It had been a long, weary slog, but finally 3rd Fleet was poised. The small jumps in and out of hyperspace had been punctuated by long, arduous journeys in normal space, but now it was over. Acklaran sighed with pure relief.
“Never in all my days did I imagine I would be pleased to see planets again.” He said as he returned to his seat. Around him Lightening thrummed with power and purpose, though Acklaran wasn’t sure if that was simply his perception of his people, and of the Makers, filling him with their passion for glory.
“It has been… challenging.” Remarked Wiristan. “I am grateful I brought my music collection with me.”
“Yes, I heard the crew speaking of strange wailing noises from deck five.” Acklaran said snidely. “Some believed ghosts had taken up residence on board.”
“Well Sir, I believe my music has proven more popular than your culinary pursuits. However you didn’t poison every member of Lightening’s company.” A few other members of the Command Deck’s crew sniggered.
“One more remark from anyone about my cooking, and it shall become the only thing they eat for the rest of the mission.” Acklaran said in good humour. Clearly morale was good, despite being about to head back into fortified enemy territory.
“If we can, we need to get as close to their shipyards as possible. They will be our primary target, and the most heavily defended. How deep a jump into the system can we make?” Acklaran asked.
Wiristan studied the information on his displays. “We can get ourselves to within three hours of the yards, though I’m slightly concerned it will stress the engines to go that deep into a gravity well.”
“But we can do it?”
Wiristan nodded. “Yes.”
“Then let’s make it happen.”
Once again one hundred and seventy-two Chon’ith warships emerged from hyperspace in the Rios system. There was nothing remotely sneaky in their approach. Every Confederation scanner in the system picked up their presence, and then pandemonium broke out on every populated facility.
“What… what happened?” Fleet Captain Kindle slunk into her chair, nearly dropping her coffee mug. Her eyes looked over the information on the screens, her officers were frantically barking orders requesting time scales and reports, and her Command Deck was suddenly a hive of barely organised chaos. She could see Ricciardo peering over a lieutenant’s shoulder, directing his response, and she could pick up on the distress in his voice, no matter how well he concealed it from most others.
“They must have taken the time to journey around the solar system. It would have been painstaking, but they did it.” Ricciardo said, straightening himself and turning to face her. “Captain, they’ve chosen their entry point very well. They’re four hours out from the shipyards.”
Kindle knew the answer to her next question, but felt compelled to answer it anyway. “How long till we can intercept?”
“At max accel, six and a half hours.”
The chatter on the Command Deck ceased. Everyone knew what that meant, though no one was prepared to give it voice.
“Any other targets they can reach before we can intercept? Kindle asked softly, after a moment.
Ricciardo looked pensive. “The munitions manufacturing plant at Rios V will be vulnerable, and they might be able to make a pass at the gas refineries there as well.”
After a few more moments, Kindle faced the screen, and made sure her voice was loud enough for everyone to hear. “Well, we will do what we can to at least give them pause. There’s a lot we can defend, and as sailors in the Confederation Navy, we’ll damn well do so! Let’s push to intercept, no matter how unlikely. We will not simply roll over!”
A cheer greeted her, despite the hugely damaging implications of the upcoming ‘battle’. Orders went out to begin evacuations of the most threatened installations, and from there, it was down to weapon platforms to at least give the Chon’ith cause to hesitate. Every second was going to be precious.
A snarl of approval had escaped Acklaran’s lips went he realised just how good the fleet’s astrogation had become. His people had projected a jump right on the edge of a ripple in the gravitational pull of the star and the gas giant of Rios V – and made it work. A miscalculation would have forced the hyperdrive engines into an emergency shutdown, leaving them further out and without the prospect of a quick getaway.
Now Acklaran could gaze in hunger at the latticework and grids of the Rios shipyards. Several hangers floated in space, stacked vertically as well as horizontally, connected by an extensive network of lift shafts, corridors, umbilicals carrying energy and oxygen to support the embryonic ships, and a network of small vehicles ferrying supplies and parts.
“What types of ship are built here?” He asked out loud to himself.
“Heavy and light cruisers, their destroyers, and merchant craft.” Wiristan answered automatically.
“That was an internal ponderance.”
“Was it? Only you said it out loud Sir.” Remarked Wiristan with a trace of wit in his voice.
“Oh… well… thank you for informing me. Now to ask a genuine question – I wonder what kind of dent this make to their military?”
“Hard to say Sir. This might represent 3% of their total output, it might be 15% of their screen, 50% of their freighter output… we just don’t know.”
“Well…” Acklaran grinned again. “It won’t be contributing anything for much longer.”
“A blessing from the Makers.” Wiristan said with a matching smile.
3rd Fleet zeroed in swiftly upon their primary target, and Kindle realised the Chon’ith were pushing stronger acceleration than she’d given them credit for. It made intercepting them beyond impossible, though her fleet flew on, her people determined to influence proceedings somehow. Shuttles and escape pods had come streaming away from the yard, and many were now leaving the orbital factories around Rios V; Kindle was grateful that the Chon’ith showed no interest in any of them.
Not that it made her feel much better. A second destroyer had been dispatched to inform Command that some of Rios’ key installations had been lost, and part of her had pondered sending her resignation along for the ride. Almost immediately she’d chided herself for such weakness – it was hardly her fault the Chon’ith were fighting smart all of a sudden, and it wasn’t her fault that Command had scaled back so many defences elsewhere. In a way, they’d encouraged the Chon’ith by showing weakness as a government, and the end result… Kindle didn’t want to consider that.
All she could truly consider were the readouts on the plot, red dots edging closer to the shipyards with each second.
At 70,000km (Acklaran saw no need to reveal the true scale of his improved range) 3rd Fleet opened fire on the weapon platforms shielding the shipyard, which had already spat sporadic salvos at him. New ECM defences swatted aside the tiny assaults with ease, and his own opening volley comfortably swamped the platforms, turning them to ash. A moment later the shipyards joined them, and Acklaran watched in delight as fuel cells ruptured and provided a dazzling display of rippling explosions across the facilities, contributing to the outright destruction of what the humans had worked so hard to build.
Having briefly decelerated to ensure a good, thorough job, 3rd Fleet now accelerated once more, aiming for the munitions facility, and from there, Rios V. The humans were still two hours away, not even worth thinking of, and Acklaran hoped their commander would pick up on the contempt he felt for them, as his fleet moved on to wreck more havoc.
2nd Fleet floated on the edge of the system the humans called Sisko, not too far from the border with the Empire. A light cruiser moved under deep silence, her probes drifting a million kilometres ahead of her, gathering data and feeding it back to the rest of the fleet via a tight-band, low-power transmission. Only fifty million humans lived on the single habitable planet, orbiting a type-K star that bathed the planet in a warm orange-tinged light. It was young colony, still discovering materials to exploit in the system, and immigration had slowed during the first war to virtually nothing. Seluban knew it would now be zero, and it would not surprise him if many humans were desperate to emigrate, but that opportunity would be denied.
Seventy human battleships protected the system and its under-construction industry, which wouldn’t impact the human war machine a great deal either way, except it would be damaging to morale if all that investment and hard work was suddenly lost. The problem facing Seluban was that his fleet had taken damage and had to nurse wounds, whilst the human fleet here was fresh. His fleet had used up some of the valuable sensor platforms and probes, whereas the humans would be fully stocked – and the same applied to munitions. There was still enough to fight and to fight well, but he couldn’t be wasteful – tactical deployments were needed.
Zelkarat had been reading his mind again (well, that’s the only conclusion I can reach for how he knows stuff). “Let us pray each shot is accurate and true.”
“We may end up not needing to fire a single shot, if the other half of this operation succeeds.” Seluban said nonchalantly.
“Perhaps, though that would require several more days of this.” Zelkarat wrinkled his nose in distaste. “I will say one thing for the old ways… they were more exciting.”
“Yes, they were… but using our brains can be stimulating as well no?”
“To a point.”
“You could always resume painting?” Seluban suggested. “Your work is quite good.”
“Thank you Sir, though I suspect you are just being kind.”
Meriskan smirked as he worked at his console. Another Chon’ith, Teliresh, also grinned as he worked on astrogation charts.
“Red skin can still show blood Teliresh.” Said Zelkarat pointedly.
“Ahem, yes Sir.” The young Chon’ith buried himself in his work.
“How will we know that the other half of this plan has worked?” Meriskan asked.
“Because the human fleet here will abruptly flee.” Zelkarat replied. “They will be in a rush to defend other, more important star systems.”
“The inhabitants of this system will be… annoyed at that.” Meriskan sniffed.
“It is numbers. Cold, hard, numbers.” Seluban said. “An unfortunate truth for the citizens of Sisko.”
“Even so, I suspect they will never forgive their government for abandoning them.” Meriskan replied.
“True. Perhaps we can show them, in time, the wisdom of following the Makers. First, we must break their spirit, but not for a few days. I believe…” Seluban began, anticipating the inevitable slump.”This would be a good time for a drill.”
1st Fleet emerged from hyperspace near a white G-type star, and immediately powered down. Bertireth’s people went to work straight away, taking note of every last scrap of information to come into the passive scanners. What greeted them was formidable.
The Felix system was one of humanity’s oldest colonies, with nearly three billion inhabitants of the temperate Felix III generating a lot in the way of EM emissions. Huge factories orbited the planet, and three separate shipyards also drifted above the world, along with layered weapon platforms and nearly three hundred battleships. Transports and freighters were coming and going regularly, though none were heading in the general direction of Bertireth’s force.
“Remember, we want them to see us.” Bertireth said. “We need them to be concerned that we’re striking deep, as our original deception suggested. Let’s crawl forward slowly, get within half a million kilometres of… there, that transport lane, that will really scare them – and let them see us.”
Onward his ships sailed, using only the barest surge in engine power, and then they switched to a completely silent run, hoping the sensor net wouldn’t pick them up early (though it was hardly a disaster if it did). It was a voyage that would last several hours, but it would be worth it for the confusion and fear they would sow.
Sure enough, when the time came, a convoy of five large transport ships picked up a strange echo from their sensors, a reflection of several fast-moving objects. A few quick, nervous messages to Traffic Control led to an intense sensor sweep by the net, and in turn, Bertireth’s fleet was revealed. They had gotten within 420,000km of the transports, which now kicked into maximum acceleration whilst their commanders screamed for help on every channel. 1st Fleet began to reverse, heading back the way they’d came, able to easily escape the clutches of the humans – but not before they demonstrated their ability to detect the probes scattered across the system, destroying several with missile strikes and closer ones with energy weapons.
It was a pointless gesture, for Bertireth knew the humans could probably repair the relatively minor damage in short order, but it would send them a message. In the meantime, just before his fleet jumped back to hyperspace, he took great delight in the infusion of insanity he’d delivered to the citizens of Felix – with civilian ships scrambling in all directions. It had been a good initial assignment.