One hundred and seventy-two Chon’ith warships moved toward their targets, rapidly approaching Rio II and Rio III. Acklaran stared at the plot as one hundred and forty human vessels sailed out meet him, and wondered yet again if withdrawing was the better plan. Disappointment at being detected so easily had given way to a shrug and the decision to move with plan A. His fleet had failed to penetrate the sensor net, which was more robust than they’d anticipated. The Rio system had clearly been treated as an important one, its defences left uncompromised.
One thing had been in the Chon’ith’s favour. Their sensor platforms had been deployed and were scooping up a wealth of tactical information. His tactical officers were decoding the location of every ODP in the system. Orbital fortresses floated lazily above both worlds, and as soon as 3rd Fleet had been revealed, they had all gone active.
In a way, that was their weakness. The humans assumed the Chon’ith were going to be easily beaten, that they would recklessly charge toward them. Instead Acklaran had slowed the fleet, giving them time and options.
“A pity they haven’t withdrawn from here.” Second Chief Wiristan said, running a finger along a gnarled incisor. His green skin was still vibrant, a sign of youth that Acklaran quietly envied.
“For all we know they have sent some units away – not that it’s of any consequence to us. We have a job to do.” The signals and heat signatures from swathes of orbital factories, a shipyard, smelting operations in asteroid fields, and gas harvesting facilities in the orbits of the three sub-Jupiter-sized gas giants were all on Acklaran’s list. Unfortunately the present orbital arrangement meant the vast majority of the juiciest targets were behind the human fleet.
“We’re not going to get around them, so we have to go through them.” Acklaran said out loud, deep in thought. “Unless we can use our platforms somehow, create a distraction to lure them off?”
“I don’t know Sir.” Wiristan replied. “There’s so many sensors of their own, they’d probably see through a deception pretty quickly. I’d say we’re better off leaving the platforms undetected, we can use their warheads to blow a hole in their lines, or at the very least use the platforms to help guide our missiles in.”
“Ok, good point. We’re probably going to face some strong countermeasures, so we need eyes.” Acklaran eyed the plot. “Still, they have the advantage here. A large fleet, orbital defences of various types, an intact sensor net… We need something to balance the odds, even if it’s only a little bit of an edge.”
“I’m not sure we have anything.” Wiristan looked a little worried. “I’m tempted to suggest we withdraw Sir.”
“They certainly wouldn’t expect that.” Acklaran remarked. “The last time I was in human space, I was aghast that we’d leave the battlefield. Now… Now I can understand why it would be wise.”
“Yes, and that. Wait…” Acklaran stood up, staring more intently at the plot. “If we reverse course, get ourselves clear enough of the star’s gravity well to jump… what’s to stop us jumping back?”
Wiristan looked thoughtful. “I’m no engineer Sir, but wouldn’t two quick jumps place a strain on the engines?”
“Yes, but we’ll speak to Engineering, see if the fleet can handle it. If so, we jump out, spend a minute or two heading away, then we stop, and calculate approaching from another angle. A series of jumps, to get behind the humans, and attack their vulnerable flank.”
“I’m not sure a series of such jumps is a good idea Sir. That will definitely strange the engines. We’ll lose ships to engine failure.”
“Well…” Began Acklaran. “What about one or two jumps, instead of lots of smaller ones? We don’t need to hurry – we only need to get behind their fleet, and we can strike their flank.”
“I’ll contact Engineering Sir, and ask the rest of the fleet. We’ll see if it can be done.” Wiristan moved to a console. “And I’ll give the order to reverse course, full power.”
“Most curious.” Commander Ricciardo said, gazing at the console in front of him.
“What’s curious?” Fleet Captain Kindle replied, leaning back in her chair.
“The Chon’ith, they’re actually deccelerating, quite hard. If this keeps up they’ll avoid combat with us.”
“That’s more than curious, that’s completely out of character.”
“Well yes…” Began Ricciardo. “But they’re definitely doing it.”
Around them, CNS Valiant hummed with potent power. The battleship had become Kindle’s command when she had accepted her promotion to Fleet Captain, an opportunity she simply hadn’t been able to ignore. She took a little sip of her chai latte, pondering the slightly unusual taste, and looked over at Ricciardo, grateful she’d been able to keep her XO.
“They’ve changed far more than we gave them credit for.” She said.
“Which isn’t really a good thing.” Ricciardo replied. “We want them to fly into our trap.”
“Well, we can’t really incentivise them to come to their doom, not if they’ve decided survival is the better part of valour.” Kindle cupped her cheek. “At least we know they’re sufficiently worried about our strength here that they won’t engage, even with an advantage in numbers.”
“What now?” Asked Ricciardo.
“No point in wasting fuel cells in continuing to chase. Let’s return to Rio II, hold station, and report back to Command that we’ve had visitors.”
3rd Fleet vanished into hyperspace, clearing the range of Confederation scanners. A few moments later, it reappeared, beyond the Rios’ system’s Oort Cloud.
From there, the fleet’s astrogators began the arduous task of calculating short jumps that would take them ‘behind’ the Confederation fleet, and allow them to strike at unprotected installations. Acklaran was warned such work would take a day, perhaps longer, so he settled in for something that he still found unnatural – waiting.
1st Fleet had moved swiftly, now enroute to its second target. Bertireth had taken to his cabin, resting, preparing, praying, and many of the crew had done likewise. His small formation was going deeper into human space than any Chon’ith fleet had done before, and he hoped the humans did not see the gesture for what it actually was.
The humans who were now captives had been stripped of all weapons and equipment, save medical supplies. Bertireth did not trust any of their devices; sabotage of his fleet was not going to happen. He had warned Egwu of the heavy cost of such acts.
“I have a duty to defend the Confederation, as do all my people.” She had said, defiantly.
“You have a responsibility to the personnel who are under your command as well.” Bertireth had replied, quietly admiring the human as she stood in the conference chamber, refusing to look defeated.
“You would kill unarmed prisoners?” She had shot back.
“I would defend my people. Sabotage of my vessels puts Chon’ith lives in danger. If it occurs, I will do what I need to do to prevent it happening again. I offer you one warning to pass on to your people.” Guards had escorted Egwu to a communications station, where she had indeed informed her people of the price of disobidence.
How strange to put women in such places of peril… he had wondered to himself, though he had to admit that human females had a resilience to rival human males. Do human males act as caretakers and teachers on their worlds? Not that it mattered. His fleet raced on to its next destination, and Bertireth would soon need to prepare.
2nd Fleet pushed on, leaving in its wake the utter ruin of everything the humans had built in the Dallas system. Seluban’s forces were not equipped to land troops and seize the planet’s surface, but it would be a long time before anything of military value was built by the system’s broken factories.
Tougher challenges awaited, strategic strongholds that had to be beaten if the war was to be won, but the early exchanges had proven to be remarkable. Morale was high, confidence replaced fear, and the hunger for battle had never been stronger among his crews. Seluban allowed himself a smile as he gazed upon the picture of his family, and looked forward to the next battle.
4th Fleet deployed a shell of sensor platforms, then immediately all shipborne systems switched to passive operations. Ike’reth snarled at the plot, and the information now flowing in.
“Where do we stand?” He asked of his second in command, Second Chief Geriskat answered. His yellow skin was bright, as yet unmarked by war or age.
“There are two human fleets in the system Supreme Chief.” He reported. “They number fifty-two battleships, and twenty-seven battlecruisers, along with support vessels.”
“So we have numbers on our side.” Ike’reth grinned toothily. “I want to press the attack. We have the advantage. Isolate the smaller formation, charge at it. They will not expect us to go for the weaker target first.”
“Yes Sir!” Replied Geriskat eagerly. “Tango Two numbers fifteen battleships, we’ll begin our acceleration at your command.”
Ike’reth studied the data coming in from the stealthed sensor platforms. “Have the platforms generate some interference, see if we can’t have them believe our fleet is smaller than it actually is. Lull them into false confidence.”
Sixteen new Chon’ith battleships and eight new battlecruisers joined sixty original battleships and twenty older battlecruisers on their silent trajectory, hurtling at thousands of kilometres per second, toward the system the humans called Noah. One moderately built-up world orbited a yellow star, approximately 0.8 AU out. As with other systems that were alert to the possibility of attack, civilian traffic had been curtailed, which suited Ike’reth just fine. There would be no warning that they were under attack.
Admiral Fischer had resisted the temptation to send an ‘I told you so’ message to Admiral Hawk. Resumption of hostilities with the Chon’ith had always been inevitable, and she had been a vocal opponent of budget cuts and mothballing ships and officers. That hadn’t exactly earned her kudos with the new regime, but it had certainly earned her a higher respect from her immediate subordinates. Now she sat aboard Avalon and took note as Lt. Commander Williams and Commander Cooper busied themselves, along with the other officers on the Command Deck, noting the distortion their sensor net picked up.
“They’re here.” Cooper said. “It has to be them.”
“Yes.” Replied Fischer. “What concerns me is that we’ve only just about detected their incoming fleet. They’ve made serious strides with their stealth tech.”
“Not to mention tactics. They’re avoiding charging straight in.”
“I’m not sure what worries me more.” Fischer glanced at the tactical displays. “If we’d failed to spot them, the orbital factories over by Noah III would be toast. Their growth is something we should have spotted, and ideally nipped in the bud.”
“You won’t hear any arguments from me Ma’am.” Cooper said. “I’d have gladly finished them off as a threat when we had the chance.”
“Hopefully we still can. We’ll weather this attack, and then we’ll retaliate. I have every faith in our people.”
“The distortion appears – if I have this right…” Williams qualified. “To be a small raiding party Admiral. “Ten battleships, ten battlecruisers. The detachment should be able to intercept them comfortably.”
Fischer shot Cooper a glance. “It makes sense that they’d try to sneak by us, and a small fleet would have a smaller profile for us to detect…”
“But…?” Cooper finished instinctively.
“Something feels off.” Fischer kept looking over the plot, taking in the locations of every ship, ODP and sensor probe. “Would the Chon’ith, with their resources, commit only ten battleships to an attack? If their confidence has grown enough for them to go back to war with us, why hold back?”
“Perhaps they’re still mindful of what we did to them before?” Answered Cooper. “I mean, we didn’t just defeat them over and over again, we crushed them, over and over again.”
Clasping her hands together, Fischer gave Cooper another look. “True. It just seems… out of character. Their religion glorifies war and conflict. Even with a greater understanding of strategy, there’s no incentive for them to creep about with small fleets.”
“What do you want to do Admiral?” Cooper asked quietly.
“Have us link up to the detachment, best speed. I have a feeling they’re heading into a trap. Contact the Scully and have them deccelerate.”
“Sir, Tango Two is slowing, and Tango One is on the move. They are on a course to merge with Tango Two in two hours.” Geriskat reported.
“Time to intercept Tango Two?” Asked Ike’reth.
“One hour, eleven minutes at our current acceleration, but we may need to increase it to ensure we catch Two before One catches up.”
“Which means we’ll definitely give away our presence.” Ike’reth brought his hands to his temples. “Why would they move to combine their forces, and slow their approach, unless they already know we’re here in greater numbers?”
“Unknown Sir.” Geriskat shrugged. “We haven’t picked up any active scans that would have penetrated our screens, but then, that doesn’t mean they haven’t done so. It would explain their sudden status change.”
“That or they have a devious commander.” Ike’reth replied with a grin. “Not that it matters. They will leave their factories uncovered, and we can still catch Tango Two.”
“Yes Sir, but we’ll be too deep in the system’s gravity well, and carrying too much acceleration to disengage from Tango One, if we maintain our current course.”
Ike’reth considered that. Trust Geriskat to provide a balanced view. Denting the manufacturing capabilities of the humans and eliminating as many ships of theirs as possible was crucial to the opening phase of the war. That would inevitably mean taking losses, but the Chon’ith fleet was large, and the new fleet was growing all the time. Everyone under his command hungered for revenge, and for battle. He couldn’t deny them either for much longer.
“We outnumber them, and we outgun them, and if we can destroy Tango Two with minimal casualties, Tango One will have cause to hesitate. Plus, we will take out their orbital factories around the third world. From there, we’ll see how things evolve. Don’t take us to maximum acceleration, but increase it by… thirty percent. That should give us a comfortable window to dispatch Two before One gets into range.”
“I shall inform the fleet.” Geriskat inclined his head, and got to work.
Alerts flagged up in bold red letters, signifying what Fischer had suspected – and feared.
“Looks like… approximately sixty battleships, possibly more, though the sensors are hitting greater interference than expected from Chon’ith vessels.” Williams reported calmly. “They’re further from our people than expected, so it looks like they were using some kind of decoy to lure us out.”
“Great…” Muttered Cooper. “They have learned, and we’re going to suffer for it.”
“Trust me, Admiral Hawk will be receiving a very pointed report about this. On that subject… detach a light cruiser, give them orders to head to earth, Command needs to know that the Chon’ith are fighting smart.”
“Aye Admiral.” Cooper got to work issuing orders.
“We need to keep pressing forward, if it looks like they can’t avoid engaging us without evasive action on their part, maybe they’ll do exactly that.” Fischer projected confidence into her voice, but she didn’t feel it.
Ike’reth waited until 4th Fleet was within 60,000km of the factories orbiting Noah III, then gave the order to fire a small salvo of missiles. The factories could provide no resistance; they were left as flaming wrecks, and 4th Fleet sailed past contemptuously.
Tango Two was aware of the size of the on-rushing Chon’ith force, but the captains of the Confederation ships were determined to throw up as big a problem as they could for the invaders. At 90,000km they launched their missiles, but nearly half were in fact decoys and ECM weapons. The idea had been to blind the Chon’ith early on, and use stealthed platforms to guide their live warheads home.
What the commanders of Tango Two couldn’t have realised was the network of platforms Ike’reth had deployed, in a sphere around his fleet, allowing his missiles to ‘see’ through the wall of electromagnetic shrieks that tried to fool his ships. They also hadn’t anticipated 4th Fleet to return fire at 90,000km.
The warheads Tango Two had launched were bogged down by the massive wave of Chon’ith missiles, and the new, improved countermeasures, combined with their sheer numbers, meant only two dozen Confederation missiles survived to attack range. Their firepower buffeted battleships and weakened armour, but it was a pitiful gesture. Tango Two was horribly outgunned, as Ike’reth had said, and the storm that raged across their hulls fractured armour and snapped ships in half. Some units survived, continued to pull away, seeking to link up with Fischer’s larger fleet, but Tango Two had been torn apart.
“You mustn’t blame yourself Johanna.” Cooper said quietly in her ear as he stood next to her. Fischer might have normally admonished him for using her first name on the Command Deck, but she kept her lips closed, mouth sealed tight in a grim, horrified look over the wreckage of the detachment. The Chon’ith had isolated her people, and she’d allowed them to do so. Her instincts had been right, but they hadn’t helped her quickly enough, and thousands of Confederation sailors were dead because of it.
“Oh, I do blame myself Eric.” She said softly back. “And I blame the bastards who watered down our defences, and those who gave the Chon’ith time to recover. And I blame the sonofabitch in that fleet. They think they can come into my command area, and defeat us. I want us to look for anything that might give away what their flagship is. I then want us to focus our firepower on that ship and the ones surrounding it.”
“Aye Ma’am.” Cooper said. He looked like he was going to place a hand on her shoulder, but thought better of it. He also looked like he had more to say, but again, wisdom triumphed.
“Have our platforms aggressively scan for theirs, I want to take them out as well. Let’s see how confident they are when their new toys are taken out of the game.”
Cooper smiled this time. “With pleasure Admiral.”
“Time to range of Tango One?” Ike’reth asked.
“Nine minutes Sir.” Geriskat said. “We should enjoy the weight of numbers once more.”
“Indeed, denying them the opportunity to unite was important. Now, we just need to…” A siren flared into life, annoying everyone in the Command Chamber. “Shut that awful thing off! What is going on?”
“Sir…” A young green-skinned Chon’ith shouted. “The humans are directing focused radar scans at our sensor platforms! They’re burning out several of them!”
“Have the remaining platforms tuck in, closer to the fleet and our jammers.” Ike’reth ordered. Inwardly he cursed. The platforms were more valuable than all the gold on Oanareth, and to lose so many would hurt his fleet’s capabilities.
“Can we respond in kind Deristeth?” Geriskat enquired. “Deny them what they’ve denied us?”
“I don’t think so Sir. Their platforms are too well-shielded from that sort of attack. Sorry Sir.”
“Ah well, we still have quite a few platforms, and we can ‘see’ theirs. Supreme Chief…” Geriskat turned to face his superior. “A thought occurs. They could use their platforms to deploy warheads, like mines. We don’t want to risk charging in. I recommend we slow our acceleration, give us more time to scan the surrounding area. We fooled like them that at Oanareth, and they’re more than smart enough to do something similar.”
“Geriskat, you will make a fine Chief one day. Agreed.” Ike’reth said. “Send the command. I want full sensor sweeps. If there are no mines, it will at least confuse the humans. If there are, we’ll set them off from a distance.”
Ike’reth was not wrong. Fischer and her people watched as the Chon’ith fleet began to abruptly slow down. Intense forward scans were peering into every form of electromagnetic signal, looking for any minute gravitational disruption, anything that might have been a reflection from radar.
“What are they doing?” Fischer asked aloud. “Do they think we’ve hidden a whole bunch of ships between our fleets, waiting to strike? Even we couldn’t hide from them at such a distance.”
“I have no idea Ma’am.” Said Williams honestly. “They clearly think we’re doing something, but I can say one thing – we picked up a signal rippling out from their flagship. It must have been a set of orders, but now we can target it.”
Fischer smiled coldly. “Then let’s set about closing the range a little, and give them a reminder that we are not easily beaten.”
“It looks like they’re reversing course, coming back at us.” Said Geriskat curiously.
“Indeed.” Remarked Ike’reth. “It doesn’t make sense. We outnumber them, and they know we have the ability to inflict serious harm upon them. Why fight? A strategic withdrawal, to regroup and return, or to assist a counter-attack on our territory, would make more sense.”
“Perhaps humans have a trace of our stubbornness?” Gerisakat answered, scratching his head. “Who can say? They might see it as a last-ditch effort to defend their world.”
“Well, if they want to fight, who are we as Chon’ith, blessed by the Makers to take control of all worlds, to deny them their wish?” Ike’reth said loudly. An excited cheer went up around the chamber.
The minutes went by, and the range fell, until once more both fleets were within 90,000km of each other, and both fleets fired. Ike’reth enjoyed a considerable advantage in missile density, but Fischer’s firepower was a focused punch. The two missile waves merged briefly, with jammers and trickery luring many away from their intended goal, and then they moved on, impeded by the ships themselves deploying every effort to fool them.
Fischer had known that avoiding combat was unlikely. She’d have to watch Noah II lose decades of hard work and development, and there would inevitably be civilian casualties. Instead, she was buying people time to get to bunkers and shelters, and in the process, she was going to inflict terrible losses on the enemy. She had to.
The price was one she knew every Confederation sailor had agreed to pay when they signed up for duty. It was a toll she would give, willingly – not without fear, for she would be less than human if she wasn’t afraid of death, but she was more afraid of not doing anything to at least dent the Chon’ith advance. If some lives could be saved on Noah II as a result, it would be an honourable, noble death.
As the Confederation missiles that survived locked onto their targets, Ike’reth came to realise that most of them were heading straight for Retribution. Many others were targeting the battleships and battlecruisers around his own vessel, but the first of the human warheads blew a hole in the protective screen of heavy and light cruisers, an opening to ensure a successful attack. Multiple thermonuclear detonations erupted around his ship, and several other warships, new and old alike, and Ike’reth’s world was turned into a maelstrom of fire and light.
For Fischer, it was a different experience. Avalon was relatively untouched, though three missile tubes on her port flank were burned away, and the area around them was pierced by tendrils of energy that scorched and melted the hull, slicing further in to unleash havoc. It was mostly the ships around hers that were tortured by excesses of firepower that they just couldn’t cope with. Armour failed, and then moments later ships of various sizes blew apart, or their running lights winked out as they lost all power.
Someone whooped, and she turned to see Williams punching the air.
“We got them Admiral, we got their flagship! It’s leaking atmosphere, and it’s been battered into a wreck! It looks like we took out several other capital ships too.”
“Good work.” Fischer replied in a clipped tone, returning her eyes to the plot. It was a powerful blow to the enemy, but the Chon’ith were still closing, and her own force was greatly depleted. “We’ll get one more half-decent volley, so let’s focus on the three nearest battleships and the two nearest battlecruisers. I doubt we’ll survive their next attack, so let’s make our next one count for something.”
The fleets exchanged fire once again. Discipline within Chon’ith ranks was infamous for being a powerful force, an almost tangible object, and despite the shock and confusion rippling through their ranks, everyone knew their responsibilities. The range was shorter now, and it didn’t take long for their missiles to complete their dance. Every Chon’ith ship Fischer had directed her missiles at was totally destroyed, whilst only three of her battleships remained functional after the Chon’ith salvo had finished unleashing its fury. Avalon was not among them, reduced to a tumbling shell of a ship.