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(44:4:23) The Halberd Incident
"As you know, the Strike Cruisers Kayak and Blood Fang were destroyed in the battle. They were literally blown apart --- a fundamental flaw in the Strike Cruiser design is the tendency to break apart at the place where the modules join together. Anyway, I think that enough of each cruiser survived to combine the remnants into a new Strike Cruiser." --- General David Vaughan to Fleet Admiral Dave Trebonious-Astoris, aftermath of the Battle of Blerthmore, 44:3:5
-=Approaching the edge of the Elenian system, Cadrel Expanse, New Republic warship Halberd, 44:4:23:03:44=-
A group of male Humans stood in a clustered circle. There were six of them in total, all dressed in the uniforms of technicians and engineers of the New Republic. Specifically they were members of Task Force Republic Shield, the group tasked with the defence and protection of many worlds on the far fringes of the Trition Trade Route in the Outer Rim and to several regions beyond.
The Humans were discussing something amongst themselves in quiet voices. Clearly they did not wish to be overheard. Suddenly it seemed they had reached the end of their conversation, as they put their hands together into the middle of the circle in a gesture of affirmation. It seemed that these technicians and engineers had a shared background, and while they had taken this time off to commune, it was obviously time to get back to work, as they strode off purposefully up and down the hallways and corridors, eventually heading in six different directions.
Onboard the bridge of the same vessel, a General of the New Republic stood on the bridge, eyes fixed outwards into the speckled backdrop of space. He was not in charge of this ship, even though he outranked anyone else aboard. No, this officer was merely an observer, assigned by the Fleet Commander of the task force to make sure that the newly assembled ship was running perfectly as it continued on its run through friendly territories. Nothing could really test a ship like taking it out on a mission, even if the ship's current mission was an easy one.
An intentionally easy one, General David Vaughan thought to himself wryly. Ostensibly the mission was to patrol the Cadrel Expanse to keep the area clear of piracy. However, Vaughan knew that it was mostly an excuse to wave the flag a bit while also giving the ship a well-needed run to make sure it was in top shape before it was properly considered for combat. Even if the ship and its crew proved themselves, they would probably be best used patrolling trade routes in friendly territories, rather than sent off to assist Admiral Raven on the front lines.
Ah, the front lines. The short-cropped beard that he idly scratched at belied his young age, but despite that the General still felt wistful for a taste of exhilaration that occurred at the onset of a battle. Not so much the fighting and killing or the anguish of comrades dying . . . it was just the feeling that one was actively doing something with their lives . . . doing something good and tangible for the galaxy.
Ever since the Battle of Blerthmore two months ago, the devastating massacre in which he had flown an X-wing and led his squadron in defence of the capital . . . well, ever since that battle he had not been directly involved in a battle, unless one counted the brief skirmish with pirates in the Tarla Sector that Admiral Trebonious-Astoris had led a month or two ago . . . Vaughan had been onboard the Victory Star Destroyer Peril at the time, but hadn't actively participated in the battle. In fact his presence onboard didn't make any difference to the outcome at all.
He supposed it was some kind of tangible irony in effect. As he had helped Admiral Raven convince the Fleet Commander, Admiral Trebonious-Astoris, that he was most valuable staying behind in the Greeop Sector to hold in one piece the home territories while Raven led RS expeditionary forces to war abroad . . . so too was he fated to remain with the Fleet Commander away from the front lines in order to help keep the supply lines running, and to maximise the flow of resources that were desperately needed in the wake of the disaster at Blerthmore.
This was all well and good, and Vaughan knew that he was damned good at his job, but still . . . he still felt nostalgic about the days of climbing into a cockpit and heading into battle, even if it were only less than three months ago . . . it seemed longer because he was pretty sure he would not be seeing the war from the inside of a fighter ever again, now that his most optimised purpose behind a desk had been discovered and actively utilised.
Such nostalgia for combat was a sense that he did not expect to have since Blerthmore . . . he'd seen a great many good men and women perish in that battle, both people he knew and people he didn't. And he knew the extent of the damage, as he had compiled reports for High Command on the issue . . . while at first his thirst for battle seemed forever quenched by the sickening losses sustained, after two months of being desk-bound while other people fought on intangible front lines achieving good in the name of the New Republic . . . well, it just made him feel a bit useless.
"General," an authoritative female voice broke into his thoughts . . . it was Captain Averil Caracalla, commander of the vessel, addressing Vaughan to get his attention.
"Yes, Captain. What is it?" without turning from the bridge viewscreen, he saw the Captain's long coppery hair shimmer out the corner of his eye.
"We'll be reaching Caelum in approximately seven standard hours. Unless you have anything you wish to do up here, we can probably take care of things until we approach the planet."
Vaughan smiled. The Captain was trying to get him off the bridge, he knew that, however he also knew it wasn't a territorial issue, as it would with any number of other starship captains. The Captain and the current bridge crew had just started their shifts less than an hour ago, and he had been present on the bridge since most of them had finished their previous shifts. Clearly he was overdue for some sleep.
Despite being on the Elenian system boundary, the ship was to cruise at sublight speeds and patrol for pirate or hostile forces for some time before jumping into the system properly. This was partly timed for maximum impact --- it was currently in the middle of the night on the capital city of Caelum, and the Halberd would have a much stronger social impact upon the populace if it arrived in orbit during the day cycle, where the planetary citizens in the capital could look to the sky and see for themselves that the RS was committed to their protection and safety.
"Very well, Captain. I guess I could use some rest. Notify me if anything comes up."
"Will do, General. Rest well."
Vaughan sketched a half-salute at the captain as he stifled a yawn and strode from the bridge. Despite what the Captain and her crew might think, he hadn't been standing on the bridge for the whole time. It was just that he had been present there when the current rotation had gone off-duty, and also been back again by the time they returned, thus making it seem as though he was being overly vigilant. That wasn't the case at all. The current assignment was too uneventful and boring to stare out into space the whole trip, even if it was refreshing to get off the Peril for a while.
He was currently assigned to the Strike Cruiser Halberd, a ship he had overseen the construction of . . . well, 'overseen' via datapad as he organised it from his office, not in person, and it wasn't 'construction' as much as it was 'reconstruction' --- the warship was actually the remains of several Strike Cruisers that had perished in the Battle of Blerthmore. It was mostly recreated from the remains of the Republic Shield vessels Kayak and Blood Fang, but other ruined vessels, both RS and Imperial, had contributed parts, too.
It was testament to the flexibility of the Loronar Strike-class medium cruiser that the remains of several of its broken number could be reassembled to form a new one. Like the mythical firebird that was reborn from its ashes, the Halberd would patrol the supply lines of the RS home territories, keeping the shipping and civilians of the Greeop Sector, Cadrel Expanse and beyond safe from piracy and even less savoury groups, while the Subterrel Strike Force battled the Imperial remnants on the front-lines beyond, and the Minos Investigation Force kept the primary trade route to Coruscant and the Core Worlds clear.
In fact, the very mission of the Halberd was mostly due to a demonstrated lack of faith that some worlds in the Cadrel Expanse had of the RS's ability to keep them protected. The Fleet Commander and his Minister of External Affairs had been forced to travel to Caelum in the Elenian system --- the ship's intended stopover destination --- about a month ago to personally allay concerns that the New Republic's strength in the region had waned to the point where withdrawing from the galactic government would be safer and more advisable than remaining allied with it.
Vaughan walked while he mused, traversing over half of the four hundred and fifty metre length of the vessel as he moved from the bridge on the fifth module of the ship all the way to the forward hangar in the second module. The Strike Cruiser from the outside looked to be a blob of six modules glued together, with gaping holes in the side of the hull for hangars, and a blob sticking up from the dorsal hull that was the bridge.
As he crossed the threshold between the third and second modules he passed a fidgety-looking technician, who nervously snapped to attention and saluted as the General passed by. Vaughan couldn't hide his look of amusement as he returned the salute. The nervous technician was obviously a fairly new recruit. After the Blerthmore incident, the task force had been in dire need of new personnel, and had drawn heavily on worlds in the Greeop Sector and Cadrel Expanse to fill the void left by the forty thousand who died in the Imperial attack on Blerthmore.
As he continued walking, Vaughan's thoughts continued along those lines, but he did not give the nervous technician another thought as he kept walking through the ship.
As the high-ranking officer --- a General, no less! --- passed him and continued along the corridor, the Human technician visibly tried to relax. His breathing was a clear giveaway that he was extremely worried about something. And his attempts at appearing calm and at-ease were belied by the nervousness and frequency with which he checked his wrist-chrono, clearly not for the first time that day.
General Vaughan had finally reached the forward hangar bay, and he exchanged casual salutes and greetings with the various techs who were bustling about the space. The General was no stranger to the techs working in the hangar, as he spent most of his time onboard the Lambda shuttle that sat to the side of the bay, wings folded upright. It seemed to be his personal office and quarters, and if anyone thought it unusual, they didn't say so to him. The General finally reached his shuttle/office/quarters, and lowered the ramp. When it finished extending he had a final glance around the hangar --- taking in the many parked Z-95 Headhunters --- then bounded up the ramp into the recesses of his ship, the Mediator.
Outside the ship, beyond the hangar, six Z-95 Headhunters flew about in lazy formation, patrolling the area around the slowly cruising Strike Cruiser Halberd. The antiquated starfighters were of a model in use since before the Clone Wars, but in the aftermath of the Blerthmore incident funding had been extremely tight, and resources were stretched . . . so the Halberd's starfighter complement was of the older Z-95s, rather than the more modern craft, like X-wings or A-wings.
In fact, in its current space patrol configuration, the Halberd could fit three full squadrons, but due to those same budgetary concerns, it only held two. That was not really cause for concern, though, as it was not on a mission that would be needing the latest or greatest starfighters, nor great numbers of them. The Z-95s continued cruising next to the Strike Cruiser, their pilots making slight course corrections occasionally, between checking and rechecking their sensors, which of course showed nothing but empty space as the RS ships continued their approach on the Elenian system.
General Vaughan completed a minor update to a report on his datapad before shutting it down. There wasn't really much to say in it, as the situation hadn't changed much in the last few hours. The ship was running fine, as it had the whole trip, and there had been no incidents at all. He didn't really expect any systems to fail or malfunction, and he didn't really expect any pirate forces to be foolish enough to stand up to a Strike-class cruiser, but in the crazy times that the home territories were weathering . . . one could just never tell, and it was better to be prepared than to be caught off-guard.
Standing up from his desk, Vaughan tilted his head to the side and felt the audible release as a number of vertebrae cracked and popped back into place. Ah, that's better . . . Rubbing at his fatigued eyes, the General headed towards the bow of his ship and retracted the loading ramp, sealing entry to the ship. Although he liked keeping an open door to demonstrate his approachability, there was no way in the Nine Hells of Corellia that he was going to sleep without the hatch locked. Satisfied that everything was taken care of for the time being, he headed aft to get comfortable in his quarters, in an attempt to try to get some damned sleep.
An engineer finished typing into a console and moving levers, and a holographic sign appeared stating that automated safety devices for the chamber had been disabled. The engineer moved into a heavily-shielded room, walking through a series of normally-sealed doors before standing in front of a large metal mass that produced a loud electric-sounding humming. The engineer stood before it for a moment, before moving around the to the far side of the room and producing a large fist-sized cylindrical device that he placed into a nearby panel. After fiddling with the device for a short time, the engineer seemed satisfied, and left the piece of machinery in the room with the humming centrepiece.
As the engineer left the room, he sealed the doors behind him, before striding off determinedly, clearly not finished for the day. If anyone did a brief visual inspection from outside the room, nothing would appear amiss in the main reactor chamber of the starship, and nobody could see the digital display of the countdown timer on the proton grenade as it counted the seconds down from the initially-programmed fifteen standard minutes . . .
Onboard the bridge of the Halberd, Lieutenant Nerkala, the Mon Calamari communication specialist, blinked her large eyes in surprise as she noticed something anomalous.
"Captain," she called, rotating one eye toward the youthful Human commander.
"Go ahead," Captain Caracalla replied, her interest piqued at what was the first item of interest to happen for a while on this uneventful trip.
"I'm picking up something strange. A wideband comm signal has been broadcast ship-wide, but it's not audible. It's encrypted."
"That is strange," the Captain agreed, suddenly discomforted by the notion. "Can you decipher it?"
"Yes, I think so . . . but it could take some time." the Lieutenant confirmed hesitantly.
This rogue transmission bothered the Captain greatly. "Can you trace the point of origin of the transmission?"
"Tracing now . . . it should only take a few moments." the Mon Calamari comm specialist tapped away at her console.
"Haron," Captain Caracalla called, and the security officer stepped forward.
"Yes, Captain." his comlink was already in hand awaiting instruction to send a security team to the location of the unidentified transmission.
Most of the bridge crew had taken interest in the situation. This was understandable. Most of them were fresh out of the academy, and untested in battle, with only a few weeks of normal shipboard operations. And the patrol operation through the Cadrel Expanse had been a very dull and uneventful one so far, so anything out of the ordinary caught their interest.
"Got it! Module five, deck twenty-four." Lieutenant Nerkala identified.
"Good work, Lieutenant." the Captain gave the security head a pointed look that didn't need verbalising.
The security officer nodded and spoke into his comlink briefly before reporting: "Four units are on their way to check it out now. Shall I activate all units for possible trouble?"
The Captain narrowed her azure eyes in consideration, weighing up options. "Yes," she decided with finality. "Send a ship-wide alert to all security forces. If it turns out to be nothing, we'll just call it a drill."
Captain Caracalla hoped it was just one of the unseasoned recruits messing around with a comm unit --- she knew the ship was basically one giant mass of inexperienced personnel, which was why they were on such a low-priority patrol assignment through friendly space --- but it bothered her all the same.
On deck twenty-four in module five, a group of security officers scoured the corridors for anything unusual or suspicious. They had weapons drawn, just in case it turned out to be a serious threat. That was unlikely, as they were far from the front lines in any current campaign, and it was more than likely another drill, intended to keep them on their toes. It took them a few minutes, but they eventually turned up nothing, and reported in their findings.
It was actually a normal crew-member who had just finished his shift that discovered the source of the mysterious transmission without even realising it, on a completely different deck. Not being a member of shipboard security, he had not received the alert. But Junior Crewman Seleran noticed something that looked a bit unusual to him. At the end of the corridor, on the terminus between modules of the ship, he saw a technician manipulating switches and levers. Crewman Seleran didn't consider himself especially nosey, but he still thought there might be a problem that he could assist with. Even though he was off-duty, he was still eager to assist the running of the ship, and to help rectify problems wherever they occurred.
"Hey! Do you need a hand with anything?" he called out to the person.
The technician didn't seem to hear him, or was otherwise ignoring him. So Seleran crept closer to see what exactly was going on. He caught a glimpse of the word 'INTERLOCK' on a sign, and realised something must have gone wrong. Had an interlock come loose and needed securing? He decided he definitely needed to know.
"Hey! Is everything alright?"
He was answered by a resounding THUNK as a final lever was pulled into place, and the look on the face of the technician as he turned to face him frightened him more than the suddenly rushing of air as it moved to escape from the newly-created breach in the hull. The technician had released the bulkhead interlock --- intentionally! The Junior Crewman tried to flee back the way he came, but the force of the atmosphere as it rushed to the lower pressure of the vacuum outside knocked him back into the air. As he clawed at the walls for anything to stop his flight, he was forcefully thrown through the breach . . . and out into the cold vacuum of space where he would surely die of asphyxiation.
Beyond the warship, the six Headhunter pilots escorting the Halberd noticed the strange transformation the larger vessel was undergoing. A haze of what looked like gas was billowing out of five points of the vessel, and the ship itself seemed to break apart into six segments, pushed further apart by the roiling gas vents. Lieutenant Wolfnel stared unbelievably at the sight he was seeing. He keyed in his comm to Control to find out what was happening, and what he should do. This was certainly not covered in flight training . . .
Onboard the shuttle Mediator, in the forward hangar of module two of the Halberd, General Vaughan woke up. Although he couldn't immediately identify why, he had the unmistakable feeling that something was wrong. He sat up and groggily got out of his bunk, and stumbled forward through the ship to the cockpit. That was when he identified what felt wrong . . . the artificial gravity seemed a bit . . . odd. He couldn't explain it further than that, but it felt as though the ground wasn't exactly where it should be. His sense of up and down was distorted.
Using the walls for support, he gradually made his way to the comm console, and keyed for the bridge. His communication seemed to be ignored at first, until someone finally received his hail on the other end. Background noise of the bridge echoed through his cockpit speakers as alarms, klaxons and frantic voices calling back and forth revealed the bridge to be in a state of disarray.
"Hello, it's General Vaughan here, on the Mediator. What is the status?"
"-- don't know which one it is!" the gravelly female voice blared out of the comm distantly, before coming into focus. "General! Emergency! All the major bulkhead interlocks have been released!"
Vaughan suddenly felt his concentration intensify, all vestiges of tiredness gone. The interlocks . . . released. Oh, Sith . . . "Casualties? Have the remaining bulkheads sealed? What was the cause?"
He realised he was starting to overload the stressed Mon Calamari as her voice started to sound more panicky. "I don't know! Most of the atmosphere has vented, minor bulkheads sealed and holding . . . oh mother Dac, they're floating out there!!"
The communication officer's panicked ramblings made sense to him. Vaughan felt sick to his gut, mostly at the understandable reactions of the rookie crew, who were horrified at what they were seeing. The crew could obviously see floating bodies of their comrades outside in the vacuum as they floated past the bridge. A more battle-hardened crew wouldn't have reacted so strongly, and the reactions he could hear through the comm made him feel more ill than actually seeing it himself could. In the background noise he could make out the Captain's calm but firm voice as she attempted to rein in the panicked crew, but it seemed to be a downhill battle for the moment.
Knowing he wouldn't be able to get any sense of the bridge or Control for the moment, he started powering up the shuttle, in preparation for takeoff. If there were breaches in the hull, then he might be of better use outside to attempt to pick up survivors who hadn't been exposed for too long --- it was possible for some sentients, even Humans, to survive in vacuum for a short time, but the odds were against it . . . and even if the odds were on their side, they would only survive until lack of oxygen killed them . . . for Humans that was less than five minutes, but other species might last longer. He knew from witnessing it himself that the popularised Holodrama concept of humanoids exploding upon immersion in vacuum was a bunch of nonsense.
Flicking through the pre-flight checklist as fast as was humanly possible, the General gritted his teeth against the cacophony of the bridge crew and broke the transmission. Come on, come on . . . hurry up, he mentally urged the shuttle to finish warming up, to take it outside where he could actually do some good.
Inside the reactor room, the countdown on the timer of the proton grenade clicked down closer to zero.
Out in space, the six Z-95 Headhunters moved about around the Halberd, which had rapidly turned into six distinct objects that were gradually moving apart. Lieutenant Wolfnel stared in horror as his scanners revealed the wash of dark specks against the brighter gushing air were people. The lifeform readings on the scanners rapidly started going out, as the ejected crew asphyxiated in the cold dead of space. While the lieutenant had been in battle before, he had never seen such an accident occur in a non-combat situation before. Something had gone very wrong.
As the shock started to wear off, professionalism started to return to his mind. The lieutenant remembered he was the highest-ranking officer in the flight of Headhunters, and realised it was up to him to decide what to do. Control weren't responding, so it was up to him. He checked his scanner board to determine who was located where. Flight Officers Renell and Moren were the closest to the broken warship.
"Nine and Eleven, this is Seven. Head in towards the Halberd . . . try and get a closer look; see if you can figure out anything more than what we can see here."
". . . Roger, Seven,"
As the two snubfighters shrunk into the distance to get a better look at the situation, it occurred to Wolfnel that this might not have been an accident at all.
"Oh, KRIFF. Belay that! Now! Get back here! Renell, Moren: pull up and get out of there now!"
The two pilots, despite their inexperience, reacted instantly, pulling away from the bulk of the broken warship, and as if to answer his suspicions the sky suddenly lit up in a blinding flash that eclipsed all else in his viewscreen.
Inside the shuttle Mediator in the forward hangar of the Halberd, General Vaughan was thrown out of his flightseat and slammed into the wall of the cockpit as a HUGE explosion resonated through the hull of the hangar and his ship. He clambered back to his seat and hailed the bridge . . . to no avail. The comm-lines were filled only with static. Knowing that something was REALLY wrong now, he quickly strapped himself into his flightseat restraints and engaged the shuttle's repulsorlifts, retracting the landing gear when suddenly the lights in the hangar turned off and even the warning glow of the magnetic containment barrier winked out.
From the ghostly lighting of his shuttle's running lights, Vaughan could see the eerie chaos as the atmosphere within the hangar vented out into space, everything and anything inside the hangar not secured or tied down flying out with it. It also looked as though the metal walls of the hangar were twisting and deforming. Remaining inside the hangar was bound to be suicide, so he slammed the engines to full power, thrusting the shuttle towards the exit.
Inside his Z-95 Headhunter, Lieutenant Wolfnel covered his eyes with his gloved hands, but the afterimage of the explosion was burned into his retinas . . . he waited until the cockpit glow he could see through his eyelids subsided before daring to look directly at his mothership, and checked his sensor screens . . . but his sensors weren't needed to confirm what he could plainly see before him . . .
The Mediator rocketed out of the hangar bay of the doomed Strike Cruiser, the wings rotating until the pilot locked the stabilisers into flight mode. Having cleared the bulk of the capital ship, Vaughan keyed in the comm unit for a transmission to any ships in the nearby vicinity. Surely the Headhunter pilots have to know what's going on . . .
His hail went unanswered for a few moments before someone picked up on the other end. "Uh, Tauntaun Seven, er, Lieutenant Wolfnel here. Who is this??"
"Tauntaun Seven, this is General Vaughan onboard the Mediator. What in the Nine Hells is going on?"
"It blew up, sir. Exploded. The whole ship blew up . . ."
Sitting inside the cockpit of what was one of the few remaining RS ships operational in the area, General Vaughan closed his eyes. "Lieutenant, start from the start, what happened?"
"The ship broke into pieces . . . and then it exploded. I lost Renell, and Moren's hit bad."
Vaughan looked over the ruined hulk of what remained of the Strike Cruiser and cringed. It made sense, from what he'd heard and felt from inside the hangar . . . the main interlocks had been released, venting atmosphere and splitting the ship into its separate modules, and then the reactor had clearly blown, causing massive amounts of damage. From what he could see of the once-proud warship, there wasn't much left. Of the six modules that made up the four hundred and fifty metre vessel, only the front-most two looked to be even remotely intact . . . the remaining four were either nonexistent, or blackened tangles of twisted metal; no survivors could possibly exist there.
Strangely enough, in the bleakness of the vista Vaughan couldn't help but remember the Loronar Corporation's slogan, "All the finest, all the first."
"Okay . . . Lieutenant, just have your pilots sit tight for a moment. I'm going to send out a distress call. Have one of your pilots do a flyby on your injured pilot, and I'll see if I can pick him up."
". . . Roger," was the only response.
Vaughan rotated the flightchair while the Headhunter pilot issued instructions to his remaining pilots and programmed in the distress signal, to be sent wideband to anyone within the system. There was a major RS outpost in the next system over, but he wasn't sure what survivors remained onboard the ruined hulks could wait for those forces to arrive. If any civilian traffic from Caelum, or anywhere else in the Elenian system were able to lend a hand, they'd be likely to save many more people than if they waited for RS forces from the Vectain system to arrive.
That detail taken care of for the moment, the General decided it was time to start locating and securing survivors himself, first starting with the injured Z-95 Headhunter pilot, if they were still alive, and then by scanning the most intact remains of the Halberd.
"Lead, this is Eight."
"Negative on Eleven . . . life signs are negative. She's dead, sir."
" . . . Roger that, Eight . . ." the lieutenant sighed over the comm. "General, what do we do now? I've lost two pilots, there's only four of us out here now. What are your orders?"
Vaughan keyed the comm, "Okay, I want you and your flight group to maintain area security. Patrol a perimeter and keep your eyes open for the arrival of any craft; expect any new contacts to come from the direction of the star Elenia. There's bound to be some civilian shipping in the area to help us rescue survivors, so keep a look out for them. I'm going to fly in closer to the remains and see if I can locate areas that the crew might be holed up."
"Copy that, good luck, sir. Okay, Tauntauns, you heard the General: spread out and watch for new contacts."
Satisfied that the lieutenant had area security taken care of, Vaughan pushed his ship in towards the ruined hulks of the broken vessel. As the tri-winged shuttle approached a relatively-intact module, it swooped across the hull, sensors scanning for any life-form readings. Vaughan couldn't help but glance over at one of the wrecked sections of hull, still-intact power conduits sparking beneath charred and twisted reinforced-durasteel beams that used to make up the superstructure of the vessel.
Yet, despite the damage, the General was over the course of the next few minutes able to pinpoint sections of the relatively-intact modules where clusters of life-form readings were high. It couldn't be much more than a few score people, but any survivors were better than the alternative. Vaughan was about to begin attempting to contact anyone within the remains of the Halberd, to reassure them that their plight was understood and being addressed, when one of the Z-95s reported something that sounded excitable through the comm.
"What was that, I didn't copy?" Vaughan inquired.
"Copy that, Ten." the lieutenant had heard the report clearly. "General, we've got multiple contacts inbound. They look to be from in-system, like you said."
"That's the best news we've had so far, Lieutnant. How many ships do they have?"
"Well, maybe not, sir . . . they're not responding to our hails, and seem to be in a distinctly aggressive formation."
Ah, Sithspit, just what we need . . . "Okay, close up your formation; I'll be with you shortly." Vaughan broke away from the large mounds of hull and kicked the shuttle's engines into gear. "Can you get a reading on numbers and ship types?"
Over the comm he heard the pilots mumbling something that sounded like counting. The Mediator zoomed away from the remains of the RS warship and towards the Z-95 Headhunter formation.
"Okay, here's what we've got: six starfighter-class ships, and four freighter-class vessels. If they're pirates or scavengers, I think we take them. Orders?"
"I agree with that assessment. Can you identify exactly what ship types they have?"
"Ten, work out ship-types. Everyone else, form up on the General."
Vaughan's shuttle had by now reached the friendly Headhunters, who clustered around it in battle formation, while Tauntaun Ten lingered slightly in front, gathering data. Vaughan took stock of the shuttle's controls, mentally going through the different weapons and shielding systems that were installed. It wasn't much, since the ship was primarily intended as a mere shuttle, but it would be enough to make the hostile forces shy off, especially backed by a flight of Headhunters. He boosted power to deflectors and started charging the Mediator's laser cannons. This was bound to turn into a fight very soon.
"Lead, got those ship types for ya. I count three R-41 Starchasers, two Z-95 Headhunters, and two CloakShape fighters."
"Is that all? Those CloakShapes are ancient and crappy . . . and our Z-95s are probably better maintained. The Starchasers will probably be the worst threat. We can probably take them out with a volley of missiles, though. Any report on the freighters?"
"Not yet, they're probably just cargo ships . . . wait, got a reading on the big one, it's a bulk freighter."
"Okay, sounds good so far guys. Lieutenant, when they get into missile range I want you to fire a volley of concussion missiles at the R-41s, then at the remaining starfighters. That should make them duck for cover until we close the distance and start tearing them up with lasers."
"Oh no . . . Lead, the remaining ships are Corellian freighters."
"What kind of Corellian freighters, Ten?"
"Um . . . YT-2000 and two YT-1300s . . ."
"Ah, kriff me." Seven swore.
General Vaughan hissed in frustration. It was either that or punch the command console. "Okay guys, change of plans. We don't have the firepower to go up against those YTs, they'll tear us apart. I want you to stick with the first part of the plan, firing missiles at those starfighters as we discussed, while I make my run to hyperspace. Then in the confusion I want you to follow me. We'll rendezvous with RS forces at the Mercurius outpost in the Vectain system. Here are the co-ordinates." Vaughan's navicomputer had already finished processing the required co-ordinates, so he punched them through to his starfighter escort. "Admiral Borran should have received my distress signal by now, so when you jump out of here, be prepared to jump back again not long after. I'm starting my run out of here. May the Force be with you, and make sure you follow me. If you really want to help those survivors still onboard the Halberd, you'll follow me to return with the cavalry and kark these attacking bastards up."
The pilots acknowledged the instructions, and Vaughan counted down the seconds before reaching the hyperspace point. Off to the side of his viewscreen the silhouettes of the approaching hostile craft appeared across the dim glow of the distant yellow star Elenia, when suddenly he saw the bright flares of concussion missiles his pilots had launched at the enemy. He didn't stick around to see the resultant light-show, because he pulled back the hyperspace levers, producing a whole new lightshow.
After the brief trip through hyperspace, the shuttle Mediator arrived in front of a green and blue planet with two Golan III stations in orbit --- General Vaughan had reached Mercurius, the second planet of importance to the RS. Before long he had briefly explained the situation to Control and learned that the Dreadnaught End of Days, under the command of Captain Palaeologus had already left with Grey Squadron to respond to the distress call. He had missed the reinforcements by moments, and headed down to the Command Fortress to lodge his report.
Meanwhile, in the Elenian system, the hostile forces were discovered by RS reinforcements, who completely dominated them, annihilating the starfighter forces, and disabling the freighter craft, who were attempting to capture hostages from the remains of the Strike Cruiser Halberd. None of the ships escaped, and the ones not annihilated were soon forcibly drawn into the bulk of the Dreadnaught End of Days, where the crews of the enemy ships would receive a less than friendly welcome.
-=Excerpt of report to Admiral Trebonious-Astoris by General Vaughan, 44:4:24=-
So in conclusion, of the two thousand personnel serving onboard the Strike Cruiser Halberd, only one hundred and twenty-four survived the incident. Most of the casualties occurred in the immediate depressurisation of the ship, which vented seventy percent of the ship's atmosphere. Those who were lost to space died of asphyxiation. Captain Caracalla and her bridge crew were annihilated instantly when the reactor exploded, as were all remaining crew in modules three to six. The only survivors, what few there were, were buffered by distance in the two forward-most modules.
From security footage pieced together, and indeed the encrypted comm message sent prior to the explosion, we have ascertained that there were six perpetrators, all Caelum nationals, one of whom placed the explosive in the reactor chamber before joining the rest in a synchronised disabling of the bulkhead interlocks between the main ship modules.
The motive of the attack seems to stem from the movement on Caelum who wish to withdraw from all galactic government, wishing to remain neutral to the New Republic and Empire, and take no further part in the galactic war. It is therefore my regretful recommendation that all Caelum nationals serving within the task force be immediately stood down from active duty and questioned by security personnel, just in case there are any more members of this anti-Republic extremist group among us who wish to cause the destruction of military equipment and loss of valuable New Republic Defence Force lives.
That such an act was possible shows glaring gaps in our shipboard security that must be addressed at once. But it also speaks to the obvious drawbacks of the Strike-class cruiser design. It is my opinion that such an attack would not be as readily possible on a less modular vessel, as it was the releasing of only six interlocks that killed most of the Halberd's crew.
Also, as previously stated, in the aftermath of the disaster a formation of hostile Caelum ships arrived from further in-system intending to capture any surviving crew as hostages. These forces were dealt with by Admiral Borran's group, and the interrogation of those prisoners have only highlighted the seriousness of this greater problem on Caelum.
I have attached my detailed recommendations for immediate and long-term response to this incident, as well as the forensic recording transmitted by the Caelum rebels.
Lt. Gen. David Vaughan