"Ladies and Gentlemen," Arc Champion Julius French said, his voice sharp, "My congratulations to all commanding officers and crews. We have secured a foothold in Terconia with no casualties or ship losses; we may now proceed to the second stage of the plan. Which is what I wish to discuss with you in detail before we commit."
The Champion was alone in Nelson's
briefing room, but a curved holoscreen projected the faces of his capital ship commanders in a massive conference call. There were some murmured 'hear hears' but enthusiasm was muted. Despite the undeniable success of the CRF fleets in completing the Andor - Terconia translation, the small Delest picket force had managed to escape with no apparent casualties and the Delest fleet itself had refrained from making an appearance. Long-range sensors had located several capital ships in-system, but the exact disposition of the enemy remained unclear.
"Messrs. Hogue and Longstall of the engineering corps have notified me that assembly of the mobile starbases has commenced and that the subspace tugs are bringing the modular compartments over from Andor in good time and order. In a couple of weeks, the Starlance will be relatively secure as a centre of operations, in case none of the captured Delest installations strike our fancy. And on that topic..."
A slight press of a holographic button; a map of the system blinked into existence in the centre of the screen, shouldering the video feeds of the CRF officers aside. The map was highly detailed for several Astronomical Units surrounding the Starlance; its resolution fell considerably further away, however.
"This is a map of the system as it has been pieced together by our fighter patrols so far," French said. "Please note the asteroid belts past the outermost planet."
A second button press; several red dots appeared throughout the asteroid belt in question.
"Our fighters have probed the belt. These are all Delest installations, identified thanks to their power signatures and output. Obviously, we have not explored the entirety of the belt so far - you can see that the region across the system is pretty much a blank - but we can, in all likelihood, assume that the Delest have established a comparable number of bases there as well."
"Military outposts, Sir?" Paladin Iphigenia Thursdale of the Revenge
"Unlikely, but not impossible," French conceded. "Mining stations, more likely, given their power signatures and complete lack of shielding. Remember, Madam, that this was one of their Core Worlds until recently, with little use for in-depth defense. Now, I cannot confidently state that there aren't
any military platforms seeded among these asteroid mines. Unfortunately, our fighter patrols were driven off by their own pickets; I have here reports of...let me see...ah yes, at least eight Frigate or Destroyer-class vessels and an indeterminate number of strikecraft in semi-regular patrols throughout the asteroid belts."
"Capital ships, Sir?" Knight Featherstonehaugh asked.
"None," French stated. "At least none that are powered up to any noticeable degree. We are getting at least fifteen different capital-grade drive emissions from in-system, however - all of them near what we presume our core installations."
"So, he's defending strategic locations, then?" Thursdale interjected once again. "He's abandoning the outer planets and installations to us, while concentrating his forces for the defense of the inner worlds and vital installations?"
"Probably," French conceded. "I must admit that I am not sure about the ships that he has left in the asteroid belt, however. They fulfill no obvious function. If his purpose were to delay our advance or counter our boarding operations, he has vastly
undercommited. If we were to engage these ships in any concentrated push, we could wipe them out before Dyatlov brought his capitals on-scene."
"And if they're just scouts, then he's overcommited
," Paladin Attwood mused.
"Mmmmh," French assented. "I'd like your input on this, Ladies and Gentlemen."
There were a few moments of silence, as the Knights and Paladins of Arc Victoria gathered their thoughts. Then, Knight Laura Rosslyn of the Thunder
tentatively raised her hand.
"Well, Sir," she said, every part the hesitant, recently-Knighted youth that she was, "I don't think Dyatlov is a bad commander. I mean, we were considering the possibility, but after the minefield, I don't think that that's the case. It was...too well orchestrated."
There were murmurs of assent among the others; Featherstonehaugh, notably, seemed particularly pleased that her protegée
(and, if French was not mistaken, ex-squire) was stepping into the spotlight.
"Yes," Attwood agreed. "That was no maverick commander biting their thumb at us. This was directed
from the highest level. So, from a tactical standpoint at least, this Dyatlov fellow seems to know what he's doing. Good point, my Lady."
"Which makes this asteroid patrol business...jarring," Featherstonehaugh snapped. "If
Dyatlov organised the Starlance defense - and I grant you that this is the most likely scenario - then this
asteroid garrison mess is quite unlike what he's shown us."
"A trap perhaps?" Thursdale suggested. "A rather poor
one, I admit. Or, maybe there's an independent commander here, operating beyond Dyatlov's authority? Not unlike our own...well, allies?"
There were some chuckles and some polite coughs at this. Neither CRF fleet had suffered particularly in the Starlance torpedo strike, but the Arc Victoria force had certainly fared better than their Pegasus allies and there was a certain degree of schadenfreude
and self-satisfaction to be had.
"An independent commander?" French asked, before the conversation could devolve. "With only a Destroyer and Frigate force? Doubtful."
"Well, Sir, there may be some merit there," Featherstonehaugh remarked, thoughtfully. "Dyatlov is just a Praetor, is that right?"
"According to BuInt, certainly," French confirmed.
"Well, Sir, a Praetor isn't that
big a fish, politically speaking," Featherstonehaugh said. "If he'd been promoted to High Executor,
then he would have been near-untouchable from a political standpoint. That would have been almost as drastic as giving him one of those Delest Mandates and turning him loose. But Old Vlad didn't
promote him to High Executor. And a Praetor
...well, a Praetor can still be tossed to the wolves if they fail, unless they really
watch their step."
"So, it's political,"
Attwood said, ruefully, with a crooked smile. There were laughs.
"What I mean to say,"
Featherstonehaugh said, with a roll of her eyes and a thin smile, "is that he must be under a lot of political pressure. My bet is that there's a lot of valuable property in mining rights there that he can't afford to be seen not
defending. That's not Dyatlov
we're seeing pissing away his forces. That's the moneybag bumblers holding his strings."
"Well," French mused, with a half-smile. "Then perhaps we should proceed with tangling
these strings? These mining stations are valuable targets and the original plan calls for a slow push forward anyway. The asteroid fields present us with excellent staging points for a future system offensive and
they will be magnificent prizes in themselves. I'd rather capture them first and make sure the Delest don't blow them out of the sky behind them. Not to mention that the political pressure this will put Dyatlov under might force him into...less then optimal decisions."
Again, a few moments of silence; nods and solemnity as the Knights of Arc Victoria indicated their assent.
"Alright then," French said, and any indecision had been cast out of his voice and features. "We will adopt a slight variation of Plan Charlie. Triumph
will lead the left flank..."
"I am putting forward Ter-Iio Akiyama for a Silver Lion for this piece of work," Dyatlov stated grimly, hunched over the holographic table, "whatever my recommendation ends up being worth, in the end. How certain are we?"
"As certain as we can hope to be, Sir," Arurior Maria Sebrenova, Michiko's
commanding officer stated confidently, raising her head with a wide smile. "Look
at how they're moving. Never mind the ship identifications - look at how they're dealing with the incoming fire."
Her hand moved over the holographic controls and the ghostly formations of the Arc Victoria and Pegasus fleets scrubbed forwards and backwards in time.
"See how this formation flows to rotate new ships into the incoming fire? Classic, textbook
French. He did the same in St. Helen, eight years ago. Look at the bastard juggle them
. Oh, uh...begging your pardon, Sir."
"Never mind, Seb," Dyatlov said, with feeling. "I'm thinking the same."
"And then, look at this fellow here, whoever they are," Sebrenova continued with a half-smile, indicating the second ship cluster. "Well, they're Pegasus
, if their ships are anything we can go by; and would you just look at their discipline
. Stationery, under heavy missile fire, their sensors blown to all hell by the Orakul's
jamming and they don't flinch, do they?"
"Unfortunately not," Dyatlov mused. "Definitely
two commanders, then?"
"I'd stake my life on it, Sir" Sebrenova said, seriously, "and so would my team. Two very good
commanders. And, if we're not mistaken, they don't particularly like each other
. Well - they might
, but they don't plan to work with each other, at all. There's simply no coordination between the fleets that we can see. None
. They've got their own separate point-defense nets; their own logistics vessels; and even their force makeup is different. Look at this, Sir."
Fingers danced in empty air; the fleet of Arc Victoria now filled the entirety of the holographic display. The CRF Dreadnoughts loomed over the figures of the Delest officers, bathing them in red light.
"Fifteen Dreadnoughts, all of them Earl
-class: the latest Arc Victoria has to offer. More than two dozen Cruisers for strikecraft coverage and tactical flexibility. Eight Destroyer squadrons. Four flotillas of supply vessels with their escorts, including
the modular dockyards the Limeys like to use for field repairs. This is a force set for a slow, methodical campaign - the sort of careful, glacier push that makes French...well, French
. Frankly, Sir, you could have just shown me this fleet composition and told me nothing else, and I could have told you who's in command. This
guy, on the other hand..."
A flick of Sebrenova's fingers; a flicker of light; and now the Pegasus ships occupied centre stage.
guy, I'm not so sure about," Sebrenova mused. "Nine Dreadnoughts - all Lords
, but slightly modified in what we think is a faster, more lightly armored variant, built in Pegasus. Fourteen Cruisers, with a distinct focus towards carriers. Only four Destroyer squadrons that we know of. Sir, if I had to guess, I'd say either Simmons or Spalding, based on the focus on carrier Cruisers; but the battle-line is considerably more heavy than what they've deployed in past skirmishes. Maybe it's a new commander, a student of theirs, perhaps; or maybe something else is going on that I'm missing."
She met Dyatlov's eyes with an apologetic shrug. "I just don't know, Sir, I'm sorry. What I can
tell you, is that this screams
'heavy assault' to me. If French is the glacier, this fellow has come to smash our face in. He's got the strikecraft to run extensive patrols and raids; he's got the battle-line to hurt us, or at least keep us occupied until French jumps in to help him; and he's got the speed
to be where he needs to be when
he needs to be."
"And his force is highly disciplined,"
a smooth, silky voice interjected from across the table. "Do not forget this, Arurior. Praetor."
Arurior Ermolai Yonsakuren was leaning forward, palms on the table and hunched over. His eyes were reflecting the ruby glow of the holograms and Dyatlov was taken aback at the sheer intensity
of the Yonsakuren's stare. His jet-black hair, darkish complexion and perfectly-groomed circle beard gave him an almost demon-like appearance that was, frankly...new. In the few weeks he had known the man, Ermolai had been...distant, for lack of a better term, always exuding an aura of subtle and sullen discontent. This change was striking, to say the least. And Dyatlov was not the only one to notice: the rest of Sebrenova's team and
those members of Dyatlov's Staff that were present were giving the man a wide berth.
"You have something to contribute, Arurior?" Dyatlov asked and mentally prepared himself for the task ahead. This new attitude of Ermolai's had to be encouraged; but Dyatlov's years of on-and-off interaction with the Clan had taught him that any
conversation with a Yonsakuren was a...delicate
affair, not unlike taking a stroll in a minefield, and sure to result in headaches
"Yes," Ermolai answered and slowly
unfolded himself from his hunched position to his full height. The motion reminded Dyatlov of a big cat; and there was a distinct sort of animalistic swagger
in the posture of the Yonsakuren that communicated perfectly
how honoured everyone should feel for having been granted his attention. "I have many things to say. Some, I wish to say to specific people here present. Some, I wish to say to all. Some, I wish to say to you only, Praetor. In private."
"That...can be arranged," Dyatlov acquiesced. "We're listening."
And that was the truth. Ermolai commanded attention
in a different way than Dyatlov; perhaps it was the raw charisma of the man. Or, perhaps, the fact that everyone in the room knew that, despite his lean build, he was strong enough to casually snap the spine of any person present in two and probably take great pleasure in doing it. And the fact that he had kept to himself during the earlier weeks certainly lent him an air of exoticism that he now consciously wielded with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.
"Alright," the Yonsakuren replied. "With your permission, then."
; and the infernal swagger
was muted, replaced by a prowling gait that brought him before Arurior Sebrenova in a few steps. She retreated a hesitant step before his bulk; and then Ermolai stopped, well within her personal space, leaning forward and looking directly into her eyes.
"Your presentation of your conclusions was concise and insightful, Arurior," he said, in a low, rumbling purr
- and oh my God
. "It was also fascinating and displayed your professionalism, experience and talent as an analyst and tactician. I find these traits highly
Dyatlov could see
the blood drain from Sebrenova's face and the kaleidoscope of emotions that followed, none of them particularly positive. He could feel his tongue stick to his palate; like everyone else, he had heard the tales. His hand dropped to his sidearm, ready to defend his ship's captain and friend and he noticed several others amongst his officers doing the same. Ermolai, however, was not done.
"It is unfortunate that you are not a Yonsakuren, Arurior," he continued. "Your physical frame is most
pleasing to the eye but, ultimately, quite frail. This makes me sad. We would be most
unevenly matched if I were to...agressively pursue your affections in a physical manner as is sometimes done in my Clan. That would bring me little pleasure - and considerable dishonour. But this does not diminish your obvious talent or my admiration and desire. I have therefore decided to make my feelings clear here, before witnesses, and inform you that I intend to further explore my attraction to you, in pursuit of your approval. Hopefully I will come to prove my worth to your satisfaction in the upcoming days. If, at any point, you wish to discuss this matter further with me, or desire comfort in these uncertain and glorious times of war, or simply wish to...experiment, please do not hesitate to contact me. I guarantee you will not be disappointed."
The Yonsakuren bowed
ever so slightly, his eyes never leaving those of the -now furiously blushing- Sebrenova. The impression was that of a tomcat staring down a terrified smaller furry animal for one, two, three seconds - and then Ermolai turned away on his heel to address the rest of the glaring officers and Sebrenova staggered back into the supporting hands of two of her friends.
"That is what I wanted to say to a specific person," Ermolai said, lightly, and very notably not
looking at the hands still grasping sidearms all around Michiko's
CIC. "Now I would like to say something for all to hear."
"Proceed, Arurior," Dyatlov said, coldly, "and, for the Emperor's sake, limit yourself to matters that concern the current military situation."
"Understood, Praetor," the Yonsakuren said with a crooked grin. He stepped back to the holotable, shoulder-checking a glaring Commander out of the way and gestured toward the Pegasus fleet."This
is your opponent," he said. "Not French. French you have a plan for. French you can delay, and stall. And if you stall him long enough, help will come. But this fellow here, whoever he is, this
fellow has not come to play chess with you, Praetor. This one has come for the fight
alone - to brawl and to destroy us. If given the slightest
chance, he will
seek you out with all his force and you need
to prepare for it. You cannot
afford to ignore him."
"I do not intend
to," Dyatlov said, stepping forward. "This is why we are here. To figure out how to best deal with our enemies."
"From my perspective?" Ermolai said, with a fluid and surprisingly expressive shrug, "The key is in their discipline. French builds his fleets like wheels within wheels. Everything linking together, everything redundant. You cannot kill French's fleet by killing French himself. His people know how to fight together and alone and they knew how to move to weather your fire. This Pegasus fellow, on the other hand? This fellow does not build his fleet like a machine. He builds it like a family. He has the love of his people. Believe me on this. Nobody
sits and takes fire like the Pegasus sailors did without loving their commander more than life itself. Kill him, and his forces will fall apart. That's
how you deal with enemies like him. That's
what we should be figuring out."
There were a few moments of silence, as the Yonsakuren's words sank in.
"Thank you for your insight, Arurior," Dyatlov finally said, his voice quaking with suppressed anger. "and
for your contribution. Anything else
you would like to say?"
"Here, to all?" Ermolai asked, smiling wide and displaying two magnificent rows of startlingly white teeth. "No. But I have more things to say to you
. And as soon as possible. Perhaps even now, if you can spare the time. It will take but a few moments."
Dyatlov considered for a few heartbeats, then gestured with his head toward the small airlock separating the CIC room from the rest of the ship. "In there. Give me a second."
As Ermolai made his way toward the airlock, conspicuously ignoring most of the other officers and with that obnoxious grin still on his face,
Dyatlov approached the still-shaken Sebrenova who gave him a wan smile from between her two self-appointed bodyguards. "Hello, Sir," she said, her voice brittle. "You'll never guess what happened today."
"Are you alright, Seb?" Dyatlov asked, considerably worried. All around him, the CIC had erupted in excited murmurs and hushed exclamations, but the officers present were smart enough to give them - and the retreating Ermolai- their space.
"Oh yes, Sir," she replied. "Not any day a Yonsakuren expresses their interest to you. Fancy that."
"Listen to me, Seb," Dyatlov said, his voice low. "You are safe
. He has stated before witnesses that he will not hurt you in any way. Making any agressive move on you right now would be the height of dishonor for him. Now, I'm going to go into that airlock and give him a piece of my mind, but I need you to understand that you could be locked in a rating's bunk with him right now and he wouldn't lay a hand
on you against your will. I promise you that
"Yes, Sir," Sebrenova answered, making a valiant effort to appear convinced. "Go, Sir. Get this over with. And then...we can figure out what to do. Go."