Meerkat Musings

The Warlord

The Warlord

The end of the glorious Chon’ith civilisation started with one war too many. Faith that ferocity and combat, instead of peace and diplomacy, would always yield superior benefits, resulted instead in a crushing defeat.

****

It wasn’t that the Chon’ith didn’t understand how to use diplomacy and they utilised trade agreements as readily as any spacefaring species – but, with zealots in charge, the slightest degree of offense, coupled with feverent confidence in their war machine, the Chon’ith had always been prepared to back up their words with weapons. Large, well-stocked fleets maintained a constant threat, that the Chon’ith would use to extort or outright take what they could not obtain by words alone. In short, they were the ultimate galactic bullies, much to the charigin of other species, who all too often had to make concessions to avoid being gobbled up.

That all changed when humans entered the scene. To a Chon’ith, humans were small, weak creatures, who were arrogant in their denouncements of Chon’ith behaviour. It was a source of outrage that relative upstarts in the community should seek to question the natural order – Chon’ith were strong, and thus controlled and ruled the weak. The contempt humans showed for the proper way of doing things only stoked the flames of war, even though the Chon’ith were already fighting wars on other borders. It would not have been the first time battles had been waged on multiple fronts. Preparations were made, the sprawling war factories and industry ramped up their production of new fleets, and ultimatums were issued – humanity would cease inciting rebellion against Chon’ith desires, make proper reparations, or find its territory ruthlessly cut down.

Naturally, humanity did not respond well to such a demand. It did not take long for the warships of the Confederation Navy to line up near the border of the Chon’ith Empire, and for testy, nervous probing of defences to raise tensions. It wasn’t that the Chon’ith would blindly go to war, for despite their aggression, they understood the dangers of over-extending their forces – but they had not believed the humans to be anything other than a bug to be squashed. Nuances of strategy and tactics were less important than large and powerful vessels brimming with weapons. Military intelligence and espionage were fields given only cursory attention, and only because of the devotion of other species. When the order to go to war was finally given, it would be the biggest mistake the Chon’ith had ever made.

****

To begin with, the war was going well. The flurry of attacks from the border against Confederation targets saw to it the destruction of several patrols, outposts and defence nets. Raiders took care of supply trains and cargo caravans. It wasn’t a completely one-sided affair, and the Chon’ith took slightly higher losses than they’d expected, but no battle plan ever survived first contact with the enemy and the losses of a few extra light cruisers and destroyers were hardly going to cripple the war effort. Confederation forces fell back, covering worlds left potentially vulnerable by the early Chon’ith victories, able to make only very limited forays into enemy territory. Still, the relative strength of Confederation planetary defences was enough to keep the Chon’ith from committing large fleets straight away, not without ensuring enough cover in the event of deep raids. After all, with wars going on elsewhere, even with such a huge fleet of ships, the Chon’ith would have been unwise to over-extend themselves.

Eventually though, the need to strike harder at Confederation territory became a necessity. The more time the humans had to fortify their worlds, shipyards and industry, the harder they would be to crack. Plans were put into motion to force the Confederation to stretch itself, creating openings. What they never realised was, their plans were not quite their own…

****

Superior Chief Seluban took a moment to look into the small mirror as he ran a line of yellow paint slowly across his left cheek. With practised movements he then repeatedly the gesture with white paint across his right cheek. The ritual had its roots in violence yet provided a sense of serenity as the cool paint moved across his warm green skin. After all, it also had roots in ancient history, and in victory. Whilst not especially vain, Seluban took a moment to consider the chipped incisor once more, and noted with pride how the yellow paint emphasised the glorious scar that ran from just under his eye to the edge of his cheek. Whilst in the past he had questioned the pomp and ceremony of heavy golden armour, he now clad himself in it with an almost ethereal sense of joy. The breastplate was cumbersome and he knew before long he would be overheating, but as he took it upon himself to complete and respect the time-honoured practices the Makers had so generously bestowed upon his people, Seluban savoured his rank – and the chance for fresh glory that lay ahead.

In his view, it had taken too long to assemble the fleet that now rushed toward the world the humans called Dallas II. His commanders had urged patience and given him reasons as to the delays, but concerns like supply lines and intel raids were trifling to him. Battle called, and to keep denying it had felt like someone was once again dipping their blade into his abdomen – the original initiation into the Chon’ith war fleet, for all its splendour and delicious pain, had held moments that every Chon’ith would not enjoy.

At any rate, as Seluban surveyed his private quarters aboard his flagship, he took comfort from knowing that battle was finally upon them, and that his hunger would soon be sated. The fleet hurtled through hyperspace, only hours from its destination. Stepping to the circular table in the centre of the room, Seluban tapped a couple of controls at the station mounted to it and a three-dimensional representation of the Dallas system sprung into life.

It was easy to understand why the humans had established a colony. The presence of a world that was temperate by their standards (if a little too warm for the Chon’ith to be truly comfortable), but also a couple of large asteroid fields and a pair of bloated gas giants orbiting the yellow star provided a tremendous wealth of natural resources. Over the span of some twenty or so earth years, 250 million people had emigrated to Dallas II to start new lives and take advantage of new opportunities. It would be a pleasure to rip that away from them.

Two hundred Chon’ith warships were ready to ruin the Dallas system. Three other similar fleets were approaching their own targets, but Seluban did not at that moment care. He glanced at a picture mounted to the grey stone walls of his cabin, a capture of his mate and his two offspring. He would make his son and daughter proud.

****

“They do not appear to have detected us.” Chief Acklaran stood a head taller than his commanding officer, yet lacked the older man’s stocky build. Privately, Seluban was slightly envious – age had slowly begun to creep up on him, though the Makers had been kind enough to prevent a full-blown expansion of his waist. He stood just behind the command chair, aware that Sharpened Blade was Acklaran’s ship, even if it had been designed as a flagship, rather than a conventional battleship.

“We assume nothing until the recon platforms have discretely surveyed the system. We’ll hold position by the gas giant until we are certain.” Seluban hated giving such an order, given how eager he knew the fleet would be to press on, but as powerful as his fleet was, as keen as he was, wasting ships and lives needlessly was not honourable.

The platforms launched, using cover the gas planet’s complex magnetic field to fire up in direction of both the colony and also the activity picked up in one of the asteroid fields. Tight-beam transmission would feed back to the fleet any important news concerning enemy ships and fixed defences to worry about. So far, he looked like he enjoyed a numerical advantage of just under two to one, but he wasn’t about to jump the gun, not on his first assignment as a Superior Chief. Minutes became hours as the platforms slowly drifted, collecting data via passive sensors, creating a clearer picture of what waited for the fleet. Crews were rotated to keep them fresh, but the tension, the lust for combat, was becoming palpable. Seluban didn’t want to press ahead, he needed to.

The large, circular command deck was staggered over two levels, with Seluban and Acklaran watching from on high. To humans, the scene would have been unusual – the average Chon’ith officer wore ‘armour’ plates that would have been reminiscent of Roman soldiers, but each wore chains made from bone. The railing that ran around the command deck’s entire upper level was also carved from bone, etched with runes and prayers to the Makers. The walls may have carried a stone-like appearance that looked plain, but they too were inscribed with the Makers’ words and will. As was tradition with a brand new flagship, elaborate purple drapes hung from the cavernous ceiling, bearing the names of every member of the crew. It was a beautiful sight, befitting what would be a glorious and noble ship, fleet, and mission.

Crew members reported back regularly, almost too regularly, as if expressing their own wish to attack. Finally, the console wedded to Acklaran’s command chair beeped.

“The recon platforms have shut down. Their final report suggests the humans are ignorant to our presence. How should we press our attack?” He asked in clipped tones.

Seluban stared at the plot. “They must defend the planet, but the industry in that asteroid belt is the lifeblood of the system. If we threaten it, they will have to respond.”

Acklaran smiled. “Should we split our forces?”

“Tempting, but no, at least, not immediately. We will run in stealth, moving out via the far side of the gas giant, and… at this point…” Seluban pointed to a void in space on the plot. “If it appears as though the humans have not spotted us, we’ll accidentally reveal ourselves. They’ll have workers squealing for protection and will have to divert forces from the planet to engage. We’ll come in slow enough to easily reverse course, blow past their fleet, and destroy their orbital defences. Once in control of the planet, their fleet will to surrender or we shall begin bombardment.” A savage grin split his face. “Give the order to move out.”

****

Two hundred warships of the Chon’ith Navy began to accelerate, slowly and carefully, adjusting themselves to as to keep within the gas giant’s turbulent magnetic field and radiation belt. Once ready, thrusters fired up to give mammoth constructs the kick they needed to then sail on a ballistic course for the sprawling industrial operations that had sprouted in the asteroid field nearest the habitable world. Passive sensors continued to drink in new data, revealing no indication of enemy ships lying in wait, nor any other nasty surprises. Given the vast distances involved (literally millions of kilometres), and the lack of active acceleration, it would be many hours before anything would be in weapons range, but that bought opportunities for the crew to carry out last-minute preparations, training drills and where possible, some extra rest as well. For Seluban and Acklaran, there was no possibility of the latter. They watched the computer readouts from the stations chiselled into the rocky walls and were alert to any change in the status of the small Confederation force.

Only ninety-six human warships were in the system, orbiting Dallas II, with only a limited system of orbital defence platforms. The ODPs were a single-layer system, at least at Dallas II, and the shell was decidedly incomplete. There were several new ODPs under construction, but with only a few dozen to supplement the firepower of the ships, they were a non-entity as far as serious warfare was concerned. A space station was also under construction, but the floating fortress was not yet operational and, even if it were, it would have been easy enough to avoid it. In one sense, it was a curious oversight to Seluban, given how close Dallas II was to Chon’ith space. It even lacked sense from an economic perspective – to have mining and refining platforms up and running, yet nowhere for them to be properly processed and distributed, meant a lot more clutter in the asteroid belts themselves. Indeed, his recon platforms had detected several bulky container craft and several other, small cargo vessels milling about within the asteroids, with only a handful of ODPs to provide protection for the refineries and the unarmed civilian vessels. Had the powers-that-be in Dallas II exercised their common sense, the system could have been trading with the Chon’ith, making a tidy profit too – until the war had intervened.

Still, that wasn’t Seluban’s problem. Soon, it wouldn’t be the Confederation’s problem either, for Dallas II and its resources would be serving the Chon’ith Empire.

“This will be easy.” Seluban heard one of the command deck’s officers mutter. The young Chon’ith, with red instead of green skin, wasn’t someone he immediately recognised, but he had half-whispered his remark, hoping to avoid being heard. Seluban smiled as Acklaran spoke up. A Chief always caught every word on his command deck.

“Let us hope it is not too easy. We want to have some fun here too Remerlin.” Acklaran’s almost casual anticipation triggered a stirring of amusement across the command deck.

“Of course Chief.” Replied the helmsman, his voice wry with amusement of his own.

“Time to range?” Asked the Chief.

“We will be at the extremes of our range in two hours.”

“If the human fleet moved to intercept now, how long would it take them?” Asked Seluban.

“Approximately one hour and forty-two minutes Superior Chief.” Remerlin’s tone was just a touch more formal when dealing with the flag officer.

Seluban glanced at Acklaran. “It’s time to leak our presence. Signal one of the heavy cruisers to suffer an emissions burst – an engine flareup that gives us away. They’ll have to react, and quickly.”

“With pleasure sir.” Acklaran smiled again.

****

Ninety-six ships of the Confederation Navy spent a few minutes reacting to the presence of a large Chon’ith fleet, before moving to military acceleration on an intercept vector. 

****

“It appears they’re slightly slower than we thought.” Mused Acklaran. “Their light units can outpace us, but their battleships are holding them back, assuming they’re going as fast as they can.” He pointed a finger to the readouts. “They’ll just barely get to within missile range with four minutes to spare, assuming they can’t gain some accel from somewhere.”

Seluban snorted. “This is the price the humans pay for their arrogance. They thought they could fight us and win. They’ll suffer greatly for that.”

“We can swat their attacks, they simply don’t have the numbers to stop us. I cannot believe they did not reinforce this system.” Acklaran was almost sympathetic. “They have allowed millions of their kind to either die or be enslaved.”

Seluban shrugged. “Perhaps they felt their defences were strong enough, or we were not brave enough to strike behind their lines. Maybe they didn’t have a choice. Either way, it does not matter. We have superiority. Let us use it.”

****

Time continue to trickle by. The Confederation warships closed the distance to their adversaries steadily, but there were limitations to how quickly they could close the range. In every border skirmish so far, the humans had not been confident enough to start firing until they were within 50,000 kilometres of the enemy. The Chon’ith had been content to open fire from 60,000 km, knowing they could score a significant percentage of hits. In theory, they could launch from even further out, though targeting systems became increasingly erratic as the range grew larger. Still, a 10K range advantage was not to be scoffed at. The humans would have no choice but to close to their own effective range, and Seluban watched as the plot revealed the pursuing Confederation fleet was managing to pick up speed from somewhere, probably at the cost of straining their engines too hard. The revised estimates meant the Chon’ith would be on the edge of their range for the asteroid field’s outer extremes just before the humans would enter their own firing range. It was a desperate move.

Desperate, until the Chon’ith entered into range of the asteroid industries.

85,000 kilometres was the very fringe of the range for the missiles carried by the Chon’ith fleet. The force Seluban commanded held seventy-eight enormous battleships, each with 52 broadside missile tubes. A further 53 vessels took the form of battlecruisers, that combined firepower with speed and agility, and sported 18 tubes. Thirty-six heavy cruisers, each capable of a broadside of 8 missiles, and thirty-three light cruisers, that would spit out 4 missiles per salvo, had a combined broadside of five thousand, four hundred and thirty missiles into the jaws of their enemy – with over four thousand from the battleships alone.

At that moment, Seluban and his forces found the universe unravel around them. 

“We have a missile launch!” The tactical officer yelled. Chon’ith were not given to fear, but there was a deep concern in his gruff voice. The old warrior struggled to reconcile what was possible with what was happening

Over two thousand Confederation missiles had appeared on the plot, at a range of just under 83,000 km. It wasn’t so much the size of the salvo, as the location – the seemingly defenceless asteroid facilities were the source. Their flight time would be brief – a matter of just over a minute – and then a second salvo appeared on the readouts, this time from the purusing Confederation fleet.

Ninety-six warships fired simultainously, timing their fire so that their own missiles would meet in the middle with those fired from the asteroid belt. Seventeen battleships spat 32 missiles each, with five-hundred and forty-four joining the missiles from the other, lighter craft. Sixty battlecruisers gave forth 12 missiles each, adding another seven-hundred and twenty warheads to the mix. Nine heavy cruisers added another ninety missiles, and the remaining ten light cruisers contributed a further seventy. It was in all a low density swarm, less than one and a half thousand birds, but the Chon’ith did not yet realise the extent of their problem. Both the fleet and the ODPs secreted within the asteroid field possessed advantages that had not been fully exploited – until now.

In the border fights, the Confederation Navy had made mistakes. Much of their combat doctrine was built around the assumption they would be fighting an enemy with similar capabilities. This meant allowing for a variety of counter-measures, which in turn forced the effective range of their missiles down, and therefore led to ConFed units closing to a range where Chon’ith weaponry was more potent – and more dangerous. With a greater understanding of Chon’ith weapons and tactics, the Navy had been able to turn their initial defeats into irresistible bait. Now the human forces were firing from a range where the Chon’ith could only just return fire, and even then, with choppy firing solutions. Combined with advantages in electronic warfare systems, fire control and guidance systems, the humans held all the cards.

First, the warships hidden in the asteroid belt had set up tight-band communications links with the stealth sensor platforms seeded liberally across the distance the gas giant the Chon’ith had jumped to, and the asteroid field itself. Similar links had been established between the fleet orbiting Dallas II and the fleet hiding in the asteroids. What the Chon’ith had assumed to be fixed defences delivering so many missiles from an unarmed set of platforms, was in fact a combination of ODPs and ships. Twenty battleships and forty-two heavy cruisers lit up their engines to a bid to close one half of Operation Venus, having delivered over half of the surprise burst of missiles, from a distance that the Chon’ith had thought impossible. The remainder had represented the entirety of what the ODPs in the asteroid belt could muster; it was vital to pin the Chon’ith between two fleets for the fly-trap to close successfully.

Fortunately for the Confederation (and unfortunately for Seluban and his people), the Chon’ith had failed to pick up the sensor buoys that provided real-time information on his fleet as it had glided toward the apparently defenceless asteroids. Now he watched as two separate yet deadly swarms of highly dangerous warheads swooped upon his command.

“Deploy ECM and the decoys, now!” He ordered, as much to the crew of Sharpened Blade as to the fleet. “Target the larger force and open fire!”

Over five thousand Chon’ith missiles blasted from their launch tubes and began to accelerate at a rate that would cross the distance between the two fleets in a matter of minutes, and over four hundred of the missiles were in fact jammers and decoys, designed to fool enemy defences. It actually made good sense to focus this on the smaller of the two sets of incoming missiles, as greater saturation of sensors and targeting systems would blunt the blow, but this wasn’t Seluban’s thinking. As he gave orders for the fleet to change course and move to close the range to the fleet now designated Alpha One, he thought only in terms of inflicting maximum damage.

Here, the advantage held by the Confederation became clearer. Though Alpha One had fired ‘only’ one and a half thousand missiles, three hundred of them carried the latest in electronic warfare systems, and they were guided not only by more sophisticated on-board targeting, but by better fire control and telemetry links. Even if ConFed forces had been limited to only their ships, they would have held a decisive edge, but the sensor platforms provided the missiles with guidance that they would normally have lacked. They also spoofed both the offensive Chon’ith salvo and the counter-measures Seluban had deployed. To make matters worse, the density of his ECM devices deployed against the larger salvo was far lower, a hideous tactical oversight.

Missiles zipped past each other, with decoys and other inference trying to fool enemy tracking. It was inevitable, even for ConFed missiles, for some of them to wander off course, given the sheer scale of Chon’ith defences. However, the fast, nimble and intelligent missiles the Confederation had engineered made it past those defences in large numbers, whereupon some were picked off by short-range cannon fire, but almost at once, both Alpha One’s and Alpha Two’s missiles got into attack range. The exotic, energetic particles and energy explosively liberated from the warheads was focused by shaped charges to provide maximum damage to the warships they’d targeted, and the humans had chosen their targets well. Thirty battleships and fifteen battlecruisers met with the brunt of the two attacks, barracked by lethal energies. Energy dampening mechanisms embedded into thick armour worked hard, but with so many missiles making it through, nothing could prevent even the robust Chon’ith warships from suffering as armour vaporised and melted, allowing deadly tendrils of nuclear fury to poke at the more vulnerable hull, and the systems buried within. Bulkheads broke under the extreme conditions, conduits for relaying power, life support and other systems were shredded, and Chon’ith warriors were dead before they even had a chance to realise what was about to happen. Gaping, charred holes were left in many of the targeted ships, now adrift from damage that stretched from their fore to their aft sections, whilst fires raged in locations where emergency bulkheads had sealed in otherwise leaking atmosphere. 

After the first of the ConFed attacks, twenty-two battleships were heavily damaged, able to maneovere but barely, and now devoid of any meaningful firepower, following the near-complete loss of both broadsides. Another three battleships were dead in space, shattered hulks, and five were simply gone, reduced to rapidly expanding clouds of debris. It was a fate shared by eight battlecruisers, with six of the remaining seven all knocked out of the fight by sheer damage. Other ships had taken minor damage from missiles that had gone astray and latched onto other targets, but Seluban slumped into his command chair and watched his own missiles approach the human fleet, teeth set in a grimace as he prayed to the Makers for a dose of revenge.

Except that revenge didn’t come. His fleet had fired from too far out, and every tool and trick in the ConFed arsenal now sprang to life. The sensor platforms continued to provide ghosts for Chon’ith missiles to chase, and the human ships themselves had horribly effective counter-measures. They could not prevent at least some strikes, given how large Seluban’s attack had been, but as his own weapons got to attack range and detonated, it became clear very few had been close enough to successfully attack. His missiles found a few heavy cruisers and light cruisers, and the huge warheads drowned them in a storm surge of intense power, but aside from that, he had inflicted very little harm on the enemy.

“Missile launch!” The tactical officer cried again. His shout pierced the stunned silence that gripped the command deck. “Alpha One has fired again. Alpha Two has now fired!”

Seluban’s eyes met with Acklaran’s. 

“What do we do sir?” Acklaran asked quietly. 

It became apparent to Seluban that the eyes of everyone on the command deck were now fixated upon him. After all, he was the fleet commander. He would be the one to lead his people to a glorious victory or a glorious death, only this was proving to be a slaughter.

Inexperienced gnawed at him, though he knew he was being unfair to himself. No Chon’ith had ever fought a battle where the enemy had such an edge. He had a minute or two to decide how to defend his fleet before the next wave of missiles burned away another chunk of it. He had the welfare of his people to consider. Surrendering was out of the question, but he couldn’t fight and hope to more than inflict meaningless casualties. 

“Have the entire fleet jump to hyperspace, any vector. Do it now.” He spoke with cold authority. He was giving the order to run, an order he knew would come back to haunt him, but there was no other choice.

“We are… running?” Acklaran asked with incredulity. 

“It’s that or we die. Look at those missiles. We cannot intercept them and we cannot absorb them. This was a trap. We have a duty to warn our people before we launch more attacks like this! Now jump!”

The order went out, and Seluban knew it would not be obeyed by everyone. Running was… it was worse than cowardly. It was the only move that made logical sense, yet he knew how it would be perceived. The engines, tucked within the rear of the ship, rumbled as a gateway to hyperspace was ripped open. Most of his fleet moved into it, a few, as predicted, either did not or could not. Most of those who did not fleet, were reduced to ash.

 

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