Arc Champion Julius French was angry
, a simmering, stomach-wrenching rage
that rose up in pounding heartbeats and sat like a ton of lead on the back of his head. He had been vindicated, proven right; and yet he drew no satisfaction from it, for so many
good Britanian soldiers and sailors would have died by now, as a result of his rival's sheer stubbornness
But he gritted his teeth, forced his breathing down, willed his reddening face into a calm, confident expression and turned to his Nav Officer.
"Engage jump for squadrons Alpha and Bravo on my mark," he ordered. "Charlie and Delta move out at Mark plus twenty. Upon arrival, execute a wide area sweep and secure the jump zone; weapons are free and all forces are to fire immediately
on any enemy forces engaged with allied ships. Mark."
His tactical plot blossomed with blue signatures, as his cruiser squadrons and Attwood's battlegroup engaged their drives and smoothly slid into subspace. His chair vibrated softly as the Nelson's
drive began its own cycle and, once again, he forced himself to calm down - or at least act
like he had, for the benefit of his crew.
Inside, he screamed
. Every strategic and tactical instinct he had were strumming on his nerves and ringing warning bells inside his stomach. This was not
a good move. He was, essentially, jumping in blind: EW jamming had long since muted Exarch Aretha's transmissions. He could not
risk jumping in with anything less than his entire force, for he had no idea how thoroughly Dyatlov had thrashed Aretha and what was waiting for him on the other end. And he was confident that his fleet was more than a match for anything the Delest commander would have available by now. But in order to guarantee that - in order to make sure
that he was jumping into a fight he could not lose and not yet another
trap, he was forced to pull out his entire battle-line from the asteroid belts; put his own plan on ice until this crisis was resolved. He had lost the initiative: he was now responding
to a situation created by Dyatlov, rather than forcing the Delest to respond to his
he churlishly thought to himself, I am responding to a situation created by Exarch Aretha.
At this point, there were no good
options. He would simply have to choose what seemed to be the least bad one, and hope that he was right (and lucky enough to get away with it).Nelson's
subspace drive finally hummed its agreement and tore a hole through ether and reality. Twenty seconds later, where she had been, there was only empty space.
away, several astronomical units "above" the system's ecliptic, the sensor cruiser Orakul
was paying attention.
Her sensor arrays were fully deployed, in a brilliant tracery of glass and steel that extended for many hundreds of metres around her, like a massive spiderweb. Her escorts, the Frigates Drotik
and newly-repaired Strela
were floating dead-in-space, next to her, their own primary systems powered down and their waste heat being radiated away from them in tight, powerful infrared beams, focused directly away from Secundus. For all intents and purposes and to any outside observer they were dead rocks in space, but they were standing by to defend their ward, in case any adventurous CRF Far Patrol got lucky.
So far, none had. Ter-Iio Akiyama had had an unrivalled and unchallenged view of the events unfolding in the system, tracing the tunneling of the CRF and Delest ships. She had seen Aretha's forces deploy to the shipyards; the fleets of Dyatlov, converging to intercept. Her plots had shown her the angry red smudge that could only have been an inhibitor field going up. She had seen French's ships pull out from the asteroid fields, one by one, counted them carefully, tracked their movements. She had listened to the subspace conversations between the Delest ships, had followed the fight to its bitter conclusion.
And now, her sensors picked up French's task forces, as they departed their rendezvous point and tunneled straight for the shipyards.
Ter-Iio Akiyama had her orders for this contingency, and proceeded to execute them with gusto. First, a subspace tightbeam transmission was sent to Dyatlov's forces, warning them of the incoming threat. They would have less than fifteen minutes to prepare for the attack and every moment was precious. Then - other messages, encrypted to the highest possible degree, with codewords and secret orders were sent out to the light forces that had escaped the asteroid facilities and had by now converged on Hōseki. After that, a final transmission: a broadband link to the fortress moon of Paru, to establish a handshake with the massive planetary computers which sat there, waiting, for exactly this time.
And then, Orakul
, her work just beginning, sat still and watched
, taking in everything she could, her mechanical eyes and ears straining against the dark. And her crew, bent over their plots, toiled for precision
, on which, now, everything rested.
dropped out of the angry, angry
sea of subspace with the gut-wrenching deceleration that made it absolutely clear to French that he was jumping into (or very near) an active inhibitor field. That was expected - Exarch Aretha had informed him in no uncertain terms that the Delest had been most insistent in denying her the option of retreating. He was keenly aware that this might still be a trap - apparently, the Delest forces were still present and had not elected to retreat. His eyes focused on his holotank display, eager to see what he could glean on the status of the Peg-
"My God - BRACE!"
The holotank updated a fraction of a second before the cry of his helmsman, too late for French to take measure of what was going on; and then Nelson's
bow dipped down
and to port
, in a manoeuver that nearly overloaded her artigrav systems and made French's stomach do backflips. Something big
collided with the starboard dorsal shields in a flash of plasma; what was left of it corkscrewed away into the darkness of space, but not before the outer optical sensors could snap a couple of pictures.
It had been part of a ship's hull - and, after realising that
, it took French only a few seconds to recognise the starboard aft fin and engine thruster of a Lord
His bridge crew were equally, if not more observant; and instead of the muttered oaths that any such manoeuver would normally ellicit, there was only appalled silence on the bridge of the Nelson
as the holotank fully revealed what the situation was like.
They had emerged at the outer limits of an inhibitor field - and a debris
field, which formed a trail of broken ships, slagged metal and clouds of vented gas, all the way back to the shipyards in the distance. There were shattered Delest hulls, floating dead in vacuum, but there was also so much
debris around that could only have come from the destruction of Pegasus ships, to a degree that froze French's blood. This spoke of a desperate, no-holds-barred fight from both sides. These were not the remains of an ordered line battle - this had been a brawl
unlike anything the CRF had experienced in living memory.
And it was clear that the victory, hard-earned though it may have been, had favoured the Delest. The shipyards still stood, untouched, in the distance. The starbases, which French knew could still prove to be massive assets for the Delest, were still in one piece, almost mocking him from their scaffolding cocoons. And - horror of horrors and humiliation of humiliations - sensors could now pick up two Lord
-class hulls (or hulks
), tentatively identified as HMS Avalon
and HMS Temeraire
, being towed towards the shipyards by four Delest cruisers, their own cores dead.
Whatever had happened here, it had been a disaster
for the Pegasus forces. But
- French realised - the Delest had suffered considerably,
indeed. He could not know for sure how many of the Delest forces had been present here, but, judging from the debris, it must have been the majority of their in-theatre fleet. And now, sensors picked up only six of their carriers, the four cruisers and what seemed to be two older vessels. Against his own forces, and with the starbases' weaponry clearly offline, he could still win an easy victory here.
He still hesitated. Breaking the Delest here would mean that they would realise, beyond any doubt, that the system was lost. And if he forced them to that conclusion, it would be impossible to prevent them from scorching most (if not all) parts of the system infrastructure to the ground before he could secure them, as they had tried to do with the asteroid facilities. Arc Victoria - neck-deep in debt to the Guilds and with her own economy foundering - needed
this infrastructure desperately, more than they needed a military victory.
It was crazy, French thought. He had the enemy fleet within his reach. He could reach out and crush them. He could demand their surrender. It would be insultingly
But, still, the safe
way - his
way would have him turn around right now,
to truly secure the facilities he had been forced to abandon.God help me,
French thought, but can I justify doing anything but leaving?
He looked around his bridge, taking in the pale, angry faces of his officers - and realisation struck like a hammer to the gut.I can't leave I can't justify doing
anything but attack them.
The Pegasus force - and through it New Britannia - had been handed a resounding defeat here. French had arrived late
but was present with his entire force, here and now, against a clearly
inferior opponent. He could even see captured Brittanian ships
being towed away to dishonourable service, under the colours of the enemy.
If he did anything
but order an attack and carry the day, there was no saving him - neither from the stigma of the coward, nor from the ridicule of his peers, nor from being forever remembered as the man who allowed the loss of Britannian lives to go unavenged. He would certainly lose the respect of his subordinates, almost certainly be relieved of command; and the campaign would be left to the hands of somebody else
- someone less experienced and much more likely to cock things up.
He felt his blood pressure rise, felt the rushing of the blood in his veins and his frustration mount. And, not for the last time in his life, he bitterly cursed the name and memory of Exarch Aretha Pegasus who, even in death, led him into situations where there was no right response.
"Form-" he ordered, his voice even but his throat parched and his muscles aching, "Form line of battle to port. Close the range to the enemy fleet. May God save the souls of our brethren and may we avenge them before the day is over."
"There he is," Arurior Sebrenova said, rigidly, her eyes fixed on Michiko's
holodisplay. "Perfect, as always. God help us."
Dyatlov agreed. They would need a certain degree of divine help, at this point. So many things could go wrong. Would French act and react as they had anticipated him to? If not, there was little hope that any of them would survive the day.
"It will work," he said, hoping that his voice sounded more confident than he felt. "And if it doesn't - well, it won't matter to us, much."
They stood, in silence, as the seconds ticked past and the CRF behemoths navigated to avoid the debris field. And then, they saw the unmistakeable turn that heralded battle deployment for a CRF fleet. Dreadnoughts swung to the side in ponderous precision. Like everything else in French's fleet, it had been exhaustively rehearsed and was now exquisitely performed; it took less than two minutes for the CRF forces to change their formation from four separate battlegroups to an almost perfect battle-line, right at the limit of the Delest inhibitor field and closing. French was, in no uncertain terms, offering battle and they did not have the luxury to avoid it.
"There it is, then," Dyatlov sighed. "We are both committed, now. Comms, signal to fleet: form battle-line on the Michiko
. Confirm link-up with Orakul
Dyatlov took a deep breath and, for the first time since the beginning of the battle, stepped back into his commander's chair.
"...and record a message for the Nelson
. Message as follows:
"CRF command, this is Praetor Ishiro Dyatlov, of the Delest 10th Home Fleet. We wish to discuss the terms of our surrender."