"Increase to flank speed!" Jo'tok commanded, "Order fighter flights to defensive positions." Her tactical display showed that she would be through the blockade before most of the human ships could react. They had made a mistake in placing their powerful missile cruisers so far from the outside edges of their deployment. Now the squadron moving to intercept her would be unsupported and isolated. Assuming they avoided plasma cannon range from the assault ship, both cruisers might get through this unscathed.
Between her and the safety of Station Prime's defense grid was a single squadron of ships and a handful of fighters. The anchor of the squadron was an assault ship. Built on the hull of the ubiquitous Hyperon class, at long range it could fool a sensors officer into thinking they were facing a true heavy cruiser. While these ships were as tough as their cousins they did not have the lethal weapons suite of the Hyperion that had proven so deadly to Dilgar ships over the last several months. Supporting the assault ship were two Tethys class frigates. Sensors now showed that one was armed with missiles and the other with a small but effective laser array. Jo'tok cursed under her breath. There would be no avoiding these weapons. These were likely not enough to stop a strike cruiser alone but there was always the chance that a laser weapon of any size could gut a ship with a lucky sustained burst.
"Should we brace for impact?" Jo'tok's executive officer asked. She, too, noticed the patrol closing in on them and had seen the risk.
"No. Without missile support these ships present only a minimal risk." Jo'tok ran the scenario in her head, covering all possibilities she could in the seconds allotted. "Speed is our best defense now. Continue at maximum burn."
Light flared as the engines of the Dilgar cruisers strained to contain the energies being channeled through them. Blue ion trails followed the fast moving vessels like fading comet tails.
"Multiple locks on Slayer!", the ELINT officer reported with an excited staccato. "Detecting weapons locks from ahead and from the missile cruisers!"
"That can't be right." Jo'tok switched her own console to mirror the output of the ELINT station. "We are clearly outside range of the their missiles."
As if in answer the screen suddenly blossomed with contacts as a massive cloud of missiles launched from the Sagittarius cruisers and the scout ship escorting them.
"Incomming!" The warning from ELINT was an understatement.
The missiles separated from their launching ships and rapidly began to close on Slayer. A few moments later the nearby frigate launched its own missiles timed to arrive at the same instant as the others.
The nimble Thorun Dartfighters in formation around Slayer reacted quickly, interposing a wall of fire and even themselves before the incoming threat. Scores of the vulnerable missiles were shot down by defensive fire. As the missiles got closer a few fighters rammed them in desperation. But the weight of fire was too much to stop completely.
For a brief instant there was a second sun in the Krish system as half a dozen nuclear warheads detonated around the strike cruiser. Jo'tok waited in frustration during the long seconds it took for her sensors to recover from the massive spike in radiation. She found herself simultaneously concerned for the fate of Slayer and relieved that it wasn't her ship that had suffered the humans' wrath.
As the static cleared, Jo'kor could see that Slayer was still there. Damage reports were streaming in from the wounded ship. She had lost her primary power relays and was suffering from several uncontrolled fires but the ship was largely intact and stubbornly forging ahead at reduced speed.
"Readings indicate that the missiles had smaller yield warheads than standard human ordinance," the ELINT officer offered in explanation, "These missiles were optimized for increased endurance."
That explained the extraordinary range displayed by the human missile cruisers. Jo'kor had allowed her preconceptions about the humans to lull her into complacency. She should know better. The humans had shown a capacity for flexibility in warfare that the Dilgar had once believed was theirs alone. It was this ability to evolve in response to tactical challenges which had allowed Earthforce to push the Dilgar back the very doorstep of their homeworld.
"Tell Slayer to continue at best possible speed!" Jo'tok turned to her executive officer, "Be sure to record everything in the sensor logs. If we survive this War Captain Tor'han will surely want the data on the new human weapons." She hit the intercom at her station and spoke calmly, "Engineering. If there's any more power you could give us, now would be the time."
All deployed fighters were lost in the defense of Slayer, either consumed in the flurry of detonations or in ramming attacks against the missiles. Twelve more fighters were on standby in the launch bays of Omen and Slayer but the ships couldn't afford time for flight operations. Speed was the total focus of both crews. That and surviving the next few seconds.
As the two Dilgar cruisers made best speed toward the relative safety of Station Prime, the human vessels were busy reloading and preparing another volley of missiles. The process was a slow and laborious one as the massive devices were moved into the launch tubes, warheads armed and safeties calibrated.
"Human vessels opening launch doors."
Jo'kor silently nodded to her ELINT officer as she watched the distance between her ships and those missile cruisers slowly open. How far will be enough?, she wondered to herself. Another volley like that could easily finish off Slayer now that they had no fighters covering them. She leaned forward in her chair, watching the tactical display as if she could push the two ships faster by will alone.
"Multiple locks on Slayer! Incoming fire!"
Again the screens filled with scores of tiny lines, all converging on the Dilgar squadron's position like a grasping claw. The seconds crawled by as she watched the lines get longer and longer - messengers of death sprinting across the gulf between Dilgar and human forces. And then it happened. The lines were winking out, one by one, each terminating only a short distance from the lagging Slayer.
"They've run out of range! The missiles are falling short!" The ELINT officer was excitedly yelling, reflecting the relief of the entire crew.
Throughout the ship, Jo'kor could hear the shouts of celebration and joy as her ship entered the defensive perimeter of Station Prime. She let them have this moment. They had earned it. Close behind Omen her sister ship limped to safety - trailing a cloud of atmosphere and fuel from multiple ruptures - as a patrol of Torpedo frigates formed a wall of steel behind them. If the humans wished to continue the chase they would pay heavily.
"Human ships have broken off pursuit. Sensors show that they are leaving the region."
Now Jo'kor allowed herself to relax as well, breathing a long sigh of relief and clapping her XO on the shoulder.
She activated the comms channel at her station and broadcast squadron-wide, "This is Battlemaster Jo'kor. You have all done excellent service for the Imperium today. I know you don't like running. It is not the Dilgar way."
With a conviction in her voice none could mistake she continued, "I promise you this...next time it is we who shall be the hunters!"