Arc Champion Julius French told himself that he would not gape. This was one response that he hadn't expected - and it considerably contrasted with the impression he had formed of Dyatlov so far. But surprise was a short-lived thing with the Britannian Champion. It only took a couple of stunned heartbeats for his mind to truly register what he was hearing and then he matter-of-factly (and almost automatically) began to reassess the situation, pieces click-click-clicking together and falling into place.
Barring a defeat at the hands of this mauled Delest force (a defeat that was highly unlikely and would have to be the result of some truly ingenious trap or stratagem by Dyatlov), the worst possible result for French, at this point, would be a crushing defeat of the enemy - because that would force the rest of the in-system Delest forces to commit to a full scorched earth campaign. But this...
If the offer of surrender was a genuine one (and, after the shocking perspective shift, French thought he could see the reason behind it), it could solve everything. A peaceful surrender could guarantee the preservation of the system's infrastructure; it would give him the victory he needed; it would open the road to the annexation of the system without a months-long, expensive campaign; and, quite significantly, it would allow for the repainting of Exarch Aretha's ill-advised, utter disaster of a plan into a valiant, self-sacrificing offense, that broke the back of the Delest. French would, perhaps, not bask in the glory that he had been looking forward to, but those at high places who would know the true story would be appreciative and that was what truly mattered.
"Well, Ladies and Gentlemen," he said, wrenching his voice into the phlegmatic, calm tones expected of a Britannian officer, "it appears that Johnny Delest has had enough. Let us give them the benefit of the doubt. Close to seven six thousand metres but no more and bring us to a relative halt, but keep our shields and weapons powered up and the PD net at the ready. This still might be a trap after all. Comms, match that frequency and return the hail, if you please."
It was reassuring to see his bridge crew shake themselves awake at his commands - he was not the only one to be stunned by the Delest message, then. As Nelson's drive quieted down to a distant, almost subsonic rumble, and the ship coasted to a stop, French leaned back and tried to make himself as comfortable as possible in his commander's chair; this promised to be an interesting discussion and, possibly, quite a long one. He needed his wits about him, with as few distractions as possible.
The lions-and-crest of the Dynasty flashed onto his personal screen and he acknowledged the incoming call with the push of the button. A heartbeat later, the eyes of Ishiro Dyatlov met his own, at a considerably higher definition than any Intelligence provided image French had seen before.
The Delest admiral was seated in a chair similar to French's own, on what seemed to be the bridge of one of the Delest carriers. He looked, French noted, quite ragged, with deep dark circles under his eyes and considerably more scruffy than one would expect. In fairness, he had just fought (and won) a battle against one of the most formidable fleets New Brittania had ever put to space; but he was clearly an exhausted man, at the limits of his endurance. The possibility that the surrender was genuine was looking more and more likely.
"This is Arc Champion Julius French," French said, in as composed a manner as his soaring hopes would allow him. "I am the commander of the remaining Brittanian forces in-system. I have the authority to accept your surrender, on behalf of Their Royal Majesties."
"That is good to know," Dyatlov said, turning fully to face the screen. "If that is the case, then you'll be happy to hear that I am, likewise, the senior military commander in-system, by direct appointment of His Imperial Majesty. I propose to negotiate the immediate cessation of hostilities and the surrender of the entirety of the Delest military forces under my command, including spaceborne assets, planetary garrisons and all other military assets and personnel."
French's stomach did a violent backflip and his heart grew five sizes. This was, literally, the best possible scenario, becoming reality right before his eyes. It was too good to be true.
"I am prepared to accept that surrender, effective immediately," he said. "I guarantee that crews and officers will be treated with the utm-"
And then his heart sank again, for Dyatlov raised his hand, in clear objection.
"Hold, Sir Champion," he said. "This is by no means an unconditional surrender. There are terms that I will need you to agree to."
French's expression soured. A quick look around the bridge confirmed his suspicions: although he, himself, would be quite willing to grant Dyatlov any reasonable terms that the man might request, his bridge crew was not at all enthused by the idea that the defeated enemies would dictate the terms of their own surrender. In anticipation of similiar criticism by his political enemies back home, French decided that a show of force was necessary.
"Praetor," he said, "at the danger of sounding clichéd, I regret to say that you do not seem to be in a position to dictate terms."
"I beg to differ," Dyatlov countered. "I may be wrong, of course - I may have gravely misjudged the situation. Nevertheless, in any case, please grant me but a moment of your time to lay out my terms and explain my contingencies. Then, you may decide on whether they sound reasonable and whether you wish to accept my surrender. If it helps, I fully acknowledge that my own forces here are no match for yours and that any battle would quickly end in my defeat."
"Then you understand why I consider your negotiating position to be dramatically inferior to mine," French said, his heart sinking to his boots. He was savvy enought that he could see the bad surprise coming, even though it hadn't yet crested the horizon; and he feared that it would be a really unpleasant one.
"Of course," Dyatlov agreed. "However, there are more factors here than the balance of fleets, as I'm sure you'll shortly agree. My terms are the following: I will formally acknowledge the defeat of my forces and surrender my fleet to your authority under the usual international terms of parole. The Governor of this system will also acknowledge this and follow up my surrender with that of the political authorities in this system.
"The system will remain under Delest control and will not be annexed by New Brittania-"
At that, the bridge of the Nelson erupted in protest and French himself barely caught himself in a double-take. Dyatlov must have heard the bruhaha, for he trailed to a pause, while French glared his disapproval at his bridge officers, until they descended into a sullen silence. It was only then that the Arc Champion returned his attention to his enemy.
"My apologies," he said, "but, frankly, we are less than a minute into these negotiations and you are straining my patience. You have already admitted, Sir, that you cannot defend this space against my forces. How do you propose to prevent us from occupying it, then?"
"By making it unprofitable to do so," Dyatlov said, and he sounded almost sad. "Sir Champion, in truth, I believe these negotiations have reached a point where you require evidence of..leverage on my end. I rather hoped that it would not come to that - but I suppose that was an unreasonable hope. May I direct your attention at two points, which I consider to be of some importance:
"Firstly, your fleet is here, inside the bubble of my inhibitor field and I intend to keep you here. In order to leave this area of space, you will need to kill my carriers, which will take you considerable time. Comms, signal starbases; Code is Aegis."
A cry of alarm behind French. He half-turned to face his sensors officer; and then his holotank updated, flashing a bright red sphere into existence around the starbases still moored at the Sodesuka scaffolds. They were without claws, as BuInt had reported, but French's spirit fell dismally as he realised that their massive shield generators were operational and offering a considerable extra level of protection to the Delest capitals huddled around them.
"You may also try to run, Sir Champion," Dyatlov said, calmly, "if you feel really pressured to be somewhere else in a hurry. But if you try that, then I will send out a signal; and what I am about to show you will happen all over this system before you can cycle up your drives. So, before you give any orders, I suggest you give me a moment.
"My second point is that everything that I believe you care about here -everything that I believe would be of value to you, except the system of Terconia itself- well, it's not here, is it?"
"Comms, signal Orakul. Fire Mission One, weapons free, fire at will."
Far above the system ecliptic, Orakul received the signal, acknowledged it, and sent one of her own, down the link she had established with the fortress moon of Paru. Ter-Iio Akiyama was well-aware of the importance of her task; and so, the information she forwarded to her larger, blinder friend was double- and triple-checked, taking into account the most minute changes in the orbits of her targets and the presence (or absence, as was, indeed the case) of straggling enemy forces or still-active friendly garrisons.
In Paru, massive silo doors slid open, smoothly and ponderously on their bearings. Dormant missiles -dark and ominous shapes, larger than any shipborne torpedo- awoke to bloodthirsty readiness, received their target information and begun their pre-launch tests.
Less than thirty seconds after Dyatlov's order, six massive missiles, each the size of a Shilo bomber rose from their earthen and concrete cradles on Paru, riding incandescent pillars of flame. Behind them, the silos re-sealed themselves and began their scrub cycle, new missiles sliding slowly into place from underground magazines.
Twelve kilometres above the surface of the moon, at the limits of its almost non-existent atmosphere, the missiles' AIs ticked a very important box in their checklists, consulted their targeting info and adjusted their attitudes on hyper-sensitive vector thrusters. Their noses now pointing at seemingly unimportant points in space, their drives flared from burning white and yellow to an eye-searing blue - and the small jump drive in their long hulls cycled in a matter of seconds.
Their targets were not far (relatively speaking, of course) and their drives did not have to concern themselves with preserving the lives of squishy human pilots. The missiles slipped into and through subspace like sharks through water; and it took them only a few seconds to reach their targets.
Less than a hundred metres over the Nakiyama Asteroid Refineries R06, R10 and R21, the Asteroid Supply Station NAK/SS03 and the twin ice extraction facilities nicknamed Baba and Yaga by their workers, small subspace portals opened. Orakul's targeting info had been on point and exceptionally precise; and as the missiles slipped back into realspace, they acquired their targets, covered the distance to them, and disengaged the containment protocols of their antimatter warheads in an instant.
Forty-five seconds after Dyatlov's order, two megatons of orbital infrastructure, millions upon millions of Delest Hez, were nothing but expanding clouds of glowing debris, broken and burnt beyond all hope of salvage. The sole survivor and witness of their death was the CRF Destroyer HMS Arrow, which had been detached to capture NAK/SS03 and was now drifting out of control, smashed into near-destruction herself by the apocalyptic fury of the Delest missiles.
And, of course, Orakul, from her perch over the worlds. She saw their death, logged it dutifully, transmitted her success to Dyatlov - and began her calculations for the next firing cycle.