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The Gathering Storm

Part Four

"Navigator! How long until we reach the asteroid belt?" asked Admiral Potemkin asked.

"Three minutes, twelve seconds," came the answer.

"That puts us short by how long?" Potemkin asked, his mind racing.

"Eighteen seconds," answered the operations officer.

The admiral thought to himself. There was no way his fighter screen could take out more than 50 or 60 missiles as they streaked past - they did not have the speed for that sort of thing. That left almost 100 missiles that they would need to deal with - far more than their point defense could handle. He needed another option.

The Admiral flicked a switch. "Engineering. I need all the speed you can give me. Go to 110% on the reactor, take power from where ever you need it, even life support. I need more speed."

The engineer's voice could be heard over the bridge speakers, "Aye, admiral, I'll see what I can do."

"Comm, signal the rest of the task force to increase speed any way possible. We must reach the asteroid belt before those missiles hit! Put the asteroid belt on-screen!"

Two 'Aye, admiral's were heard, and the viewscreen changed from a view of the armada bearing down on them to the asteroid belt that could be their salvation - for a few minutes, at least, the Admiral thought. It was relatively thin - only a dozen larger rocks were visible, and the smaller ones, while not a danger, would not help them. They needed a bigger one, like...

"How big is that one?" Potemkin asked, indicating the largest brown blob visible.

"63 miles in diameter, sir," was the answer.

"Navigator, adjust your course to that asteroid. I want you to bring us as close as you possibly can - scrape the paint off the hull if you have to! Get it between us and the missiles." ordered Potemkin.

A high pitched whine became audible, and the Lakul began to shake as the engineer increased the ship's speed beyond what its design parameters. The bridge crew looked up nervously as the lights began to dim. The ship began to creak groan against the strain.

"Time to the asteroid!" the Admiral yelled over the noise.

"One minute, 37 seconds!" yelled the navigator.

"How long until the missiles reach us?"

"One minute, 43 seconds!" answered the operations officer.

Potemkin nodded. Six seconds was far too close for comfort. All he could do now was sit and wait. His crew and pilots were young, but they had been training hard for the three weeks before this engagement, and they knew what they had to do. As he waited, the Admiral could hear cries of "Tally-ho!" and "Splash one missile!" coming from the comm tied to his fighters. They were brave lads, but bravery alone would not save them.

When the Ithkul missiles reached 2000 meters - 76 of them, the fighters had done a better job than anyone could have hoped - the point-defense weapons opened fire. The number of missiles continued to drop - 73, 71, 68, 63 - but too slowly. At least 40 would make it through the PD screen.

The asteroid loomed in the viewscreen. The Lakul and her escorts descended dangerously close to the surface. So close, in fact, that the brown rock glowed blue from the intense radiation coming from the ships' exhaust.

The operations officer continued to count down the time until the first missile would hit. When he reached three seconds, the Lakul lurched hard, nearly throwing Potemkin from his seat. He braced himself as the ship was rocked again and again by shock waves from the missiles...

... missiles that were hitting the asteroid, not his task force.

When the ship regained its stability, Potemkin looked at the viewscreen. Where the asteroid was, all that remained was an expanding cloud of pebbles and plasma. "Damage report!"

"Shields down to 87% effectiveness, and we have some minor hull buckling on decks 8 and 9, no major damage." declared the operations officer. His panel chirped. "Sir, we've lost the Sidewinder!"

The Admiral looked at his tactical screen. The Sidewinder, one of his Dragonfly-class escorts, did not appear any more. It had been taking up the rear in the formation, and when the missiles began to hit the asteroid, pieces of debris were hurled in its path, tearing huge gashes in its hull. The ship was violently decompressed, killing the crew almost instantly.

Potemkin was not happy. He had to distract the Ithkul for several hours yet, and already he had lost one of his escorts. This was not going to be easy.

"Navigator, try to keep an asteroid between us and the Harvesters," ordered the Admiral. "Signal our fighters - tell them to take up position inside the asteroid belt. This isn't over yet."


The battle continued for five hours. Potemkin's task force managed to disable two more of the Ithkul PD screen, but at a terrible cost. Fully two-thirds of his bombers were destroyed or damaged beyond their ability to repair. Three more of his escorts were destroyed when they were caught within range of the SuperDestoyers' spinal-mounted phasors. One of his carriers was smashed against an asteroid by the Harvester's gyro destabilizer weapon. His forces were quickly running out of ammunition, time, and maneuvering room - the Itkul had been attempting to surround his forces, unsuccessfully thus far, but each time getting closer. The Admiral played a dangerous game, a game that he knew he could not keep up much longer. Finally, a transmission from Regulla came through the chaos:

"Lakul, this is Regulla. All of our transports are now full, and are heading toward the star lane, but a few hundred people are still trapped - there wasn't enough room!"

"Find any way you can to get those people into orbit," answered Admiral Potemkin. "Mining freighters, pleasure yachts, I don't care, just get them into orbit. We'll bring them into our hanger before we escape to the star lane ourselves!"

"Yes, Admiral! Regulla out." The transmission ended in a burst of static.

"Now we just need to survive to come get you," muttered the Admiral so that no one could hear him.

The ship was rocked as yet another Ithkul bomber squadron unloaded its ordinance on them. "Damnit!" yelled the Admiral, looking at his tactical display. "Tell the 12th squadron to protect sector 7! Too many of those bombers are getting through! Navigator, set a course for Regulla - best possible speed."

The Lakul turned and rocketed out of the asteroid belt. It would take at least a half-hour to get to Regulla, through open space. Potemkin could only hope that he had a speed advantage over the Ithkul.

Luckily, this was something that was true. Potemkin's luck was also holding - the Ithkul had only recently run out of missiles, so they had to close to beam weapon range to damage the intrepid task force. The flight to Regulla was stressful, but relatively uneventful. The Ithkul continued to send fighters and bombers after the retreating fleet, but they could not punch through the shields - not with Potemkin's fighters protecting them.

The Lakul and the rest of the task force had to slow to a crawl in order to pick up the stragglers from the Regulla colony. That process took some time, and the Ithkul were bearing down on them. When the final colonist was on board the Lakul, the task force set a course toward the star lane.

The star lane entrance was in such a way that Potemkin was forced to turn and fly slightly back toward the Harvester armada, and the Ithkul quickly cut down the distance.

"Time to the star lane?" asked the Admiral.

"32 seconds, sir. Sir, I do not think we will make it there before we are within range of the Harvester's weapons," answered the operations officer.

Potemkin gritted his teeth. He was so very close to escaping. The rest of his task force had already made it through the star lane, and was safely on their way to Terra. As he watched the viewscreen, a red beam shot out from the nearest SuperDestroyer, seemingly reaching out for him. The deck suddenly dropped out from under him, and Potemkin was thrown from his seat. Lights exploded and circuits throughout the ship shorted out. A fire started at weapon control. The Admiral looked up, tasting his own blood, as the emergency lighting flickered on, casting an eerie blue hue on the bridge. The viewscreen was blurred by the phasor blast, but Potemkin could still see the Ithkul ships out there. Another SuperDestoryer fired its spinal phasor cannon. The red beam reached out for the Lakul...

...and continued on through space, unhindered.

Admiral Potemkin dragged himself up off the deck, spitting the blood out of his mouth and brushing pieces of wire and glass off his shirt. He had survived, barely. It was a five-week journey to Terra, and when he arrived, he was sure there would be work to do.




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