Once before, the Confederation had nearly one hundred warships protecting the Dallas system, along with numerous defence platforms lurking in orbit of the inhabited world, and many more secreted within the mining operation at the asteroid field. Now the ships were depleted in number, lured away by the deceptive message Reyes had passed back to his superiors. When the diplomatic transport carrying his warning had arrived back at earth, there had been an explosion of fast messenger ships racing from system to system, marshaling fleets and redeploying them as rapidly as possible. A dozen systems were reinforced, whilst plans were drawn up for counter-attacks, once the initial Chon’ith assault had been repelled.
It meant one hundred and fifty Chon’ith vessels, moving under stealth, their emissions cut to zero, slid on ballistic trajectories, the other side of the system from the second gas giant. The sensor platforms that had picked up up Seluban’s fleet in his ill-fated first charge into the system were still present, but now the Chon’ith could pick them up. They posed a challenge – they were incredibly sensitive, even at ranges of millions of kilometres, and they were plentiful enough to create an overlapping field, a large bubble around the inner solar system. Seluban’s eyes watched the plot as his forces slipped ever closer to the fringes of the sensor net’s range, feeling the nerves swell in his stomach once more.
“Are we ready?” He asked of Meriskan on the level below.
“Yes Sir. Our probes are just about in position.”
“Very good. Initiate the program.”
Several brand new Chon’ith stealth platforms began to leak, ever so slightly, the signatures of Chon’ith vessels doing their very best to hide. They emitted extremely low levels of heat and radiation as they moved into the range of a pair of human probes.
“Sir…” A fresh-faced Lieutenant looked up from his station and swivelled in his chair to look at his commander. “The net is picking up a very faint disturbance at grids eight and nine.”
“Define ‘disturbance Carl.” Replied Fleet Captain Alfred Decker, sipping his milky coffee.
Carl tapped a few buttons on the controls in front of him. “It looks like a very minor echo, something is reflecting the radar scans, it’s very slight, but something is definitely trying to scatter our scans.”
“Any thoughts on what it is?
“I’m not sure Captain. Based on the frequency and manner of the sensor hits, the computer thinks it’s a fleet.”
Decker sat up. “Then we need eyes out there. They’re still several hours out, ready a pair of destroyers to sneak up on them. Have the rest of the fleet ready their engines. We need to be ready to move at a moment’s notice.”
“It looks like they’re moving a couple of smaller ships to investigate our probes.” Zelkarat announced, his eyes on the screens in front of him.”
“We need more than just a pair of tiny ships to take the bait.” Seluban replied, watching the plot. “Meriskan, can the platforms simulate a large fleet?”
“I believe so Sir. What sort of composition?”
“Twenty battleships, and twenty battlecruisers. Have them on a course for their asteroid mines. We need them to appear to be maintaining stealth.”
“Understood Sir. It will take a few minutes.”
An alarm wailed behind Decker’s head, giving him earache. He scowled, then looked at the screens. “Lieutenant Anderson, what is going on?”
Carl looked at Decker. “Twenty Chon’ith battleships, and another twenty battlecruisers Captain – that’s what the echo was. It looks like our sensors are starting to penetrate their countermeasures. They’re on a course for the mines Sir.”
“Time to target?”
“Based on their current movements, four hours and seven minutes Sir.”
Decker scratched his chin. “Ok people, we need more than a pair of destroyers to deal with this. We’ll split the fleet, fourteen battleships should be enough to handle Chon’ith firepower. The remainder will cover the planet, unless the situation changes.”
Seluban smiled as the signatures of several human ships lit up, showing them sailing to cover off his phantoms. A part of him had not expected the trick to work, but somehow, it had succeeded.
“They number just twenty-six battleships covering their world.” Remarked Meriskan.
“They still have weapon platforms.” Zelkarat pointed out. “And we should not underestimate them, given what they did to us before.”
“No one understands that more than I.” Seluban said. “And we will remain on guard. We will soon pass through the sensor net ourselves. We will cut power to every system for an hour, except emergency life support, to ensure the lowest possible energy signatures. If it looks like the humans are reacting to our presence, we will consider our options.”
A few slightly concerned glances rippled through the Command crew. On such minimal power, they’d have only the barest sensor capacity via passive systems. There was a serious risk of not spotting the humans coming until combat was unavoidable.
“We should remain confident.” Seluban said to everyone. “We outnumber the humans considerably, and whereas before we would have been detected by now, they remain ignorant to our true presence. The Makers have blessed us.”
He could only continue to pray that remained true.
“I wonder why they haven’t reacted to our approaching forces?” Decker asked to himself as he watched the plot. His Command Deck was a place of calm reflection, his ship poised and ready to chase after the intruders, and part of him was itching to unleash her power.
“Unknown Sir. It might be that they’re so committed to silent running, they haven’t detected us. Outward sensor scans would give them away in a heartbeat.” Anderson replied.
“Well, we know they have passive systems. They must realise we’ll intercept them well before they can threaten any of the mines.”
“Maybe they think they can defeat the deployment sent after them, then carry on?” Queried Anderson.
“In which case they haven’t really learned anything. We still out-range them, and we can still outsmart them.” Decker said derisively.
“Amen to that Sir.”
It was illogical to not want to breathe as 2nd Fleet passed into range of the human’s sensor grid, but Seluban felt like holding his breath, as though it would somehow help avoid detection. He knew how important it was to achieve a total victory here, not just for the sake of wiping out a piece of the Confederation’s industrial machine, but for morale. And for myself.
He reminded himself that he couldn’t hold his breath for an hour anyway, so he took some time away from the Command Deck, surveying the new Zarthara class battleship. Sharpened Blade II was leaner than any previous Chon’ith design, sporting fewer missile tubes and energy cannons, yet he was immensely proud of the way she moved so easily, and the manner in which she carried deadly firepower with grace. She could run rings around the older battleships, and her ECM suite made her far more difficult to target and hit.
It had been decided, against Seluban’s wishes, to keep the majority of the new ships at home, to defend against the inevitable counter-attack, but he had enough to help surprise the humans here. Between the new ships and the improvements to the old ones, 2nd Fleet was ready to deliver a shock, and he felt once again the twin sensations of excitement and fear coiled like snakes in his stomach. By the time he’d returned to Command, Seluban was itching to go live, to power on toward Dallas II.
“Time to clear the sensor net?” He asked.
“We’ll be clear of the most intense scanning range in seven minutes Sir.” Reported Meriskan. “There is no indication of activity with the human fleet guarding the planet. Their detachment is still chasing our ghosts.”
“How long until they intercept the dummy fleet?” Asked Zelkarat.
“Seventeen minutes until they enter the fringes of firing range Sir.” Answered Meriskan.
“Do we tip our hand when they’re in range of the platforms’ warheads?” Zelkarat asked of Seluban.
Seluban grinned. “I had been considering the same idea.”
“Well, us old war dogs tend to think alike.”
“Old? I am much younger than you!” Seluban replied in jest.
“Only in spirit Sir.” Zelkarat said mischievously. “If we take out some of their detachment, or at least wound several of their vessels, they’ll be easier to handle once we’ve dealt with Tango One.”
“I dislike human terminology.” Seluban said, wrinkling his nose. “Though I suppose it’s a better designation than none at all. I am inclined to concur, it will put them off-balance, destroy some of their ships, and leave them confused and vulnerable. We need to wait until as many ships are in the blast radius as possible, and then we’ll give them their first major surprise.”
It was Zelkarat’s turn to grin. “I look forward to it.”
Captain Adrian Shepherd pondered his greying hair and wondered how many more he’d have once this day was over. CNS Riker had turned her sensor systems to the doggedly determined Chon’ith fleet, still moving on a ballistic course, still showing no reaction to his own ships. With each second he drew closer to firing range, knowing they had to have seen him. It was simply impossible to remain ignorant of his presence, not as his targeting systems began to go live, and his people prepared for battle.
Then he, and every officer in his detachment, stared open-mouthed as the Chon’ith ships vanished from the scopes. They had been just under two minutes from firing range, and then they were gone.
“That’s impossible.” He uttered, not able to quite believe his eyes.
Seluban had given the order, and now his people were executing it perfectly. The platforms shut down everything except their now-live proximity fuses, pre-programmed to detonate when they picked up enough Confederation energy signatures in their midst. They’d briefly fired their reverse thrusters too, ensuring the humans would unwittingly rush into the trap.
There were only eight platforms, but each had deployed six football-sized probes, each with its own warhead primed and ready. The Confederation vessels slipped into range one by one, until all fourteen battleships were within the blast radius of at least one warhead. The space around them turned into a terrifying vortex of angry energy, energy that splashed against the armour and hulls of Confederation vessels, finding the tiniest of weak points and insidiously burrowing in, cracking open the ships like eggs. Wave after wave buffeted the humans, sending ships lurching left and right, frying their electronics and destroying their weapons and defences.
Shepherd’s ship did not survive. Riker had been nestled in the centre of the formation, usually a safe place for a flag vessel, but that was against a frontal attack, not a deployment of mines. His ship had been caught between four separate detonations, and was torn apart by the conflicting tidal waves of thermal energy.
“What the hell happened?” Decker exclaimed angrily. “Get me answers, now!” He was barking at his people, but he didn’t care. Fear was driving his actions, sudden, cold fear. Somehow the Chon’ith had suckered him, and now he’d lost four battleships, six battlecruisers and a host of other vessels, not to mention thousands of people, and it seemed the Chon’ith hadn’t even fired a shot!
“I don’t know Sir. They somehow got warheads ahead of our people, and their ships.. have gone.” Anderson said quickly, his fingers moving rapidly over his keyboard. “It might have been a suicide maneuver, if they felt they weren’t going to reach their target. Or maybe… it was deliberate, to draw part of our fleet away, and do as much damage as they could.”
“They reeled us in, hook line and sinker…” Decker said more quietly. “They tricked us. I want a full scan of the surrounding area, see if anything else is heading for the asteroids, and check if anything is coming for us. Contact the surviving ships out there, have them hold station and tend to distress calls.”
“Yes Captain.” Came a chorus of officers, as they moved to act on his commands.
A glance at a the plot revealed four more hours until firing range of Tango One, if nothing changed. The Chon’ith observed numerous communication signals between Tango One and Tango Two, and noted that the ODPs were now active, ready to engage anything that got within range. What the humans didn’t know was the size of the fleet bearing down upon them.
“I’m tempted to split our forces when we go active.” Seluban said. “We send, say, twenty battleships toward Tango Two and the asteroid mines. We can hit them with relative ease, and take care of the ODPs out there from a distance. We should still have plenty of firepower to deal with Tango One and the planet’s defences.”
“And it will infuriate them.” Zelkarat added. “They will hate seeing us go after the asteroids for real, knowing they will be pinned to the planet, unable to prevent the destruction of their industrial centre.”
“Nor will they be able to stop us from finishing off Tango Two, although I suppose we should offer to take prisoners. It is more honourable than a slaughter.” Seluban said ponderously.
Decker’s people ran several scans, probing for any signs of other Chon’ith activity. It took them an hour, but they scored a hit, a return on a large number of unidentified objects, just three hours from Dallas II.
“They’ve seen us.” Said Meriskan. “They are now focusing all their sensors on us.”
“Which will give them a more potent range advantage when the shooting starts.” Zelkarat pointed out.”
“Or so they think. Let’s blind them shall we?” Seluban said with a smile.”
2nd Fleet had skirted the edge of the Confederation sensor network for over a day. They’d dropped off a single missile near each probe they’d managed to identify, and now those missiles erupted, unleashing their fury, which was more than enough to put a dent in the shell of scanners. The humans still had a significant number of probes and stealth platforms available, but then Seluban put into motion the same trick Bertireth had used against Manticore, albeit it with a twist.
“Captain, several more probes… they’re overloading… something is burning them out!” Anderson shouted.
“What do you mean ‘something’?” Decker shot back. “They couldn’t have encircled the entire system, they don’t have enough ships to do that!”
“I don’t know Sir, but the network is failing, we’re losing our picture of what’s going on out there… we’re going to be limited to shipboard sensors.”
“Which will still be enough. We can still shoot from further out, and hit them from further out. We need to get a courier to New Sydney, and aim to get reinforcements here ASAP. In the meantime, we keep hitting them, chipping away at them from a distance.”
“Yes Sir… Captain, twenty of their battleships have broken off. They’re accelerating toward the asteroids.” Anderson sounded dejected. “They’ll pass within range of the detachment.”
“Damn them. We’ll kill as many of them as we can, and then we’ll go to Oanareth and burn the whole bloody planet to a cinder.” Decker pounded his console. “Standby to deploy our sensor platforms and hit them with a few surprise nukes of our own. That’ll thin them out.”
It was time for some small sacrifices. Unknown to the humans, 2nd Fleet had already deployed several additional platforms of its own, travelling ahead of the main force. The humans couldn’t see them, not without their own network, and the fleet itself was generating interference. Seluban’s platforms picked up the form of Decker’s platforms, and it was then and only then that Decker’s people realised the Chon’ith had platforms as well.
The ‘battle’ was one of attrition. The human platforms were more advanced but far fewer in number, and they were swamped by an avalanche of white noise, jammers and disruption from the Chon’ith platforms. As the two groups passed by one another, most of the Confederation probes were lost, drifting blindly through space.
Several Chon’ith platforms had been damaged, but many continued on their way, providing Seluban with a clearer picture of the enemy than he had ever enjoyed before. For the first time, he truly understood the merits of the strategic and tactical thinking which had led to this moment.
It was short-lived. The humans launched missiles from an impossibly long range, and for a moment Seluban feared he had been fooled, but then Meriskan piped up.
“Sir, it looks like they’re firing at our sensor platforms. They can’t precisely see them, but they’ve probably worked out roughly where they and where they’ll be.”
“They mean to deprive us of our advantage.” Zelkarat said softly.
“Have the platforms scatter, we won’t save all of them, but even a couple will make a difference.” Seluban ordered.
“We can’t fight them, not that many of them.” Commander Mei Chua said. She’d finally escaped Engineering, where she’d been assisting in a minor repair, and stood beside Decker.
“We cannot abandon this system to them.” Decker replied, resolutely.
“Sir, if we stay, we die. All of us. They’re not fighting like they did before, they’ve improved their thinking.”
“The couriers will bring reinforcements.” Decker said tersely, not looking at her.
“Captain, by the time those reinforcements arrive, all our forces will be destroyed or crippled. We might inflict a reasonable amount of damage upon them, but we’ll be powerless to stop them from destroying everything of value in the Dallas system. Whatever happens, they will ruin what we’ve built here. We need to regroup with the rest of the fleet…”
“You’d have us run away?” Decker’s eyes flared with anger as he snapped his head around to look at her. The Command Deck fell silent.
“I’d have us survive Sir.” Chua replied coolly. “There is no honour in a meaningless death.”
“Sir, they will enter firing range in sixty-eight minutes.” Reported Anderson blandly.
“Captain, please, don’t throw away the lives of everyone under your command…” Chua began.
“Shut up!” Decker barked. “I will not run, we will stand our ground, and if you utter one more suggestion of fleeing, I’ll have you arrested for desertion!”
Chua’s brown eyes became steel. “If we survive this, I’ll see to it you’re held responsible for every life you’re determined to waste today.”
“Get off my Command Deck.”
“With pleasure.” Chua left, heading back toward Engineering, shaking with rage.
“Anyone else think we should be cowards in the face of the enemy?” Decker asked loudly of the Command Deck. No one answered – no one even dared look at him. Decker settled back into his chair, and was about to give fresh orders, when Anderson spoke.
“Sir, Commander Chua is correct, we cannot win this, and we have no idea what other surprises they have in store.”
“Mr Anderson, remove yourself from the Command Deck.” Decker snapped. Anderson stood from his chair and started to leave, but stopped when level with Decker.
“Sir, please, no one wants to die needlessly to satisfy honour. It’s the least honourable thing you could do.”
“Get out of my sight.”
Seluban and his people were unaware of the consternation gripping the human command chain. Instead he watched his few remaining platforms reach the point where they’d deploy their probes, and hoped enough warheads could dish out enough punishment to the ODPs to reduce his own likely casualties. Though this is war, and we are fighting, and that means we have to be prepared to take losses.
A few years ago, the idea of minimising losses wouldn’t have entered his thinking. Now Seluban had to keep reminding himself that he couldn’t save every life under his command. Inevitably there would be ships destroyed; how could he fight a war and not put Chon’ith in harm’s way? He knew his people accepted that. It was the burden of command, and the understanding of the personnel under his command.
“Fifty-two minutes until we enter their weapons range.” Meriskan announced. “Our platforms will enter range of their ODPs in forty-one minutes.”
“They must expect to have dealt with all of them – at the very least they won’t expect us to have warheads.” Zelkarat said with confidence.
“We won’t destroy all of their ODPs, not even close.” Meriskan pointed out.
“We don’t need to. Even if we fail to destroy a single one, we have a massive advantage here.” Zelkarat replied. “And our detachment can always turn around to help outflank them if we need them to.”
“No.” Said Seluban. “I want them to remain on course for the asteroids. Whatever happens, even if somehow we can’t hit the planet, I want to destroy their industry out there.”
Time continued to march forward, too slowly for Seluban’s liking, and far too quickly for Decker’s. The Chon’ith held a steady acceleration, whilst the humans were adjusting their formation, hoping to make the best use of their weapon platforms, forcing the Chon’ith into an overlapping field of fire that would be difficult to defend against. Then, eleven minutes before the ships of the Confederation Navy could expect to successfully open fire, several large thermonuclear detonations went off in the midst of the platforms, vaporising four of them instantly and scorching four more with the intense heat.
Decker was apoplectic. Somehow, the Chon’ith had done it again. Oh, his fleet still had several functioning ODPs, but the balance of firepower was even more heavily weighted against him. Despite this, and despite the worried glances between the Command Deck crew, he ordered the fleet to take up a defensive posture. Messages were coming in from other ships, asking for clarification, to which he repeated his instructions.
Six minutes before he would be able to open fire, Decker’s ship picked up a signal from the Chon’ith. They were hailing his fleet.
“On viewer.” He spat. The imagine of a green orc appeared before him, in shining golden bone armour.
“I am Superior Chief Seluban, of the Chon’ith 2nd Fleet. By now you will be well aware that our ships have improved, as have our tactics, and you are greatly outnumbered. I offer the opportunity to save the lines of your people. Surrender and you will not be harmed. You may even have time to scuttle your ships, if you so wish.” He spoke in measured, calm tones, and his eyes even looked like they were appealing to Decker directly. A Chon’ith who doesn’t want to fight?
“This is Fleet Captain Decker, commander of the Dallas Defence Fleet. I have no intention of surrendering to you. We are officers of the Confederation Navy, we will not run, or give in.”
The Chon’ith on the screen offered him a sorrowful, sympathetic smile. “I once thought as you did, and it cost me many lives. We accept losses as part of the burden of leadership, but we also take every reasonable step to ensure those losses are not wasteful, do we not? I would urge you to reconsider, lest your conscience be haunted, as mine is.“
There was an earnestness to Seluban’s voice, a genuine belief in his words. Decker wasn’t moved.
“If you want to control or destroy this system, you will have to pay a blood price for it.” He said, holding his head high.
“So be it. I only hope you realise just how different things are, before it is too late, if not for your sake, than for those under your command.” The signal cut off. Decker stared at the blank view screen, trembling with anger.
“I cannot believe they wish to fight.” Said Seluban, looking up at Zelkarat. “Is this what we were like? Were we that stubborn?”
“Some of us were worse.” Replied Zelkarat. “It makes me wonder how many victories we actually threw away, because of our refusal to reconsider our approach.”
“Well, perhaps once the shooting starts, perhaps they will indeed change their minds.” Seluban sighed. “How long until they can start shooting?”
“One minute.” Remarked Meriskan.
“Activate defences and prepare our decoys and jammers. Let’s up our acceleration slightly, give our missiles a boost when they launch.”
As 2nd Fleet entered range, the Dallas Defence Fleet fired. They were at the extreme end of their effective range, and had concentrated their firepower, having the missiles densely grouped, a form of brute force to resist enemy countermeasures. Seluban waited for a few more seconds, acutely aware they weren’t able to fire back effectively just yet, and then, with the human warheads halfway toward his his fleet, the line was crossed. His own fleet responded, and with a six times the size of Decker’s attack.
It finally brought a realisation to Decker that he was badly outmatched. He stared in abject horror at the huge salvo heading for his people, knowing at that moment he had failed them. Decoys spun into life, jammers flashed at missiles, ECM suites competed against their counterparts to trick, deceive and destroy, and it became clear that not only did the Chon’ith have the edge on quantity, they’d greatly improved the quality too. A few of his missiles made it to attack range, and their firepower crashed against the armour and hulls of Chon’ith warships to much effect, but the majority failed, and the damage inflicted was very minor.
In exchange, Seluban’s assault was saturating his fleet’s defences. Chon’ith ECM systems ensured their missiles didn’t zip off to chase spectres, and thousands of missiles reached Decker’s forces. Ferocious bursts of light, even at tens of thousands of kilometres, made it hard for Seluban to look at the main display; it was only as the blinding inferno began to fade that the scale of the destruction was clear.
Every ODP was gone, reduced to dust. Several smaller human ships had gone the same way. Others were rapidly expanding balls of fiery wreckage, and still more were burning, their hulls twisted by the thermonuclear fury that had surrounded them. Very few energy signatures remained, and they were faint, disrupted and fading.
“We will pick up survivors, and we shall deliver them to the planet.” Seluban declared. “After that, we shall contact their leaders and demand they evacuate all industrial and military sites. Then we shall destroy those sites.”
“Yes Sir.” Zelkarat got to work, and around Seluban his people celebrated victory. Let’s hope we don’t get complacent. This one was quite easy, a good early test. Other battles won’t be so simple.