"Three-Zero-zero" ... the broadcast was interrupted by static, momentarily replaced by the sound of explosions and shouting over the communication frequency. "One-Five, we are taking heav-... Fire ... we can't.... longer... we are... withdraw" the communication ended abruptly.
Ronin remained focused as the Pathfinder cruised at hundreds of kilometres a second towards the Imperial Dreadnought Nobilis Historia and her amassed fleet; IMPACT glancing blows and fragmentation blasts from anti-ship missiles detonating off her hull, shaking the deck violently.
"Captain. We have lost contact with Gamma Group." CoRE announced. "We are no longer covered by their Anti-SPARTAN countermeasures. Switching to solo-battlenet control."
The Old Man took a few moments to think about everything they had done up until this point. Over the millennia he had witnessed the rise and fall of the very thing that gave him purpose once. He had witnessed his people be betrayed by their government and he had watched Aquarius plunge into the dark grip of fascism formed from the corrupted seed of the very thing he had always risked his life to protect.
The Old Man didn't care for his life. He knew that CoRE would continue on if he should fall in battle; the C-AI had maintained duplicate backups on all major EPF capital ships, one of which was installed on the Eridonia's Hope; who was leading the surviving forces of the EPF Fleet in the defence over Coron, some millions of kilometres behind them, under the shadow of the Empire's war fleet he was to confront alone. Amiori was commanding the defence from the Hope's bridge; he knew they were in good hands. She would continue the Kociero legacy, should his 'gut instinct' fail him from the first, and last, time.
Stop thinking about death, Old Man, he thought. There is too much to live for. Too much at stake. There would be time for those thoughts later, but now - there was much work to be done. Shaking off his thoughts, the Captain snapped out of his daze and squinted towards the crosshair on the Pathfinder's navigation Heads Up Display; the centre of which was roughly in alignment with the trajectory of the Imperial Fleet - which was cruising at a similar forward velocity. The intercept, should it happen, would be very fast and potentially very violent.
But that was all part of the plan; since for as mighty as she was, Pathfinder would only have a matter of seconds to approach the Nobilis Historia before being ripped to shreds by her close and medium-range cannons, and those of her extensive escort. Should the data provided by his daughter fail: this would be the last moments of the legendary warship and her undying, Semperiternalis Captain.
"One Hundred Thousand Kilometres from intercept." CoRE Announced; knowing the Captain needed to take some time to think about those 'human feelings' that the AI often failed to understand. Humans were still very much enigmatic to the synthetic mind of the AI, even though he had known his brother for over a thousand years.
The Old Man adjusted his headset's mouthpiece before interacting with the holographic console before him; taking only one hand from the Pathfinder's control column to do so. It was important to get a feeling for the haptic feedback from the manual control - despite being completely unused by essentially every other star ship, Ronin had insisted that his control station feature such a feedback mechanism. Captains these days didn't get to 'know' their ships, he often thought. Besides, his track record on manual helm control of the two million mass-ton warship was good enough to prove its worth.
Taking a moment to gather his thoughts, the Old Man flipped the Headset's manual control. "This is Kociero. You are all aware of the gravity of our situation. Over the years I have come to trust each and every one of you to do your duty without even asking. I have never doubted any of you. I know each and every one of you know exactly what to do, and you would follow me to the end - should it be necessary."
"This time is different." He paused, squinting again as he made small adjustments to the Pathfinder's cruise trajectory, nodding to CoRE's holoform who instinctively knew to optimise the drive output accordingly.
"Today I do not expect you to follow me to the end. Today, I do not wish for you to follow me to the end. Today, I need you to carry on without me; I need you to stand with my daughter and continue the legacy we, each and every one of us, as fought for. That is what I expect."
The Pathfinder's small crew took a few moments to take in what their Captain was saying. Marines clutched their communicators and engineers paused momentarily. The Bridge staff looked to the captain as he spoke. Within moments, they resumed their duties as expected of them. Sempers or humans, they were brothers and sisters in arms.
"Commander Vai, take Dragon Team to the docking bay. Board the 'vette and make ready for departure, I will be with you shortly. Everyone else: occupy your stations and do your duty. Iva, you will have to work with CoRE to get Pathfinder away from the Historia after we have left. There is no time to wait for our return, I am sure you are all aware that even we cannot absorb the brunt of an entire Imperial Fleet long enough to find out if this gambit paid off. If it does: you will know. If it does not: you are to return to Coron immediately and tell my daughter what has happened. She will know what to do, and she will lead you like I have lead you. CoRE has the deck." The Old Man finished speaking into the intercom; flipping the switch on his headset, before taking it off entirely and placing it gently on the command chair as he stood up.
"CoRE, take it from here. Punch out on my signal when Dragon Team is suited up and ready to depart." The Captain ordered, his voice course, yet calm. Almost as if he didn't believe he would survive - but apparently that didn't bother him.
"Captain?" CoRE exclaimed, concerned. The C-AI had never, once, doubted his brother's judgement in the heat of combat but the odds were so heavily stacked against them; he felt it necessary to express his concern.
"Good Luck." The AI added, de-materialising as marched towards the exit bulkhead at the rear of the command deck; leading to the central elevator system.
Pathfinder's cruise engines glared brilliantly in the depths of space as she accelerated on the final stretch of her one-way trip into the Jaws of Hell, towards a fully assembled Imperial Navy assault fleet lead by the most powerful warship in Aquarius, the Pattern-3 Retribution-class Dreadnought, Nobilis Historia. The Old Man remained silent, calm and collected as he rode the central elevator along the spine of the ship to the hangar bay. The elevator had seating on either side, with harnesses for high-speed de-acceleration; but the Captain preferred to stand, instead simply grasping the overhead rail as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other, frowning.
As the Elevator deaccelerated into the Central hangar access terminal, the captain punched an override into the door controls; opening the elevator's doors as it was still moving through the entrance tunnel - the atmosphere hitting his long black hair; flailing it behind him as the pressure doors sealed the primary tram-way from the pressurised access tunnel; the main elevator shafts were not routinely pressurised with atmosphere as it introduced unnecessary resistance to the movement of the elevator tram.
Jumping onto the terminal deck before the elevator had even stopped, he was greeted by a pair of Semper Marines from Dragon Team - the Pathfinder's elite boarding-action squad, and Ronin's personal guard, made up from his most trusted and veteran brothers and sisters from the Sempertinalis Project.
"Captain Kociero." one of the exo-suit clad marines exclaimed, saluting. "Commander Kasake and the rest of Dragon Team are aboard the Sidewinder, awaiting your arrival."
Ronin returned the salute, gesturing to the central hangar access bulkhead as the three men hastily marched towards it. "If you have any concerns, now is the time to express them, Sempers." The Captain spoke, glancing briefly to the two marines beside him; whose helmet visors were retracted to reveal their battle-scared faces.
"No concerns, sir". One of the marines replied, nodding to the Captain as he clutched his MX9M Repeating FIMD 'Carbine' variant; pushing the bull-pup magazine assembly as to ensure it was fitted correctly.
"We have your back, always, sir." The other replied. Their voices were course and deep, like the Old Man's, devoid of fear or emotion, only dedication and determination to serve the Captain until their dying breath. Indeed, such devotion might just be needed today.
"Outstanding". Ronin replied, nodding as the trio approached the access door to the hangar; placing his hand on the access pad which let out an confirmatory chime before the display turned green with the words "AUTHORISED"; moments later the heavy-duty Category A Bulkhead began to retract into the overhead port, to the hissing sound of atmospheric pressure normalisation and hazard alarms.
Pathfinder's deck shook violently once again, this time it was sufficient for the three men to lose their balance; the two marines dropped onto one knee to stabilise themselves; their massive armoured knee armour clanking as it impacted the nanopolymer deck plating. Ronin missed a step but steadied himself promptly, looking up towards the overhead of the hangar as debris tumbled from the cables and trusswork overhead, sparks from shorted electrical junctions illuminating lengths of ducting and bundles of optic 'nerve' cables linking various ship systems.
"It is time." The captain said as the marines flanked him into the central hangar. The Sidewinder was large enough to take up most of the several hundred square-metre hangar; the Albatross-class light-corvette was much larger than most other ships that could dock - unable to land on a pad-platform, instead it was suspended overhead with enormous magneto clamps - these would lower the hundred-fifty metre vessel into the exit berth of the hangar upon lift-off as she was too large for a manual launch.
The central access ramp on the Sidewinder's dorsal side was retracted, and firmly extended onto the boarding platform from the central platform of the Hangar. A couple of EPF engineers wearing helmets with visor-guards saluted the captain and his marine escort as they approached the ramp, after of which the engineers retreated to the launch control room across the boarding ramp - which was shielded from the immense heat generated by the corvette's thrusters on launch.
Ronin stopped just short of the ramp as Pathfinder's deck shook again, less violently this time, likely a near miss from a Hornet MRM fragmentation warhead, but it was still sufficient to rock the docked Sidewinder in her cradle, which groaned loudly as the magneto clamps strained to absorb the inertial forces.
"We are ready for launch, Captain." the voice of Commander Vai Kasake's voice crackled over the Captain's headset communicator. Clutching his hand on the ear-piece the captain glanced over to the launch control room; gesturing thumbs up to the engineers for launch as he followed the two marines up the boarding ramp which retracted into the hull behind them, close with a mechanical clank and hiss as hermetic seals engaged, isolating her internal atmosphere from Pathfinder's.
As the airlock sealed over the ramp, Ronin hastily made his way to the bridge of the corvette with the two marines, who took up positions on either side of the access door; clutching overhead rails. "I trust everything is in good order?" The captain asked, taking position beside Commander Kasake, who himself was clad in Old Federation 'Titan' exo-suit marine armour, holding his helmet under his left arm.
"Like old days, Ronin." He replied, nodding, as he turned the two marines. "Sempers, take your positions in the loading bay. Have Dragon Team ready for immediate boarding action."
Ronin tied his trenchcoat to his belt, to keep the distinctive flares out of the way, but still reluctant to actually remove the garment, which had become something of a 'lucky charm' to the Old Man since his service with the Old Federal Navy. Taking a seat on one of the relatively small command bridge's harness-equipped chairs, he turned his gaze to the Commander, who had suited up his helmet; which would create a fully environmentally sealed connection to the exo-armour, however his visor was retracted sufficiently so he could place his own eyes upon his Captain.
Ronin looked away for a moment, as the Corvette's pilot flipped a few switches on the overhead console, before pulling a large lever on the central dashboard; which began the launch process as previously orange lights on the interface flicked to green, the words "READY FOR LAUNCH" blinking on the simple status diagnostics heads up display below the main holographic interface on the flight control panel. The pilot flipped up his visor and leant round to face the Captain; giving him a confirmatory thumbs up to which the captain nodded in acknowledgement.
"Punch it." He said, turning to face Kasake who inserted the magazine into his MX9M Carbine with tactical precision, pulling back the charging handle with his other armoured hand to feed the first of the 9.1mm kinetic rounds into the chamber.
"How do you want to handle this, Captain? The way I see it, we have two options. We go in guns blazing and take them by surprise, hitting the bridge from the internal access way - based on the plans Amiori provided, it is a fairly direct route. Of course, I do not expect the Imperial marines to simply allow our little boarding party to meet the captain face to face, so perhaps we could go in quietly, like that time during the 'Phoenix where we dropped the Hammer out of cruise, snagged her skipper and came back in time for tea without firing a round." Kasake explained, laughing to make light of the situation as "STANDBY FOR LAUNCH" indicators flicked on around the deck, red overhead lights turning to amber as Sidewinder's lateral thrusters flared up to assist the magneto clamps in pushing her out of the berith as the Pathfinder shook violently, taking immense fire from the rapidly approaching Imperial cruiser formations ahead of the fleet.
CoRE's countermeasure systems were almost ineffective, and the battlecruiser was taking a battering from medium-range particle ram fire and anti-ship missiles; the latter of which were starting to break through the Point Defence System and hit the hull directly; her shields were already collapsed.
Ronin thought for a moment, looking forward out of the Corvette's bridge cockpit canopy as she was slowly lifted down the access berth; the internal lights from the hangar soon replaced by the frigid darkness of space and the occasional flash of a particle-ram impact on the Pathfinder's hull; her armour was almost critical, chunks of debris began to break away from each impact as the mighty warship began to de-accelerate from hypercruise. At this point, the Imperial Fleet was almost in visual range; as the Sidewinder's cockpit cleared the exit birth and her forward spotlights engaged, the distinctive blueshifts of incoming IMPAC fire glared past, some impacting the Pathfinder, some glancing and blasting back out to space at a slight angle. A single one of these projectiles would completely destroy the Albatross-class light corvette. Lucky for Ronin and Dragon Team, however, it was unlikely the Imperial Fleet was expecting such a bold manoeuvre.
But of course, Freedom Lies in Being Bold.