The Starfigher Division was something of an experiement.
Four of Hatawe Ahn’s corvettes sailed through contested space on the grand arc between the leading and trailing StarGates in the border system of Almani Territories. Three Marauders, Tempest, Prospero, and Ariel, each fully loaded with a half dozen Cerberus fighters and a six Destriers, formed a triangular plane in space perpendicular to their vector. The fourth Marauder, Caliban, sailed behind the plane at the apex. Caliban was different. It carried only four Destriers for defense. Instead of mounting six high powered lasers, it only carried two in the bow, flanking the forward cabin. The lateral hardpoints were carried a pair of twin-barreled point defense railguns. The reinforced spine, which on carrier was stuffed with capacitors for the lasers, housed a single long-shaft railgun suitable for ship-to-ship combat.
They were hunting.
“Time to convoy forty minutes for outer envelope, forty-nine minutes to launch.”
Captain 6Djoser Morga acknowledged the report. From the CIC on Caliban, Djoser had could observe, after time-lag, the movements of AdStars logistical fleet. One hundred and thirty-one colliers and dromedaries moved between StarGates on a reciprocal course to Djoser’s stargosy of privateers. 6Djoser’s orders from Command were deliberately vague - capture what he could, destroy as much of the rest as possible. Prospero, at the acme point of the forward plane of battle, was carrying a platoon’s worth of Espatier Ahks in oversized network servers, ready to download into their Ammit-class automatons loaded on the Starfighter’s six Cerberus HACVs.
They were also something of an experiment.
“Thirty-two minutes to outer envelope.”
The convoy was either defended or dead in space. With literally millions of kilometers between the freighters and any safe port of call, scattering was not an option. The only point of clumping so many thousands of tons of shipping into such a small space on a predictable vector would be to place them under the umbrella of protection their escorts could offer. Depending on the value of the cargo, the defending spacecraft could be a couple of corvettes weaker than Caliban, up to a division of destroyers or even more. Djoser was by no means an optimist - at least, not beyond what one needed to go into space in the first place. He assumed at any moment, Caliban’s CIC would erupt with reports of thermal flairs indicating an opposing flotilla.
Djoser gave orders to download Ahks to all fighters and automatons. Across space, sphont and machine interfaced, become those temporary. mongrel creatures of war. The quartet of spacecraft entered their final boosting phase, and observed no change in his prey.
It was a trap. In had to be. Something would happen when the two clumps of metal and meat collided. The Stellar Administration was as ruthless and brutal as any polity in space. They would surely have found out about 3Gleise’s negotiations with the Almani. They surely wouldn’t think to send an undefended convoy through space where the government-in-exile could reach. Something was going to happen - Djoser was convinced. But because he couldn’t know what was in store, he kept his ships steady on. Besides, he was damned if AdStar was going to frighten him away.
“Outer envelope. Nine minutes to launch.”
Djoser composed himself for battle. “Fire the main gun. On target.”
Lacking multiple ship killing guns, Djoser couldn’t very well bracket the formation ahead of them. He was half-convinced that the fools wouldn't change vector to dodge anyway.
“Four minutes to contact, eight minutes to launch.”
Djoser had four minutes to wait, and another four after to decide the course of the battle. It was always like this -always had been, for sophonts in space. Hours or days of waiting, and a handful of seconds for action. He thought a command to calculate multiple tactical maneuvers and counter attacks against a variety of responses. All at this point were equally likely. He consciously ignored them even has his augmented mind furiously collated data.
“One minute to contact, five minutes to launch.”
Djoser became still and calm. All that could be done had been, all that could be planned for was. He was serene in the last seconds, where his crew could see.
“Contact! Targets one through five eliminated. Four minutes to launch. Targets six through ten eliminated.”
“M-Com, all Flights, target kinetics, Caliban attack one, vectors and velocity to follow.” Djoser signaled his INCO to send the relevant data. Across the formation, lasers turned and fired on Caliban’s railgun slugs. No matter their monstrous speed, the coherent light easily overtook them and either vaporized the tungsten rods or pushed them out onto terminal vectors.
“Targets fifteen to twenty eliminated. Targets twenty-two, twenty-six, and twenty-seven eliminated. Launch window.”
“Launch half the Ceberus wing. Keep the remainder on the kinetics. I want eyes on the eliminated targets soonest.”
“HC-01 and -02, in range two minutes.”
There had still been no counter attack, no move to defend or evade. Djoser felt the dread he had been fighting grow ever more powerful as the possible reasons dwindled to a few, each worst than the las.
“HC-01, M-COM. IN RANGE TARGETS ONE ONE, ONE FOUR, ONE EIGHT, AND TWO SIX.”
Djoser had to swallow before he could talk. “Report.”
“HULLS DESTROYED. PASSENGER COMPARTMENTS VENTED TO SPACE. PASSENGERS IN OPEN SPACE.”
“Passengers? HC-01, is there any cargo?”
“NEGATIVE, M-COM. PASSENGERS ONLY. ATTEMPTING TO ESTABLISH HYPERBAND UPLINK”
“Time until upload is complete?”
“UPLOAD EST 01:22:31 +/- 02:00.”
“All units, begin rescue operations.” Djoser tried and failed to keep the tremor out of his voice.
“All units acknowledged,” His INCO responded. “All lasers now on hyperband recovery. Cross vectors in thirty seconds.”
And that was when the convoy’s hidden warships attacked.