Approval for the scout mission took a couple of days, but when it was done, the destroyer Coulsen was prepped, her engines primed for speed. It would take the reconfigured engines four days to reach the other side of Chon’ith space, at the cost of weapons range and accuracy, so haste was the better form of valour. Captain Sarah Kindle sat in her chair at the centre of the command deck, watching her crew make the final preparations.
“You’re excited aren’t you Ma’am?” Asked Commander Alain Ricciardo. She looked at her XO, standing beside her chair.
“More or less.”
“More, or less?” He grinned, flashing his perfect teeth and hazel eyes twinkling.
“More… I think. I mean, we’re meant to be heading into a brutal warzone, at the invitation of our enemy, and we’re doing so with compromised sensors so we can set a new speed record, but somehow, yes, I’m excited. And nervous.”
Ricciardo leaned closer. “And you feel like you want to vurp?”
It took Kindle a moment to register the remark, then she had to close her mouth tight to suppress the giggles rising up in her. She wasn’t going to embarass herself by snorting with laughter at one of Ricciardo’s stupid comments, not today.
“No…” She began, still shaking a little. “I do not want to ‘vurp’.”
“Well, if you do, I always keep a bucket behind your chair, just in case.”
“Amy more remarks about bodily functions and you’ll kick that bucket.” She said, with humour. “Are we ready to move out?”
“I believe we are Captain.” Ricciardo replied.
“Very good. Helm, set course for the other side of Chon’ith space, best speed.”
“This is a message for Acklaran. My friend, I have put a bold, dangerous plan into motion. It is possible, very possible it will fail, but I can, think of no other course of action that will provide us with the speedy revolution we, as a people, require. In little more than a month, a human fleet will arrive to assault Oanerath itself. The battle must be transmitted to every home on Oanerath and beamed to every Chon’ith world. It will show, decisively, how our antiquated tactics are failing us, in a manner the Council cannot refute. If we can learn from the humans, we can defeat the Cadj more easily, possibly even with human help. This is how our people will survive, and thrive. I need you and your friends to make sure to control means of broadcasting the battle, and to be ready to denounce the failures of the Council when the time is right. Prepare as best you can for the humans’ arrival.” Seluban pressed the button to end the recording and glanced at the Marine behind him. It was cramped in the little Chon’ith ship, now nestled one of Manticore’s hangers, and Seluban resented the shadow, even though he understood.
“A short, simple message with no strategic information, as requested.” He said to the Marine, who nodded. His shadow, a human male with fair skin, didn’t say much. Seluban turned over the data chip with the message to the Marine, confident that Hawk would approve it. As for everything else, it was all in the hands of the Makers.
Two days later, the encrypted message reached Acklaran’s ears. He sat in the bedsit, on the edge of the bed itself, turning over the data pad, having twice listened to Seluban’s ambitious plan. He had known Seluban would have plans, plans which involved being officially dead, but he’d never imagined something as daring as this. Doubt and worry danced in his mind, wondering if his friend had made a wise move. If it backfired, the Council’s grip would tighten beyond anyone’s ability to break. Still, it certainly was an exciting plan. Time to notify the Resistance…
When the Coulsen emerged from hyperspace, she immediately switched to silent running. The sensors were now running in passive mode only, picking up on a limited range of information from the star system they’d arrived in. The binary stars were both very similar to Sol, both being a little more massive and larger, orbiting one another from a distance smaller than the orbit of Venus around the Sun. The result was an impressive and entangled solar magnetic field, providing excellent cover for Coulsen. Astrometrics confirmed they were on the far side of Chon’ith space, in a system on the border of Cadj territory.
The drawback was that passive sensors were even more inhibited. The large gravity signatures of planets registered, showing four small, thoroughly irradiated rocky worlds in the inner system, and one world slightly smaller than earth that had clusters of electromagnetic activity surrounding it.
“That’s a huge fleet.” Remarked Ricciardo as he and Kindle studied the sensor data on the main display. “I’d wager that we’re looking at a large group of ships ahead. This is probably the single largest concentration of Chon’ith strength we’ve seen.”
“Assuming it’s even half Chon’ith, which is terrifying. Imagine if they’d used smart tactics and thrown this kind of deployment at us.” Kindle suppressed a shudder.
“We’ll need to get closer to pick up any useful information.”
“I hate to do that, but you’re right. What are we looking at, two, three hours flight time to decent sensor range?” Asked Kindle.
“Two hours and seventeen minutes Captain.” Reported Takahashi.
Kindle sighed. “Take us in-system Lieutenant, nice and easy, and let’s all be alert to any threats, Chon’ith or otherwise.”
Ricciardo settled into his seat to the Captain’s left. “Lieutenant Sanchez…” He addressed a young woman to his left, manning the main tracking station. “Give us updates on possible ship movements every fifteen minutes please.”
“Aye Commander.” She replied.
Coulsen began her slow cruise towards the fourth planet, gradually filling in the gaps in her information. Sensors scooped up energy patterns and signatures, which became clearer with every passing minute, albeit at a rate that seemed glacial to human senses. The crew busied themselves, making sure every system was ready for an unexpected fight, though Kindle had faith that the Chon’ith would not detect them. If the Cadj were here (assuming this wasn’t an elaborate trap), it was possible they would detect her ship, by virtue of the Confederation knowing nothing of their abilities, a thought that didn’t thrill her.
As they drew closer, and closer, the sensors began to make out more detail. There were indeed Chon’ith ships near the fourth planet, lined up some two hundred thousand kilometres from the world itself. Being over a million kilometres out herself, Coulsen still couldn’t identify the makeup of the fleet, but Sanchez had looked at Kindle with a concerned gaze. “Captain, in raw tonnage terms, they could have as many as ninety battleships.”
“Damn, if that’s true, that’s an incredible degree of firepower.” Exclaimed Ricciardo.
“And one pointed at a second distinct cluster.” Kindle stood, looking over the readouts now imposed over the main viewer. She had to fight the impulse to gape. “Look at that swarm…”
Just over one hundred and fifty kilometres from the Chon’ith line was another set of ships. ECM and the system’s magnetic field continued to make accurate readings difficult, but the second fleet was arranged in a ragtag formation, seemingly without much thought. The most striking detail was the sheer size.
“Captain, if these readings are correct…” Began Sanchez. “The other fleet outnumber the Chon’ith four to one.”
“Captain, the two fleets are converging on each other. They’ll be in typical Chon’ith missile range in thirty-two minutes.” Reported Takahashi. “We’ll be fifty-eight minutes from the planet by then, if we hold our current course and speed.” He added, preempting Kindle’s next question.
“Well, we did come here to gather intel.” Said Kindle. “We’ll get some pretty amazing intel at this rate.”
Takahashi chuckled. “Yes Ma’am, but if you like, I can program a course to get us out of danger, just in case.”
Kindle smiled. “Do it.”
Time continued to tick. The two fleets were continuing to accelerate, with no obvious regard for tactics. That was expected of the Chon’ith, but the Cadj’s motives remained unknown. Sensors began to resolve fleet details – ninety-four Chon’ith battleships and a huge plethora of support vessels hurtled toward the massive fleet of smaller, yellow-painted ships, curiously flatter than the designs most species favoured. What had to be their equivalent of a battleship sat between a Confederation and Chon’ith design in terms of size, and Sanchez’ scanners picked up three-hundred and eight-three such ships. They drew closer and closer to the magic sixty-thousand kilometre mark, and when they did, space became a deadly maelstrom. Chon’ith missiles fired, huge salvos of several thousand warheads, closing the distance between the two fleets at a rapid rate. Counter-fire on a colossal scale raced to greet the missiles, and point-defences opened fire, but it was clear that the Chon’ith held the advantage here, their own decoys, primitive as they were by human standards, proving effective. Cataclysmic bursts of light signified warheads erupting, their fury washing over Cadj hulls and breaking them like huge ocean waves crashing over the sailing boats of earth’s oceans. Scores of Cadj vessels were vaporised by the storm, and many more reduced to burned ruin, but they kept coming, and the Chon’ith kept coming too. A second huge volley of missiles shot from their launchers and zipped through the darkness, and for a second time Cadj ships cracked and crumbled as they detonated, but still they held their nerve.
To the crew of the Coulsen, watching in silence, it was a hideous waste of life, one made worse as the Cadj finally returned fire in earnest, waiting until just forty thousand kilometres to spit their own missiles. The sheer weight of jammers and decoys played havoc with Coulsen’s passive sensors, and therefore must have caused chaos in Chon’ith lines. Next, the warheads, the massive, incredible wave, exploded, sending a surge of raw energy over Chon’ith hulls. Tough armour held for many Chon’ith ships, but not for all, and no ship escaped some form of damage, whilst others were shattered into several fiery pieces that span away from each other.
Yet more missiles raced from the Chon’ith, and more hurtled toward them. With space saturated by intense radiation, many were now missing their mark, but enough continued to find targets, continued to add to the mayhem as the fleets continued to converge. Kindle could not tear her eyes away, unable to contemplate such a melee. How had two species developed space-faring technology, yet failed at even basic strategy?
As the range fell further, the Chon’ith fired up their energy weapons, giving Kindle a very visible demonstration of why Confederation ships had never allowed a battle to squeeze to the 10,000 KM mark. The highly focused X-ray beams carved through Cadj ships like a knife through warm butter. Missiles from both sides were still unleashing their lethal payloads, but now individual Chon’ith ships, especially their battleships and battlecruisers, were slicing apart scores of Cadj vessels, cutting open hulls and ripping them apart. The battle was becoming a massacre, though the Cadj were still firing off missiles that continued to inflict harm upon Chon’ith ships.
When the fighting ceased, the Chon’ith had destroyed or crippled every single Cadj ship, but had lost two thirds of their battleships, half their battlecruisers, and eighty percent of their screening element. The ships that remained had all taken damage, and Kindle could only sink into her chair, dazed at how they’d allowed their enemy to do so much damage.
Silence reigned on the command deck for a few seconds, before Kindle quietly gave the order to return home.