Ike’ reth had been reading the reports on Resistance activities, tossing each pad to one side after reading as he sat behind his personal command desk. The walnut-coloured wood was lined with beautiful swirling gold patterns, and the lacquered surface contained a depiction of Requeteran receiving the Worlds. Nestled above the pit where his people directed the wars, it gave him an excellent view of the entire circular room. The bones in the walls were arranged into letters and the letters formed passages from the Words themselves. It was a chamber laced with history, brave history, and he sometimes felt the pressure upon his shoulders to honour it. The reports into Resistance action were suggesting they’d done the cowardly trick of going into hiding, but given their momentum, that was curious.
They’re probably still carrying out small acts of sedition, he considered to himself. It troubled him greatly that his efforts to root them out had thus far failed. The Resistance lacked honour, resorting to tactics and policies that spat on the Words, and sooner or later…
Ike’reth was shaken from his meandering by the sudden burst of sound from the proximity klaxon. Below him, officers snapped to attention, looking at their monitors and displays. It was unfathomable that the invasion alarm would ever sound, yet now it was, and Ike’reth stared numbly at his personal display. A hyperspace signature, a big one, had appeared on the plot of the Oanerath system.
“Report!” He commanded.
A green Chon’ith in dull grey armour looked up at him. “Sir, the sensor pods indicate human vessels, many battleships!”
“The sheer arrogance!” What is their course?”
“We’re assessing that now sir.”
“Where is Home Fleet?”
“They are dispersed into two formations, in orbits at opposite sides of the planet. Shall I have them converge?” Asked the officer.
“Yes. We will comfortably outnumber them and crush them with our strength.”
Another Chon’ith spoke. “Sir, High Priestess Markaret is requesting to speak to you.”
“Patch her to my personal station.” Ike’reth returned to his seat as a panel raised from his desk. The familiar face of Markaret appeared on the screen.
“I never believed that an alien fleet would dare assault Oanerath, yet the alert has sounded. Humans or Cadj?”
“Humans your Eminence. We are working out their trajectory and preparing to meet them in battle. I will leave soon for the flagship.”
“Meet them with faith and strength Supreme Chief.” Markaret said. “Make them regret ever coming here.”
Fleet Admiral Johanna Fischer stood on the flag deck as CNS Avalon began to accelerate steadily, nestled in the midst of the Confederation fleet. Her experienced, talented officers busied themselves at their stations as information from sensors began to flow. Already it was clear the fourth planet out was the Chon’ith home world, being a hive of communication signals and emissions from various power sources. Orbital structures floated near the sixth planet, a gas giant, and more energy signatures were picked up in orbit of the fifth planet. CNC had identified some of the activity as ship building, but what Fischer truly wanted to know was the location of defences.
“Any indication of enemy fleets? Fixed weapons?” She asked.
“Probes are launching now ma’am, we should have more information in the next fifteen minutes or so.” Informed Commander Eric Cooper, seated to her right at a computer station. “We’re receiving readiness signals from every ship.”
“Very good. We will proceed into the system, but let’s be careful shall we?” Her blue eyes looked at the main plot, overlaid on the view screen. “I don’t want any surprises.”
The shuttle carried Ike’reth to the battleship Reckoning, a beautiful dark green hull bristling with firepower. He made his way to the command centre, taking in the tapestries that spoke of the ship’s previous victories, and looked forward to adding a glorious victory today.
“Take us to meet the humans, best speed.” He ordered, and he took joy in the rumble of energy as the engines surged into life.
“Admiral…” A young woman seated next to Cooper spoke. “The probes are picking up a spike in energy emissions, it looks like the sublight engines of Chon’ith warships. Estimating one hundred fifty battleships Ma’am.”
“Very good Lieutenant Williams.” Fischer kept her eyes on the plot. “Anything in the way of fortifications?”
“Near their home world and near their industrial sites ma’am, but they’re going active already, making them easy to spot.”
“They’re so eager to fight, they’re tipping their hand far too early. Still, how long before we can jump out of the system, if we need to?”
“One hour, fifty-seven minutes Ma’am.” Williams said. “Assuming maximum acceleration for both fleets, the Chon’ith won’t intercept us for two hours, twelve minutes.”
“So if this is an elaborate trap, it will fail.” Added Cooper.
“Stand by for the probes to deploy the, mines, get them close to the fixed weapons platforms, and when we’re an hour away from range, crank up the decoys, we’ll see how, they react if they think we’ve gotten in range of their yards.”
“Very good ma’am.” Cooper replied.
“They appear to be moving slowly, based on observed speeds of human vessels.” Remarked a green Chon’ith, seated at a sensor station.
“They see the size of our fleet, the strength of our defences, and their hearts lack the courage to truly commit to battle. They are leaving themselves room to run. Time to range?” Asked Ike’reth.
“Three hours, six minutes sir.”
As soon as the program seeded by Acklaran had detected mention of a human incursion, he’d received a signal on his communicator. In response he sent another signal to the Resistance, and one by one, transmitters and relays began to broadcast the presence of human warships in the Oanerath system.
Seluban gazed at the glowing orb that was Oanerath’s sun, and could see Confederation ships sailing alongside Avalon. Deep, unrelenting guilt threatened to consume him. How many times did I tell myself this would be a bloodless revolution, and now, thanks to me, more Chon’ith blood will be spilt on Oanerath than ever before?
The Confederation fleet continued their relative crawl, an understandable measure of caution continuing to dominate decisions. Battleships formed the central cluster of the Confederation order of battle, with battlecruisers taking point around them, and the smaller ships tucked in between. In contrast, the Chon’ith fleet, with a total tonnage more than double that of the Confederation vessels, was arranged with the battleships front and centre, a wall of massive, powerful ships. Ike’reth planned for massive overlapping missile strikes the moment it became possible, but not for the first time, the Chon’ith had abandoned the cover and security of their fortifications.
The guard did not care to be delivering the news to the High Priestess, but the job had been given to the lowest-ranked Enforcer in the temple. Elite Chon’ith standing either side of the doors to her chamber did not so much as look at him, but he knew they would slice him to pieces if he even looked at the High Priestess in the wrong manner. He had knocked upon the door, and after a few seconds of nervous waiting, it opened. Markaret’s eyes bored into him.
“What?” She asked bluntly, clearly annoyed.
“My deepest apologies your Eminence, I would not disturb you if it were not absolutely urgent, but…”
“Get on with it, why am I being pestered, and why could no one have sent a communique?”
“That is the problem your Eminence, something has happened to our communications.” The Enforcer said nervously. “News of an approaching human fleet is being transmitted across Oanerath, and even via hyperspace.”
For a moment the Enforcer feared Markaret would order his destruction, but instead she looked at him with oddly calm eyes. “The attempts to disrupt communications were in fact about broadcasting the battle… Which means someone knew the humans were coming.” She appeared to be talking to herself. “Return to your Conclave, and tell your superiors to prepare for the surrender of the Resistance. They have conspired with an enemy of the Chon’ith, but now all of Oanerath will witness our warriors crush the invaders.”
The Council began to send their own broadcasts, firstly denouncing the traitors who had somehow known the humans were coming, yet had kept that information secret. Next, Markaret herself addressed the planet, speaking of her great pride in Supreme Chief Ike’reth and the Chon’ith Navy, and promised the people they would witness the ultimate triumph of the Chon’ith, Requeteran, the Words and the Makers, for the way of success through strength and power was undefeatable. Watching the message, Acklaran knew then that she had taken the bait.
The sensor platforms had been given plenty of time to release the football sized warheads, and as Fischer’s mark was reached, first a string of decoys went live. To Ike’reth’s scanners it appeared as though a second smaller human fleet had suddenly appeared, and moments later huge swathes of defence platforms were enveloped by powerful, destructive energy.
“Where did those ships come from?” Ike’reth demanded.
“I don’t.. I don’t know sir, we detected no hyperspace signature, unless… They were already here.” One of the officers at the computers said.
“Supreme Chief…” Another officer began. “They have destroyed many of our defence platforms and sensors buoys! Our network is compromised.”
Ike’reth looked over the plot. They were still an hour away from firing range, but somehow the humans had scored a major hit, and now a small cluster of ships hurtled towards the sixth planet, where valuable prizes waited. But something felt wrong…
“Those new ships, they are accelerating towards Oanerath VI yes?”
“Yes Superior Chief.” Replied the first Chon’ith.
“How fast are they accelerating?”
The officer checked a few screens. “They will be in range of the shipyards in one hour, twelve minutes.”
“Convieniently around the same time we are supposed to engage the primary fleet.” Ike’reth ran a finger along his cheek. “They could have snuck up upon our shipyards at any point, waiting to run the risk of having to fight our fleet makes no sense. It is a trick, intended to have us split our forces. Ignore it, and maintain course.”
Fischer eyed the display. In the ten minutes since the phantom fleet had appeared, the Chon’ith had not reacted. It was faintly troubling, for she had hoped to disperse the enemy’s strength, and they’d fallen for such a trick before. She supposed it wasn’t fair to expect it to work every time, but here, at the most crucial battle of the war, a battle they’d agreed to because of a Chon’ith, it was unsettling. Still, they hadn’t detected the sensor platforms and the warheads, nor had they even looked, and now, if the Chon’ith fleet did reverse course, their cover from fixed defences would be highly limited.
On the streets of every city and town, Chon’ith looked at the skies and felt anxious. Over the months, the Resistance message had been steadily filtering across the globe, and some unfortunate Chon’ith had seen first hand the brutal steps the Council was prepared to take to stamp that message. They watched the monitors, praying for the swift victory of Supreme Chief Ike’reth, but some had seen the illegal reports of the war. They feared the worst.
“Fifteen minutes till they’re on the fringes of range Admiral.” Announced Cooper.
“Let them get a little closer. I want our ECM to drown them.” Fischer began to feel butterflies dance in her stomach. Despite her confidence in human ingenuity and Confederation technology, they had reached the point of no return. “Stand by to decelerate, I want to hold them at long range for as long as possible.”
The seconds and minutes raced by. Sunlight illuminated both fleets, as though the Makers were blessing the battle. That was the message Markaret beamed to every home on Oanerath, and to numerous Chon’ith worlds.
85,000km was the magic point, but Fischer held her fire until 80,000km, aiding the accuracy of her missiles and the effectiveness of her countermeasures. As her own ships slowed, and began to reverse, trying to hold the range open, Ike’reth’s fleet continued to bear down upon them. The Chon’ith battleships were front adn centre, with very little cover from their support ships, in contrast to Fischer’s force. She gave the order, and her ships swung to bring their broadsides to bear. Her battleships alone blasted over two thousand missiles into space, and the flanking cruisers sent their own salvos, including several hundred jammers and decoys.
Ike’reth stared, dumbstruck. He’d been preparing to fire at 75,000km, not ideal given the range issue, but he wanted to crank up the pressure. Now his orders were to deploy every form of countermeasure available, and to hasten his own attack. He wanted to sink his teeth into the humans, but their birds were forcing onto the defensive. ECM generators went to full power, Chon’ith jammers, decoys and anti-missile rockets fired, but the disparity between the technology was too great. Hundreds of human missiles were sucked off course, but many more penetrated Chon’ith defences to detonate right in the faces of Ike’reth’s battleships.
Sturdy armour and thick hulls resisted and repelled the onslaught, but only to a point. Tendrils of energy lashed across Chon’ith vessels and burned into the ships, turning atmosphere into superheated air that boiled circuitry and explosively burst bulkheads. As with previous battles, the humans had focused their efforts, targeting thirty Chon’ith ships, and when their first attack was done, sixteen were heavily damaged, losing power and dropping out of formation. Another two had suffered containment failure of their power supply, and had spectacularly erupted, their existence reduced to tiny spinning pieces of debris.
The remaining targets had been rocked, hurt and weakened, but remained combat worthy, and Ike’reth snarled as the range hit 70,000km. He gave the order, and his swarm of missiles conjured up an image in Fischer’s head of Persian arrows and blotted out suns. Her heavy and light cruisers fired off jammers and decoys, whilst the battlecruisers trained their ECM on the incoming fire, joined by the battleships a few moments later.
All Ike’reth could do was grit his teeth in frustration as many of his missiles were drawn off course chasing ghosts, or failed to locate a target, or simply went dead. The humans also fired a second salvo of their own, even as his reached detonation range. He took satisfaction from watching as several hundred of his warheads did find targets, such was the sheer density of his attack. Three enemy battleships were ruined, reduced to charred wrecks, and several more were having to swiftly clamp down on hull breaches. Some of the humans’ light units had been vaporised completely.
His joy was short-lived. The fresh attack from the human vessels now targeted another batch of his battleships, and he could only grip his chair as the missiles broke through his defences yet again, this time injuring Reckoning. When he immediate storm was over, the flagship had lost four port missile tubes, two starboard tubes, and a cluster of jammer nodes. Another fourteen of his battleships were destroyed or crippled, and some errant human warheads had destroyed four battlecruisers for good measure. Why won’t they accept energy range?!
Across Oanerath the people watched, expectant of a tremendous and crushing victory, but instead they were witnessing a slow defeat. The video displayed a third salvo of human missiles, just as the Chon’ith fired their second. Once again the humans concentrated their attack, on fifteen targets, and this time all fifteen battleships were destroyed, some broken into several flaming pieces that pirouetted away from each other, and some reduced to just half a ship, floating aimlessly. The citizens of Oanerath saw their retaliation strike down a handful of enemy battleships, and a few smaller units, but the rate of losses drastically favoured the humans.
“We cannot cut the feed, not without losing communications with the fleet.” A red Chon’ith in the green uniform of an administrator said. She looked back at Markaret, whose face was a picture of apoplexy.
“You mean to tell me that our entire civilisation is bearing witness to this… This blasphemy?”
“I’m sorry your Eminence, but…”
“Kill the power. Our people cannot watch this any longer.” Commanded Markaret. “We will focus on our faith, not the fighting.”
“DO IT!” Markaret shrieked. “NOW!”
The order went out, to the astonishment of the Chon’ith working in the power plants. Surely the rumours that the Council wanted only control weren’t true? Surely the Council didn’t keep secrets from the people, and they wouldn’t be afraid of letting the people watch the battle? There was a delay of several minutes as confirmation of the order was sought, which allowed Chon’ith to see a group of human battlecruisers and heavy cruisers detach from the main formation. They were angry with the humans, but also curious to see how they fought, and their confidence in Ike’reth’s forces continued to wane as the missile exchange continued. They hoped to see a miracle unfold, but then their connections to the battle went dead, replaced with static.
The ten battlecruisers, with five heavy cruisers and ten light cruisers alongside them, pushed to port flank of the Chon’ith fleet, first extending the range, then looping back. Electromagnetic warfare kept them largely covered, though it was inevitable they’d be detected eventually, and at some point, they needed to be seen. They deployed ghost arrays, doubling their apparent number as they powered up the enemy’s flank, hoping the Chon’ith would take the bait.
Fresh alarms wailed, turning Ike’reth’s head. “What now?”
“A small enemy fleet has broken from the main formation and is trying to get behind us!” Reported one of the officers. “They’ll have firing solutions on our engines!”
Ike’reth looked at the plot. The fresh set of symbols was a little ragged, similar to the earlier phantoms. “It’s another trick. Ignore it and get us closer to their fleet.”
“They’re ignoring the detachment.” Remarked Williams quietly.
“As predicted.” Added Cooper.
“And now they’re going to pay for that mistake. Have the main fleet target another twenty battleships, and have Captain Munshi target fourteen ships on their left flank.”
The frontal assault was spread somewhat thin, a wider assortment of targets from a fleet depleted by losses. It was expected to inflict damage, but the aim was to keep the Chon’ith off balance. About a minute into three minute flight time, with Chon’ith ships rearranging their defences, the smaller fleet, now under 60,000km from the battleships of the left flank, opened fire as well. Their missiles were headed for the exposed engines of Chon’ith warships, and the lumbering vessels couldn’t adjust themselves quickly enough. The two missile waves converged as Chon’ith anti-missile systems automatically split their focus, allowing a greater percentage of hits. The fourteen flanking battleships were all obliterated, their engines critically damaged and releasing the power of a small star as containment fields failed. The flash of light was visible from Oanerath, even in the daylight, and Fischer closed her eyes, despite the filters built into the viewer.
The Chon’ith fleet tried to reorganise itself, but another pair of missile attacks fired, and this time everything was directed at the left flank. With two different fleets, the humans could see through the storm of radiation that had bloomed, and whilst it would reduce the accuracy of their weapons, it wouldn’t prevent them from scoring hits. More battleships died, and battlecruisers and support craft went with them, whilst others fell out of formation, battered, cratered hulks.
Ike’reth trembled with a combination of fury and fear as the scene unfolded and his fleet disintegrated. His officers were looking to him for guidance, and he could offer none. He couldn’t fight an enemy like this, no Chon’ith could.
“Contact the Conclave, we need to… reconsider our strategy.” He said quietly. His people did not object, but when they tried to reach Oanerath, they found they couldn’t. Ike’reth and his fleet were alone.
Not every order to cut power had been obeyed. Some Chon’ith simply could not fathom that their leaders would seek to hide the battle from the people, and so they kept power flowing to broadcast centres, and on a number of pockets on Oanerath, the people saw their fleet getting crushed. The doubt sown by the Resistance was now blossoming in the face of irrefutable evidence, and Chon’ith all over the world began to openly question the Council.
Fischer watched with a grim smile as the Chon’ith fleet began to slow, no longer pressing to close the range. They had been rocked to their cores, losing nearly a third of their battleships, with scores more damaged, and even the most stubborn fanatic had to realise the current approach would fail them. Still, she wasn’t about to let the enemy develop the tactics to defeat her, so now her fleet began to accelerate towards the enemy. The detached formation swung away, having taken a few more hits than expected, weakened by the large, powerful warheads the Chon’ith liked to use, so now they would harass from a safer distance, taking pot shots at Chon’ith battlecruisers as her ships moved in.
Ike’reth grimaced as the plot showed the humans were now coming for him. The hunters were now prey, and he was now trying to take his fleet away from battle, a thought that made him feel physically sick. None of his officers tried to stop him, for they were having the same thoughts.
No one could tell him why communications with the home world were down. The fleet’s comms were fine, so it had to be a problem at home. It was one more layer of worry that he didn’t need.
“We will be out of their range in two minutes, for approximately twenty-seven minutes, if both fleets maintain current acceleration.” One of his people said from the pit below.
“Then we use that time to effect as many repairs as we can.” Ike’reth looked at the human formation, wondering what their commander was thinking, and for the first time, he wondered how he might duplicate it…
There was noise, angry sounds and demands for information from citizens that were starting to swell the streets of the Capital. The Resistance fanned the flames of outrage, with Acklaran in the thick of it, prompting the crowd to ask loud questions as to why the Council was blocking footage of the battle. Surely the people had every right to see the glorious battle, and to witness the triumph of the ways of Requeteran?
People crowded the Parchments across Oanareth, asking similar questions of priestesses and of Council servants. Hiding the battle was cowardly, they would say. Taking such action contradicted the Words. It was a difficult argument for Markaret and the Council to refute, so they remained silent, which fuelled the protests.
The last salvo of human missiles was fired at the very edge of their range, and so only landed a handful of hits, but one blew apart three more of Reckoning’s starboard missile tubes and four energy weapons. It also triggered a power surge that blew out a relay behind the command deck, setting off a small explosion that sent shards of metal everywhere, and sent Ike’reth to the floor. Twisted, burning consoles sent smoke into the air, and as Ike’reth attempted to get back to his feet, a sharp stab of pain went through his left leg. He looked down to notice a piece of ragged metal was sticking out of his calf.
“Aaaaah…” He bit his lip and struggled to his feet anyway, knowing he would need medical attention, but for the moment he had a fleet to command. “Whatever you need to do to reach Oanareth, do it. We must speak to the Council.”
Seluban refused to look away from the field of battle, despite his inner turmoil. The death toll would number in untold thousands, but he would have to bear the pain of that for the rest of his life, and he would, for it would mean the salvation of his people. And one day, we will avenge ourselves…