Admiral Egwu leaned back in her chair on Manticore’s command deck and let out a deep breath. The days and nights since her promotion had been filled with endless tedium. With no Confederation ships serving in Chon’ith space anymore, the only reports coming to her were of border patrols. Her only orders pertained to patrols. Boredom was a constant friend. In the back of her mind, Egwu wondered if this was why Hawk had accepted promotion – did he know what would become of Manticore?
Things hadn’t been helped by budget cuts. It was justify military spending ib peacetime, and in principle Egwu understood how challenging it was for the worlds of the Confederation to funnel their wealth to a conflict that was, in some cases, quite distant. Ships, stations, sensor nets, repair yards, and of course personnel all cost money, and that money had to come from somewhere. Egwu hated the way politicians played games with public perceptions, making it seem like the Navy wasted its budget, but the proposals to found new colonies and create jobs in the process were lucrative to the masses. Egwu knew the plans would require a similar level of taxation (ironic given the call to cut spending), but they were in the obvious public interest (new homes, new opportunities, an economic boost to the rest of the Confederation, etc). As though security isn’t an obvious interest of the public, she thought bitterly.
Ships were now sitting in drydock, waiting for refits that were no longer affordable. Ten percent of Naval personnel had been furloughed on half-pay, and a further ten percent were on two-thirds pay. Requests for additional sensor platforms for deployment to a number of systems near Chon’ith space had been denied. It was felt that existing defences could easily ward off an attack from that direction – after all, there were no indications of a renewed threat from that direction.
The only ‘concessions’ won by the Navy were the foundations laid for three new shipyards, to maintain readiness for a war, whomever they might face. It was prudent, and it was a move popular with the public, though not as popular as the impending tax cuts (once the new colonies were providing a much needed boost to the economy). Egwu had discussed the plans with Captain Kindle and Admiral Fischer – they agreed with her, and had been quite vocal in meetings with the top brass that the various cuts were a mistake. Grand Admiral Hawk had disagreed, sticking to his guns, forever altering Egwu’s perception of the man.
The whole mess had left her commanding a once plum assignment with scaled back defences and plenty of talk of budgets. She desperately wanted some excitement.
* * * *
“Father…” Veri’tretha‘s voice held the early rumbles of adulthood. “Must you go?”
Seluban paused fitting the gold and bone armoured gauntlet to his left arm and placed it on his daughter’s shoulder. “It is the duty of every Chon’ith warrior to answer the call of the Makers.”
“The last time you answered that call, you were banished. It was worse than believing you to be dead.” Anguish etched Veri’tretha’s features. “Then… Then you returned, and I was confused, angry, but at the same time, I was happy. I do not want to lose you again father.” Tears began to well up in her eyes, the sight of which threatened to do the same to Seluban.
“Know this, my daughter.” He knelt down in front of her. “I will do everything in my power to return to you, to all of you. This time, there will be no wild charges into enemy lines. This time, if the battle appears unwinnable, I will not waste my life trying to win it anyway. Sometimes, surviving is winning, and that is even more true when I have you to return home to.”
Veri’tretha allowed a tear to run down her face, but she nodded firmly. “I will offer prayers to the Makers every day.”
Seluban smiled. “Then there is nothing that can stop me from returning to you.” He stood, and his eyes met Crekitan’s. His son had gotten taller, now nearly ten, his incisors growing at a rapid pace. He was looking at his father with something like hero worship.
“Crush them father.” He said, putting on a brave face. “Make them regret ever defying the Makers.”
“Oh I will.” Replied Seluban confidently. “I will carry your fighting spirit with me son, how can I fail when that spirit makes our enemies tremble?”
Crekitan grinned broadly, then his face grew more pensive, and wrapped his arms around Seluban. “Good luck father.”
He held his son close, and pulled Veri’tretha into the embrace as well. “I love you, both of you, so very much. You have brought so much joy to me, and I will give every breath I have to return to you.” He gently prized them off, then met Kel’aress’s eyes. His wife stood at the door, her eyes filled with steely resolve.
“Things come full circle.” She said.
“Yes they do, though there is still a little way to go before the circle is complete. Only when I return to you once more can we say it is done.”
“And make no mistake my love…” Kel’aress spoke with conviction. “You will return.”
“Yes, I shall.” They gazed at each other for a long moment, then wrapped their arms around each other. Seluban kissed Kel’aress softly, and their foreheads touched. “I love you.”
“I love you.” She replied.
He gave his family one last look, then stepped out of the house.
* * * *
“So, this is farewell.” Remarked De’rata as Acklaran prepared his armour.
“I prefer to consider it an ‘until next time’.” He answered with a lop-sided smile. “Although nothing is certain in war.”
They stood in his apartment, which had become their apartment, looking out over the bustling metropolis that was the Capitol. The thirtieth floor certainly gave them a spectacular view, also capturing the rolling hills outside the city, and in the distance, the rocky range of the snow-capped Delfori Mountain was just about in view on a clear day. The blinds were raised, letting in light, possibly the last sunlight Acklaran would ever see on Oanareth. His eyes swam to their bookcases, their wardrobe, their bed, and to the door to the living area. Acklaran was determined to store a crystal clear picture in his memory, but most of all, he wanted to have the perfect image in his mind of De’rata. He stared at her, and she stared back, and he knew she was doing the same thing he was.
“Two years of love is better than a lifetime without it. You made me realise that.” Acklaran said.
She took his hands in hers. “I am a realist Acklaran. I have watched friends die. I know the cost of conflict. I… I wanted to have you promise me that you would return, but that would be selfish. I will pray for you, but I wish you to know, that if you should not return, I will never stop loving you.”
Acklaran’s eyes were very clear. “If I do not survive, I shall watch you from where the Makers reside. That should keep you from mischief.”
“Ha! The Makers themselves couldn’t keep me from mischief, much less your ghost.”
Despite himself, Acklaran chuckled. “True. It is time. Has the message been sent?”
De’rata nodded. “The humans will be… misdirected.”
Acklaran snarled. “I look forward to showing them the error of their ways.”
“Go, do just that. I love you.” De’rata squeezed his hands, then let them go.
“I love you too.” With one final loving look, Acklaran departed.
Reyes counted to ten, keeping himself calm as he hurriedly transmitted his report. My last report, I suspect. After two years – more than two years – of questioning his assignment, of Jansen’s moaning, of perpetually cold weather… he finally had something of significance to send. The news had shocked him – there had been no warning, but now hundreds of Chon’ith warships were preparing to strike at a dozen Confederation systems, a lightning strike to try and dent the war machine early on. Reyes moved with haste, expecting Enforcers to barge into the Embassy at any moment, making sure his message was sent immediately. Jansen would be outraged at the violation of protocol, but this superceded everything. The Confederation was warned, and would be ready. If the Chon’ith want to die, so be it.
Grand Admiral Hawk sat behind his grand walnut desk, nestled within the heart of the Pentagon, and wanted to scream in frustration. He gave only the most perfunctory glances to the other reports and messages now flowing to his data pad. They were coming in at a rate of hundreds per minute, from Naval staff, senators, and the media. Somehow the news hounds had found out, and that was part of his rage. Paperwork, a china mug, the pad, and the stationery set all came flying off the desk as Hawk let his anger loose, sweeping them away in the heat of the moment.
He was grateful for one thing. The CI spy had warned them of the targeted systems, and they had a month to prepare. It was an unusual move, attempting to strike deeper behind the lines than they ever had before. The scale of the assault was also bewildering. Attacking a dozen systems? When they had to know they were still at a disadvantage when it came to technology.
The move had unsettled him. He sighed and began to scoop up the mess he’d made, but he had a bigger problem. Why were the Chon’ith attacking now? What had made them decide to attack in the manner they had? Their tactics had changed, but at their core, they were all about the frontal approach. To choose to strike so deep in Confederation territory suggested a fundamental change in their approach, yet all the reports from CI, and all the scout missions, had suggested no changes to their operational doctrine.
Picking up his pad, Hawk ignored the ever-increasingly quantity of messages, and instead patched a message through to the Senate. They had time, but they needed to act now.
For the first week in hyperspace, Seluban had ordered training drills. They had been irregular, composed of various scenarios, some of which incorporated pre-planned missions; others involved surprise counter-attacks. Seluban had desired to blend the best of Chon’ith discipline with new, post-Awakening ideas. Concerned that the newly formed 2nd Fleet would suffer fatigue, he’d only held one drill in the second week. Now his force approached the target system, and it was time to prepare.
Golden armour adorned him. He stood, in front of a small mirror, as he had done, what felt like a lifetime ago. He met his own gaze in his reflection as he ran a line of bright yellow paint down his left cheek, remembering the last time he’d performed the pre-battle ritual. He refused to look away as he ran a line of white paint down his right cheek, then stepped back from the mirror, taking in a larger view of himself. When he was satisfied, Seluban took a moment to survey his simple quarters, lined with a few red tapestries and the basic bed. His gaze moved to the picture of his family, and he offered a silent prayer to the Makers, asking them to bless his fleet, before heading for the Command Deck.
The system had changed a little since his last visit, but it was still instantly recognisable. Seated in his chair on the Command Deck of the newly commissioned Sharpened Blade II, Seluban felt a sense of fear, churning in his stomach, coiled with exhilaration. Excitement was tangible, as real as the lines of bone railings, the consoles and displays before him.
“We are ready Sir.” Second Chief Zelkarat said. The older Chon’ith had seen many battles, as marked by several scars in his red skin. His silver bone armour gleamed in the lights as he stood beside Seluban’s chair.
“Excellent. Is there any indication we have been detected?”
“There are no sensor sweeps in our area, nor for one million kilometres in our vicinity.” Reported a young yellow Chon’ith. “With your permission Sir, I will begin deploying our platforms.”
“Go ahead Meriskan.”
The fleet began to launch multiple probes, somewhat larger than the platforms the humans used, but far more advanced than any previous Chon’ith design. Their steath systems would be put to the test against the lurking sensor nets Seluban knew from bitter memory were deployed here. However, at some stage, they would have to test their equipment and upgrades in combat. There was no other way to determine their effectiveness. And where better than Dallas II?
Sirens wailed, waking Egwu from her slumber, and she hit the comms panel beside her bed. “Egwu to Command, what’s going on?”
“A Chon’ith fleet Admiral, a big one, Ma’am, we’re totally outgunned here.” Came an anxious male voice.
“What?” Egwu needed a moment to get her head into gear. “How many ships Benson?”
“Forty battleships, and forty battlecruisers Ma’am.“
“Time to range?”
“If they maintain course and accel, they’ll be in our range in seventy-two minutes.“
“What?” Egwu repeated. How had they managed to get so close without being spotted? There wasn’t much time to marshall the defence fleet, nor the ODPs.
“I know Ma’am, somehow they got the drop on us.“
“Prep a Priority One alert for Command, have a courier ship ready to launch yesterday. I’m on my way to C’n’C.”
Chaos welcomed Egwu when she strode onto the Command Deck a few minutes later. Thankfully, it was an organised, controlled chaos, as messages were sent to the ships that were floating around CNSS Manticore. Egwu had every faith that they could get organised to meet the on-rushing enemy force, even if they had less time than she would have liked. Numbers were another small concern – fifteen battleships and twenty-two battlecruisers were at her disposal, along with twelve heavy cruisers, nine light cruisers and thirteen destroyers. It was just over half the strength she’d had when the station was under Hawk’s command, a disappointing reflection of how priorities changed. Still, given the station’s firepower, and the ODPs, we should be able to defeat the Chon’ith.
Yet something felt ‘off’. Somehow they’d gotten a lot closer than they should have. Her sensor nets should have picked them up hours ago. There was also an improvement to their pace – Chon’ith ships were cumbersome compared to Confederation designs, yet these vessels were moving a bit quicker than they should. Egwu didn’t like what she was seeing.
“Can we get a more detailed scan of their fleet?” She asked Benson. The young man ran a hand through his messy blond hair.
“I can try Admiral, but there’s another problem, we can’t raise our sensor net.”
“What?” Egwu felt like she should have the word tattooed on her somewhere. “What do you mean?”
“The net isn’t responding Ma’am, it’s like it’s not there.”
Egwu turned her face to avoid revealing her worry. What Benson was saying was simply impossible.
“This…” Bertireth said. “Will be enjoyable. They now know we are coming, but from their actions, they do not know the entire picture.” His gold Superior Chief armour was resplendent, and he could not have been more proud of his people. “Well done to everyone.”
Second Chief Lerikat shared in that pride, but the green Chon’ith wore a look of relief as well. “To think we were able to shut down their entire network… I had not considered it possible.”
“Their sheer hubris made it possible.” Replied Bertireth. “They never conceived of a scenario where we would have access to their coding and technology. They didn’t prioritise defending their probes from hacking, because they felt we were incapable of the idea.”
“They probably didn’t think we’d know they deployed such probes.” Added Lerikat.
“Well, let’s ensure their arrogance does not go unpunished. When will our sensor platforms be in range of their weapon platforms?”
“Twenty-eight minutes Superior Chief.” Answered Lerikat.
“And the surprise for the station?”
“The light cruisers are ready to intercept anything that flees.” Lerikat said with a feral grin. “They have been running under stealth for nearly two days. I imagine their crews are growing restless.”
The Confederation fleet was now in a hastily organised defence formation near Manticore, cocooned in the sphere of the station’s firepower and defensive systems. Weapon platforms floated nearby, and also further out, with still-functioning sensors embedded in them, providing a clearer picture of the approaching Chon’ith fleet with every passing second.
It appeared that the Chon’ith force consisted of mostly existing designs, but Egwu had noticed that a small percentage of them were different. They were smaller, more compact, which contradicted the standard ideals of the Chon’ith. There was also no denying that their entire fleet was accelerating faster than they had previously demonstrated, suggesting improvements had been made. But how did they take down a sensor network?
More importantly, why had they done that? Yes, the Chon’ith had learned tactics, but hacking enemy systems wasn’t a trick the Confederation had shared. Besides, they lacked the capability – or at least, they had lacked it. When they had they learned such a trick, and how did it fit with their open warfare philosophy? How deep have their changes gone?
The net had been subjected to a brute force attack – Benson announced after a few minutes. Essentially, the Chon’ith had overloaded the outer network with corrupted code, which meant they also had code to work with. Egwu immediately ordered a review of the rest of the network, seeking to protect against any further hacking attempts, and inwardly cursed the failure of Command to look at deploying similar options against the Chon’ith. Then again, we’d never really needed to.
She watched the plot, and the timer. There would be fifty minutes until the defensive fleet made contact with the enemy.
“How are the couriers coming along?” She asked.
“They’ll be ready to fly in two minutes Ma’am.” Reported Benson, not looking up from his own console.
“Good. I want them deployed the moment they’re able.”
On either flank of CNSS Manticore, two hanger bays opened their doors. Egwu had left nothing to chance – two quick ships would get clear and immediately jump to hyperspace, getting clear and getting warnings to nearby systems. By now it was clear the Chon’ith had tricked the Confederation into defending the wrong targets, but her messages should help balance the engagements, and…
Life on Manticore suddenly erupted into madness. Out of seemingly nowhere, on either flank, two Chon’ith vessels had appeared, just 10,000km from the hanger bays. The question of how good their improved stealth was had been answered. Moments later, energy weapons stabbed focused beams of energy into the hangers themselves, blasting through the courier ships, shuttles, ancillary craft, repair vehicles… and beyond, piercing the bulkheads and cutting deeper into the station. The beams then swept to violently slice into any targets of opportunity, and both cruisers fired off eight missiles each, firing off-bore, ensuring maximum damage to their target.
Moments later, Manticore’s own defences went live, and energy weapons opened fire, tearing the light cruisers to shreds, but there was no time to disrupt or destroy the missiles. They detonated just fifty kilometres from the station, bathing both stricken hangers and the holes in armour with deadly, powerful waves of radiation and energy.
How the… what happened? Report, now!” Egwu half shouted. The lights around her began to come back on as power rerouted, but there were fresh alarms competing for attention, and her people were moving like frenzied, uncoordinated ants.
“Both hangers are gone Ma’am.” Reported a young woman, who was trying to keep the fear from her voice. “Several sensor clusters are gone, we’ve lost fire control systems and missile tubes… it’s a mess Ma’am.”
“They snuck up on us, again. How did they get ships so close?” Benson asked out loud.
“And do they have more surprises lined up?” Egwu said. “We need a thorough scan with our remaining sensor platforms, a complete sweep for anything else out there, and…”
She never finished her next sentence. Instead her mouth hung open in fresh, sickened shock as a fresh wave of thermonuclear explosions filtered into Manticore’s scopes. It took a moment to realise what they were.
“Our ODPs…” Someone said behind her. Several were gone, vaporised by the sudden explosions. Others were reporting damage, scanner nodes melted, ECM units fried, missile tubes warped by the incredible heat.
“How could they even know they were there?” Benson said, struggling to maintain his composure. Another wave of detonations flared up on the plot. Several more ODPs went down, or suffered serious damage.
“Contact the fleet, tell them to pull back and get out of here.” Egwu commanded. “If they engage, they’ll be destroyed, and this station will still fall.”
“We might still have…”
“No Benson. They’ve learned. They’ve managed to directly compromise this base, having disabled our outer sensor network, without us even suspecting a thing. They can not only detect our ODPs but they can destroy them, probably with some form of stealth drone, if I had to guess. We’re badly outnumbered and they’ve got better technology than they had before, not to mention the skill to wield it. Our ships will be destroyed, needlessly if they remain here.”
“Ma’am…” Another voice, the young woman from earlier interrupted. “Ma’am, the fleet has accelerated hard, even if they deccelerate now, they won’t be able to avoid contact.”
Egwu paused and looked at her. “Acknowledged Louise. Ok people, we can’t evac, so we prepare for the Chon’ith to try and take Manticore. We won’t allow that – if it appears we can’t somehow hold it, we execute Protocol Three.”
No one spoke. Protocol Three was clear.
“Until then, we support the fleet, we gather as much data as we can, and we see if we can’t find a way to transmit it somehow. Get to it people.”
85,000km was well within the range of Confederation ships. They knew the Chon’ith couldn’t fire until that range had been reduced, and still expect to land significant hits. Still, the commanders were prepared, in light of the initial assault on Manticore, to allow for a greater range. As a result, when the range reached 90,000km, the Confederation vessels opened fire. Over 900 missiles, decoys and jammers raced toward the invaders, and despite the initial shock of the attack, the humans remained confident they could inflict serious harm upon the enemy.
The Chon’ith fleet returned fire. Only four battleships were of the new design, and carried less missile tubes, with forty in total. 160 new missiles, redesigned decoys and ECM suites and jammers shot out from their launchers to meet the human salvo, and 36 older battleships launched their own wave. In total, the battleships contributed over two thousand missiles by themselves, to say nothing of the additional birds sent on their way by the support vessels. The officers on the Confederation ships hadn’t anticipated a counter-launch from so far out – surely they hadn’t upgraded their weaponry that much?
There was still a disparity. Confederation technology maintained a qualitative edge. However the shrunken gap, combined with the sheer volume of missiles, meant that many Confed missiles were blinded by the intensity of jammers, or sucked away by decoys, or had their targeting systems burnt out by highly focused ECM.
In turn many Chon’ith missiles fell prey to the Confederation’s own counter-measures, but their sheer quantity, combined with their enhancements, meant many also survived to lock onto to human ships. The humans activated their vessels’ defensive measures, but it wasn’t anywhere near enough. Scores of missiles broke through to deliver huge multi-megaton blasts that melted armour, hulls and bulkheads, and superheated the air underneath. Destroyers were completely destroyed, and other light units were also wiped out, whilst every single battlecruiser and battleship sustained serious damage, with several just barely functioning.
It wasn’t a completely one-sided exchange. Seven Chon’ith battleships took the brunt of the human missile swarm. Four of them were crippled, and two exploded in spectacular fashion, with only one remaining combat effective. Three battlecruisers also died, and several smaller ships reported they were badly damaged. The humans had focused their efforts to do maximum harm, but Bertireth nonetheless smiled, despite his disappointment at so many casualties.
“In the past, we would have suffered twice as many losses, if not more, and we would have barely scratched them. Now look at them.” He pointed, for the benefit of the Command Deck’s entire company, to the plot. “They have suffered far more than us. Their next attack will be swatted aside, and they can do nothing to stop us from crushing them.”
A cheer went up. Bertireth settled into his chair, and gave the order to fire again.
His prediction came true. The next human missile salvo was only a third of its original size, and his own fleet still mounted the majority of its launchers. The difference made by the quantity of warheads was overwhelming, and this time, very few Confederation attacks found targets, and in nowhere near enough density to destroy any more battleships. There was damage yes, but damage that was not severe enough to prevent combat.
In return, the human ships were destroyed or crippled by the second Chon’ith attack, and Bertireth’s fleet sailed past them, victorious. Only their base remained, and it was vulnerable.
“Ma’am, we’re receiving a message from the Chon’ith flagship.” Louise reported.
“Put it on the viewer.”
A yellow-skinned Chon’ith with green and blue paint lining his cheeks appeared on the screen. His face was a picture of formality.
“To the commanding officer of this station, we demand you surrender. You can fight and die needlessly, or you can live. You will be well-treated.“
Egwu stepped into view. “I am Admiral Sachi Egwu, the commander of Manticore. To whom do I speak?”
“I am Superior Chief Bertireth. I promise your people safety should you surrender.“
“Forgive me Superior Chief, but the word of someone who has launched an unprovoked attack, killing thousands of my people, does not mean very much to me.”
Bertireth’s eyes flashed with annoyance. “Admiral, I can give the order and kill all your remaining people right now. The survivors from your fleet are being collected as we speak, to ensure they live, for without our assistance they would surely perish. Your sensors are functional enough to tell you this. Do not doubt my sincerity.“
Egwu quickly glanced at Benson, who checked a few readouts, and nodded. She drew a breath.
“Thank you for taking care of my people.” Egwu paused, trying to find a way to form her next words. Every instinct, every part of her training, was at war with itself, but she knew her duty. “What are your terms?”
“We will have some of our ships dock with your station. If they are fired upon, we will respond with enough force to kill all your people. If there is resistance once my people are on board, it will be met with deadly force.”
“I understand Superior Chief, but understand this, it is my duty to protect the Confederation. I will permit your ships to dock, however I will not permit your people control of this facility. Once our people are evacuated, this base will be destroyed via a self-destruct mechanism.”
More irritation was obvious on Bertireth’s face. “And if I make one of our requirements that you leave the base intact?“
“Then I will destroy this station with my people aboard.”
Silence fell for a few moments. Egwu held Bertireth’s gaze, studying him just as surely as he was studying her.
“Very well. I have no desire to slaughter your people, nor see you kill yourselves. You clearly have honour Admiral, and I do wish to kill an honourable warrior in cold blood.“
Egwu’s face twitched. “Thank you Superior Chief. Our lives are now in your care. I trust you to do what is right.” She flicked her head at Benson, who cut the signal.
“Are we really surrendering Ma’am?” Asked Louise.
“Yes. We have no other option, but I meant what I said about destroying Manticore. We’ll coordinate with the Chon’ith over the timescale, and set a timer on the self-destruct sequence accordingly. Let’s make sure everyone, including our injured, is ready to move.”
Light years away, Seluban’s fleet crept under full stealth, its sensor platforms feeling their way for any presence of the sensor network that protected Dallas II. They’d jumped into the system well beyond the orbit of the furthest planet, and it would be several days before battle would actually begin, but it was necessary move. He wanted to isolate the sensor grid, disable it or trick it (he wasn’t sure which yet), before moving deeper into the system. Memories of his last visit to the system had tormented his dreams, but he refused to give into fear; instead he steered it into determination, an iron will to avenge the past.
Soon, he would take his revenge.