(34) To Be Named

The Crusader Campaign (139-1123 to 140-1123)

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139-1123 : Tussinian / Trin's Veil / Spinward Marches

   It's 13:30, with about 6-8 hours before the Santanocheev's forces could mount another assault against the naval forces of Trin's Veil subsector at the Battle of Tussinian.  The Mirriam and Egypt fleets are completely out of action, presumably in the process of being repaired and combined.
    The crew of Nightshade now plan to take it easy for a while.  That's an orbit and will bring them back behind the planet.
    Shark has told Callisto to watch Llanamith and try to detect any ships that leave it.  It's too far away, though, and that's hindered in that the defenders' orbit is taking them around the far side of the mainworld.
    Kalida would like to know the chances of Santanocheev remaining on Llanamith.  She discusses it with Shark, who is very definite that he does not expect him to stay there.  That agrees with Kalida's instincts too, although it is his style to lead in person and Llanamith has by far the best command and control facilities.
    Shark asks her which would be the third best in line from that.
    Kalida responds that their very first target, Darotukshi, was the second in line.  Next would be the flagship of another fleet.
    The next order of business is what they should do next.  Should they continue to fight with the defenders, or go harrass the reserves?  That's settled quite quickly.  They will stay with the defenders, but as Shark suggests that on one of these orbits, when they get behind the planet they should climb much higher and match the defenders from above in stealth mode.  That will take them out from where the attackers will be lasering for them, which should give them at least one surprise shot.  The clinching argument is that the crew have been in sparkly pink for several hours in the battle, and to be fresh for the next engagement need some rest.  Shark offers to stand watch, as his role in battle stations is not critical.
    Sir Misha agrees.  Several hours of rest is likely to leave them capable of contributing more to the defense than running a raid on the reserves, coming back, and fighting right away again.  He decides the crew will rest for two hours, and re-evaluate their condition then.  That will bring Nightshade back behind the planet again.
    Shark contacts the Doc, and checks to see if the Baron has any chemical means of keeping the crew alert.  He does indeed, although he warns that the side effects as it wears off will not be pleasant.  On the other hand, he can keep the crew in a boosted state pretty much indefinitely if necessary.

    The first time around when they come back into view of Santanocheev's forces, Shark focusses the sensors on them.  He sees that their reserve line is moving in, but while the more battered elements of the front lines have moved back, they're settling in at the back of the approaching fleets and not retiring to the reserve position.  The forces as a whole are on their way in towards the mainworld.
    Shark muses that the attackers want this to be the final battle.  He directs the ship not to wake the crew for the next orbit too.
    Later, as they orbit back around the mainworld, Shark wakes Helia.  The larian flies down from her hammock high on the aft wall of the bridge, and follows his instructions.
    Nightshade climbs out away from the defenders -- Shark tells the defenders they're taking a higher orbit -- out to below the estimated attacker orbit, and goes into stealth.  It's 15:40 and they're in position.  Helia locks the ship into following the defender fleets (not in a true orbit, of course) and goes back to sleep, after tossing Shark a bag of candy from her stash.

    Sir Misha wakes up to find the ship climbing out of the defending fleets.  He goes to the Bridge, where Shark briefs him on the expected major battle to come.  Sir Misha agrees that the crew should rest.  The only other thing they could do would be to go out there and knock out some of the top candidate command ships.
    Shark says he can't tell whether they're actively scanning for them yet, but should know in half an hour or so.  If they are scanning, they'll have a hard time sneaking in.

    At 16:30, it's time for Shark to try again to scan the other fleets.  To his disappointment, he quickly determines that they're using lasers, actively scanning in all directions.  There are no unguarded ways to get inside the enemy flotilla.
    Oddly enough, the incoming fleets are heading for the mainworld's moons right now.  This will delay the attack by another 8 hours or so.
    At this point the crew have been asleep for about three hours.  Shark decides he needs backup from the tactical minds on the crew, and so wakes Sir Misha, Kalida, and Bridgehead and brings them up to date.
    The mainworld has two small moons, fairly close to the mainworld.  The nearest orbits at 25000km from the mainworld, the other at 40000km.  The larger outer moon has a slight atmosphere but no water; the smaller has no atmosphere and is almost tidally locked.
    Shark asks the experts what they would be doing out there, what they could possibly have stored?  He goes on to suggest that there could be a cache of missiles and supplies there, which could be safer than putting it on the mainworld.  He doesn't think they could have enough fuel there for all the fleets.  He adds that Nightshade could get there before the fleets arrive and find out what they have.  It would take about 15 minutes to get to the nearest, 20 minutes to the farthest.  The fleets are about an hour out and he guesses they would arrive at 17:30.  He can't tell which moon is their destination.
    Shark fetches Callisto.  She says she can identify any man-made objects on the moon with just one orbit.  They'll need to come out of stealth, but if they take a polar orbit in black color scheme they won't be in silhouette against the moon and should have a reasonable chance at remaining unseen.  There might be a little scatter from the active sensors, but with luck there won't be much and the incoming fleets won't be looking for it.

    The smallest moon is the closest, so that's where Helia takes them first.  She blasts them around the world on a polar orbit path while Callisto does her thing.  By 17:00 she is sure that there is nothing that is not natural on this moon.  She then takes another passive scan of the incoming fleets and feeds the data into the tactical information.
    Helia and Kalida determine that the fleets are heading for the small moon, the one they have just scanned.  All of them are heading here.  None of the crew can figure out any reason why they would be coming here, but they are all agreed that they need to move on to the other moon.  Staying here, even in stealth on the moon's surface, is far too much a sitting duck for most of the crew, especially Helia.

    It takes 15 minutes to get to the larger moon, and another 20 minutes for the scan.
    In the meantime, the fleets have arrived near the small moon, with the New Rome fleet leading on point.  Kalida quickly identifies the new flagship of that fleet.  They've set up in an orbit around the mainworld, very near the small moon, rather than orbiting the moon itself.
    Callisto's scan reveals something on this moon.  There's what seems to be an unoccupied crude settlement, which she thinks is probably old and abandoned.  It's a couple of dozen residential prefab buildings, with a few larger central buildings.  There's no power to anything, and no sign of anyone now or in the recent past.
    Kalida and Bridgehead estimate that for the fleets to rearrange into formation and mount an attack would be at least 8 hours.
    Shark suggests that they could make one pass diving through the fleet and take out Llanamith.  It would however involve going through the fleets, which are doing their laser show trick.  He still thinks that even though they'll pick up Nightshade on the approach, they could be moving so fast that it would reduce their exposure to fire.  He (and several others) wonder what would happen if they jumped from in the middle of those fleets, but Helia points out that a situation just like that caused their first misjump recently.
    Shark again says this is their opportunity.  There would be time to rest after this before the next fight, and they could take out the Happy Fun Ball before that next battle.
    Bridgehead's comment is simple: "You're mad."  He says it's a suicide run and they would never even make it far enough to get off a shot at their target.
    Shark agrees that they'll have to take concentrated meson gun fire, for at least three shots from three fleets on the way in, and the same on the way out.  They can use the moon for some cover, but it's not going to be effective enough to make a substantial difference.  They could hit ships on the outskirts of the flotilla by popping up from behind the moon, firing, and popping back, but they couldn't reach Llanamith that way.
    Kalida points out that their shields have gone to purple already in the battle, and if they try this they're going to draw more fire than that.  Mich agrees: if they try to dive in, they'll be toast.
    Bridgehead's opinion is to wait until the fleets are engaged and then take out their command center on the Happy Fun Ball.  He says that would have more impact than doing it now and giving them a chance to set up a new command before the battle.
    Kalida wonders how much command and control would be centered on Llanamith, given that it's quite clear that Santanocheev won't be on it.  If he doesn't have a tight beam link with that ship and its elite crew he will be giving up some of his command resources.
    Shark identifies which capships are closest to the flagship, and picks out four other dreadnoughts in the Tigress Battle Group.
    Kalida then uses her best poker skills, reading Santanocheev the man rather than the Imperial strategy, to take her best guess as to where he is likeliest to be of those four ships.  The dreadnought Dark Horse is the clear favorite for Santanocheev's actual location, Kalida guesses.
    Sir Misha asks what the odds would be of getting some missiles through to Llanamith if they just fired all 700 from here.
    Zero is the answer.  They would see the missiles incoming, and turn on the black globe to absorb the impact.
    The compromise decision is to use the pop-up method to take out one big ship at least, just to harrass the fleets.  The Motmos Fleet is nearest to the small moon, and presents the most suitable target.  Kalida selects a large cruiser on the outskirts as the best to take out, as they won't have a full shot at the core of the fleet.

    Helia takes them into position on a terrain-following trajectory, slowing as they reach the horizon.  At 18:00 they pop up from the moon, Kalida splits a cruiser perfectly with the expander, and Helia takes them back under cover and streaks into terrain-following again.  On the far side of the world she pulls up and drops them back into stealth mode.
    As they sweep back towards the mainworld, they note that the fleets have not broken formation.  Helia takes them back into high guard position over the defenders and locks them into position.  Finally, at 18:30, the crew can rest again.
    With just four battle-weary but motivated fleets to face Santanocheev's thirteen, several of which are completely fresh and undamaged, they will need all the rest they can get.
    Even Shark takes a break this time, trusting Nightshade herself to keep station.  As they head to dinner, he mentions to the Captain that the Doc has drugs available to keep people going if needed.

140-1123 : Tussinian / Trin's Veil / Spinward Marches

    The attackers have now been delayed by a day and a half.  Only three and a half days to go before the Trin's Veil fleets' retreat orders, but it's not looking good.  It would be really good if they could simply remove the ocean from the world, but the expander just isn't enough to do anything on a global scale.  The weapon used against the Karma FarSpace Station could do it, but they don't know what that is.  They do have a large weapon on the swiss cheese ship they set on a course out of Zett, but just fetching it, let alone setting it up to fire, would be impractical in the time available.  Even then, the don't know what that weapon might be.
    The tactical assessment is that once the attackers start moving to engage, it would take them at least a couple of hours before they engage.  Given the defenders' orbit, at worst it would be an hour and a half warning if they started moving when the defenders just moved behind the world.
    Shark suggests that the attackers might simply keep up a constant series of strafing runs against the defenders, four fleets at a time.
    Kalida mentions that's in the Imperial manual as the Galaga Strategem, and points out that it is very intensive in fuel use which he can't afford to do.  She then says she's going up to the Bridge to consider matters in sparkly pink, and that if she seems to be taking too long he is to wake her.  She adds, "If it makes you feel any better, fish oil will not be involved."

    Kalida takes up one of the consoles on the command dais and goes into her thread-seeking state of mind.  The first thing is to see if he's waiting for anything to arrive, and then to follow anything that Santanocheev might be attached to.
    If there was anything extra coming in, it would have to have been pre-planned or have some alternate means of communication.  She'd already determined that anything that was coming in was centered around the one date, which was 138.  If he has called anything in, it would have to be with FTL communication and with fast-jumps, and no-one else has Helia to do that.
    As for connections with Santanocheev here, pretty much everything is connected to him.  Even more than Kalida had thought, so much is depending on him personally and what he does.  He himself is affecting to a great degree the outcome here.  He is clearly taking personal charge and aware of how much is riding on it in the global scheme of things.  The book, the predictable elements, none of that applies anymore.  It's his personality, his thoughts, that's what's deciding his end of events here, and that's not predictable enough.  There's a solid lump around him and it's surrounded with fuzz.
    That said, they can pull back on those threads.  But then they're linked hard into Santanocheev's threads.  What they're doing is factored into what he's pulling.  He's taking into account everything that's going on here.
    Kalida then tries to confirm that he's on Dark Horse.  With shock, she realizes he's not.  She can't tell where he is, but he's not on any of the five primary ships in the battle group.  She's pretty sure he was on Dark Horse recently, but he's moved off and out of sight of her abilities.
    She switches back to the normal view of the universe, but remains in sparkly pink.  She feels the fleets in as detailed a view as she can, but can't sense anything moving amongst them.
    She muses that there are still two other fleets out in this general area somewhere, but really doesn't know where they might be.

    Kalida reports what she's discovered about Santanocheev's location.
    Shark suggests they move to a different position around the orbit from the defender fleets, so that between then they'll have more warning when Santanocheev makes his move.
    This a good idea.  On Kalida's advice, Helia moves them into position leading the other fleets so the element of surprise is weakened.

    At 04:00, with Nightshade able to see them but the defenders not, Santanocheev's operational fleets start moving, all 13 of them.  It'll be two hours to the attack.  Robert sets up a tight-beam link that can be maintained in stealth mode, and they inform Commodore von Krantzhoff.
    It's hard to predict the exact position in the orbit where engagement will take place.  They also can't see what the final formation is likely to be.
    Kalida goes back into sparkly pink and tries to figure out whether Santanocheev is with the Thirteen or the remnants of the Egypt and Mirriam fleets.  She sees his influence everywhere and it's obscuring any attempt to discern his location.
    Shark ponders the question of whether the moon will be in sight of the world all the time.  The tactical crew inform him it's very unlikely, as the fight will be in orbit around the world and will slip behind it.  Nevertheless, he considers the possibility that Santanocheev might sit on the moon, have a tightbeam connection to two ships stationed on the mainworld poles, and be watching from his shuttle or whatever and not be in the battle at all.  There is not, however, any ship at the poles -- not yet, anyway, or rather nothing of any size.  If there was a gcarrier or launch it would be hard to pick up from here.
    Kalida and Sir Misha don't think that is Santanocheev's style.  On the other hand, he has to win here, whatever that takes.
    Sir Misha says that Santanocheev's personal survival will not affect the outcome of this battle.
    Shark and Kalida have more faith in the latter's fish-oil induced hallucinatory trances.  Kalida says that he is the one who's influencing everything.
    Shark adds that he's the one showing operational knowledge of Nightshade and how to deal with her.  As soon as he turned up, the fleets started showing effective tactics to protect against them.
    Sir Misha says they probably learned it from the lessons they'd dealt them, and not from his arrival.  He is convinced that it's not his style to lead from the back.
    Kalida and Shark are in total agreement that if they can get Santanocheev, the whole thing falls apart.
    Sir Misha says that if he's thinking along those lines, then he's just as likely to be setting it up as a decoy rather than actually doing it.
    Kalida is sure that normally Santanocheev would be in the battle, but here the rules are out the window.
    Shark says that all they can do is fight the battle they are prepared to fight.  That's predictable, and nothing they can do about it.  But what can they do to surprise them, given the black ship's capabilities?  The line of battle is generally a line.  There's a front.  A screen of smaller ships, then the capships, then command and control.  Santanocheev is going to change that some to protect from behind, but he can't change that entirely and still guarantee a win. And he has got to guarantee a win.  So of the 13 fleets going down, he has to have eight on the front line, so that only leaves four to protect the command and control fleet in the middle.  He's going to be in one of the ships in the other four, he says.  He adds that the two non-operational fleets are making no move to follow the others, so they will be out of sight for half an orbit.
    Sir Misha asks if they should be concerned that while the fight is going on one side of the world, that the attackers could make a dive for the planet.
    The tacticians assure him that there is not enough time to refuel.  To refuel, a flotilla must have orbital superiority at least, and that can't happen with a battle passing over every hour.  A refuelling operation takes a long time with soft ships.  They have to clear the skies to refuel.
    Sir Misha says the best way to draw him out is to whack enough ships that he feels he has to take command personally.  Of course, he may have something up his sleeve at that moment.
    Shark believes Santanocheev will be in one of the four fleets that is protecting the decoy command and control fleet.  Either that, or in a small scout ship far outside, looking down.  A courier, so he could run, perhaps, but then Callisto could probably pick up any starship.  If he loses this battle, he loses the war.  He will be keeping an eye on the tactical display to look for any ship that is not doing the normal thing.

    It's 05:00, about an hour before the expected attack.  As the fleets approach, they're starting to flatten out into more of a dome shape.  It looks like they're on a path to come down to the defenders, all 13 fleets at once, as an enveloping shell.  They should be able to bring to bear at least two fleets on every defender, and if they choose to concentrate may be able to pull off a local 4:1 or even 5:1.  They're in a formation where they're supporting each other, with the Happy Fun Ball Battle Group at the top of the shell.
    If Nightshade makes an attack run from behind, there would be three fleets that could bear on them.  If they went all the way around and came directly down from on top before the battle began, if they were picked up at all on the way in they could probably bring five to bear.  If they went straight up the middle rather than coming from the top, they may face as many as six.  In the last battle, 1-1/2 is all that attacked them.
    Their options look much the same as the last battle.  There is no point in "getting themselves whacked," as Kalida puts it.
    Helia points out one advantage -- they can dive into the atmosphere at full orbital speed.  It will slow them down, but they can't be followed and it will be unexpected.
    The defenders are simply vastly outnumbered.  There really is no way around that.  All Nightshade can do is try to help out.
    Sir Misha wonders what the chances would be of sneaking up from behind, hitting the Happy Fun Ball, and streaking back out.
    If they did it while everything was engaged, the response could be limited by the time it took to retarget their ships.
    Shark says that if they started knocking away at the corners, taking a fleet at the edge, then they'd get a lot less coverage on them.  After a while, they'd draw more of the attackers to respond to them, disrupting the attacking formation, and once they start grouping they can move and attack another more isolated fleet.
    They can keep costing the attackers fuel, force them to expend as much as possible to respond to them.

    And that seems to be the best option so far.  Helia plots out a paths to descend to attack each of the four diamond corners.
    Sir Misha chooses the front fleet on point as their target.  It's a solid choice, as it allows them to dive into the atmosphere and not lose track of the battle when they lose some speed.