This particular part of empty space in Terconia's Oort cloud was indistinguishable from any other empty patch of nothingness - at least to the naked eye. The nearest idle ball of rock and ice that might, someday, under the gravitic influence of a passing celestial body, become a comet orbited the binary system more than a hundred thousand kilometres away.
You would be excused for not noticing the presence of the little, ominous, black spheres, lying in homicidal wait for trespassers. They were, after all, made
with stealth in mind. You would also be excused for missing the three ships, concealed behind the nearby comet. Two of them were small, sleek and predatory, almost hugging the ball of ice. The third was almost twice their size; and she was beautiful in her own way. Unlike the warships, she did not promise speed or violence; but a glittering tracery of metal, glass and plastic extended around her and beyond the comet's concealing shadow. She was Orakul
and she was an infinitely delicate artificial ear pressed against the barriers between dimensions.
She listened; she picked up the tremors; she felt the unseen enemy's presence draw ever nearer, from the direction-that-is-not-a-direction. Thin communication lasers stabbed out toward her escorts; the warships responded and came to life, gently coasting off the comet on reaction thrusters and forming up on their ward.
The wait is over. The time is now
The barriers between dimensions break; a hundred thousand kilometres away, a glowing rift splits space itself. Orakul
turns her sensor arrays toward the portal, like a stag turning his head to show off his antlers to the skulking predator. She listens
A flood of EM radiation spills out of the portal. Subspace static, mixed with shield and drive signatures; sublight radar; sensor pings and active scanners, as whatever is hiding in subspace tries to get an idea of what is waiting for it outside. Orakul
and her escorts do not stir. They are well-hidden and confident that they lie beyond the enemy's sight. Orakul
lies still; and watches
Something material breaks through the portal; a long cylinder, riding a thin thruster of white flame, moving fast
and still accellerating. It is followed by another. And another
. And ten more. And then hundreds
sees them all; tracks them; follows the course of each and every one as they blossom out and scatter among the waiting black spheres, who will now never have the chance to-Light
The minefield erupts in apocalyptic fury. Missiles and mines annihilate each other in mass chain reactions. And, through it all, missiles continue to pour out of the Starlance, in successive waves, carving a path for the fleet that is still waiting in the safety of subspace.Orakul
lies still; and watches
Finally, the bombardment ceases. A brief moment of respite and the portal flickers; and then several small vessels break through. Orakul
focuses on them with her long-range optics, records their IFFs and drive signatures with her passive EM sensors, consults her vast databanks and identifies them as the 5th ArcVic Destroyer squadron, operating the new Block II Cavaliers. The CRF Destroyers adopt a loose formation and begin sweeping the Starlance for any surviving mines and suspicious debris with their point-defense clusters.
Then, the first capital ships slip into realspace, through their own individual portals. Orakul
turns her attention to them; and her sensors are immediately
retracted as far back behind the cover of the asteroid as possible without compromising her capability to overlook the starlance.
These are Dukes
; and, as their modified silhouette and relatively sluggish movement shows, they've been fitted with hangars
. It is only a matter of time before-
And, yes, here come the strikecraft. Rather distant for certain optical identification, but drive signatures correspond to Firefly
-class scout fighters. One squadron stays with the motherships; two more begin an ever-widening sweep of the Starlance, picking off isolated surviving mines where possible.
Well, there are several more enemy eyes on the battlefield and the game of hide-and-seek has become considerably
more dangerous; but the sensor suite of a fighter cannot compare to that of the Orakul
. She will see them coming. And they will
be coming; there is no way the CRF will not be investigating the closest Oort asteroids for Delest listening posts.
But, until then, Orakul
and her escorts will remain on-station, waiting
, waiting for the moment when-Jackpot
The main portal flares; and a massive
capital ship begins its realspace transition. Orakul
focuses her sensors on the CRF giant and her crew work frantically on her data and analysis banks. The hull is almost immediately identified as a Lord
class ship; then weapon emplacements are factored in; the drive signature is analysed; her shielding frequencies are recorded against the etheric background radiation. Within three minutes, the probability that the Dreadnought is the recently commissioned HMS Rodney
is estimated to be 92%.
Then a new ship breaks through to realspace on her own portal; and another
; and the Orakul
analysts get truly busy
- 87%HMS Thunder
- 85%HMS Invincible
- 94%HMS Royal Oak
- 68%HMS Avalon
And they keep coming
, Dreadnought after Dreadnought after Dreadnought. And Orakul
keeps up her silent vigil. And the CRF fighter patrol draws closer, ever closer
"Praetor, I would like an explanation," Governor Bao Zhai said, his voice tinged with equal notes of anger and concern.
Dyatlov stood in a loose approximation of parade rest before the three figures lounging in comfortable chairs in the Governor's observation deck, on board the orbital station Diamond 1
. The crescent of Hōseki dominated the sky above them; Secundus was about to set on the far side of the planet and the light refracting on the atmosphere painted the station a ruby red, as it slipped into the planet's penumbra.
"His Excellency the Governor need only ask and I shall endeavour to clarify matters to the best of my abilities," Dyatlov replied, not allowing any of his exasperation to show. He should be on board the Michiko
, waiting for news from the Orakul
, not here, apparently defending his actions (and himself) so far above his paygrade.
"I'm sure that we'd all like to hear what you have to say," the Governor said, leaning forward, "regarding your actions in defense of this system so far. Or should I say your inaction
"Your Excellency?" Dyatlov allowed his head to tilt slightly to the side. "I am not sure I understand."
"Oh, come now, Praetor!" the young man to the Governor's right said, his voice calm and, for a lack of a better term, dry
and crackling. "We don't have the time for this and your attempts at verbal jousting are pathetic and, frankly, slightly insulting
Dyatlov repressed a shudder. Out of the three people opposite him, Ivan Nakayama was the one he wished to have the least possible amount of interaction with. One of the youngest scions of the Nakayama family, he was rumoured to be the bastard offspring of an affair between his mother and a minor Delest noble; he was deeply involved in running his family's orbital mining megacorporation; and he could easily make-or-break the career of an officer with Dyatlov's lack of political backing. Dyatlov knew that, arguably, he would be better served by keeping Nakayama
happy rather than the Governor.
"It was not my intention to be disingenuous or offer insult," Dyatlov said, making his tone as apologetic as possible. "However, I do require His Excellency to be more specific
. My current plan to defend Terconia is a multi-layered one and I am unsure as to which aspect in particular has apparently met with His Excellency's ire."
concern, Praetor," Lady Aiko Imube Delest interjected with a smile, making a genteel, gesture that encompassed the other two officials and herself, "is that your fleet remains in orbit over Hōseki and other capital installations. You have shown no intention to contest the enemy at the Starlance or done...well, anything
really. You can understand that we are highly
concerned. We are no strategists, but surely it would make sense to intercept the enemy at the Starlance bottleneck, whenever they arrive?"
Dyatlov slumped slightly. "I see, My Lady," he said, with a bow. "Many thanks for the clarification. With your permission, I would like to explain."
Praetor," Nakayama said, "And this had better
be good. And brief
"Understood." Dyatlov took a moment to gather his thoughts. "Firstly - I believe there's a misunderstanding about a Starlance's nature
, from a strategic perspective, at least. A Starlance...well, it is not
a chokepoint, in the traditional sense. A chokepoint allows the attacker to channel a limited portion of their forces against the defender; therefore, it makes sense for the defender to force a confrontation there. A Starlance..."
His posture loosened somewhat; his right hand moved in a "so-so" gesture.
"...well, frankly, there is nothing to prevent the attacker from massing their entire fleet in Subspace and translate into realspace as one concentrated force
. True, we'll know where
they'll appear but we can do nothing to achieve superiority in numbers or firepower. Quite the opposite
, in fact."
Nakayama was sitting, stony faced; Bao Zhai was listening carefully, but appeared slightly lost; Lady Imube seemed quite interested. Dyatlov felt encouraged to continue.
"An attacking force, waiting in subspace, can just open a portal and scan the surroundning realspace for threats. If they acquire any targets, they can fire ordnance through the portal; the defenders need to fire back through the portal. This results in what we call the 'Arrowslit Effect'
: the attackers can get a good read on the defending ships and need to fire through a portal located at a known position relative to their ships; the defenders, on the other hand, need to fire at ships masked against Subspace radiation, through a portal that they have no control over."
"Oh, I think I see," the Governor interjected, with a self-satisfied smile. "It's like shooting with the light in one's eyes, yes? This is fascinating!
"Indeed, Your Excellency," Dyatlov said, somewhat relieved. "It is
like shooting against the sun, at a small target that may or may not be there when your shot reaches them, through a hoop
. While they
get to shoot back at you
with no such problems. You see, Your Excellency, what we do with Starlances, is mine them
, not defend
them. Now, the enemy knows
the Starlance will be mined and they are unlikely to just translate into the minefield; but it delays
a lot. You see, if there wasn't
a minefield, the enemies could translate through the Starlance as a fleet, recharge their drives, and be in the Hōseki orbitals in, say, twenty minutes after their arrival in the system
. And we would have, essentially, no
The Governor's grimace at that idea was all the encouragement Dyatlov needed to drive the point home.
"It takes time
for the enemy to clear a minefield and they cannot
translate their entire fleet as a unit until the minefield is cleared," he said. "And it usually takes more than one missile to proximity kill a mine; and missiles are more expensive
than mines. It's a delaying tactic, Your Excellency, something to stop the enemy at the Starlance while we bring our fleet to readiness."
"And I assume you have
mined the Starlance, Praetor?" Lady Imube asked, leaning back.
"Yes, My Lady," Dyatlov replied. "With several overlapping minefields; stealth mines, homing mines, torpedo buoys. Everything we had, really. And I have the Orakul
standing by to let us know when the enemy translates. My most sincere thanks to the honoured Imube Branch for their kind contribution to the fleet - Orakul
to my plan."
"Well then!" Bao Zhai leaned back in his chair, considerably more relaxed. "Well
then. That sounds quite reasonable, I must say. Quite
reasonable. I don't see how we can accuse the Praetor of any sort of negligence in his duties. He seems to be on top of things, don't you think so, My Lady? Master Nakayama?"
Dyatlov's relief at Lady Imube's smile was short lived, as Nakayama cleared his throat with a sound like dust and cracking wood. "Yes, well," the young man said. "Putting aside the Starlance defence, for now. What I am hearing is that the Praetor's plan involves granting the enemy a foothold in Terconia unopposed."
, Sir," Dyatlov protested. "The enemy cannot engage our planetary defenses or comparable installations without suffering considerable losses. I have deployed my forces in such a way that they will
be able to delay any concentrated assault long enough for our entire fleet to translate to the battlefield. And, from that point on, the enemy will need to either retreat, or bounce between targets, with our fleet in hot pursuit. French's fleet simply does not
have the capability for a concentrated attack on our forces. He'll need to start creeping forward, perhaps taking over our more remote outposts and facilities but, frankly, we can afford to lose them, while bleeding him along the way. We have
reinforcements coming up; and, once the two Starbases in our orbitals are complete, it should
be possible to take the fight back to them."
Dyatlov hoped that he sounded considerably
more confident than he felt. His plan was by no means perfect; and it involved giving ground in as controlled a fashion as possible, taking opportunistic fights and waiting for reinforcements. However, this granted all initiative to French; and playing rope-a-dope on a strategic level would surely be a nightmare
with his less-than-cohesive forces.
"I'm sorry, Praetor," Nakayama said, his voice like sharp glass and ice. "I must have heard you wrong. Did you say you have deployed forces to all critical facilities?
"Yes, Sir," Dyatlov responded. "I have capital ships from my main Battle-line and my Support forces in orbit over Hōseki and the two moons; two heavy cruiser squadrons with escorts are defending the shipyards. I also have two Volyas
with Destroyer and Frigate escorts deployed at the solar energy stations in-system."
"Praetor," Nakayama said, his voice taking up slight tones of exasperation, not unlike that of a parent explaining something fundamental to a stupid child, "I have fifteen megatons of Nakayama Inc. facilities in more than thirty asteroid mines and refineries spread throughout the system. A conservative
estimate places the total value of Nakayama infrastructure in this system at around three billion
Hez. More than a tenth
of the Nakayama Inc. metallurgy output comes from our facilities in Terconia. And, after consulting with my overseers, it appears that the most they have seen of your fleet in the last two weeks is two Frigates passing by...let me see...ah yes, Refinery R08, in a survey of the asteroid cluster. Now, my question is this:"
Nakayama leaned back in his chair, his eyes shifting from Dyatlov to the Governor, who flinched slightly under the cold glare.
"Why have no measures been taken to defend these critical facilities? And why should Nakayama Inc. continue to invest in this system when the local administration and our military show no concern for us?"
"Sir, it would be impossible
to defend every asteroid facility and outpost in Terconia," Dyatlov protested, "My forces would have to be spread too thin. I am truly sorry, but the defense of the system
is my priority, not individual stations. In that context, it is simply not viable
"But you have already split your forces, Praetor, have you not?" Nakayama asked, his eyes fixed on the fidgeting Governor and not Dyatlov. "To cover other facilities? And it would be possible for forces from all over the system to converge at a single point if the enemy were to attack, would it not? Is this not your plan, anyway?"
"Sir, I have split my fleet into task forces
" Dyatlov replied, heatedly. "Squadrons with command ships
that can be managed at a strategic level and can operate as units
. You are proposing that I split my fleets to an unmanageable degree. And for what? Sir, a task force is barely sufficient to defend a facility from a concentrated attack for the time it would take for the rest of the fleet to converge at the site. A smaller force would simply be annihilated
before we could come to their aid. Or even before they could get out a distress signal
, for that matter."
"Your failings as a strategic commander do not concern me, Praetor," Nakayama said, coldly. "Nor does your ships' apparent suboptimal performance. What does
concern me, is the preservation of the Nakayama Inc. investments on this system. And if nothing is done to preserve them, I have no choice but to inform you, Your Excellency, that we will be discontinuing all further investments in this system. And, while I cannot directly speak for them, I do not
imagine that our patrons in the Hokke and Dragunov Branches will be...happy
to know of this clear failing in our civilian and
A few moment passed in heavy silence, as Dyatlov considered the imminent end of his career; and then the Governor turned to him, a drop of sweat making its way down his forehead.
"Praetor," Bao Zhai said, his voice only slightly
shaking. "Please see what you can do about Mr. Nakayama's request. Surely you can spare a few ships to guard...? A couple of capital ships, maybe?"
"Your Excellency, my capital ships are barely sufficient to cover the facilities I am currently defending," Dyatlov replied, his voice tired and his lack of sleep suddenly looming in the back of his mind like a dark wave. "Which of them would you like me to stop
defending? Perhaps the solar stations? Or maybe the Starbases under construction - I'm sure that French will not test their defenses before they're complete? Or perhaps this very station?"
"N-Nothing so drastic, Praetor," Bao Zhai said. "But we cannot
"May I propose something?" Lady Imube interjected, with a kind smile towards Dyatlov. "Praetor, perhaps you could spare some smaller ships? Set up a...a patrol, of sorts? A few Frigates, maybe a Destroyer or two?"
"My Lady, my escort ships are an incohesive mess
," Dyatlov answered, and damn with pretenses
. "The crews of half of them think they're flying Volyas
and will engage any enemy they see on sight, even if it gets them killed five seconds into the fight. The other
half last received training five years ago, or are composed of the most stereotypical, low-responsibility dullards
you will ever see. Which ones would you rather I deploy to defend Mr. Nakayama's facilities?"
Lady Imube raised her hand demurely to cover her smile; Nakayama bristled; and Bao Zhai coughed discreetly.
"Yes, well," he said. "Ahem
. That's all well and good. But Mr. Nakayama has a point and I think that Lady Imube's proposition has merit. Proceed, then, Praetor, if you please. I propose a small...'task force', was it? Yes, maybe twenty ships or so, all Frigates or Destroyers. Have them patrol the Nakayama facilities - and they can call in the fleet if they are attacked."
Dyatlov felt faint. "Sir, twenty ships?
In independent patrols? It would be impossible
to re-attach them in any fleet formation in case of a large engagement. That would, essentially, take out half of my escort screen.
," Bao Zhai said sternly, encouraged by Nakayama's smirk, "it needs to be done. We cannot allow it to be said that we have left the Emperor's subject's undefended. Mr. Nakayama, I assume you would be satisfied...?"
"Oh yes," Nakayama replied with a barely noticeable shrug, "quite. I must say, I have no particular confidence in the Praetor's skills, but I cannot fault the Terconia civilian authorities for what is clearly a failing on behalf of our military. I will inform my patrons and superiors of your kind assistance here, Your Excellency. Now, if you'll excuse me..."
He got off his chair, with a jerky movement; picked up his small compact briefcase; bowed elegantly to the Governor and Lady Imube; and made his way, with a slightly spastic, clockwork-figure-like walk to the exit. While passing next to Dyatlov, he gave the Praetor a small nod and moved on with no further acknowledgement, almost shoulder-checking Dyatlov who was standing there in dismal despair. Before he reached the door, however, it opened on its own; and a sharply-dressed valet walked in, almost immediately standing aside respectuously, to allow Nakayama to pass. After the door had closed, the valet coughed delicately and turned to Bao Zhai.
"My apologies, Your Excellency," he said, "But I have an urgent message for Praetor Dyatlov."
Dyatlov accepted the proffered holocrystal and slotted it into his dataslate as if in a dream; and he had to read the message three times before he could register its contents, his thoughts still fixed on how completely and utterly ruined
his career was. Once the urgency of the message made its way through the haze, however, he staggered backwards.
"Your Excellency," he croaked, "My Lady, I...I will need to take my leave."
"Praetor...?" Lady Imube asked, her voice filled with concern. "Are you feeling...?"
"They're here," Dyatlov mumbled, his mind already on Michiko's
has engaged the enemy. I must go.