bridge was a malestrom of confused, chaotic reports and screaming; and French himself felt ill as the reports began to trickle in. R06 and R10 had already been occupied by Royal Marines and them dropping off the comms net nearly simultaneously was a clear sign that they had come under overwhelming attack. It was still possible, if unlikely, that the two facilities had been scuttled by well-hidden charges, but French did not believe it for a second - not after they had had the time to do a proper search. A strikecraft attack, then?
And then the desperate call for help from the Arrow
had come in, containing the last piece of the puzzle - and French's blood had run cold.
Subspace-Strike Weaponry was not a novel idea. All major nations had experimented with the concept, some more recently than others; but the end-result prototypes had been deemed too expensive, cost-innefective and inaccurate to be employable in the actual battlefield. They were, after all, comparable in size and cost to a large bomber; and a bomber could offer similar functionality with pin-point precision and not blow itself up in its first engagement. However, if the Delest had solved these problems - if they could reliably employ FTL missile strikes, then that could very well upset the very foundations of modern warfare. And if they could launch a strike like that against his own fleet...No,
his steel-trap of a mind whispered to him, and he grabbed the fear inside and squashed
it like a bug. He was the Champion of Arc Victoria, a direct representative of the will of Their Majesties. He would not allow surprise or fear to dictate his actions, especially when that fear was clearly unfounded. If Dyatlov had the option of effectively employing this new weapon against CRF ships, then he wouldn't have bothered with offering surrender.
He would just have blown French and his ships out of the sky."Order!"
he snarled, and was pleased to see his bridge crew snap to something approaching the discipline he expected of his officers. "Ms. Newark," he told his XO, not taking his eyes off Dyatlov's tired (was that a note of triumph?)
face, "you will handle the incoming reports in a disciplined and controlled fashion and you will allow Praetor Dyatlov and me to continue our discussion."
"Aye, Sir," came the response; and French, with an effort of will, tuned everything else out
. He brought Dyatlov's signal up into his own private screen and put on his personal headset. At this point, with his bridge crew otherwise occupied, he could handle these oh-so-sensitive negotiations without them looking over his shoulder.
"You have my full attention, Praetor Dyatlov," he said.
Dyatlov's tight, nervous bearing seemed to relax, just a bit - French could see the signs of a man running on fumes. He could, perhaps, make use of that, by drawing the negotiations out, if no agreement could be reached.
"Good," Dyatlov said, meeting French's gaze. "That is good to know. To save both of us time, allow me to lay down my proposed terms and we can settle on things in principle - or not. Details can be hammered out afterwards."
"This seems like a reasonable suggestion," French agreed. "Please, go ahead."
"I propose an immediate end of hostilities in Terconia, with the Dynasty forces admitting total defeat. As we have both acknowledged, there is little I can do to counter your now-crushing military superiority. The system itself and all surviving Delest military assets will remain under Delest control. In exchange, annual war reparations will be paid to New Brittania equal to the total net profit from all remaining orbital and asteroid industrial facilities in the system, for a period of six years. I propose bringing in independent Guild arbitrators to provide us with accurate assessments."
Dyatlov spoke in a well-rehearsed way and part of French's mind ticked his opinion of the man upwards a couple of notches - this was clearly something that the Delest officer had thought about and planned out and not something he had been driven to out of desperation. Most of his conscious thoughts, however, were doing cartwheels around the Praetor's proposal. French took note of his own greed, pushing him to ACCEPT ALREADY, because raking in what amounted to the profits from an entire system's worth of infrastructure without the usual overhead of maintenance, population support and administration costs (not to mention the delays necessary to occupy and refit the facilities for Britannian use) was a spectacular
opportunity. And then he sat on that greed and ignored
it, for there were considerable problems here as well.
"I see," he said. "In principle, that is an agreement that Arc Victoria could agree with, if only to avoid further bloodshed. However, it is still unclear to me why I should not just attack your forces here and then seize the system in its entirety. Despite your demonstrated capability to perform what I can only assume are targeted subspace strikes, that capability must be quite limited, or you would have employed it against my forces."
French was lying. He knew quite well
why he could not afford to press Dyatlov; but he needed
to ask the question, simply so he could respond to criticism of his actions back home.
"You are both correct and mistaken," Dyatlov responded with a tired nod. "I still have over fifty subspace missiles on standby, ready to be employed against designated targets. However, they are very
expensive munitions, and even with the advanced targeting capabilities at my disposal, they are still highly inaccurate. I cannot justify expending them against mobile targets, or defended installations. And targeting your fleet here would certainly result in the destruction of my own forces from friendly fire incidents."
The Praetor allowed a thin smile to appear on his face for a fleeting moment.
"But, at this point in time, Sir Champion, neither the asteroid facilities in this system, nor the supply station you have established on the Starlance are defended to any meaningful degree. I have refrained from ordering my second strike, in the hopes that an agreement can be reached here and so as to preserve our equipment and the lives of our people. If we fail to reach an agreement, however, my next strike will target your modular shipyards near the starlance. I imagine five warheads will be quite sufficient. And after that, I will drop antimatter warheads onto every civilian orbital installation in the asteroid fields - most have been evacuated beforehand."
I will target the Hōseki orbitals - take out the System Administration Starbases. And after that
A tired shrug.
, I'll drop every warhead I have left on this location and blow us both up, along with the Sodesuka shipyards. Clear the board, as it were. I guarantee that Delest reinforcements will arrive in-theatre before CRF forces do, Sir Champion."
"You're mad," French said; and he realised it was true as he said it. Even allowing for a degree of...creative overestimation
of the capabilities of the Delest weapon systems, that was a hellish
scenario. "They would-" crucify you
, he was about to say, and then he remembered that the Praetor had just threatened to commit suicide by antimatter warhead. "You are bluffing," he finally said, rather more weakly than he had wanted.
"My orders from His Imperial Majesty were to retain control of this system for the Dynasty," Dyatlov replied, in a resigned tone that made French's hair stand on end. "Not to preserve my forces, or the civilian infrastructure. Naturally, that would be ideal, but such concerns are secondary. This is a crèche world
, Sir Champion, and it cannot
be allowed to fall to you. The only way you're getting this system is, very literally, over my dead body
and over those of the sailors under my command. And, if, by the end, you're still alive to claim it, it'll be a scorched wasteland, I guarantee you that
"I understand," French said, and he did
. The Delest concept of honour was diametrically opposed to that of the Britannians in many ways, but it existed
and he knew better than to challenge a line drawn in the sand by a Delest officer. And, after all, he told himself, the finality in Dyatlov's statements was there for everyone to hear and impossible to deny. This was pure gold
from French's perspective - because it limited his options to the very same negotiation route he was so eager to pursue himself.
"You must understand," he said, "that I am not, in principle, against your proposal. However, I have serious concerns regarding its viability. For one, you are a military commander, with minimal political authority; and yet, here you are, making promises on behalf of your government. Are you authorised to do that?"
"No," Dyatlov admitted, bluntly. "But I do not propose that the reparations should be paid by the Delest government
. Instead, they will be paid by the local system authorities
and, by extension, the Delest family Branches that hold the most sway over Terconia. As I have been repeatedly reminded since my arrival on the system, that would be the Hokke and Dragunov Branches. Such an arrangement would only require the approval of the system Governor, who is an appointed representative of said Branches; and most of my surviving light forces are currently in orbit over Hōseki...explaining
to the kind Governor Bao Zhai the wisdom of signing such an arrangement."
"Under duress?" French scoffed. "The Branches in question would repudiate the agreement as soon as we pulled our forces back, out of Delest space - and your little coup here will certainly send you to the execution block. How can you guarantee that the agreement will be respected?"
"The Branches in question will not be allowed
to repudiate the agreement," Dyatlov answered, and his voice held iron-clad certainty. "Not if the Governor signs. Not if this is presented as an official surrender. They will not be permitted
to back out."
"By Vladimir Delest?" French asked, some contempt colouring his voice. It was no secret that the Delest Emperor could exert only minimal control over his strong satraps.
"By the other Branches
," Dyatlov said, coldly, some steel creeping back into his tired stance. "This will be a windfall for them. The Dynasty is not
as united as it once was, Sir Champion and there's little sense in pretending otherwise. Dragunov and Hokke are powerful players on the Dynasty stage, but they are...overambitious
. They have made enemies and they are certainly not powerful enough to defy the other Branches, the Yonsakuren and
the Imperial Guard. A chance to whittle down their power by draining their vaults, while simultaneously securing peace in the Terconia front for the upcoming years? The other Branches will jump
at the opportunity and they'll make damn
sure you'll get your money, Sir Champion. At gunpoint,
"And nobody will dare
question the surrender," Dyatlov continued. "As long as I am here and in command, I am the representative of my Emperor by direct appointment, and my word regarding military matters is final
. What happens afterwards is inconsequential. They may strip me of my rank, put me up before a military court, even execute me and they most probably will; but if the agreement goes through, then it will
be respected. The person of the commander may be punished for their perceived failings; but the orders they have given must be respected, or a very
dangerous precedent is set. Especially since I have carried out my orders to the letter, and the Dynasty will still lay claim over this system."
His mouth quirked into a crooked smile. "Until the next
scrap between our nations, at least," he said, "whenever that may be. But I suspect that
will not be my concern."
French leaned back in his commander's chair, his mind awhirl with the possibilities. Pieces came together and click-click-clicked
, as he considered the response such an agreement would receive back home. Not a bad one
, he decided.
True, there was little glory in beating your opponent's face in until they agreed to pay you Danegeld; but it was simply impossible
to execute his orders and perform a full annexation of the system with the threat of subspace-strike weaponry and Dyatlov's scorched-earth policy looming over his forces. Instead, Dyatlov was giving
him the resources New Britannia was sorely lacking, without the expected burden of fully annexing the system and displacing its population. Furthermore, the potential for internal destabilisation of the Dynasty in the aftermath was highly
interesting. Divide and conquer: if the Delest descended into a small-scale civil war, that would weaken them considerably and buy Britannia precious time to focus on rebuilding her foundering wreck of an economy.
Slowly, thoughtfully, he nodded.
"Praetor Dyatlov, I can agree to your terms, in principle," he said. "I will accept your surrender and grant you and your forces parole, provided you do not leave this area; and we will wait here, for the arrival of the system Governor, to finalise our agreement. If that goes smoothly, then we can both consider this war ended."
The relief in the Delest officer's expression; the way his shoulders deflated into acceptance was palpable. "Thank you, Arc Champion French," he said, his voice almost cracking. "Thank you for not forcing my hand. I will stand down my forces and authorise no more subspace strikes, provided you keep your own forces here. I am sure we can arrange for medical assistance and emergency repairs in the shipyards, while we discuss the particulars."
French nodded graciously, "Of course."
He hesitated for a few heartbeats, not quite sure on how to proceeed; and then with a mental shrug he continued. "On a personal note, Praetor, may I say that you have given us a damn good fight. I still think you're a bloody madman, but you and your sailors, Sir, have my respect. May I ask - is Exarch Aretha among your prisoners?"
"Exarch-?" Dyatlov paled and French realised that he had not known
. And, immediately after that, that Exarch Aretha Pegasus was dead
and French was glad he was seated, because the implications of that
... "Ah- no. No, Sir Champion, I regret to say that this is not the case. Her flagship - was lost with all hands."
It was the Delest Admiral's turn to hesitate. "I- I regret that we did not know. We have not had the time to debrief prisoners. Her presence here certainly explains why her forces fought with such determination and fervor. And why - why they, well, fell apart
like they did after she was gone. But-"
A slight shrug. "-but even if we had
known, Sir Champion, it would not have really mattered. She had to be dealt with. Beyond everything else, she
was our target."
French was startled out of his feeling of looming dread and felt somewhat...insulted
, "Truly? How so?"
Dyatlov's smile was rueful. "It's...difficult to explain. I never
thought that I could win against you, Sir Champion. Not with the forces I had available. But I could delay, draw this out; and, if the situation turned desperate, I expected the two of us would be able to reach an honourable arrangement, like we did just now. You are unstoppable, methodical, careful, reasonable
- and known
to be so. But she..."
French could swear the Delest officer was almost apologetic. "As a...friend of mine said, when we had our first look at the intel from her forces, she had come 'to brawl and to destroy'; and her fleet was devoted
to her, heart and soul. I could not afford that, Sir Champion. I could not
permit a glory-seeker in this theatre. You knew her better than I: would she have agreed to our deal here, today?"
"No," French agreed, almost reluctantly. "Probably not. She would have sought a total victory, scorched earth be damned."
"I expected as much. And so, she had to be broken,"
Dyatlov said, matter-of-factly. "Brought down to insignificance, to being a non-factor, so I could speak to someone who would listen
. All these ships and people and friends, gone, sacrificed, so we two could find ourselves here and now, and so I could earn the privilege
His smile was bitter. "Did you know? 'Fight-making',
the Yonsakuren call it."