This is Task Force Fourteen, as it steams at a leisurely twenty-two knots steadily east along the rocky southern shore of Míhayll Island, the southernmost in its archipelago. It had passed the entrance to the Míhayll Shallows yesterday at dusk, the shoal offering a back door to Lothell Bay for those with sufficiently shallow drafts, but not even a destroyer would attempt that passage. TF14 had sighted a few fishermen among the shoals, but if they had been sighted in return – a virtual certainty – it would not matter. Their targets had no option but to break out of the bay, which short of charging directly into the teeth of TG Northern, meant transiting the Adessír Straits; if the fishermen reported their passage to the Alliance command, it would make little difference.
The interception, if it happened – the course and speed of TF14 had been selected to intercept the Alliance ships at the mouth of the Straits, if they were indeed attempting a dawn transit – would be a close-quarters knife-fight. The sharp mountain spine running down Míhayll’s length was an effective barrier to both gunfire and radar, and so they would not know of its success until they were almost upon the enemy.
Meanwhile, the wind blew steadily against them, as it had all night. Vicious gusts out of the north-west carried storm clouds down out of Lothell, bringing with them lines of squalls, flat and heavy rain, and a steady swell that was imparting to the ships of TF14 a miserable corkscrewing motion. The only virtue to be found in the weather – and the worse storms further north – was that it would keep Alliance air cover grounded, and make it virtually impossible for Antinomos to fly off or recover aircraft. Or such was the Admiralty’s contention, although the empty skies above them were some confirmation.
The fast battleship Skybreaker, Vice-Admiral Ardelli’s flagship, trails the midpoint of the center line of the formation, following the wake of Invincible, her elder sister, their silhouettes obscured against the storm by the entangling shapes of their dazzle paintwork. Fast battleship is an unconventional designation for the Imperial Navy, but one earned by their unusual construction; rather than heavy naval steel, their citadel armor was wrought from spinmetal, a composite material harvested from deposits left behind by feral silverlife. Absurdly light and strong – albeit in short supply, uncastable, and extremely difficult to work – the spinmetal citadels of the Invincible-class battleships left them vulnerable to only the heaviest fire, while allowing them to outrun most cruisers with ease.
(A framed letter, presented to the ship by the naval architect behind the project, hung in the captain’s day cabin of Invincible; a purloined copy of a reprimand addressed to a junior Alliance intelligence analyst informing them in no uncertain terms that no-one, not even an Empire recently come into possession of the deposits of the Ossirvel Distributary, would expend the wealth necessary to use such a rare and costly material as warship armor.)
Ahead and behind them as they proceeded in line ahead, their escorting cruisers Seabreeze and Waterspout; refits of the older Tempest-class, now fat with air defenses, but still mounting a respectable main armament of a half-dozen 6″ guns.
And around them, the destroyers. Eight of them, all of the Ulricik Bancrach-class, the Hungry Wolves: Gray. Grinning. Pouncing. Leaping. Ravening. Swift. Unseen. Grizzled.
Almost hidden as they crashed through the swell, water sloshing over their bows – while relatively new, the wetness of the class in heavy weather was well-known – the destroyers flanked the main line four and four to port and starboard, the first pair preceding the others and the last trailing. Most visible was Ravening Wolf, on Skybreaker‘s port bow, flying the white pennant of Commodore Chiomé, commander of the destroyer screen.
The voice of a loudspeaker making a long-expected call cut through the quiet of Skybreaker‘s bridge.
“Radar-bridge. Radar-bridge. Contacts, repeat contacts, appearing through ground clutter, bearing oh-eight-four.”
“Signal to all ships: clear for action. Hoist the battle ensign.”