LANCER: BATTLEGROUP - To Kill the Worthy King

Survival

Caspian waits for the world to stop bouncing around before gingerly prying his way out from the nanofoam crash bubble that his emergency jumpseat has deployed around him. A hand grasps his and helps yank him out - its van Ghent. The senior chief looks bruised but otherwise intact. CGO Bryant hasn't been as lucky - her crash bubble has been thrown against the shattered bridge wall and impaled on a broken girder. She's unconscious and bleeding badly from a shattered arm. Several of Bryant's team are missing, their crash bubbles - like hers - torn clean from their floor mounts by the ferocity of the impact.

There's at least two dozen serious injuries and six dead on the shattered bridge of the Wagner: a relatively low body count, perhaps, but the danger remains. The entire structure has been vented to space when the starboard bow sheared off and now the survivors pat down their emergency vac-suits as they set about helping injured comrades and searching for the missing. More crucially, Caspian notes, the emergency lifeboat station is jammed shut - the massive blast doors crumpled at odd angles.

"Richards? Lt. Foster? Anyone with a hard suit?" Caspian taps the comms.

"Jr. Lieutenant Asad here, sir. I'm afraid the L-T's bought it. We're trying to get the blast doors down but it could take a bit."

"Very well then - keep us appraised on the progress." Caspian says looking at his own emergency oxygen supply. 12 hours in the compact pod and he can see some of his bridge crew handing out the spare bottles from the emergency boxes. A few others are starting to pry Bernd's Casket module loose for removal.

A series of silent flashes light up the rents in the Wagner's hull - a reminder though the Wagner is out of it, the battle still rages.

<AT LAST, CAPTAIN. I HAVE FOUND YOU.>

The unearthly voice seems to come from within his skull. Yet the intonations are familiar. Captain Tiburce Rodin. Wasn't he off to the lifeboats the last time Caspian saw him?

The eerie face of a SSC Dusk Wing mech frame appears at the gaping hole in the starboard side of the bridge - then the many-armed chassis crawls its way in. Surely, this is the dreadful apparition that every war criminal fears - a DOJ/HR investigator in a mech.

<APOLOGIES FOR THE UNCONVENTIONAL COMMUNICATIONS. SIGNAL DISRUPTION FROM STELLAR FLARES INTERFERES WITH THIS MECH'S RADIO. DO YOU REQUIRE ASSISTANCE? HAWKER AND I CAME TO HELP.>

A highly mobile flying mech like Rodin's is most welcome - it can help secure a working lifeboat, ferry survivors to it, and search the debris for others. Certainly an unsettling visage, but right now the inspector's aid is sorely needed.

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Dusk Wing art by Tom Parkinson-Morgan
 

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The Straggler, Part 1

The Harrison Armory fleet legion is hosting a confrontation.

"I gave you an order, Commandant!" Captain Ashanti's eyes are wide in disbelief as she stares down the carrier commander through the holodisplay. "Commit your wings and start eliminating the damaged hostiles. You need to engage!"

Commandant Almarik holds up her hands, flustered. "Sir, wait, sir, I just don't think the James I is coming. Sir."

"What?"

"Captain Petrie keeps reporting drive issues... he's straggling at the rear of the formation. He's revised his ETA twice since the engagement began."

Ashanti shrugs. "And? Are you saying he's turning traitor? Shying away from his duty?"

"I don't know, sir, but, but, what if he doesn't show up? Union still has a fresh battleship and carrier, and we've lost half the fleet."

Her words shake Ashanti visibly. She hurries on: "Sir. Respectfully. If we call for a truce now, we can send out S&R boats, save the crew of the Arminius, maybe even salvage the carrier. The Reds will want to save their own spacers from the Richard Wagner."

"And then what? We turn back to the Rim? A couple thousand of our spacers will have died for nothing."

"If we stop now, we save the Arminius. And the Hannibal." Almarik gives a meaningful nod to Ashanti. "Before we lose more."

Ashanti looks away. "This loss will be on my shoulders. I can't..."

The fleet legion interrupts them. "The Björn Járnsiđa has changed course. Collision with Ching Shih imminent."

"Oh. Good, fine," says Almarik nervously. "I guess they chose to die. Browning, hit them with the Scrapcaster."

"Firing!"

The carrier's massive bow-mounted magnetic accelerator casts a conical blast of shrapnel into the Björn's path.

"Fools. I was arguing to save your lives," mutters Almarik to herself.

Battlegroup Ching Shih

1) Maneuver: Scrapcaster. Range 0 Accuracy bonus cancels weapon Inaccuracy. Roll of 6, miss. On hit or miss, Single Target attacks against the Corsair are made with +1 Difficulty until the end of its next turn.

Place 2 reloading counters on Scrapcaster.

The blast just barely misses the frigate. There is a moment of horrified silence on the bridge. The Björn is now only a few hundred kilometers away. And everyone remembers the Arminius' fate.

"Order the Patrice and the Jubei to fire on that frigate!" Almarik points unnecessarily for emphasis at her display. "Send in the Shermans, send everything..."

The cruisers open fire with their main guns. Wings of mechanized chassis scramble to act. But it may be too late.

The young commandant rubs her hands nervously. "These Union lunatics. No good, no good."

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Sherman art by Tom Parkinson-Morgan

2) Stalwarts use Maneuver: Forward Kinetic Batteries, roll 15, hit Björn Járnsiđa for 5 damage.

3) Ching Shih uses Tactic: Raiding Party, Uninvited Guests to send two Wings of chassis to board Björn Járnsiđa.

Kinetic cannonfire strikes the Björn near the bridge. Shrapnel and spalling take a red-splashed toll on the crew. Body parts and severed helmets fly everywhere.

Then the clanging sound of boarding mechs on the frigate's hull. Cutting their way in. The final fight has begun.

Boarding Step:

Facefirst Marines roll to Sabotage Fire Control on Hannibal: 19, success.

Fool's Gold Marines roll to Deploy Ontologic Payload on Hannibal: 17, success.

Ching Shih's Wing rolls to Plant Demolition Charges on Björn Járnsiđa: 16, success.

Ching Shih's Wing rolls to Plant Demolition Charges on Björn Járnsiđa: 12, success.

During the boarded ship's next turn they must choose: either use a Maneuver to repel boarders or take 1d6 damage that ignores Overshield and cannot be prevented in any way at the end of that turn. This boarding command can be stacked up to a maximum of 3d6 damage.

Next: The Tipping Point
 

Nearlight Klaxons

Round 5 begins.


At the beginning of the 5th round of play just before the Logistics Step begins, every player needs to determine whether or not they plan to continue the current engagement — by this point, their nearlight drives have cooled down and charged back up, their crew and characters are well prepared and ready to make the necessary call, and the likely tactical outcome of the engagement should be pretty easy to infer: each player must choose whether to jump or to stay engaged.

If a player jumps, their battlegroup retreats from the combat, punching out via nearlight ejection. Any Payload weapons still in flight towards them are outstripped by their acceleration and will not be able to catch them. Battlegroups ejecting from an engagement are no longer threats worth targeting anyways. Those who choose to stay remain engaged. From then on, at the start of every round they’ll make the same check — retreat, or remain engaged.

"The Ching Shih is engaging the Björn, Captain." Sensors reports. "There're multiple chassis on her."

"She won't survive that - either way, she's done for if she stays," Tabitha growls. "No sign of the James I?"

"Nothing on the scopes yet." Senior Chief Moretti replies. "Wonder what's happened to her."

Tabitha looks at the chart for a moment. "Maybe they're backing down." The bridge crew turn their eyes to her a smidge. "Doesn't look like the Ching Shih and the Hannibal are planning on stopping anytime soon," observes CGO Petrov.

"You can't really blame them - Lutjens is looking to go out in a blaze of glory by the looks of it," Gbeho responds. "They could have attacked any one of us instead for better results. The Björn isn't much of a threat in the long term as we are... unless she smacks straight into them, of course."

"Well he's going to have to look for his last stand elsewhere," Tabitha says, opening a channel to the Björn Járnsíða. "Captain Lutjens. As senior commander of this operation, I'm ordering you to withdraw from the battlefield immediately."

Lutjen's hologram flickers and fades as the sound of gunfire rings in the background. "Captain, with all due respect - you need every ship you can get! I can at least damage the Ching Shih, or the Hannibal..."

"At the cost of your ship and your crew AND the survivors of the Wagner you have aboard, Captain," Tabitha responds sternly. "The James I appears to be delayed. This will give us time to mop up some of the surviving Purview forces and regroup to face her. You are to eject immediately with everyone you have aboard. Make sure they're buttoned down tight."

Lutjens shakes his head, "We're going to lose people either way, Captain. I'd rather we go out fighting."

"Captain, again, I admire the tenacity but this isn't supposed to be a fight to the death. I agree that we cannot risk Purview forces taking out their frustrations on our survivors but smashing your ship against a carrier isn't going to change much if anything. Get out with everyone you can and deal with any stray Purview boarders once you're somewhere where they can't vaporize you in an instant." Tabitha responds firmly. "Now get out of here."

Lutjens sighs and salutes "As you say Captain," Turning to his bridge crew he says wearily - "Prepare to jump."

Roll: 5 - Successful ejection

There's a wild flurry of activity as crewmembers desperately slam reinforced bulkheads behind them to slow the progress of the boarding chassis as they rush to their emergency stations. The sound of klaxons echoes through the crippled ship. The Björn's navigation team is working in a frantic rush to calculate their trajectory.

In the reactor spaces, Warrant Officer Chang is monitoring the jump procedure when a burst of heavy cannon shells punches through the armored doorway, and leaves a neat series of holes in the bulkhead opposite. Then a massive series of CLANGs! ring out and a large armored hand slowly begins to pry the battered door apart.

Then the jump klaxon blares.

The reactor crew leap from their stunned silence and strap themselves in - or simply brace wherever they are. Chang watches as the blast doors slowly peel away to frame a hulking HA Sherman chassis. The armored behemoth seems to look up and, for a moment, Chang can imagine the look of terrified realization on its pilot's face at the klaxons going off around it.

Then everything blurs.

When her vision returns the Armory chassis is no longer there. Instead, there's a mangled impact crater at the end of the corridor about the same size and shape. She swallows dryly at the thought.

Cleanup on aisle 4.
 

A Talk in the Boneyard

"Holding steady, Captain. We will be at close range in an hour or two. At that distance, our main guns will make short work of whoever we choose to aim at." CGO Petrov reports without taking her eyes off the constantly shifting firing solutions on her screen.

"Björn's away," Meade notes, "Splinter's completely off the table now. Its just us left."

"Well, let's hope they bite then," Tabitha says, straightening up her uniform and speaking directly on open comms to the remaining Purview ships.

"Attention, Hannibal and Ching Shih, this is Captain Tabitha Saint-Germaine of the UNS-BB Nikolai Bukharin. At this point, we are within optimal range of all our Battlegroup's weapons and our main guns are fully charged," The Bukharin's weapons track the newly arrived Carrier menacingly, "The Hannibal is overrun and vulnerable to being overwhelmed and you've already lost half your initial fleet," she pauses for a moment.

"Our forces are not in much better condition and you have a fully operational Battleship on the way in. Everything hangs in the balance and the desire to push that little bit harder is overwhelming," another pause, she looks down a moment, "However," looking back up, squarely at the screen.

"At this point any victory today will be a pyrrhic one for the Purview. Continuation of hostilities will ensure the loss of at least one more Purview capital ship. Possibly both currently in the field to achieve nothing more than to weaken a Union presence that might otherwise be deployed to prevent Karrakin reinforcements entering the exclusion zone should they choose to do so. Our mandate in the Dawnline Shore does not apply solely to the Purview after all."

"Our orders are to prevent additional belligerents from entering the Dawnline shore and I intend to follow those orders to the best of my abilities as I am sure you intend to follow yours. But given the situation as I have outlined, I cannot see how further hostilities will be anything but the needless sacrifice of lives for no reason other than pride."

"I am therefore proposing a truce. Both sides will cease hostilities temporarily, both sides will be allowed to recover survivors and casualties without hinderance. Both sides will exchange any prisoners taken."

"In addition, I would also propose negotiations on the nature of your mission and if it would in any way be possible for nonmilitary or neutral intervention to achieve your goals. In exchange, the Purview would withdraw your surviving ships out of the conflict zone."

"I don't think we're authorized to offer them anything, Captain," Ki says, cocking her head as the commline closes, awaiting a response. "We have to throw them a bone, Ki. At least start talking. We can work out the issues from there," Tabitha responds as she turns away from the comms and looks at her crew. "In the meantime, stay alert. If they try anything we blow them out of space."

Round 5.


State of the fleets:

2nd Crisis Response Group (Union Navy)

Battlegroup Eland (Range 3)
Interdiction 1d6+2
UNS-BB Nikolai Bukharin (22 HP), 2 volley counters on 3x3 Block Short-Spool Cannons, 2 greywash counters.
UNS-CV Shamokin Rising (16 HP)

  • 2x Fighter Wing (5 HP, 5 HP)
  • Destroyer Unicorn (6 HP)
  • Destroyer Undine (8 HP)

Battlegroup Splinter (Range 2),
UNS-BB Richard Wagner (-7 HP).
UNS-LS Björn Járnsiđa (2 HP), nearlight eject.

Battlegroup Sour Brains (Range 2)
Interdiction: 1d6+2
MSMCS We Demand Hazard Pay (13 HP), 2 reloading counters on Scrapcaster.

  • MSMCS Facefirst (6 HP)
  • MSMCS Fool's Gold (4 HP)

2nd Expeditionary Fleet (Harrison Armory Colonial Legionate)

Battlegroup Hannibal (Gyre Center)
Interdiction: 1d6
PCV-DN Hannibal (Turtleback) (19 HP), Boarded by 2x Tenacity 10 Marines. Deploy Ontological Payload: All Wings and Escorts are disabled until end of next turn. Sabotage Fire Control: The boarded ship makes all attacks with +2 Difficulty until the end of their next turn. Incoming Razorback Missiles, 2 flight counters.

  • Ace: Albedo Cavalier (8 HP), 2 heat counters on 1 Beam.

Battlegroup Shaka Zulu (Gyre Center)
PCV-DN Shaka Zulu (Paladin) (-6 HP)

Battlegroup Titania (Gyre Center)
PCV-DN Titania (UNKNOWN Man O'War) (-15 HP)

Battlegroup Arminius (Gyre Center)
PCV-GC Arminius (Mastermind Breakwater) (0 HP)

Battlegroup Ching Shih (Gyre Center)
Interdiction: 1d6
PCV-GC Chang Shih (Corsair) (25 HP)
2 reloading counters on Scrapcaster.

  • 2x Mounted Chassis Wing (5 HP, 5 HP)
  • 2x Stalwarts (10 HP, 10 HP)
  • 2x Daggerflight (4 HP, 4 HP)
 
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Sounding the All Clear

Captain Ashanti faces her officers in the fleet legion channel: Commandant Almarik of the Ching Shih, Commandant Singer of the Patrice, and Commandant Torres of the Jubei.

Nobody wants to be the first to speak. But Almarik goes ahead anyway. "Sir. They lose more ground than we gain if we stop. Their short-spools can't maintain charge for long, and they'll have to power those down. We don't have that problem. Ching Shih's main gun will be ready to fire again in less than an hour. We can also use the time to rearm and repair our fighters and corvettes."

"They can do the same with their carriers," replies Ashanti, unconvinced. "I'm more concerned with Union's ability to get reinforcements into place to block our further advance. Our intel has reported possible capital ship activity less than a week away on the other side of Lighthouse Station."

"If we burn hard, we can evade them," says Torres.

"Even if we beat them today, the Hannibal is still recovering from drive sabotage. It will be close."

"Sir?" Almarik raises a hand like a schoolgirl. "Are we assuming that we'll leave Strike Captain Gopalakrishnan and his crew to fend for themselves?"

Ashanti sighs. "If we can at least get half the fleet to Purview-friendly territory, it will be a success. So yes, that means abandoning them."

These last words put a chill on the discussion. The officers say no more. Singer glowers. Almarik fidgets.

"Discussion is over," says Ashanti, presently. "I've made up my mind."

Captain Ashanti appears composed and calm when her hologram appears before Tabitha.

"Inform your ships that the truce is on. We will power down weapons and begin search and rescue operations right away. We expect your marines to withdraw quietly."

She waits patiently while both fleets begin the process of standing down. "To be frank, Captain, you've run out the clock. While I was about to give orders to commence firing, we received confirmation of your Naval Auxiliary groups moving to intercept our advance. Had we not wasted over a day trading blows with you, we could outrun them. But my engineers can't seem to undo the damage your marines have caused. So now, we wait for Captain Petrie to arrive, before we decide what to do. And I'd appreciate it if you could release Strike Captain Bannon to us."

"We'll have the Mirrorsmoke Marines hand her over on the way back, Captain." Tabitha replies, "We will also transfer the survivors of your boarding parties back over," she turns back to the Union fleet comms. "Well done everyone."

There's a murmur of assent but little else. The loss of the Wagner stings deeply.

"Vera, send word to Vice Admiral Gentle and update her on the situation. Meade, Ki, Evans - head over to the Wagner and the We Demand Hazard Pay. Sweep the area for lifeboats and other survivors. Colonel Milch, I am putting the Shamokin's S&R teams at your disposal to help retrieve any of your Lancers that might have survived the fight. And I suppose you'd better lend the Arminius a hand, Ki." Tabitha says with a wan smile.

Ki chuckles. "I don't suppose they'll say thank you for that."
 



The Straggler, Part 2

Vera sends an update back to the Vice Admiral, and relays news from the Björn Járnsiđa: They're busy making repairs several light-minutes off the beaten path, and will need some days to get their drives back up. Casualties were thankfully light, apart from the losses to the bridge crew.

The same cannot be said for the Mirrorsmoke mech pilots. Few are left. A handful from Bernadette and Laurent, none from Guiscard. It takes hours to find the only survivors of Isabeau Wing: an unconscious Sparri rookie named Rua and his NHP partner, Fiddler.

Upon her arrival on the Hannibal's bridge, Strike Captain Bannon says nothing to anybody. She is completely unresponsive. She retires to a cabin, collapsing into dreamless oblivion. As Strike Captain Gopalakrishnan is in medical stasis due to critical brain injury, this leaves Captain Ashanti in charge of the fleet - for now.

The wreck of the Wagner tumbles slowly. Caspian and his skeleton crew watch the stars spin by hundreds of times before the first S&R mechs arrive. Shermans from the Ching Shih. The mech pilots are brusque and impatient to get the survivors to the Union fleet, but to their credit, Caspian's crew is treated well enough.

Five hours after the last shot was fired, the James I arrives from nearlight.

Captain Lowell Petrie checks in with fleet command, but not with Tabitha.

The James I is a sturdy Corregidor-built dreadnought, armed with a powerful spinal lance and accurate primary gun batteries. Four outrider destroyers accompany the flagship, each bristling with mass driver turrets to keep strike craft at bay.

"It is fortunate that we did not need to put your friend's loyalties to the test," says Vera to Tabitha. "If he had to turn coat, he would have to face the wrath of his officers. And if he chose to fight..." Vera trails off.

Warrant Officer Gbeho drifts over towards Tabitha. "Sir, we have finished cleanup in the officers' dining area. No real damage, but the Purview marines left a mess when they barged through it. If we're really going to host withdrawal talks face-to-face, it's the best place on the Bukharin for it..."

Next: Lights out
 

Thanks for all the comments!

This engagement was always meant to be a 5-on-3 fight (same number of battlegroups as the Union fleet, plus 50%). The James I was supposed to come late, but my players had no way of knowing that.

As you can see, player battlegroups are more powerful than NPCs, but unexpected tricks like the Titania's teleport swap can make things very difficult (and certainly cost Caspian Var his ship).
 

Out Like A Light

"It will do, thank you Ike. Any word when Caspian will be on board?" Tabitha asks with an audible sigh.

"He should already be aboard, Captain. Refreshing himself in his temporary quarters I'd imagine." Ike Gbeho responds. "The others will be arriving shortly from the Shamokin Rising. Vera will ping you when the mercs and our other guests arrive."

"Alright then, thank you." Tabitha checks herself in the mirror one last time before picking up her cap and, sighing heavily, heading down to the officer's mess.

As Tabitha descends the access shaft parallel to the ship's main spinal column, a medical subaltern jets over to her side.

"Sir," says a familiar NHP voice, "I have assumed command of this medic. We will be passing your comfortable cabin on the way to the mess. As your NHP executive, I have to point out that you've spent two and a half days fighting a battle on performance drugs, and you are in danger of crashing. There will be at least three hours before all our guests arrive. Let me take you to your cabin and give you a sleep injection." Vera caps it off with an unusually personal appeal. "You badly need some rest, Tabitha."

Tabitha sighs again and closes her eyes for a moment, "Fine, I'll get some rest. Just mark any additional updates on the fleet and FROM fleet for my immediate attention. Also, have someone pull intel on the situation around New Creighton so we can at least have a clue about what kind of situation the Purview thinks needs six capital ships to resolve."

The captain manages to make it as far as her stateroom couch before going out like a light.

Both players may now pick Reputation Advancements for their captains, so that they have them available for the upcoming narrative scenes...

Caspian chooses Demand Satisfaction (respond to a slight by challenging someone to a duel), Tabitha chooses Voice of Authority (can force people to pay attention to her when she raises her voice in command, speech or protest).


Next: Demon gossip
 

Bernd and Caspian Appreciation Society

As Tabitha sleeps, the Deimosian demons of the Crisis Response Group converse in digital whispers.

Vera is at the heart of it all.

Perhaps due to her seniority, or her long-running eccentricity and strength of personality, Vera has become the unofficial matriarch of the fleet's NHPs. All gossip flows to her, like rivers to the sea. For shipminds seeking guidance or clarification, Vera is the one they go to.

//query: is Bernd on board yet?
>//affirmative! their human, too
//Vera, please relay my wishes: get well soon
>>//ey! accolades to Bernd and Caspian! glad they survived
>>//me too! what a fight. they did us proud

Vera takes a break from the Bernd and Caspian Appreciation Society to dip into the infostreams of the Omninet.

The newsboards are still alive with discussion, supposition and counter-supposition on the fallout from the First Battle of New Creighton, which occured weeks ago in subjective time. The pride of the Baronies' fleet, brought to ruin by a superior Armory expeditionary force. Fleeing Federal Karrakin ships, surrendering to a Union commander for their own safety. And the snowballing disaster that ensued when pursuing Armory ships opened fire on Admiral Arisa Hightree's battlegroups. When the grueling battle ended, nearly a dozen capital ships and countless sublines were burning, most of them flying Purview colours.

Over the course of the month, a half dozen smaller engagements have broken out across the twelve systems of the Dawnline Shore. Ground skirmishes on New Madrassa. The brutal attack on the Shirline by the superdreadnought Meritorious Rex. And more. But the clash over New Creighton still has the lion's share of the public's attention.

Admiral Hightree's fleet did its job, protecting civilians in the evacuation corridor, and stopping the advancing wedge of Armory ships. And for that, the Union commanders have been condemned by both the Karrakin and Armory governments for "interference" and "blatant favouritism." A shadow lies over Hightree's fleet.

Now, the Admiral and her ships have been sent away from New Creighton, all the way to the Long Rim nadir route, to take over guard duty as penance for their role in the battle.

Vera's gossip circle is very much sympathetic to the disgraced heroes of New Creighton.

//they're coming here then? to take our place on guard duty. how ignonimous
>//so much feigned outrage at Admiral Hightree and her people. accusations of treachery, oh my
//it's almost as though they don't want to admit our fleet outfought theirs
>>//they're heroes! they deserve better
>>>//pf. no official commendations at present, but you can bet the Union captains will be getting a trunkful of medals when New Creighton goes into the memory hole. next year, backdated
>>>>//i don't see the point of these medals. they did what they did and we have the footage. nobody can take that from them
//that's not how humans perceive it. narratives can be changed, facts can be forgotten, overridden
>>//Cunningham has the right of it. public opinion matters!
>//public opinion is hot, then. the Purview is thirsty for blood. the Baronies too. hundreds of thousands are signing up, volunteering to fight
>>>//the Directorate has begin issuing war bonds, too. the Purview Worlds are making a big investment in the dawnline war
>//some Barons are calling it the Second Interest War. and they're still sore about losing the first one
>>//pf. human emotion, such a wasteful concept

One of Vera's dedicated partitions writes up a summary of the strategic situation for Tabitha's consumption. Key facts highlighted, an interactive holomap, links to deeper analysis from simulations of several favourite military scholars. It'll be waiting for her when she awakens.
 

Adrift

Caspian Var wakes up with a start. For a moment, he looks around dazedly trying to make sense of his foreign surroundings. Then it all comes flooding back - he isn't in his stateroom on the Wagner. That no longer exists. He's on board the Bukharin together with the survivors of his crew. His ship is a broken wreck drifting slowly apart some four hundred kilometers away.

His fist clenches. Now that the focus and adrenaline of combat are gone, the rage comes searing back in. He'd been right. If he'd fired on the Titania first as he'd intended, perhaps the Wagner would not have been lost. Perhaps his men would not have had to take the casualties they did. "Such a foolish thing," he mutters. To have sacrificed his men to give those... mercenaries... their chance. Now he's a Captain without a ship and his crew - what's left of them - are cramped up in a half dozen ships across the Union fleet.

He gets to his feet and checks his datapad. The withdrawal negotiations are to be held shortly. That will be fun. He turns to the small mirror on the wall of the cramped cabin that's all that is available on the Bukharin for the survivors. He's got a pair of black eyes - the sheer momentum of the Wagner's final crash have literally thrown his eyeballs so hard against their sockets that they've bruised him from the inside. He scowls. It will take some makeup to hide that. At least the Bukharin's crew have printed out a fresh dress uniform for him.

He dresses slowly and deliberately, taking great pains to ensure everything is exactly in place - and perfectly aligned to the minutest detail, paying special attention to his Meritorious Service Bar and dress sword. At last, he checks himself again as the fifteen minute alert chimes for the negotiations. Satisfied, he marches smartly out into the corridor.
 

Situation Normal...

"Sir." Bernd's voice reaches from just across the corridor. The NHP's not-quite-human face appears as a hologram on a wall interface panel, and slides along the corridor to keep pace. "I'm glad to see you up and about. The Armory contingent is running late, so we have some time before the talks. I have an update on the salvage operations on the Wagner..." Bernd trails off. Caspian's ship NHP was cycled up more recently than Vera by several years, but it knows Caspian well enough to understand that some things can be hard for humans.

"...or we can discuss this another time, if you wish."

"Its fine, Bernd. We deal with harsh realities whether we like it or not," Caspian replies stiffly, "How much of her is salvageable and how long will it take?"

"About 70% of the hull remains intact, and this includes the drive section and most of the spinal reactor banks on both starboard and port sides. The petajoule kinetics and crew quarters are all gone, but with enough repairs, the Wagner can get underway to a friendly blinkgate for full reconstruction at a military shipyard."

Bernd brings up a flight diagram indicating the incoming Union Naval Auxiliary battlegroups. "Repairing the drive and reactors will be slow given the resources on board the Shamokin Rising and the Nikolai Bukharin, but one of the inbound Union ships is an Eiland-Class Command Carrier, with sufficient fabrication and repair facilities to get the Wagner spaceworthy within 10 days."

Bernd pauses for just an instant, as if distracted by some fleeting data stream, then continues: "After that, it should take us just over a month to reach Beachhead Station at nearlight. Most of the crew would remain billeted on the rest of the fleet, as life support will be minimal and there are no suitable quarters for more than a skeleton crew."

"Also, sir, some of our mercenaries have arrived on this deck and they will be in shouting distance in a few seconds."

Caspian smiles thinly - an expression that doesn't quite reach his eyes, "Well, we mustn't make them feel unwelcome, they're still contractually on our side. Thank you for the report, Bernd. It is good to see that though things are a bit of a mess right now, at least they're mostly recoverable."

Next: Shaitan and nemesis
 

Shaitan and Nemesis

A familiar voice calls out. Zoltan Pesh, liability lawyer from the Fighting Shaitans. "Captain Caspian Var! You're the hero of the hour. I'm so pleased to see you."

Zoltan Pesh appears at the far end of the corridor, wearing military fatigues with no rank badge. The slight lawyer bears a pink flesh bandage across the brow. At their side is a towering Mirrorsmoke marine wearing assault armour. The marine's faceplate is open and on her broad face is a lazy smile.

Pesh reaches out to shake Caspian's hand. "Everyone in the fleet owes so much to you and your crew. And your ship's gunnery, it turned the tide of the fight. We are eternally grateful."

"Just playing our part," Caspian says coolly, taking his hand, "I must congratulate your forces for the sterling work they did on the Hannibal. Keeping her locked down bought everyone the time they needed to bring the fight to a close."

Pesh turns to the bulky marine at his side. "You can credit Lieutenant Park for that. She led the first boarding parties and took a Strike Captain prisoner - I'm told it turned the fleet's command structure upside down."

The marine beams at hearing this. She tries to give Caspian some sort of salute, but her incongruous expression of childish glee undermines her attempt at discipline.

"Pleased to do my part, sir! Y'all should have seen the face on that Purvie captain, she must have wet her pants when I started shooting!"

Not since the academy has Caspian Var met someone with such a punchable face. The marine officer simply can't muster any kind of emotional expression that doesn't look both insincere and deeply insulting.

She strikes a pose of unashamed arrogance, and in that moment looks just like a beefier femme version of his academy nemesis, Louis.

Caspian can tell that she would be all too happy to piss him off, just for the fun of it.

The Union Captain keeps his expression firmly professional as he offers her a cold smile, "I can't imagine why, Lieutenant. It sounds like you quite enjoyed yourself out there."
 
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Troublemaker

"Boss orders me to make trouble, I go make trouble," Park says, turning to face an approaching officer. "Hi, boss! Sir."

Major Mahayhay has crept up silently. The small woman gets right up in Park's face, pressing two fingers against the marine's cheekbone. "Lieutenant. Why are you harassing the captain here?"

"Sir, I'm not - just, uh, celebrating with our hero." Park keeps grinning, tempting fate.

"You forgetting about all the dead heroes out there? A hundred of our pilots? Wipe that damned grin off your face, or I'll demote you again."

"Sir, yes sir." Park puts her face in a more neutral expression. She still looks punchable, though.

"What are you waiting for, a medal? The day I give you a medal will be the day after I kick your carcass out an airlock. Get over to the mess and keep your mouth shut when the Armory officers arrive."

Park starts moving. Mahayhay shouts after her: "And close your visor before you start another war with that face!"

The major doesn't have much to say to Caspian. She looks away and sighs. Her eyes are narrow and tired. Her hands are balled in fists. She seems to have gained some new white hairs. Major Mahayhay looks like Caspian feels.

"Nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won," Caspian quotes, nodding in acknowledgement to the Major. Then, without waiting for a response, he sweeps past the two Mercenary officers, stalking silently after the retreating Marine towards the meeting.

Next: Armoured Armory
 

The Armour of Defiance

When Tabitha awakens, the world feels like it's taken her apart and pulled out her soul. Then, in a fit of buyer's remorse, it seems to have stuffed her back into her ragdoll body and haphazardly sewn it back together. Almost immediately, a medical subaltern (waiting at her bedside) injects her with something that brings her up, fully awake and aware, energized.

"I let you sleep an extra half hour, sir," says Vera. "The Armory captains came late. They took time to get dressed up for us."

But not in naval uniform. No, the wall monitor shows Lowell Petrie and several other Harrison Armory officers arriving at the airlock, all dressed in marine boarding armour. Defiant even in defeat.

"Sending a message," says the NHP. "Also, I have a message from Vice Admiral Gentle."

It's short. "Well done. The Navy appreciates the deep sacrifices that your fleet has made. I appreciate everything you've done. I'm giving you authority to negotiate terms to keep the Armory fleet out of the DLS. But I can't expect a mere captain to lead this negotiation. Congratulations, Line Commander. This promotion has been long overdue."

Line Commander. Two whole ranks.

"This is absurd. I can't even move past the Strike Captain." Captain Petrie tries to fold up his armoured forearms to minimise his width in the narrowly-packed airlock.

"Stop whining, Petrie," hisses Commandant Maxim, the CAG of the Arminius. "It's not like anyone expects you to go in first. Nobody's ever going to count on you again."

There is an icy silence. Captain Petrie turns his helmeted head to glare at Maxim, which causes it to make a clunking noise as it bumps against his raised forearm.

"We have to wear this armour because we have to show them," says Bannon, wearily, like a woman who has not slept for days. "The armour represents our unbreakable fighting spirit. The Union captains will look upon us and we will tell them that we care not for pretty uniforms or chests full of medals, only for warlike disposition, which is why we wear the armour."

Commandant Almarik bites back a remark, something along the lines of "It's not symbolism if you have to spell it out." Instead she says: "This is okay. We look strong."

The Armory officers wait for the airlock to cycle.

Tabitha watches the feed for a moment, then turns to Vera. "Well, if they want to send a message then we send one too. Have our own Marines stand back. Only ceremonial arms in or anywhere in sight of the conference - nothing more threatening than dress weapons. Security can hang around outside. That includes the mercs."

She thoughtfully straightens her uniform, "You'd think that they would have learnt that we aren't going to play ball with their jingoistic games."

She picks up her cap and strides towards the mess.

Next: Ready for fireworks
 

Ready for Fireworks

When Caspian reaches the mess, the MSMC marine lieutenant is checking her excessively large pistol, making sure it has a full load in its chambers.

"Lieutenant Park," says Vera from the wall screen, "You and your team are ordered to remain outside the mess. Anyone on corridor duty is not permitted to carry sidearms or longarms. Turn them in to Warrant Officer Gbeho at the Sector 4 arms locker. And no, before you ask, those stun grenades are not permitted either."

Park sneers at the NHP and makes a throat-cutting gesture. In plain view of Caspian. Against a human officer, it would be considered an extremely serious offense. But of course, with the strangeness of NHP laws in Union, Vera and Bernd aren't considered real people, despite their Deimosian origins marking them as anything but artificial.

Tabitha and her fellow officers - Meade, Evans and Ki - arrive just as Park and the other merc guards are storming off. This leaves Captain Lutjens - still off on his own damaged frigate - as the highest ranking Union officer not attending. Colonel Milch, Major Mahayhay and Zoltan Pesh arrive around this time.

"If you don't mind, I'll sit this one out, in the enlisted mess." Milch rubs his forehead and winces. "I've got a splitting headache so the Major will sit in my stead. I'll get a drink and some pills and wait for the news."

Around this time, Caspian notices Tabitha's newly-adjusted uniform. "The Vice Admiral just sent in her promotion document," Vera says helpfully. "Our good Line Commander now matches Strike Captain Bannon in equivalent rank."

"Ready for the fireworks?" Tabitha nods at Caspian, rubbing her temple with a distracted look on her face.

"I suppose," Caspian shrugs, "I usually prefer to do my talking with my guns but I gather from your instructions, we are not aiming to overawe our guests with a display of superior firepower."

"No, but they are," Tabitha cocks her head slightly towards the door. "I don't see the need for any kind of show of force. I think you've already done that for us."

Caspian chuckles dryly.

"Rather. But if any of our admittedly limited interactions with Bannon and her merry men are any indication I don't think they will respect anything besides an overwhelming display of force "

"I do not disagree with that assessment, but any threat on our side will be implicit," Tabitha replies. "It isn't just our one battlegroup they need to worry about, after all. If they get uppity, we just need to remind them that Union does not require a blatant display of military might to still be the biggest dog on the block." Now the smile does reach Caspian's eyes.

"And just the threat of that force being applied is often better than its actual application. The fear of the stick is often greater than its sting," he gives a cold, sharklike smile. Tabitha nods again, "And familiarity with that stick just breeds contempt for it. Now everyone to attention - as far as we are concerned this is a formal diplomatic council so maintain protocol and ignore any of their antics to the contrary."


Next: Our dichotomy opens the negotiations
 

Opening Drinks

The Armory officers are gathered at one end of the mess, all clad in assault hardsuits, all standing at the table rather than taking a seat. Powered armour enabling any one of them to punch a human head clean off. Hushed discussion. Cold glances at Captain Meade, Major Mahayhay and the other officers.

When Tabitha and Caspian enter, the room falls silent.

Zoltan Pesh enters just behind Tabitha. Someone in the Armory group coughs, possibly choking on their own spit. The terrifying reputation of the Fighting Shaitans precedes them. The Colonial Legionate typically would have a legal team aboard the fleet flagship, but none of Bannon's lawyers made it off the Shaka Zulu alive.

Strike Captain Catrina Bannon refuses to seat her party. "We'll talk right here, right now," she says.

Lowell Petrie catches Tabitha's eye from across the table. He gives her an apologetic shake of the head, but says nothing.

"I speak for the Colonial Legionate of Harrison Armory," Bannon states flatly. "Captain Saint-Germaine, do you speak for the Union Navy?"

Tabitha smiles pleasantly and nods, "I am authorized to speak on behalf of the Union Navy, yes," she waves her hand casually at the others, "At ease, ladies and gentlemen."

There's an moment's pause, then Caspian slides gracefully into his seat, fixing Bannon with a cold smile as he does so. The others follow, seating themselves formally before the Armory contingent. Tabitha returns Lowell's gesture with a fleeting, almost imperceptible look of apology of her own before seating herself last.

There's a quiet whirring at the table as the mess printers whip up drinks for the Union officers, mugs of steaming coffee, tea and cacao pop up from their under-table slots. Caspian, studiously ignores the hostile glares from across the table as he takes a surreptitious sip of his triple-shot Rigellian Blue Coffee to hide his sadistic glee. The set up is almost like a cadet disciplinary board hearing back at Cradle and everyone - at least everyone on the Union side - damn well knows it.

Tabitha places her tablet on the table and lays her hands in front of her. "So, Strike Captain Bannon," she says calmly, "Let us discuss your mission and how we can come to a settlement regarding the Armory's interests on New Creighton. Union's stance on the issue is clear - we cannot allow any additional reinforcement into the conflict zone, but I hope to come to a compromise that will be satisfactory for all involved."

Next: Infographics
 

Infographics

Bannon clenches her teeth and shifts her jaw from one side to another slowly. "Yes."

She looks to one of her subordinates, a young woman with a Commandant's rank bar. Commandant Almarik taps a dataplate on her suit's forearm, and the mess table's holographic display illustrates the state of the 2nd Expeditionary Fleet in a series of infographics and 3D schematics.

"The six capital ships of the 2nd Fleet, carrying 4,851 Colonial Legionnaires," says Almarik, "were destined for Harrison Armory's holdings in the Dawnline Shore, with the express purpose of reinforcing them against the outrageous aggression of the Karrakin Trade Baronies and their local collaborators. We do not accept Union as a neutral peacekeeper, and neither do the majority of the stakeholders throughout the Dawnline Shore, as Union's actions have shown it to be blatantly biased in favour of the Karrakins. However, given that we have been fought to a standstill, and will not be able to outrun incoming Union Navy Auxiliary reinforcements, we concede that our purpose has been thwarted - and we will need to withdraw. Eventually."

A third of the Armory fleet lights up in red, then fades into black.

"This is our current status."

Another sixth of the fleet lights up in amber, indicating damage to the Arminius and most of its escorts.

Commandant Maxim, the acting captain of the damaged carrier, lets out a hiss of a breath. He glares at Tabitha's destroyer captains, not sure who to blame for the carnage on his ship.

Almarik continues. "We will need at least seven days to get the Arminius repaired. During this time, we expect the protection of the Union fleet."

"Protection?" Captain Meade leans forward. "You want us to guard your ships?"

"If you want to act like the peacekeepers you pretend to be," says Bannon icily. "There are Baronic warships at large in the Palisade Strait. They could strike at us while we remain here, recovering from the battle."

Major Mahayhay snorts. "The Palisade Strait? That's at least a hundred days away!"

"That we know of," interjects Bannon, an insincere smirk on her face. "We can't be sure of their latest stealth and transportation capabilities."

Commandant Almarik interjects with as much of a game face as she can put on. "Your salvage operations on the Wagner will take a few days, isn't that right? We're bound to be neighbours for that time as it is. After the Arminius is sufficiently repaired and spaceworthy, the fleet will commence withdrawal to Kwan-Riam Market in the Long Rim."

"Interesting," says Vera. "We were not aware that Kwan-Riam was aligned with Harrison Armory."

Bannon frowns. "It doesn't matter what you know. They've thrown in with us. All you need to know is that we will be taking the 2nd Expeditionary Fleet there."

Next: Blood in the water
 

Blood in the Water

"I see no issue with covering your fleet during the repair and recovery efforts," Tabitha says thoughtfully, leafing over intelligence reports on Karrakin dispositions in the area and flipping between those and Vera's documentation on the fighting over New Creighton.

Caspian glances sidelong at Tabitha but keeps his peace. The Purview fleet will be an extremely tempting target for any marauding Karrakin forces and he no longer has his big guns with him. He catches Meade's eye. The Carrier Captain returns the concern.

"But I will need you to keep your ships stood down through the process and during transit, engaging in self defense only,"

Every Union head turns a hair.

"We only have one fully operational battlegroup, Line Commander," Meade says softly, "Between the loss of the Wagner and the casualties taken by the Mirrorsmokes it is a mighty thin line standing between any Karrakin attack and the Purview."

"And the Karrakins are out for blood, Line Commander. Word of the Meritorious Rex and the massacre of the Shirline will have them looking for a chance for revenge and this will be the perfect target, especially given our good Strike Captain's connection to Wilder." Caspian follows crisply, pulling out his notes on the Rex, "That little incident on Lighthouse should make it clear that the Karrakins are almost certain to try and kick the Purview while they're down and they will have to know that we're badly shot up as well. House Stone in particular doesn't have any reason to look favorably on us."

He glances over at Bannon and then back at Tabitha, "It may be diplomatically troublesome to allow the Strike Captain and her fleet to maintain combat readiness but I don't think the Karrakins are going to be too chatty when they rather inevitably drop into realspace with enough firepower to flatten what's left of the 2nd Expeditionary fleet." He pauses, "And you won't have my guns to make them go away quickly either."

"I understand the concern, Captain, but as long as they are under our aegis, they are neutral and should operate as such," Tabitha says, stroking her chin. "Strike Captain, will that be agreeable to you? We will provide cover for you throughout your recovery efforts but so long as you remain under protection your fleet will operate under strict neutrality rules regardless of who shows up - Karrakin, Purview," she looks at Bannon.

"No contact or coordination with any additional Purview forces. If you are agreeable to this I can acquiesce to having the James I and Ching Shih remain fully stood up under the rules of armed neutrality."

Next: In the spirit
 

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