, seeding the sensors and mines with malicious code that would make its behavior hazardous for the approaching K’Rang fleet. It would not react as they expected. Their IFF devices would not deactivate the frontier mines. The K’Rang would have to fight their way through their own mines.

At 200,000,000 km inside the frontier, the flotilla disbanded and each ship moved to its sector. LCDR Timmons watched the task force ships disperse and said, “Damn, busted back to Captain. I was beginning to like the sound of Commodore.”

The Vigilant moved to the previously selected planetary nebula and settled in. They now all waited for the K’Rang invasion fleet to pass.

Admiral Chang called a commanders’ conference onboard his flagship, the command ship Montpelier. He stood before the holographic tank and surveyed his subordinates: Admiral Haddock-Halloway from the 15th Battle Fleet; Admiral DuPont from the 19th Battle Fleet; each of their seven Carrier Battle Group Commanders; Admirals Dickinson, O’Malley and Minh, the Battle Cruiser Group commanders; and Admirals Dubrovsky, Chen, and Mayer, the Assault Landing Group Commanders.

“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, Let’s get started.”

The room lights dimmed and the holographic projector displayed the Scutum sector, 6664 system, and the K’Rang frontier.

“This is our battlespace. To orient you, this is the Scutum Sector here in the center. This is Aquila here and this is Sagittarius. The frontier is here in blue and orange. This highlighted system is the 6664 system. As I zoom in, you can see these red lights that equate to the defensive satellites currently being emplaced around the system. We don’t expect them to do any real damage. We won’t turn it down if it happens, but we are mainly using them to canalize the K’Rang into these kill zones, here in yellow, where New Alexandrian Planetary Defense Forces will try to knock out some of the K’Rang escort ships. Their main effort will be to slow down the K’Rang invasion fleet so we have time to spring our trap.”

“My intent is to stand the 1st Combined Fleet outside of max sensor range until the K’Rang are just about to attack New Alexandria. Once the K’Rang are through the defensive satellite field and past the New Alexandrian ships, new defensive satellites will be sown along the way they came to block off any direct route to the frontier. That is when we will strike.”

“Admiral DuPont, you will be reinforced with the three Battle Cruiser Groups and the three Assault Landing Groups. You will set up here on the edge of the Scutum Sector farthest from the frontier and well out of K’Rang sensor range. You will be the main counterattack force.”

“Admiral Haddock-Halloway, you will position your battle group near Aquila, also outside of K’Rang sensor range. Your mission will be to seal the frontier against any K’Rang reinforcements that may try to support the K’Rang invasion fleet. You will be prepared to reinforce the 19th Battle Feet, as required. You will also block any of the invasion fleet from retreating across the frontier.”

“On my order, ladies and gentlemen, we will all close in on the 6664 System at maximum speed. Admiral DuPont, the three battle cruiser groups and your carrier battle groups’ escorts will fire all of your long-range missiles in one massive salvo at max range. That should saturate the K’Rang fleet’s defenses and, depending on how big an invasion fleet they bring, will destroy or damage the majority of their major combatants. Your fighters and attack craft, outfitted with medium-seekers and mini-seekers should take care of any survivors. The three Assault Landing Groups will be prepared to land on New Alexandria and come under the command of the New Alexandria Defense Forces and assist them in dealing with any K’Rang forces that may make it to the surface. Your landing force will come under the command of General Holcomb.”

“Admiral Haddock-Halloway, you will close in on this area between the 6664 System and the Frontier. Don’t let anyone get by you. Have two of your Carrier Fighter Wings outfitted with Mini-Seekers and two outfitted with Medium-Seekers in case Admiral DuPont needs help against the K’Rang Fleet. Admiral DuPont, you will request reinforcements through me.”

“Once the K’Rang Fleet is destroyed, as I am confident it will be, the battle cruisers will completely reload missiles and chop to the 15th Fleet to support their frontier defense mission. 19th Fleet will then be prepared to reinforce the 15th.

“Are there any questions? No? Ladies and gentlemen, I want your implementing plans to my staff by 0600 tomorrow morning. Good hunting.”

It was two days before the first indications showed up on the Vigilant’s long range sensors. A cloud of K’Rang mosquito scout ships moved through the sector and proceeded to the frontier. Kelly could almost feel their sensors scans passing through the Vigilant. The Vigilant withdrew into the nebula to await their passage. When the scouts passed, the Vigilant moved out to the nebula’s edge to pick up the approach of the K’Rang invasion fleet. In six hours, the K’Rang fleet appeared on the edge of the long-range sensors.

They were coming at in at power 4, but dropped to sub-light to approach and negotiate the frontier. Kelly counted out the K’Rang fleet order of battle. There were five battlecruisers in the lead, escorted by eight missile cruisers, five bombardment cruisers, a dozen destroyers, six of the new torpedo ships, and four frigates. Two fleet carriers followed the cruiser screen, and they were followed by the landing group. There were twenty large lighter carriers, four frigates, and two landing support carriers in the landing group. Bringing up the rear were the logistics support ships, four of them, escorted by two more frigates. None of the expected drone motherships were in the formation.

Kelly knew that in six hours, at their current speed, the K’Rang fleet would run into the frontier mines and the reinforced defenses of the New Alexandria Defense Forces. There were hundreds of defensive satellites interspersed throughout the Scutum Sector and 6664 system. There were also ten additional squadrons of planetary missile ships on New Alexandria. Even without the approaching GR Combined Battle Fleet, the K’Rang would not take the 6664 system easily.

Kelly was somewhat baffled by the size of the K’Rang invasion fleet. He expected a much larger force. He questioned whether the K’Rang would have enough of a landing force to conquer New Alexandria. As he thought on this a feeling of dread came over him. The K’Rang were not going to conquer the 6664 system, they were going to annihilate it.

After the K’Rang Fleet passed, the Vigilant pulled out of the nebula just far enough to send a tight beam transmission on the approaching fleet’s order of battle. It would give the 6664 system defenders a chance to adjust their forces before the enemy closed contact. Once their report was received and acknowledged, the Vigilant proceeded to carry out its combat mission.

The senior intelligence officer in the New Alexandrian Defense Forces reviewed the Vigilant’s report. The K’Rang force was smaller than they anticipated, but more than they could manage on their own. He hoped that the Fleet’s plan to trap the K’Rang force worked before the K’Rang could do too much damage to his home world.

He reviewed the placement of defensive satellites and the path of the approaching enemy. He could see several adjustments of position and programming that could result in higher K’Rang losses. He surmised they could do the most damage by concentrating on taking out the fleet carriers and lighter carriers. He put his recommendation in a message to the Planetary Defense Commander, General Holcomb, and hit send.

Onboard the Planetary Corvette, NAS Rutherford, the captain concentrated on getting his cargo of defensive satellites properly placed in accordance with the master defensive plan. On his tactical display, he could see the kill zones his cargo would create. The small planetary missile ships would hide on the flanks of these kill zones and wait inside the asteroid field. Once the K’Rang fleet got tangled with the defensive satellites, they would be easy pickings for concentrated salvoes as the missile squadrons pounced.

The large K’Rang ships would stand out as massive targets in the asteroid field, while the small missile ships and their missiles would be almost impossible to track and fire on. The Rutherford’s captain estimated that the satellites and missile ships in this sector alone would take out or cripple three to four major combatants or escorts. His task, and that of the rest of his squadron, would be to move in and plant more defensive satellites after the K’Rang moved on and finish off any stragglers. He imagined painting the silhouette of a cruiser or destroyer on the side of his ship.

The Vigilant moved a distance from the nebula to gain full effect of their sensors. They scanned the space around them and picked up the K’Rang fleet behind them, the two closest K’Rang worlds and a small gathering of ships deeper in K’Rang space. The Vigilant closed in to investigate. Moving slowly to make maximum effect of their stealth abilities, they closed with the group of ships. On long-range sensors, it appeared to be a battlecruiser and two frigates.

As they got closer, they realized that the battlecruiser was actually one of the new K’Rang command ships and two escorts. The captain gave the order to close with and engage this group of ships.

“Exec, find me a way we can sneak up on these guys.”

Kelly checked the star charts recently loaded from the K’Rang merchant ship the Vigilant had engaged on their second patrol. “There is a gas giant planet in an uninhabited system at 192 degrees, mark 47 from our position. It’s on the outer orbit of the system and about twice the size of Sol’s Jupiter. If we can back off, circle around the planetary system, and line up behind the planet, we can get within easy missile range. We might even be able to hide in the upper reaches of the planet’s atmosphere and pop out to fire.”

The captain called, “Helm, come to course 180, mark 40, then take us wide around this planetary system and line us up with the gas giant.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

Kelly came up on the intercom, “Chief B, watch the planetary system to make sure there aren’t any bad guy ships hiding in there. We don’t need some K’Rang prospector or planetary surveyor stumbling onto us.”

Chief B keyed the intercom and said, “Aye aye, sir. We’re scanning it.”

LCDR Timmons was in no hurry. He directed a wide course around the planetary system, just in case Kelly’s hunch was correct. As they moved off to starboard, Chief B’s sensor crew detected laser comms between the invasion fleet and the command ship.

Timmons called Kelly over to his position. “Exec, I want to time our attack so that we hit them as the 1st Combined Fleet falls in on the K’Rang invasion fleet. If we can hit them at the moment our guys pounce, we can probably delay any reinforcements being called in.”

“Got it, Captain,” Kelly replied, “I’ll have one of Chief B’s folks monitor the battle in the 6664 system to let us know when the Fleet jumps in on them.”

Kelly passed his instructions to Chief Blankenship. The first report came in shortly.

“Sir, the K’Rang are all tangled in the space mines and defensive satellites. They are backing out and trying to find a clear path into the system. They’ve lost two frigates and a lighter carrier to the mines. Two destroyers and a frigate were taken out by coordinated attacks from planetary missile ships and corvettes.”

Timmons smiled. “Good,” he thought, “we’re whittling them down.”

The Vigilant completed the wide sweep around the planetary system. Chief B’s people completed a sensor sweep of the system and declared it clear of ships and life signs. The ship lined up on the planet and made a sub-light dash into its orbit.

“Sir, we probably shouldn’t just barge in there. We aren’t the only folks that can hide in a gas giant.”

“Another hunch, Exec? I take your point. Helm, hold us 100,000 km out from the planet until Chief B gives us the all clear.”

The Vigilant approached and slowed to a halt. The sensor section scanned deep into the planet’s atmosphere and gave the all clear. The Vigilant moved into the charged gas cloud and waited.

They waited for less than half a day. Chief B came up on the intercom and informed them that the K’Rang fleet had worked through the mines and satellites. It had cost them eight major combatants, but now they were directly engaging the New Alexandrian defense forces.

Timmons looked up from the display of the K’Rang command ship. “Exec, I’m firing six missiles at the command ship and three each at the two frigates. That will leave us eight for anything that may come up later. We’ll fire nine missiles in one salvo, three at each ship, and save the second salvo of three to make sure we take out the command ship.”

“Good plan, sir, nine missiles should overload their defenses. All it takes is one to do the deed per ship. Don’t forget that command ships have a squadron of fighters on board for dealing with folks just like us.”

“I don’t want these guys to get word out of our little surprise. We go in ten minutes. Program the missiles.”

Kelly gave targeting instructions to Chief Pennypacker. He watched on his display as each missile acknowledged its instructions. They were ready.

The Vigilant assumed battle stations and slowly moved out of the forward edge of the planet’s atmosphere. The three K’Rang ships resolved sharply on the sensor displays.

On order, nine missiles streaked forward, like death‘s fingers reaching for the K’Rang ships. The K’Rang were slow to react. The missiles had closed to half the distance before defensive fire started from the two frigates. The fire was ineffective. What was more effective was the two frigates moving into the path of the missiles. Both smaller ships moved to protect the command ship.

The two frigates absorbed the impact of seven of the nine missiles. The effect was spectacular. The matter/antimatter explosions looked as if holes had been ripped in the universe. The two ships just ceased to exist. The sacrifice of the two ships was mostly for naught. The two remaining missiles continued homing in on the command ship.

The command ship’s defensive fire took out one of the missiles, but the last missile found its mark. The missile hit just aft of the bridge and took out the defensive fire capability of the command ship, but the ship was still under power and was preparing to move away. Sensors called up to say that the ship was powering up its FTL engines.

Timmons ordered the second volley of missiles. The second set of missiles made their way to finish off the command ship. All three missiles homed in and took out the K’Rang ship, unfortunately not before the command ship had launched six of its twelve fighters. They were forming up and accelerating rapidly toward the Vigilant.

“Exec, we’d better warm up the turrets and get ready for some company. Helm, turn us around and take us 1000 km back into the atmosphere, then make a 90 degree turn straight up for 1000 km and another 90 degree turn out of the atmosphere. Let’s see if we can come back out and hit these guys when they least expect us.”

“Exec, I want you to control the forward guns. Take the helm. If we can catch these guys off guard and knock a few of them off, it will even out the odds in our favor quickly. Let’s make one run at these guys, then make a beeline for the nebula we were in earlier.”

Kelly replied, “Aye aye, Captain,” then turned the ship to punch out of the planet’s face. If the enemy wasn’t fully up to their game, he was about to ruin their day.

The Vigilant came out into open space at speed. The six fighter were 1000 km directly below them. They had evidently stopped just short of the planet, uncertain about following the Vigilant into an area where their sensors would be blind. It was only the Vigilant’s highly sensitive sensors that gave them the ability to wander through gas clouds with relative ease.

Kelly turned the Vigilant to come down on the top of the K’Rang fighters. He lined up the cross hairs on the center fighter and passed the three around it to the turret gunners. He goosed the throttle to close the distance quicker. His first shots caught the fighters completely unaware. He took out one fighter, then a second. The turret gunners took out two. He passed behind the two remaining fighters and turned back into the planet’s atmosphere.

The two remaining fighters reacted quickly and followed the Vigilant into the gas giant. They were trying to stay in close behind where they could visually acquire the Vigilant. Kelly turned on the rear sensor view and caught one of the fighters in the nose with a burst from the rear guns. The blast threw the other fighter into a spin and away from the Vigilant’s track. Kelly took advantage of this to loop the Vigilant to come up behind the fighter as he regained control. A quick burst of the forward plasma guns and number six dissolved into a cloud of fragments.

Kelly turned to the captain and asked, “Sir, do you still want to head over to the nebula?”

“You know, Exec, one more fighter kill and you’ll be an ace?”

“You forget, sir, I was an ace with the second fighter.”

“Oh, yeah, I forgot. You came to us as almost an ace. Nevertheless, I’m impressed. Yes, let’s head to the nebula. Keep the sensors busy. We still have eight missiles left. I’m thinking that we should place ourselves where we can catch any stragglers coming back from the K’Rang fleet.”

The captain ordered the crew off battle stations. Kelly turned helm control back over to the helmsman and walked back with the captain to the galley for some coffee. Chief Watson had the conn. Kelly got a cup of coffee and a sandwich from Cookie, then went into the sensor section to confer with Chief B.

“Chief, we need you and your folks to keep a sharp eye out. Could you tell if the K’Rang command ship got out a distress call or not?”

“We’ll keep both a sharp eye and ear out. As far as the command ship, it didn’t have time for a distress call. If one went out, we didn’t have any indication of it.”

“Chief, we may see ships coming from any direction. Keep a watch on where the K’Rang invasion fleet is, on the two K’Rang worlds, and from further into K’Rang space. The captain thinks we may be able to pick off any stragglers that retreat across the frontier away from the 1st Combined Fleet. The 1st Fleet won’t pursue across the frontier, but since we are already here, there’s no harm in taking them out. Try and find good targets for our remaining missiles.”

Chief B responded, “Will do, sir.”

The K’Rang Fleet commander was ecstatic. Fighting his way through the frontier defenses, minefields and outer defenses had cost him more than anticipated, but at last he had a relatively clear path before him into the 6664 system and the human planet, New Alexandria. His claws involuntarily extended and retracted as he could see an easy victory before him. He ordered his fighters to sweep the path into the system. The remaining defensive satellites along his path would be easy targets for his fighters.

He signaled his battlecruisers and bombardment cruisers to prepare for the destruction of the planet’s surface defenses. Their targeting sensors and firing computers listed and prioritized the defensive installations for total devastation. The lighter carriers followed behind the battlecruisers, ready to land ground forces for the easy elimination of any remaining resistance. The landing support carriers moved their attack fighters to launch positions. His missile cruisers deployed outward to seal the 6664 system from outside reinforcement.

The commander’s reverie was interrupted by the harsh klaxon sound of multiple alarms going off. He shouted to his battle captain, “What is happening?”

The battle captain sat speechless, staring at his indicator screen. The commander walked over to see what his battle captain was seeing. He rudely slapped the battle captain out of the way and couldn’t believe his eyes. The screen was covered with hundreds of hostile ship symbols at maximum sensor range coming in at high speed from every direction. There were so many the symbols overlapped. Thousands of inbound missiles were shown vectoring in on his fleet.

“Battle Captain! Recycle your system!” he shouted. “It is obviously malfunctioning.”

The battle captain turned to face his admiral, his eyes huge. “I already have, Admiral, it’s not a malfunction.”

The admiral stared for just a heartbeat more before recovering his senses. “This is Admiral K’Tang to all ships. I order the fleet to form for defense. Escorts form a bubble. Main combatants to withdraw immediately across the frontier at flank speed. Battlecruisers and missile cruisers prepare to fire your long-range missiles against the incoming ships once they come into range. Execute!”

The K’Rang moved into their defensive battle formation in an orderly and expeditious manner. There appeared to be no panic. All ships assumed their formation positions as they had practiced it scores of times. It did them no good.

The first inbound salvoes of Fleet missiles expended the K’Rang ships’ magazines of defensive missiles. Their defensive missiles took out hundreds of incoming missiles, but the remainder flew on. The escorts’ guns were unable to save them either. There were simply too many missiles coming in too fast for the defensive guns to track and destroy. The defensive bubble of escorts dissolved in brilliant flashes of matter/antimatter explosions. One second the escort ships were there. The next they were expanding clouds of flame and debris.

The major combatants fared only slightly better. They never had time to fire their own long-range missiles. Incoming missiles passing through the debris of the escorts flew inexorably into the massed formation of capital and support ships. The missiles chewed away at the fleet. The support ships were easily destroyed by one missile each, but the larger ships took two or more before they were totally destroyed. In minutes, the K’Rang Fleet was no longer a cohesive threat.

Several ships carried on singly, bravely, attempting to take out any Human ships in range. The carriers launched most of their fighters and attack ships. One lone, damaged missile frigate made a dash for the frontier, but it was quickly dispatched by the Rutherford’s squadron of planetary corvettes. The squadron and other escort ships moved to the frontier to provide early warning of any K’Rang reinforcements. Fleet and New Amsterdam fighters made short work of the K’Rang fighters and attack ships still remaining. No K’Rang forces made it to the planet’s surface. In less than a day, the 6664 system would be clear of any K’Rang forces.

Kelly moved through the galley, picked up another sandwich, refreshed his coffee, and resumed his position on the bridge. The captain was in his cabin. Chief Watson still had the conn.

LCDR Timmons stuck his head out of his cabin and said, “Exec, get some rest. We could be out here on patrol for weeks. Chief, get everybody back on normal watch schedule.”

Kelly closed down his station and retired to his quarters. The war would wait for him to get some rest.

He awoke in three hours, cleaned up and took his position on the bridge. The crew settled back into normal watch schedule.

Kelly reviewed the log from the previous watch. With the exception of some explosions in the Voracious’ patrol area, there was no activity, short of some uninteresting interplanetary traffic in the nearest K’Rang planetary system. The K’Rang invasion fleet had taken a bad beating from the 1st Combined Fleet.

Kelly stood his watch and had very little to show for it. The sensor section provided periodic reports on the action in the 6664 system. The K’Rang continued to take a beating. Kelly finished out his watch and turned the watch over to Chief Billings.

Awakened by Chief Watson, Kelly was asked to report to the bridge. It took only a moment for Kelly to throw some water in his face and step back onto the bridge. The tension on the bridge was thick as a fog. The captain was conferring with Chief Watson about something on his display. Kelly moved over and listened in.

“Chief, there are too many of them for us to take on by ourselves. Oh, Exec, there you are, come here and look at this.”

Kelly looked at the display and saw a formation of twenty-two warships and support ships moving in their direction. He saw four battle cruisers, four missile cruisers, four destroyers (one of them a new Shadow Scout Destroyer), eight frigates, and two support ships.

“We only have eight missiles, we can’t take them all on. Even if we get unbelievably lucky and knock out all the cruisers, the destroyers and frigates would chew us up. Even the nebula won’t protect us from a deliberate cordon and search by twelve determined ships. We’re too far away from the frontier to make a run for it. I am open to suggestions.”

Kelly was about to admit he had no clue how to take this fleet on, when he remembered something he read when researching Admiral Craddock.

“Sir, do you remember how Admiral Craddock took on the Algolians?”

A blank look came over LCDR Timmon’s face followed by realization. “I’ll be damned. I see what you mean. The Algolian Gambit! Perfect, but the K’Rang are not the Algolians. How do you propose to make this work?”

Kelly studied the display for a moment before replying, “We go after the formation from the rear to the front. We take out the support ships first with our guns. We can jump out from this nebula already at max FTL speed, drop in behind the support ships and take out their engines, then jump out to the gas giant we used earlier. We jump from there, take out the other support ship, and jump back into this nebula. We watch them react to our attack and wait. That should take them a while to sort out. If we do it right, they won’t have a clue where we came from and where we went. We should be safely inside the gas giant or nebula before their sensors are able to resolve our signature. It will require precision and our stabilizers must be working at full efficiency for us to go from power 6 to a dead stop in the space inside the safe zone of the planet’s atmosphere. We have to stop before the atmospheric pressure crushes us. If we can manage this, we should be able to knock off maybe a dozen ships. The admiral engaged 20 ships. We should be able to handle a dozen. That will leave 10 for us to take on with our missiles.”

“It’s a gutsy plan, but it gives us the best chance of success. Plot our jumps so that we come in between two ships. We can double the number of ships we can disable that way. Chief Watson, get as much stuff locked down as possible. This plan will really put a strain on the stabilizers. We don’t want things flying around if they start to go on us. We’ll secure the crew as best we can. All right, get started on locking things down. They’ll be on us soon and I want us ready as soon as they go past.”

Chief Watson called all the other chiefs together. The meeting was followed by a flurry of activity, as everything that could be stowed, tied down, or locked away was made so. In an hour the ship was secure and ready for battle.

Shadow Leader M’Trang reviewed the reports coming in from the 27th Battle Fleet. The Humans had somehow managed to move a large force into the Scutum sector and they were engaging the 27th Fleet to devastating result. He keyed his communicator and attempted to contact the Sector Command Ship that should be in the vicinity. There was no response.

He realized that if the Command Ship was not responding, it was probably destroyed. The Command Ships had communications redundancies. He considered his options and formulated a plan.

There were three reinforcing battle fleets converging on New Alexandria. He contacted all three fleet commanders and coordinated their arrival at New Alexandria. His appointment as provisional governor of New Alexandria made him the senior commander. They would converge simultaneously and hit the Humans from three sides with a withering fire. They could bring over 3000 long-range missiles to bear on the Human fleet. It would be simple to continue in with their long-range heavy guns and take out any survivors.

He ordered the fleet to slow to give time for the other battle fleets to move into their positions for the coordinated attack.

LCDR Timmons and Kelly had used the time to calculate jump points in preparation for the attack. Sensors had picked these ships up at maximum range and there were over two hours of tracking data to work from. The K’Rang fleet formation had not changed for the entire time they approached. The escorts were arrayed around the four battlecruisers. An outer ring of frigates surrounded the fleet. Next inside this ring, at the front of the formation were the four destroyers. They were the short range defensive ships for the battlecruisers.

In the center of the formation were the four battlecruisers, followed by the missile cruisers. The battlecruisers were the heavy punch of the formation. They were equipped with guns and missiles, heavy armor and shielding. The missile cruisers were the fast, long-range punch of the formation and only lightly armored. They each carried hundreds of extended-range missiles designed to take out large capital ships. If this fleet crossed the frontier, it could do serious damage to the 1st Combined Fleet. Trailing the missile cruisers were the two logistics ships, inside the frigate screen.

Their plan was to take out the two support ships in the first jump. Hopefully, one or two of the frigates would stay with them as the fleet moved off. Chief B’s viruses and trojan horses would be deployed into the formation’s C3I system, if possible. Next they would take out two of the missile cruisers. The next pass would go after the other two missile cruisers. Their goal would be to disable the engines and leave them drifting or moving at such slow speed that they couldn’t engage in combat.

Follow-on jumps would attempt to take out some of the frigates. If they could knock off half of the frigates, they’d be in good shape for the next jump, in which they would unleash half the missiles, one per battlecruiser. If they were that successful, maybe the K’Rang would retreat to lick their wounds.

Chief Watson told the captain that the ship was secure and ready for combat. He thanked him and ordered the crew to battle stations. He looked at the bridge crew and said, “Exec, you back up the helmsman and the gunner. Chief Watson, you back up navigation and the engineering position. I’ll watch Sensors. Navigation, plot and lock in our jump points. Helm, prepare to execute. We will not stop longer than three seconds inside the K’Rang formation. Helm, count out loud when we jump in and then jump us out. Do not hesitate. Do not wait for an order from me.”

“Aye aye, sir. Three seconds and then jump us out.”

“Helm, execute.”

The Vigilant leapt out of the nebula at full power 6 speed. The K’Rang sensors, probably set for max range, wouldn’t even resolve the Vigilant this close. If they detected anything, it was only a blur. The Vigilant came in immediately behind the two support ships. The gunner used the forward plasma cannons on the far support ship, shredding the hull. Two of the turret gunners took out the engines of the near support ship. The third turret gunner, unable to bear on the support ships, took out the nearest frigate’s engines. At the count of three, the helmsman jumped the ship into the gas giant.

The captain had the sensor plot on his monitor and it showed the K’Rang fleet in disarray. The attack was so swift they didn’t even know from where it came or where the attacker went. The frigates, destroyers and cruisers were wildly firing in all directions and lighting up every active sensor, trying to find the phantom ship that just hit them. The captain watched as they slowly came back under control and moved out again. The disabled frigate and the support ship remained behind.

The realization that they were under attack came slow to the Shadow Leader. The possibility that the Humans could have penetrated this far into K’Rang space was inconceivable, even though he had presumed the sector command ship destroyed. When the Fleet activated all its active sensors and could find no attacker, it caused him to wonder if the ships hadn’t merely gotten too close in formation and collided. It was not unheard of for ships to run into each other, especially when only operating on passive sensors.

He called for detailed reports. The response was that a small ship had appeared in their formation, fired on several ships, and disappeared.

Shadow leader M’Trang knew the Humans did not have invisibility capability. He set his staff to looking for places the Humans could use to hide. Their next attack would be their last.

Chief Watson made some quick calculations and passed them to the navigator to plot and lock in the jump points. When the navigator and the helmsman reported they were ready, the captain gave the order to jump.

Once again, the Vigilant leapt into the K’Rang formation and fired. Two of the lightly armored missile cruisers were wracked with secondary explosions. The Vigilant jumped out of the formation, as missiles and plasma fire zeroed in on their former location.

They jumped into the nebula, and the sensor display showed the explosions from the two missile cruisers damaging one of the other missile cruisers and one of the battle cruisers. Missiles from the two burning missile cruisers fired off and flew through the formation, hitting other ships. One of the frigates took a direct hit amidships and exploded into a fireball. The formation broke up and ships moved in all directions, fleeing the conflagration. All ships in the formation were indiscriminately firing guns and defensive missiles to intercept the missile cruisers missiles. This caused even more random damage to the formation.

The captain ordered the Vigilant to jump within close range of the broken formation. Four missiles were targeted against the four battlecruisers. The Vigilant jumped within 100,000 km of the fleet, fired its missiles, and jumped for the gas giant. The Vigilant actually outpaced its own missiles as it passed over the formation.

Once they had settled into the planet’s atmosphere, the sensors showed all four battlecruisers received direct hits. The missile cruisers’ errant missiles had flooded the defensive systems of the formation and the four missiles ran unimpeded into the four capital ships. The matter/antimatter warheads and resulting explosions consumed all four. Two frigates and the damaged missile cruiser were close enough that the shock waves from the explosions took them out as well. The Shadow Destroyer stopped dead in space, its engines off line.

Shadow Leader M’Trang picked himself up from the deck. A dead sensor operator lay over his legs. He kicked the corpse away and screamed, “Captain, get a damage report. Sensors, get new operators in here to work the systems. Communications, get me the status of all Fleet ships. Put me in contact with Admiral S’Gor.”

A radio operator was first to report, “Sir, Admiral S’Gor’s flagship was totally destroyed. As senior Shadow Leader, do you assume command or would you pass that to one of the other ship’s captains?”

“No, I will assume command. Have some undamaged frigates close with us. I will decide on whether to move to another ship once we determine our status. Where are the damage reports, captain?”

Damage reports came in. The engines were down and would need to be restarted. Engineering expected it would take ten minutes to have maneuver control and twenty for full power.

“Inform the Fleet that I have assumed command. Have the Frigates lay alongside. The remainder of the ships should form a defensive bubble.”

Vigilant held position in the gas giant to give the K’Rang a chance to settle down. Two frigates moved to the disabled destroyer’s aid, probably to pull off survivors, arrange a tow, or assist in damage control. The remaining ships formed a defensive bubble. The three remaining destroyers and two frigates formed a perimeter around the remaining missile cruiser in the center of the formation. All ships pointed outward, away from the cruiser.

The captain gave orders to jump out to fire the last four missiles at the cruiser and active destroyers. Once the calculations had been completed, the helm jumped the ship to within 100,000 km of the formation. As the missiles left the launcher, the Vigilant made the jump to the larger nebula. The missiles did their work, taking out the four larger ships, but two frigates were hot on the Vigilant’s tail. They had figured it out. They were on a direct path to where the Vigilant had entered the nebula, and they looked angry.

The Shadow Leader chastised the frigate commanders for their reluctance to chase the Human ship into the nebula.

“It is only one ship. It should be easy prey. Go in and flush it out.”

As you command, Shadow Warrior, but for one ship, it has wreaked a significant amount of devastation.”

The Shadow Leader personally worked a sensor console to attempt to resolve the location of the Human ship in the nebula. The earlier blast had destroyed many of the specialized sensors that made a Shadow Scout Destroyer so formidable. The Shadow Warrior was unable to coax the remaining sensors to give up the Human’s hiding place.

As the frigates entered the nebula, their communications were lost.

Vigilant moved deep into the nebula and ordered a turn 30 degrees to port and 30 degrees up. No use being where the enemy expected you to be.

“Bridge, Sensors, the destroyer is moving again. It and the two other frigates are moving in this direction.”

That complicated matters.

The frigates reached the point where the Vigilant made its turn and continued straight ahead. The captain gave orders to go wide around them to come up on their rear. If the Vigilant could take them out while they were blinded by the charged gases in the nebula, it could even the odds some.

As the Vigilant moved above and to port of the frigates, they showed no reaction. The Vigilant came around to abeam of them and was preparing to turn to attack their engines when both ships erupted in gunfire. Every gun on the two ships was firing blindly into the space around them. Fortunately, none of the fire came close to the Vigilant.

The captain lined up with the sterns of the two ships and waited. They wouldn’t be able to keep the firing going for long. As soon as the firing let up he would order the ship in to take the two frigates out of action. Chief B called forward to report the destroyer and its two escorts were holding just outside of the nebula.

The firing ceased and the Vigilant shot forward. As it closed the distance on the two ships, and before the Vigilant could open fire, the ships began firing again. Their firing appeared to be more directed toward the Vigilant’s path and less random. It was obvious they had some sensor indication of the Vigilant’s position. The gunner shifted from visual to sensor view, locked onto the exhaust of the closest frigate and opened fire. The plasma bursts tore into the frigate’s engine spaces and sent it drifting. The helm turned to line up on the second frigate, as the turret gunners concentrated on the gunnery control and sensors of the disabled ship. A few pulses from the frigate’s short-range guns hit the Vigilant’s shields, but were harmlessly absorbed. Kelly felt a slight jolt, but none of the frigate’s big-bore guns had their range.

The second frigate came into range and the gunner made equally short work of him. A strong jolt was felt. One of the long-range guns from the first frigate had scored a hit. One of the turret gunners gave that frigate’s turret a burst, and put it out of commission. Kelly asked for a damage report from all sections.

The second frigate’s engines were knocked off line and it also drifted in space. The turret gunners destroyed both its rear turrets and the communications module as the Vigilant moved on. The Vigilant turned parallel with the two ships and stopped just beyond the K’Rang’s apparent sensor range, and waited.

The damage reports came in. No major damage was reported. Engineering reported a moderate loss in shield strength. Chief Miller was affecting repairs, but he didn’t have an estimated time of completion. The captain asked for a status report every 15 minutes.

The captain studied his sensor display for a few minutes and said, “Helm, move us away 50,000 km and park us until we get shields back to full strength. Neither of these guys are going anywhere. We’ll come back later and finish them off if we can.”

“Bridge, Sensors, the support ship and frigate from our first attack are moving again. They’re coming to join up with the destroyer and the two frigates sitting outside the nebula.”

Kelly looked at the sensor display and said, “Captain, the K’Rang ships are awfully close to the nebula. Do you suppose we could sit in here and throw some carefully aimed potshots out at them? If nothing else, it may back them up and give us some more maneuvering room. We just need to make sure we don’t sit in one spot so they can fire back down the path of our pulses and hit us. There is a technique we use in fighters called off-axis shooting. It may work here. This is where you turn your ship away from the direction you are flying to fire off your axis of movement. If we do it right, we can get several shots in on all the K’Rang ships and they won’t know where the fire is actually coming from.”

‘I like it. Their frontal armor is pretty tough, but we may get in some lucky shots. Make it happen, Exec.”

Kelly made some quick calculations, took over the helm, and flew the ship to where he wanted to start his gun run, some 10,000 km inside the nebula. He locked the turrets to fire forward and took over gunnery control.

The ship moved out smoothly at his command. Once at speed he fired the maneuvering thrusters to turn the ship to face out toward the K’Rang ships. The captain grinned, looked over to him, and said, “Fire as your guns bear. I always wanted to say that.”

Kelly ignored his captain’s humor. He watched the first frigate start to line up in his cross hairs. He adjusted the angle of the ship and opened fire. Nine cannons opened up at once, piercing the veil of the nebula and striking the frigate’s forward armor. One missile launcher was put out of commission. The forward turret stabbed out at where they thought the Vigilant was, but she had already moved on.

The destroyer was next. Kelly tried to concentrate his fire on the forward missile bays. His efforts were rewarded with secondary explosions as his fire took off one of the armored hatches and set off the missiles’ warheads inside. Other explosions followed. There were now two damaged and one to go.

The second frigate had been tracking the fire on the other two ships and its turrets were swiveling to where they expected the Vigilant to be. Kelly increased forward momentum and held his fire until directly in front of the frigate. This threw their targeting solution off. The frigate opened fire on empty space. Kelly returned fire, taking out one of its forward turrets and doing major damage to its bridge. He turned the ship back on axis and moved them deeper into the nebula.

Shadow Leader M’trang picked himself up from the deck again. The captain lay dead. He punched up the communications console. “All ships move back 10,000 km and hold positions. All ships with working forward guns fire straight ahead on a random basis. Keep them from doing that again.”

The Shadow Leader pondered his situation. He was down to three ships, four if the engineers on one of the support ships could get power back up. He had too little combat power to influence the battle at New Alexandria. The other two fleets would have to deal with that situation. His long-range communications were off line, so he couldn’t even find out what was going on outside this small battle.

He chose to fight the battle he could. He called the two frigate captains and informed them of his plan to take out this lone Human ship. They could not leave this ship behind them and would need to destroy it before proceeding to New Alexandria and his triumph.

“Good work, Kelly. That should back them up a bit as they lick their wounds. Engineering, how are the repairs coming?”

“We’re almost there, Captain. We need a few minutes to calibrate the shields, but we should be back at full power in ten minutes.”

“Good work, Chief. Kelly, let’s go see what our two blind mice are up to.”

Kelly turned helm and gunnery back over to the bridge crew and ordered them to move closer to the two frigates they had dealt with earlier. Sensors showed both ships still dead in space. One had the engines completely off line and its comms suite was gone. One of its rear turrets was smoking and venting atmosphere into space.

The second frigate was in worse shape. A secondary explosion must have blown a large hole in the side of the ship. Kelly suspected the missile magazine may have been touched off by the engine fire. The Vigilant’s guns couldn’t have done that much damage on their own.

The captain studied the sensor displays for a bit and called out, “Gunner, bring all guns to bear on that hole in the K’Rang ship.”

The gunner aligned the turrets to fire forward, fired thrusters to line his cross hairs on the hole, and opened fire. The effect was incredible. The frigate blew apart. The shock wave rocked the Vigilant. A large chunk of the stern flew into the side of the other frigate and took out all the short range defensive guns along the port side and slammed into the bridge. The captain ordered the gunner to fire into the bridge spaces of the second frigate. The bridge was easily punctured and the Vigilant’s bridge crew watched as debris, parts of bodies, and atmosphere poured out into space.

“Good work, gunner,” the captain said. “Now, helm, move us out of here. These two aren’t going anywhere. Wait! Are there any big chunks of the first frigate floating free?”

Timmons studied his sensor display and found the large piece of the stern that had hit the other frigate.

‘Helm, take us into tractor beam range of that piece of junk. I want to go bowling.”

Kelly stared quizzically at LCDR Timmons, then the realization dawned on him.

“You thinking of throwing that bit of junk at the guys waiting outside?”

“Exactly! They didn’t take the hint and back off like I wanted them to. I want to give them two things to think about. One, we got their buddies and two, we can still hurt them.”

“Helm, pull in that bit of junk and lay in a collision course for the destroyer at just below FTL.”

The helm and navigator worked quickly to plot the course, while the gunner locked the tractor beam on the wreckage. The Vigilant moved forward, slowly accelerating their increased mass to just below FTL. When Timmons was satisfied they were aimed correctly, he ordered the tractor beam turned off and the helm to execute a loop and keep the Vigilant in the nebula.

The K’Rang ships opened fire on the debris as if it were the Vigilant coming in on an attack vector. They realized too late what had been done. The gunfire and missile fire shredding the wreckage merely increased the damage as the mass of the stern section plowed headlong into the destroyer. The smaller pieces fanned out and hit the two assembled frigates, causing more damage. The destroyer was a total loss as multiple explosions wracked the ship.

The captain ordered the Vigilant deep into the nebula to give the crew a break and a hot meal. It was obvious the K’Rang weren’t coming in and with three frigates sitting outside, they weren’t coming out.

The Shadow Leader made his way to an escape pod while the ship was wracked with explosions. He launched himself free of the destroyer just as a final explosion consumed the ship. He made his way to the nearest frigate and once onboard, ordered all ships to move themselves out 100,000 km from the nebula. It was plain that the two earlier frigates had been destroyed and this Human ship was still dangerous. He placed the three ships (the support ship had joined them) so they could cover the Humans’ escape paths.

The captain ordered Cookie to prepare a hot meal for the crew while he studied their options. There were three frigates and a support ship patrolling out there and waiting. The K’Rang were wounded, but still had teeth. In addition, the frigates had long-range missiles that were almost two times faster than the Vigilant. Running for it, therefore, was not an option.

The captain had Chief Watson change out the watch as the crew was fed, so fresh eyes and minds would be on the controls, sensors, and gun sights.

Cookie did wonders with the meal. He produced steaks, potatoes with gravy, corn on the cob, fresh green beans, and caesar salad. The crew was fed first and then Chief Watson, Kelly and Timmons ate, while discussing their situation.

“Well,” Timmons said, “we can’t run and we can’t stay here and hide. We are too far into K’Rang space. At some point, reinforcements will show up to conduct a concerted cordon and search of this piece of the nebula. The K’Rang ships out there have positioned themselves well. They can watch every escape route. They are far enough out that our weapons can’t affect them if we stay here inside the nebula. If we come out to try and pick one of them off, the others can come to its aid. If we try to run back up the nebula it takes us further into K’Rang space, which isn’t good now that we’re out of missiles. I don’t think we will be able to use the Algolian Gambit again. They seem to have figured that one out. Do you two have any ideas?”

Chief Watson just scratched his head. “Sir, if we have no real alternatives, why don’t we just take out as many as we can and go down swinging?”

“Chief, we may get to that, but I want to expend all other options first.”

Kelly finished chewing a bite of his steak and said, “I wonder if there are any missiles we could borrow from the two frigates in here? If we could pull some out and rig them for firing, even if they don’t hit anything, they may distract the K’Rang enough for us to get a head start to the frontier.”

“Nice idea, Exec, but I don’t think we have the time or expertise to make that happen.”

“Captain, I’m kind of out of ideas, then.”

“I know, so am I. I want us all to get some rest. Nothing is going to happen for a while. If we get some shut eye and approach this with clear heads, we might come up with some options. Go to your quarters. Chief Billings will take the conn. Chief, have the other chiefs get some rest.”

The three of them finished their steaks and retired to their quarters for some rest. When there are no better options, sleep is a good course of action.

In three hours, Kelly hadn’t slept or come up with a viable course of action. He saw no other option than to try and battle it out. No tricky moves came to mind. It would be a slug fest. He couldn’t see how the Vigilant could survive battle with three frigates, even with as much damage as they had already inflicted. They still had more firepower, shielding, and as much speed as the Vigilant.

Kelly gave up on sleep. If he couldn’t get rest, he would at least be clean, so he stripped down and took a shower. He didn’t come out better rested, but at least the grit was out of his eyes. Dressed, he sat down at his terminal to review the tactical situation. It was no better than three hours ago.

The three frigates were patrolling the perimeter of the nebula. The support ship was part of the screen and all avenues of escape were being watched. Sneaking out was not an option. No matter what he considered, it kept coming back to a brawl. Well, if that were the only option, he would need to look at the best way to do it. He studied the tactical situation again, and was sorting through the options when LCDR Timmons called him over to his ready room. Chief Watson was already there.

“Kelly, have you come up with any ideas?”

“I can’t find any better option than a slugfest with our buddies out there. I have been looking at the tactical situation.”

Kelly pointed at the tactical situation on the captain’s large monitor. “The first guy we should take out is this frigate up on top. He’s weakest in the stern. If we can jump in behind him, we can tear him up. We’ve taken out both his gun turrets and his rear missile launcher. The next guy to take out is the support ship. He only has short range defensive guns and missiles good for fighters, but ineffective against us.”

“This guy here on the frontier side of the nebula is next. He’s weakest to the front. My gun run took out his missile launcher and damaged the bridge. We’d need to come in on his forward port quarter. The shrapnel from our flinging the debris at them knocked out most of his port side defensive guns.”

“The last guy is here on the K’Rang side of the nebula. He is slow, because we damaged his engines earlier, but he is the best armed. He still has all his weaponry. We may be able to avoid combat with him. If we knock out the first two frigates, we could make a run for it. This guy is on the wrong side of the nebula and his engines may not be up to snuff. The support ship probably won’t try to run us down. Its engines are in bad shape also, and it’s not armed to really do us any damage.”

“Good assessment, Exec. If we have to go out after them, that’s probably the best plan. Chief, what do you think?”

“I agree with the Exec. I’ve looked at the situation and came to the same conclusion.”

The captain looked down at the floor and said, “So did I.”

“Chief, is there anything we need to do before we go out there and try to take on these guys?”

“Well, Captain, I can’t think of anything. We are about as prepared as we are ever going to get.”

“Okay, I want to speak to the crew first. They deserve to know what we are going up against. Take your posts.”

Chief Watson and Kelly exited the ready room and took their places on the bridge. The captain followed a few seconds behind. He took his seat and keyed the ship-wide intercom. “This is the captain. We have fought a good fight. We have accomplished our mission far beyond expectations. In this patrol we have destroyed a K’Rang command ship, four battlecruisers, four missile cruisers, four destroyers, seven frigates, and a support ship.”

“Now we have to face our strongest challenge. There are three K’Rang frigates and an armed support ship outside the nebula waiting for us. They won’t come in to try and get us. They won’t get close enough where our weapons can hit them from in here. We are going to have to go out and engage them. We can’t stay here, because eventually K’Rang reinforcements will arrive, and they will flush us out and destroy us.”

“We are going to go out and take as many of them out as we can. I won’t kid you. We have been incredibly lucky up to this point. The odds of us carrying this off are not spectacular. We will make our first attack in fifteen minutes. I know we will all do our duty. All hands to your battle stations.”

“Chief Watson, plot a jump course to place us immediately behind the first frigate. Gunner, when we jump in, line us up and take your shots quickly. Do as much damage as you can. Overheat the guns if you have to. They can always be cooled down when we jump back in here. Make sure you take out his engines.”

The gunner looked back, gulped, and responded, “Aye aye, Captain.” A drip of sweat fell off his nose onto the console. He nervously wiped it off with his sleeve.

Chief Watson finished his calculations and sent them to the helmsman and navigator.

“Chief, Kelly, we back up the bridge crew like before. Kelly, if anything happens get us out of there quickly and back into the nebula. That is your first priority.”

“Helm, take us to the first jump off point.”

The Vigilant moved to a position that would put it at a 45 degree angle to the K’Rang frigate. When they were in position, the helm signaled readiness to jump.

The captain keyed up the intercom and said, “Engine room, are you ready?”

“Engine room, aye.”

“Sensors, are you ready?”

“Sensors, aye. Captain, we just received a recall notice from the 1st Combined Fleet. If we could go home, we could now.”

“Thanks, Chief, log it. Prepare a message pod with all our logs. We’ll launch it if things get too ugly out there. Weapons, are you ready?”

“Weapons, aye.”

Helm, jump when you are ready. Gunner, get ready.”

The helmsman punched a few buttons and the ship started moving.

Chief Blankenship practically screamed over the intercom, “Bridge, Sensors! Hold your position!”

“Helm, all stop!”

The captain stabbed at the intercom button and shouted, “Chief B, what is it?”

“Captain, I have comms with the Voracious. They want to know if we need any assistance.”

A look of relief washed across LCDR Timmons’ face. “Chief, put him through.”

“Ed, this is Clint. I’m coming your way. You look like you could use some help.”

“I sure could, Clint. If you have any missiles left, would you brush these guys off for me? I’ll have my Sensor Chief send you the plot.”

“Sure, Ed, send me the plot. I’ll need about five minutes to get in range.”

Through the frigate’s long-range communications, the Shadow Leader learned of the destruction of the entire 27th Combat Fleet. They were destroyed by a massive and totally unexpected Human presence. How could they have brought such a force to bear? They outnumbered the 27th Fleet by close to 100 to 1.

Shadow Leader M’Trang prepared himself to face the Elders. He would, undoubtedly, be drummed out of the Shadow Force. If he were fortunate, he would be sentenced to a quick and merciful execution. If not, he would have to live in shame and take his own life. His honor was past.

If he were to be disgraced, he would at least take this Human ship with him. A small reinforcement force was headed his way. They would be sufficient to conduct a proper cordon and search to flush out this troublesome Human ship. He knew it was the last act he would ever command.

Alarms sounded on the K’Rang ship. M’Trang scanned his sensors and saw a second Human ship appear at the far edge of his sensor field, closing in fast. He ordered his small fleet to move to intercept this new threat. They were all too slow and too damaged to respond effectively. When four missiles appeared on the screen, M’Trang knew they were doomed.

He watched helplessly as ineffective defensive fire failed to stop the inbound missiles. To their credit, M’Trang and the bridge crew stayed at their posts and continued fighting their ship. The missiles flew unimpeded into the four ships and obliterated them in massive matter/antimatter explosions. M’Trang’s last thought was that at least he would die a hero, not live as a disgraced commander.

“Clint, I owe you a beer or fifty for that. You pulled our fat out of the fire with that. Thank you,” responded an obviously elated Edgar Timmons.

“You’re welcome, Ed. I had all these extra missiles left over and just didn’t know what else to do with them. Come on, I’ll race you back to the frontier.”

“Helm, bring us alongside the Voracious and take us to the frontier. I think we have worn out our welcome here.”

As the Vigilant broke out of the nebula they got a full view of the carnage they had wreaked. Broken and burnt out hulls of K’Rang warships were everywhere. They joined up with the Voracious, and the two ships sped out of the area and off to the frontier. Sensors activated a secure laser link between the two ships so that they could exchange data with a low probability of detection. It was a common procedure when two ships were returning from hostile territory. If one ship didn’t make it the data still could get out.

“Ed, I see you were busy here. I count a command ship, 12 capital ships, seven frigates, and an armed support ship. That’s not too shabby. I got a planetary defense ship, three merchant ships and your four playmates.”

“Good for you, Clint. What caused you to come over our way?”

“We ran out of targets in our patrol sector. Everyone went to ground. We watched a battle fleet coming our way but it turned around and went back the way it came. We heard all the excitement over this way and came to investigate when it got quiet over here. We figured we’d either come give you a hand or take out whoever got you. We got the recall notice and were just about to head back when our sensor chief picked you out of the nebula.”

“Well, I’m damned glad you did. We were about to have to do something desperate. We were completely out of missiles, out of tricks, and out of ideas.”

“Glad we could be of assistance, Ed. I’m signing off now. I’m hungry and the cook has made Italian.”

The captain looked over at Chief Watson and said, “Chief, keep us on patrol rations until we cross the frontier. Bring everyone down from battle stations and get us back on normal watch rotations.”

Chief Watson announced to the crew to stand down from battle stations and ordered the starboard watch to their stations.

The captain looked over at Kelly, “Exec, take the conn. I’ll be in my cabin until supper. Wake me when it’s ready.”

In two hours, it was time for supper. Kelly knocked on LCDR Timmons’ door. “Captain, supper is ready. The crew is already eating.”

The captain’s groggy voice came through the door. “I’ll be right out.”

Timmons came out for supper in a few minutes, somewhat rested and freshly showered, “Have you eaten yet, Exec?”

“No, sir, I was waiting for Chief Billings to finish and relieve me. Oh, here he comes now.”

“What’s for supper, Chief?”

“Cookie made fried chicken, greens, mashed potatoes and cream gravy, Captain.”

“Sounds good, Chief, take the conn. The Exec and I shall be dining.”

“Aye aye, sir. I have the conn.”

Kelly and Timmons went through the chow line. Cookie had outdone himself. Even though he was limited to patrol rations, he was a miracle worker with basic foodstuffs. The fried chicken was crispy, hot, and tasty. The greens were spiced up with some sort of sauce made from vinegar and mustard. The mashed potatoes were fluffy and accompanied by a smooth peppered gravy. It was a wonderful meal. At the end, Cookie brought over two servings of peach cobbler with vanilla ice cream.

The captain looked up and said, “Cookie, I did give the order for patrol rations until we crossed the frontier. Did you not get the word?”

Cookie’s face took on a look of astonishment. “Sir? Yes, sir, I did get the word. Everything you’ve eaten was patrol rations. The chicken was from cans. The crust was crushed crackers. The greens were also canned. The potatoes were from flakes. The gravy was from the chicken fat salvaged from the cans and ultra pasteurized milk. The cobbler was from canned peaches and crackers. Even the ice cream was from ultra pasteurized milk. There’s nothing in the regs that says I can’t embellish the ingredients a bit. The crew does seem to appreciate it.”

A smile came over LCDR Timmons’ face and he said, “So do I, Cookie, so do I.”

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