The lift doors slid open with a hiss. There was just enough time to hear the murmur of hushed activity before a clear voice snapped, “Captain on the bridge!”

“As you were,” Khaele Makrynn called back. Once the doors were fully open, the wolverine ducked through, making her way to the centre of the bridge. Officers who had started to turn towards the lift now turned back to their stations, resuming their briefly-interrupted tasks. Khaele’s gaze sought out one in particular. “Commander Ayesh, I have the bridge.”

“The bridge is yours, Captain,” the exec responded in the formal tones that were his norm. “Everything proceeds on schedule; no incidents demand your attention.”

“Very good, Commander,” said the Captain, settling into her station chair. “Nav, rough time to transition?”

“A bit over five minutes, Captain,” was the reply.

That’d do until she had all her displays up. “Tac, it looks like stations are already reporting ready. How long has that been so?”

“The first to report green was a half hour ago, Captain,” a small, slim cheetah man answered.

So they hadn’t been sitting there too long. Good; being ready was good, but there was no point in letting anticipation get the better of things and sitting on full alert for an hour with nothing to do. “Helm, how are you feeling?”

“Rested and raring to go, Captain.” Alone of all the voices on the bridge, this one came through a speaker; the helmsman himself was sealed in a suspension tank. “Just closed the lid two minutes before you got here. Test pattern comes back green.”

“Very good. Well,” Khaele glanced at her tac readout and saw all stations ready, “since everybody’s at their stations, I’ll take these few minutes to address the crew.”

A few quick taps later, and the general-address chime sounded over the intercoms and in her ear. Once the chime had passed, she got right to the point. “All hands, this is Captain Makrynn. As all of of you know, the Calamity is going right from the docks and into combat. In a few minutes’ time, we will transition to normal space and into the heart of a battlezone.”

A light on another display caught her attention; the forward beacon had made connection with forces near their transition point, and was starting to relay tactical data. So long as it was doing so successfully, that meant the way was clear enough to work with; she turned her attention back to her mic. “We haven’t had as much time for shakedown as anyone would wish. But I’ve looked over all the reports. I’ve seen all your files, and I know that our officers and crew are all good, capable people, well up to their duties. I’ve read the readiness reports from your departments, and I know that our equipment is in as good order as any mortal agency can make it.

“In the heat of combat, surprises will happen. Unexpected complications will arise. But I know that you’re capable of dealing with them.”

Now she paused for a glance at the building tac readout, comparing the numbers with what she’d previously read about deployments. “These Authority pilots have been fighting like demons,” she reported. “Outnumbered and outgunned, they’ve taken losses, but fewer than anyone has a right to expect. They’ve held the line for two days time as word got back to the Fleet and as we came boosting out. We are the Emperor’s response, and the force of his reprisal. We’re up against strike craft, frigates, and a few destroyers. They must know we’re about to arrive, by the Authority redeployment – but they’re probably just expecting another SLASh picket group. Maybe a few light capital ships.

“I promise you they will not be expecting a state-of-the-art Imperial Navy battleship to pop out of underspace.

“They will be off guard. They might even panic. They’ll probably hit us with everything they’ve got in one last desperate gasp – and I want you all to show these Fringers that if they want to start a fight with the Empire, the Navy will be sure to finish it.

“These pilots are counting on us, and we will not fail them. Make me proud, people. Make the Emperor proud.”

She took a deep breath, and then concluded, “That is all. Makrynn clear.”

In the seclusion of her thoughts, she sent a prayer to the spirits and families of those who would not make it through this day.

That done, she turned her attention to the tactical display. The bandwidth that could be pushed through from normal space to an oncoming receiver in underspace was regrettably low; the tac readout didn’t have anywhere near the resolution afforded by the Calamity’s own sensor suite, and with the Star Lane Authority fighters flying full evasive, in point-wing pairs meandering mostly-randomly through space, that resolution was taxed to its limit if not beyond. Those fighters had staged a fighting withdrawal to this point – a place of stability amid the gravitational “eddies” of the system, a place that allowed for fast and accurate transits in and out. It was here that they would have come if they were abandoning the system; it was here that they would marshal for reinforcements.

By now, these fringe-world opportunists had to know that the SLA picket was working to keep the node clear, not to run for it themselves, and that could only mean they expected help or wanted to make the opposition think they did. That opposition seemed to be pushing forward, trying to scatter the picket before the Calamity arrived. If they did that, they could seed the area with laser mines, making any transit that didn’t pass their IFF disastrous, even for such a hard target as a Navy battleship – coming in as they must with shields down, even if only briefly.

More briefly than anyone currently in the battlespace knew, actually. The Calamity’s designers had been busy.

At any rate, they wouldn’t have the time to lay down that kind of blanket. At this point, it was inevitable that the Calamity would make transit, and probably with no more than minor damage if that. And that was if the SLA fighters all suffered catastrophic failure right now. Though they couldn’t keep running without abandoning the node, so were getting pressed harder to fight, still that didn’t look likely; the numbers showed less than one loss in twenty from their posted strength, which, in the circumstances, was damn impressive.

And it was good, because until the Undaunted and the Stern Warden arrived in about an hour, the Calamity would only have two wings of Navy fighters herself. The SLA fighters – and the bombers that had gone low-emission and were sitting out the fight unseen – would more than quadruple that strike-craft strength, and lend some much-needed flexibility that even a next-generation battleship would otherwise lack.

“Derry, charge the pulse shield,” she said to the cheetah at Tactical.

“Yessir.” Presently, a gauge on Khaele’s repeater confirmed that the capacitors were charging. The pulse shield was new, and designed specifically for hot drops like this. It projected a spherical bubble around the whole ship rather than conforming to its geometry – it was power-hungry and unstable, and it couldn’t shape apertures for the Calamity’s own weaponry, but the few seconds it would last were enough for the proper shields to finish calibrating, and that pulse bubble could be up inside half a second.

“Thirty seconds to transition,” Sel Ayesh announced, as the first warning tone sounded through the ship. Though his voice was as cool as ever, the rat took a deep breath, letting it out in a soft huff of anticipation.

Khaele turned her attention to the tiger floating in the tank. “Tavan?”

“In deep immersion, Captain,” Tavan Ralesh reported. “Ready for combat manoeuvres.”

“Fifteen seconds,” said Derry Varlis on Tac. “Scuttling the drone.” The tactical readouts froze.

The ten-second tone sounded; then, from five, the low sound counted off the seconds.

There was a sensation of falling, in a direction that did not, could not, exist.

It was not a comfortable process, and this transit ran long; but Khaele took grim comfort in the knowledge that only now, as their sensors detected the scope of the transit distortion, could their enemies actually know just how thoroughly fucked they were.

The distortion of transit, as the pocket of space that included the Calamity stitched itself back into normal spacetime, could not be breached by any known weapon. Gravitational flux, so complex as to be essentially random, made it hard to know just when the distortion would settle, which would be when the emerging ship would be briefly defenceless. This time around, if anyone had shot at the transit point, it had splashed harmlessly on that distortion; nothing hit the hull before the pulse shield was up, and only a few impacts bounced off of that before it dissolved, giving way in a split second to the shaped barriers of the proper shielding.

Once the sensors had had time to parse all their new input, it was easy to see why: the opposing force had scattered, going into evasive posture themselves, once they saw something coming through. Only a few were close enough to have fired a few pot-shots – and at a nod Derry’s way, that pair of fighters rather abruptly ceased to be, caught in the glare of a capital-ship particle beam.

Khaele keyed her com to general transmission. “This is Captain Khaele Makrynn of the INS Calamity to all hostile vessels: Stand down immediately or be destroyed. You will not receive another warning. Makrynn out.”

And that would satisfy all the forms. “Targets at your discretion, Derry,” she said, and leaned back in her seat.

Once they’d seen what they were up against, the aggressors thought they were faced with a lumbering behemoth – at least relative to themselves; something that, with their force of numbers in lighter capital ships, they might be able to outmanoeuvre and repulse.

They were, once again, wrong. The Calamity had more than three times as many control surfaces and vectored thrusters as any typical vessel. That complexity was why it had a pilot cybernetically jacked in. On manual control, she would be only slightly more manoeuvrable than any other ship in her class; but with all those thrusters employed to full effect, she was actually better able to twist and roll than most battlecruisers, and her main engines and particle shielding gave her the speed to chase down frigates and destroyers, forcing them in range of her batteries.

And those batteries were many. Now they began their work of filling the surrounding space with missiles, rail-accelerated cannon shells, and high-energy particle blasts. A trio of intrepid corvettes, skating past the long-ranged fire, tried to come in for a close attack at a turret cluster, only to discover that the Calamity’s X-ray lasers didn’t have the gaps in coverage that had plagued earlier models. The lasers were focused and directed by gravity; with no cumbersome turrets to physically turn about, aiming was practically instant, and the corvettes boiled away under fire that would have ravaged a light cruiser.

All was not perfect. Ayesh spat out a thoroughly atypical curse as an alarm on his console beeped. “Battery Seven is offline,” he reported. “Coolant failure to the lasing chamber.”

Damn. That was one node that wouldn’t be back anytime soon. “Casualties?”

“One moment.” Ayesh bent over his console for a moment; then, “None, Captain. The backups held long enough for a clean disconnect.”

“Good. Get damage control to salvage the rest of the battery, but don’t worry about the laser emitter just yet.”

“Other lasers are showing no unusual coolant drain. Logs show nothing strange about the draw on #7 before it blew,” Ayesh reported. “Preliminary DamCon report does not recommend adjustments to the remaining lasers.”

“Shit happens,” Khaele translated. “I’m sure the cause will be obvious in hindsight. Right now, we’ve got plenty of other lasers to keep running.”

There weren’t so many targets that all batteries were busy all the time, anyway; most of the work was in point defence, and that was a task for the computer and its swift reactions. All told, it was a task that went well; a number of explosions or laser warheads splashed against the shields, but only a few were strong enough to push through, and even those didn’t do much but scorch the paint. A few armour panels would need replacing when all was said and done, but the Calamity weathered the blows with hardly a lurch.

The forces slid past one another and swung about, pulling into formations as they did so.

“Message from Commander Zariel, Captain,” reported the ursine woman at Nav and Comm. “His compliments for the missile defence, and he’s formally attaching himself to your command and awaiting orders.”

“Hm. Tricky.” Khaele frowned into her tactical plot. “Let him know I’ll get back to him presently, and in the meantime he’s to carry on screening.”

“Sir.” Tess bent over her console, voice sinking to a low rumble.

Khaele kept studying the plot. With the enemy capital ships still sweeping around and the fighters on both sides swarming about their larger companions, it was hard to tell just yet how things were going to break. If the enemy fleet stayed together and pressed the attack, they would lose; the Calamity alone had them all outgunned, now.

So they probably wouldn’t do that. But they might harry, hoping to pull the Imperial forces far enough out of position that they could make for the jump node themselves. Or they might split apart – they might not have the advantage in weight, but the sheer number of capital hulls would make that a tricky situation to deal with. If they did that, some of them would almost certainly get free.

And yet, as the fleets swung around, the enemy formation pulled in that much tighter.

Why? They had to know they couldn’t win. Did they expect something to change?

They weren’t positioning themselves in a way that suggested they had allies jumping in. But the direction they were turning wouldn’t pull the Calamity away from the node – they’d pass almost over top of it, with the aggressors on a roughly-parallel course some distance off, if they manoeuvred to stay in engagement range. There was no way anyone could transit out in such close quarters without the other side getting some free hits in.

What among all the stars were they doing?

They couldn’t have reinforcements here… but a sudden spike of dread arrived on the realization that they might have reinforcements somewhere else.

She tapped at her console, waiting for the green light that would indicate an active transmission, and then pushed the transmit key. “Commander Zariel, Captain Makrynn. Something’s off about their posture here.”

“Makrynn, Zariel. You’re the one with the big tac scope.” The voice was smooth, even suave; over the com channel, the ragged edge of strain and fatigue was almost undetectable. Almost. “What do you need me to do, Captain?”

“I want you to detach as many interceptors as you can spare and sent them running for the orbital yards,” Makrynn instructed. “No need to be covert – in fact, make it obvious. Redline the sensor gear and put as much power as they can spare after that to engines. If they’ve got anyone else out there, I want them flushed out while we’ve still got time to redirect and intercept.”

A pause. “They’ve certainly had enough time to sneak a few more light capships in. Any bigger than that, we’d have noticed, but… it’s been a few crazy days here.”

“Based on where your report said they came from… I’m guessing the most likely hiding-spot is here.” Makrynn marked the planet’s L4 zone on her scope and keyed it for transmission. “Have a wing detach and go there while the rest head straight for the primary. If some kind of launch does happen, I’ll want the interceptors to fan out, link their sensors into an array, and help coordinate point defence.”

“Roger that, Captain. I’ll have them dispatched before we finish turnaround.”

“Make sure the wing going to L4 especially is ready to dodge,” Makrynn urged. “If they do flush someone out, that someone won’t be happy.” In fact, this manoeuvre might well be sending those pilots to their deaths; Makrynn struggled not to wince at the thought.

“Understood, Captain.”

“The rest of you stay with us, and engage according to standard screening protocols. If they start launching heavy salvos, pull in close to our defence umbrella. Otherwise, posture at your discretion – I know you’ve been at this a while, so play cautious if you need to. Nothing further. Makrynn out.”

Khaele leaned back in her command chair. On the plot, two groups separated from the throng of green SLA fighters – a trio of Falcon interceptors and a half-dozen older Kites. Their blips brightened as they raced along, their predicted sensor coverage broadening as their emissions ramped up. At first the two groups seemed to be moving in unison, but as they built up speed, the Falcons split off from their more numerous, but more fragile fellows.

Meanwhile, as the Calamity burned an arc past the waiting Sledgehammer bombers, their pilots, on their own initiative or at Zariel’s command, suddenly powered up and burned in to join the formation.

Good, good; that was part of the point of going past them, after all.

Minutes crept by as the fleets reversed course. Fighters and even corvettes could turn on a moment’s notice, but the capital ships, even with the beefed-up engines on such as the Calamity, were much more ponderous, and that first pass had been at high relative velocity. Now they were edging toward a more extended engagement. Which still didn’t make sense; the Imperial forces would take a heavier pounding this time around, but between the Calamity and the two bomber wings, they had more than enough force advantage to come out on top.

So why were the others pressing this attack? If something didn’t turn up soon…

“Missile launch,” Derry announced, as a sprinkle of ruby dust lit up the scope. “Reading at least eighty point sources from Jurena L4. Looks like you were right, Captain.”

Eighty missiles? Oh, hells. If all of those were directed at the poor interceptors heading that way…

“We’re losing integrity on the signal from Theta Wing,” Tess announced. “They’re pushing some hard ECM and are having trouble punching through their own static.”

“Good way to be,” Khaele said to herself. On her scope, the three Falcons had just become eighteen; at this distance and with that much jamming, even the Calamity couldn’t tell which were the genuine article as they bobbed and wove among each other.

But she didn’t have time to pay such close attention to that section of the plot.

“Re-entering beam range in two minutes,” said Derry.

“Tavan, turn us over. I want Battery Seven away from the action, and I want the spinal accelerator brought to bear.” There was a barely-perceptible shift as the Calamity started to spin on her long axis, and Khaele went on, “Derry, primary target is this frigate here, contact Charlie One-Seven.”

“Plotting a launch solution, Captain. A frigate?”

“A frigate, yes,” Khaele confirmed. That frigate was trying to hide behind its fellows, instead of screening the destroyers like the others. It wasn’t blatant – not so much so that it looked like the primary unit being screened – but there was something fishy there.

“It’ll be tricky, but I think I’ve got a good burn set, Captain.”

“Good. Give them some missiles to think about, then launch a laser head for same-time intercept.”

“Cutting it awfully short, Captain…” The hull vibrated as Derry went on, “Missiles away.” Two more salvos followed in close succession.

The missiles – both the standard launches and the massive warhead from the spinal accelerator – would arrive at about the same time as the farthest-reaching of the Calamity’s beam weapons came back into range. Derry was right; the manoeuvre was cutting it close. But hopefully they weren’t expecting it – and if Khaele was right, this might buy them time to go help with the situation closer to the planet.

The enemy didn’t just roll over and take it. Their fighters and especially their corvettes drifted somewhat away from their heavier charges, directing their attention to swat down some of the oncoming swarm of missiles; anti-missile missiles and point defence came to bear, each in their time; ECM clouded the signatures of the enemy vessels. Of the standard barrage, over a hundred strong, only three missiles managed to get close enough to engage. Two of them detonated to no effect; the third pounded one of the screening frigates, leaving it trailing a plume of vented atmosphere.

The accelerator missile, covering the gap in less than a quarter of the time, not only gave the point defence less time to react; it was a bigger, shielded weapon, much harder to knock down, and its tracking was more sophisticated. It streaked through space, hooked around the ships in the way, and veered in close to its target before it detonated.

No living eye could have seen the spray of high-intensity beams fuelled by that explosion. The result, however, was spectacular. That was one of only a dozen ship-killers the Calamity carried, intended for use on opposing battleships or even dreadnaughts. Against such a small target as a frigate, what would have been a glancing blow was enough to rip the small vessel open from one end to the other.

The effect this had on the enemy formation was subtle, but distinct; for a moment, just as the fleets came together, they were disorganized. Khaele’s guess had been right again; that frigate had been serving as their command ship, and its destruction had left them with an urgent need to rearrange command, and not enough time to do it in.

It was enough to give the Imperial force an early start on the damage. Half the aggressors didn’t even get a chance to return fire; those that did were haphazard. A few Authority fighters and one of the bombers disappeared in clouds of missiles and cannon fire – but many extra attacks went right through the space they’d occupied, rather than being properly spread among the formations.

The Calamity was not to escape the enemy’s wrath this time around. She lurched, klaxons blaring, as cratering shells sank into her armour and detonated, or as plates were boiled away under energy fire; even warped by shields, those beams still had enough force to bite into the hull.

But when the skirmish cleared, the Imperials had come ahead twenty to one – only a few fighters lost, only minor damage to the Calamity, and no worse than moderate injuries aboard her, while the enemy force was broken. Lifepod beacons filled the tactical plot, and those few vessels still acting under their own power shut off their fire control sensors.

Khaele took a breath, seeking out the orbital action on her plot, and let that breath back out as a sigh of some relief. The interceptors had pulled through the missile swarm without taking a single hit – any one of which would almost certainly have been lethal. Four destroyers and a light cruiser started to break away for the outer system, but when the Calamity started to bear in on an intercept course, they cut their engines and all but basic particle shielding, and lit up their emergency beacons; an even clearer gesture of surrender.

They’d turned a fighting retreat on the SLA’s part into a total rout the other way, and the next wave of friendlies wasn’t even close to arriving. It wasn’t without cost, of course, but still, Khaele couldn’t help but be satisfied.

Not a bad turnout on a first cruise, really.