Vice Admiral Pastolle, commander of the Alliance Navy’s Fourth Fleet, was flummoxed when he heard the report: “Imperial warships closing rapidly!”
The entire display screen of fleet flagship Leonidas was being covered in points of light as they swarmed into being, their luminosity climbing by the moment as they swelled ever larger. It was a sight filled with menace—the hearts of all who saw it were set racing, and their mouths went dry.
The vice admiral sat up straight in his command chair. “What’s going on here?” he growled in a low voice. “What do the imperials think they’re doing? Why would they—?”
Some of those present thought it was a ridiculous question, though they numbered just a few. The imperial force intended to bring its full power to bear on the Fourth Fleet—that much should have been obvious. But the alliance leadership had never imagined such a daring assault being launched by an enemy being hemmed in on three sides.
Caught in an enclosure formation, facing a more numerous enemy, the imperial fleet would yield to its defensive instincts, they’d reasoned, contracting their battle lines and concentrating their force into a tight formation. Against this, the alliance forces could then pour in from three sides at uniform velocity, surround them like a finely woven net, and concentrate their firepower to slowly—but most assuredly—shear away their capacity for resistance.
That was how the Dagon Annihilation had been fought 156 years ago, and praises were sung to this day of the two great generals who had emerged victorious then. This enemy, however, had not acted at all in accordance with the alliance military’s calculations.
“What in blazes is this? Has their commander even studied tactics? Who would fight a battle like this?” Foolish words came streaming from the vice admiral’s mouth. He stood up from his command seat and wiped sweat from his brow with the back of his hand. A steady temperature of 16.5 degrees was maintained throughout the ship; he shouldn’t have been breaking out in a sweat …
“Commander, what do we do?”
The voice of the staff officer calling him was shrill and lacking proper reserve. The tone grated on the vice admiral’s nerves. Hadn’t his staff officers been the ones insisting that the three-way advance was the unbeatable tactic? It only followed that contingency planning was their responsibility as well. What did they mean, ‘What do we do?’! Still, this was neither the time nor place to be losing his temper.
The fleet of imperial warships numbered twenty thousand, and the alliance’s Fourth Fleet only twelve thousand. The alliance’s plans had been utterly derailed. They were supposed to surround and attack an enemy force of twenty thousand ships with three fleets totaling forty thousand—but now the Fourth Fleet was going to have to fight alone against an overwhelmingly larger force.
“Emergency messages to Second and Sixth Fleets: ‘Engaging enemy in sector α7.4, β3.9, γ minus 0.6. Requesting immediate support.’ ”
The vice admiral gave the order, but Lieutenant Commander Nann, communications chief of the flagship Leonidas, responded with desperate actions and an expression to match. Jamming signals from the imperial fleet were eating into the alliance fleet’s comm network voraciously. Floating in the void of outer space, tens of thousands of electromagnetic jamming bouys, deployed on Reinhard’s orders, were hard at work.
“In that case, send out courier launches! Two of them to each fleet!” As he shouted those words, a flash of light from the display screen turned the vice admiral’s face white for an instant. The enemy attack had begun, their neutron-beam cannons firing synchronized volleys. Their vast outputs of energy and the accompanying bursts of light were such that it seemed the fundi of the soldiers’ eyes might be scorched.
Flashes of sparkling, rainbow-colored brilliance—the sparks that flew in those instants when enemy beams struck energy-neutralization fields—erupted throughout the alliance’s fleet. Low-energy particles collided at terrific speeds, annihilating one another in a cannibalistic phenomenon.
Arms waving wildly, the vice admiral shouted, “Vanguard formation, return fire! All ships, get ready for all-out war!”
Vice Admiral Pastolle’s order had not been intercepted, but on the bridge of the imperial fleet’s flagship Brünhild, ripples of cold contempt danced in Reinhard’s ice-blue eyes as he said to no one, “Your responses are slow, you incompetent fool!”
“Launch fighters! We’re switching to close-quarters combat!” ordered Rear Admiral Fahrenheit. A keen vitality shone in his face and resonated in his voice, born of the exultation of battle, coupled with a confidence that came of seizing the initiative. Even if the “golden brat” ends up taking the credit, the important thing is still to win!
The single-seater, cross-winged fighter ships known as walküren launched from their giant carriers one after another. In the instant when they cut loose from their carriers, they had—due to momentum—already reached speeds exceeding those of the carriers; neither catapult nor runway was needed. The walküren were small craft, and so their firepower was not as great, but they excelled in maneuverability and were extremely effective in a dogfight.
The alliance also had single-seat fighters corresponding to walküren; these were known as spartanians.
Flashes of exploding fusion furnaces ripped across every quarter, and maelstroms of unleashed energies shook the ships of both sides in chaotic swells. New clusters of energy beams lashed across the battlespace, and dodging between them the walküren soared, four-winged angels of death clad in glistening silver. The alliance’s spartanians did not trail the walküren in fighting ability, but a terrible disadvantage dominated all beyond their nose cones, and they found beams awaiting them the moment they separated from their carriers, aiming to destroy both fighter and pilot together.
One hour after the start of the battle, the Fourth Fleet’s vanguard had been almost entirely destroyed by the withering onslaught of the Imperial Navy squadron under Fahrenheit’s command.
Of the 2,600 vessels composing the vanguard, not even 20 percent were still participating in combat. Some ships had been vaporized by fusion-furnace explosions, others had avoided exploding but had been too severely damaged to continue fighting, and others still had light structural damage but now drifted uselessly through space, having lost most of their crew. In this dreadful condition, the front line’s collapse seemed not a half step away.
In the case of the battleship Nestor, the damage was limited to a single spot on the vessel’s underbelly, but the neutron warhead that had penetrated there had exploded inside, unleashing a great swell of raging, killing particles that had swept through the entire ship, in an instant turning Nestor into a coffin for 660 officers and soldiers.
For this reason, crewless Nestor continued to follow the final course input by its astrogator, and as it hurtled along on invisible rails of inertia, it grazed the nose of its confederate, Lemnos, just as Lemnos’s main front cannons were unleashing a volley of fire at an enemy ship. Nestor intercepted the photon-cannon volley at point-blank range and exploded soundlessly an instant later, the energy of the exploding fusion furnace ripping through its neutralization field and hitting Lemnos head-on.
There were two flashes of white light, one following the other like twins being born, and by the time they had faded, not even a fragment of inorganic matter remained. The crew of Lemnos had destroyed an allied vessel and received death as their recompense.
“What are you people doing?!”
That cry was Vice Admiral Pastolle’s.
But the one who disdainfully murmured, “What are you people doing?” was Rear Admiral Fahrenheit.
Both had been looking on at that scene through the screens of their respective flagships. In the words of one was a cry of hopelessness and panic; the words of the other mocked, with all the confidence that comes of a comfortable margin. The difference in those two voices was at the same time the difference between the circumstances of their respective forces.
At that moment, the Second and Sixth Fleets of the Alliance were reeling from shock, having only just learned of the sudden change of circumstances. Even so, they had not decided to veer from the original plan and were still advancing toward the battlefield at the same velocity as before.
Vice Admiral Paetta, commander of the Second Fleet, was sitting in the command chair of the flagship Patroklos, jiggling one knee outside the crew’s line of sight. Irritation and impatience kept it rocking nonstop. The fleet commander’s psychological state was reflected in his subordinates, and the air on the bridge felt charged with electricity.
Amid all that, the vice admiral noticed one man, and one man only, who didn’t look especially bothered. After the slightest of hesitations, he called out his name: “Commodore Yang!”
“How do things look to you? Your opinion, please.”
Yang, having risen from his station chair, removed his beret again and lightly scratched through his black hair with one hand. “The enemy is probably trying to destroy our forces individually before we can rendezvous. Since the Fourth Fleet is numerically smallest, it’s only natural they’d try to get rid of them first. The ball’s in their court as far as which target is most pressing, and they’re making the most of the initiative.”
“Do you think the Fourth Fleet can hold out?”
“Both forces have clashed head-on. Which means the advantage lies with the side outnumbering its opponent, and moreover, with the side that strikes the initial blow.”
Yang’s expression and tone of voice seemed indifferent. As Vice Admiral Paetta observed him, he kept opening his fist and then squeezing it shut, trying to exorcise his annoyance.
“In any case, we need to get to the battlefield ASAP to reinforce the Fourth Fleet. With any luck, we should be able to strike the enemy from behind. If we do that, we can turn the tide in one fell swoop.”
“That probably won’t work, sir.”
Yang sounded unconcerned as ever, which almost made Paetta let his words pass by unacknowledged. The vice admiral had started to turn his head back toward the screen, but he stopped and looked again at the young staff officer.
“What makes you say so?”
“The fighting will already be over by the time we get there. The enemy will leave the battlefield, and before the Second and Sixth Fleets can rendezvous, they’ll circle around to the rear of one or the other and launch an attack there. Since the Sixth Fleet is the smaller of the two, it’s almost certain they’ll be the ones targeted. The empire’s taken the initiative, and at present they’ve still got it. I don’t think we need to keep doing what they expect any further.”
“Well then, what do you propose?”
“That we change tactics. Instead of rendezvousing with the Sixth Fleet in that battlespace, we go rendezvous with them now—without a moment to spare—and prepare a new battlespace in that sector. If we combine the fleets, we’ll have twenty-eight thousand vessels, and after that we can challenge them with better than fifty-fifty odds of victory.”
“… Meaning, you want me to just look the other way as the Fourth Fleet is massacred?”
A note of deliberate reproach was apparent in the vice admiral’s tone. That is one cold-blooded thing to say, he was thinking.
“Even if we left right now, we wouldn’t get there in time.”
Yang’s tone was curt, whether he knew what was going on in the vice admiral’s head or not.
“But I won’t abandon a friendly force.”
At the vice admiral’s words, Yang shrugged his shoulders lightly. “Then ultimately, their tactic of attacking each group separately will make easy prey of all three fleets.”
“Not necessarily. The Fourth Fleet won’t go down without a good fight. If they can keep holding out …”
“I just told you it was hopeless, but—”
“Commodore Yang, reality is made up of more than just cold-blooded calculation. The enemy commander is Count von Lohengramm. He’s young and inexperienced. But Vice Admiral Pastolle is a seasoned warrior forged in countless battles. Compared to that—”
“Commander, he’s inexperienced as you say, but his tactical planning—”
“Enough, Commodore.” The vice admiral cut him off, displeased. He couldn’t hold back his disgust for this young staff officer who just wouldn’t give him the answer he wanted.
The vice admiral motioned for Yang to sit back down and turned his head back toward the screen.
Four hours had passed since the start of battle. By this point, the Fourth Fleet of the Alliance Navy could hardly be called a fleet at all. There was no tidy, well-organized battle formation. No unified chain of command. It was nothing more than scattered pockets of desperate resistance: isolated, cut off, single ships in every quarter waging a losing battle.
The flagship Leonidas was now a colossal hunk of metal wandering in the void. Within, there was nothing left that lived. The body of Commander Pastolle had been sucked out into the vacuum by the air-pressure differential in the instant that concentrated enemy fire had opened up a large crack in the bridge’s hull. What condition his corpse was in and where in space it was drifting, nobody knew.
Meanwhile, Reinhard knew by this point that he had just secured a complete victory. The report came in from Merkatz by way of his comm screen.
“Organized resistance has ended. From this point forward we’re to switch over to mop-up operations, but …”
“Sir?” Merkatz’s narrow eyes narrowed further.
“The battle’s only one-third finished. You can leave the remnants be—we need to save our strength for the next battle. Further instructions will follow. Until then, get our formations reorganized.”
“As you wish—Your Excellency.”
With a solemn bow of his head, Merkatz’s image vanished from the comm screen.
Reinhard looked back at his redheaded chief adjutant.
“Even he’s changed his attitude just a little.”
“Yes, he must have little choice.”
This is a great first-round victory, Kircheis thought. Even the admiralty will have to admit Reinhard’s tactical plan worked well. The soldiers will take heart, and the enemy will be stunned when they see their unbeatable formation destroyed.
“Which fleet do you think we should attack next, Kircheis? The one to starboard or to port?”
“It’s possible to circle around to the aft of either, but surely you’ve made up your mind already?
“Their Sixth Fleet, positioned to starboard, must have the weaker force strength, correct?”
“Exactly.” A satisfied smile appeared around the mouth of the young, blond-haired commander.
“The enemy may be expecting that. That’s the one slight concern that I have, but …”
Reinhard shook his head. “There’s no danger of that. If they do guess what we’re doing, they won’t continue with a battle plan that uses divided forces. They’ll try to rendezvous as early as they possibly can. After all, together they still outnumber us vastly. That they aren’t doing so is proof they don’t understand our fleet’s intent. We’ll circle around to the Sixth Fleet’s aft starboard flank and attack them there. How many hours will we need?”
“Less than four.”
“Look at you, you’d worked it out already.” Reinhard smiled again. When he smiled, his face was like a boy’s. But what wiped that smile from his face in a heartbeat was the realization that several sets of eyes were looking intently his way. Reinhard would not show his smile easily to anyone but Kircheis.
“Relay that to the whole fleet. Gradually shift our course clockwise as we proceed, and attack the enemy’s Sixth Fleet on its aft starboard flank.”
“As you wish,” Kircheis replied, but he was looking at his blond-haired senior officer as though he still had something to say.
Reinhard drew his brows together in suspicion and returned the stare. “You have some objection?”
“It isn’t that. I was just wondering if we might let the men have a break since we now have some time to spare.”
“Oh, that’s right. I hadn’t realized.”
Reinhard issued orders that the soldiers be given breaks of an hour and a half each, to be taken in two shifts. During that time, they were to eat and rest up in their tank beds.
A tank bed was essentially a large aquarium made of light plastic and filled to thirty centimeters’ depth with strongly salinated water, the temperature maintained at a constant 32 degrees centigrade. Anyone who lay floating in its interior would enjoy a state of perfect peace and quiet, isolated from all color, lighting and heating, sound, and other external stimuli. Spending one hour in the tank was said to have the same effect on one’s mind and body as eight hours of sound sleep. There was nothing like it for quickly restoring soldiers worn down in body and spirit by combat.
In small squads where tank bed facilities were lacking, stimulants were sometimes used, but oftentimes these were not just dangerous to the body, they had a bad effect on the military organization itself. Drug-addicted soldiers had absolutely no value as a human resource, so accordingly, this measure was taken only in the worst of circumstances.
The wounded were also being treated. It had been widely known since the late 1900s on the AD calendar that electrons could stimulate the body’s cells, increasing their natural healing abilities by leaps. Add to that the development of cyborg technology, and an age had arrived in which 90 percent of wounded soldiers who managed to see a military doctor could be saved. Though of course it was possible to be driven to a state wherein death would be better …
In any case, the crews of the Imperial Navy vessels were visited by a temporary period of peace and tranquility. Cheerful bustle swirled through the mess halls of every vessel. Though alcohol was forbidden, the crew members were in thrall of a drunkenness born of battle and victory, and the food tasted better to them than it actually was. “Even our young commander’s actually pretty good, don’t you think?” whispered some back and forth. “I was thinking he was just here as a decoration, with nothing going for him but his looks, but he’s really quite the tactician. Maybe even the best since Admiral Wood in the old days …”
The question of why, and for whom, they and their unseen, unknown enemies were killing one another was nowhere to be heard among the soldiers at that time. They were simply and honestly rejoicing in their survival and their victory. But within the next few hours, a portion of these survivors would be added to the ranks of the newly dead.
“Vessel’s shadow sighted at 4:30. Identification impossible.”
When the report was received from a destroyer in the rear guard, Vice Admiral Moore, commanding officer of the Alliance Navy’s Sixth Fleet, was in the middle of a meal with his staff officers. Knife hovering over his gluten cutlet, the vice admiral scowled at the officer who had delivered the message. Riveted by a gaze sharper than the knife, the officer felt frightened. Vice Admiral Moore was widely known to be a fair-minded but coarse man.
“At 4:30, you say?”
The vice admiral’s voice was a match for his gaze.
“Y-yes, sir. At 4:30. We can’t tell yet if it’s friendly or not.”
“Oh? Well, which 4:30 are we talking about? Morning or afternoon?”
Caustic remarks notwithstanding, Moore broke off his meal and stepped out of the officers’ mess. Looking back at his alarmed staff officers, his burly shoulders quivered as he laughed.
“Will you look at these deer-in-the-headlight faces! The enemy’s in the same direction we’re headed—they can’t rightly be at 0430, now can they?”
The vice admiral continued to speak in a loud voice. “We’re rushing toward the battlefield. The Second Fleet’s no doubt taking the same action. That being the case, we can hit the enemy from behind from both starboard and port. We have a very good chance of winning—no, in fact, we will definitely win. From the perspective of numbers, from the perspective of formation …”
The man interrupting the vice admiral’s foray into eloquence was one of the staff officers, Lieutenant Commander Lappe. He was wiping grease from his mouth with a handkerchief.
“What if the enemy’s moved the battlespace? Such a thing is certainly not outside the realm of—”
“You want to abandon the Fourth Fleet?”
“This is difficult to say, sir, but the junior officers are projecting that the Fourth Fleet has been defeated already.”
The vice admiral’s excessively lush eyebrows drew together. “That’s a bold and most disagreeable projection, isn’t it, Commander? All that grease seems to have your mouth running like a well-oiled machine.”
Embarrassed, Lieutenant Commander Lappe put away his handkerchief.
By that time, they had ridden the intraship beltway as far as the bridge, when unexpectedly the gravitational-control system lagged for a moment, and they both nearly stumbled. It had been forced by an acute change of course, though a measuring device was registering directional energy sufficient to destroy the ship just beyond the hull.
“Enemy attacking aft starboard flank!”
The comm channels of the Sixth Fleet erupted in surprised cries, which were immediately erased by static.
Officers shuddered, for the confused transmissions themselves testified eloquently to the fact that the enemy was positioned very near.
“Don’t lose your heads, people!”
Vice Admiral Moore’s pep talk was half directed at himself. His regrets slapped him hard across his thick jowl.
The fleet’s cutting-edge warships were not deployed in the rear guard. There was no way the older vessels there could withstand an assault from behind.
The imperial force is behind us! Did that mean the Fourth Fleet was destroyed? Or had the empire readied a large, separate force?
“Intercept and open fire.”
As confusion welled up in his heart, the vice admiral issued a bare minimum of orders, not yet able to resolve his confusion.
Merkatz was no longer looking at Reinhard as merely that “blond porcelain doll.” That initial victory had been no fluke. It was the proper result of a bold change in thinking, based on keen insight and careful decision making. Allowing one’s forces to be attacked from three directions, just to launch separate attacks on a divided force before it could close the net.
There was no way he could have done that. His comrades in arms from the old days were the same. This was only possible for a young man, one not yet shackled by convention.
The era of old soldiers like us may have passed on already. Unwittingly, he had actually thought such a thing.
Even during his moment of reflection, the battle was growing more fierce.
The imperial force drilled into the ranks of the alliance like an auger, steadily gaining the upper hand both in exchanges of cannon fire and in close combat. It looked like the whole force was riding high, making the most of the advantage that came with drawing first blood. The alliance force was launching a desperate counterattack, but with the commanders unable to recover from their confusion, there was little hope for much of a rally.
Vice Admiral Moore, standing frozen like a temple sculpture in the midst of the bridge floor, shouted, “All ships, come about!” At last he had made up his mind. Up until then, he had only been saying, ‘What’s going on?’ over and over.
“Commander! Even if we turn around, we’ll cause nothing but confusion. I think we should proceed full speed ahead while executing a clockwise change of course—plow into the enemy from behind.”
Lieutenant Commander Lappe’s suggestion collided with the vice admiral’s burly frame and bounced off meaninglessly.
“By the time we hit the enemy’s back side, most of our ships would be destroyed. Turn and fire.”
Vice Admiral Moore gave an angry shout that made his whole body quiver, and the lieutenant commander closed his mouth, understanding clearly that his commanding officer had lost his head.
When the giant hulk of Pergamum, flagship of the Sixth Fleet, began to come about, the other vessels following behind it did likewise. But it was not an easy maneuver to accomplish while under fire. The seasoned Merkatz leapt on his enemy’s confusion right away.
The beam cannons of the imperial force struck hard with cascades of glowing beams that streaked across the sky like meteor showers. In every quarter, energy-neutralizing force fields overloaded and collapsed, and the alliance’s vessels were destroyed.
The surging billows of energy already seen in the previous battlespace were beginning to form again in this one, and Vice Admiral Moore and Lieutenant Commander Lappe alike had the feeling that only the ships of the alliance were being tossed by them.
“Multiple small vessels closing rapidly on Pergamum,” an operator shouted. One of the screens was showing a large swarm of walküren, and in no time at all they occupied the screens of numerous consoles. Nimbly demonstrating their maneuverability, they came in firing beams at point-blank range.
“It’s gonna be a dogfight. Launch the spartanians.”
This order as well came too late and cost them dearly. The walküren had been waiting for the instant when the spartanians would separate from their carriers. When a flood of glowing beams burst mercilessly forth, the alliance’s fighter craft blew apart in balls of fire, deprived even of the right to die in battle.
“Commander, look at that!” An operator was pointing at one of the screens. An imperial battleship was closing in on them. And behind it, and behind what was behind it, one overlapping with the next, could be seen the shadows of more vessels. The bridge was suffused by an oppressive air of menace.
Pergamum was now surrounded by multiple rings of ships.
“They’re sending a flash signal,” the operator reported in a near whisper.
“See if you can decode it.” Vice Admiral Moore was silent; the prompting came from Lieutenant Commander Lappe. Even his voice was low and dry.
“Decoding … ‘You are completely surrounded and without any means of escape. Surrender, and I promise to treat you graciously.’ ”
The decoded message repeated once and then ended, and countless stares and countless silences stabbed into the massive frame of Vice Admiral Moore. Every one of them was urging a decision from the fleet commander.
“ ‘Surrender,’ he says …” The vice admiral’s face turned a dark red as he growled out his answer. “Forget it! I may be a washout, but I won’t be a coward.”
Twenty seconds later, a white flash enveloped him.
The accumulated store of unease was just about to reach saturation point.
An invisible thunderhead seemed to hang over the bridge of Patroklos, flagship of the Alliance Navy’s Second Fleet. When would a blistering discharge come arcing down from it? As orders to assume a stage-one battle formation were issued, all crew were changing into space suits. Still, the unease was passing right through their suits, making them break out in gooseflesh.
“The Fourth and Sixth Fleets have apparently been destroyed.”
“We’re all alone out here. And by now the enemy’s force is larger than ours.”
“I want information. What’s going on? What’s the present situation?”
Speaking out of turn was prohibited, but if they didn’t say something, the unease would be unbearable. This wasn’t in the plan. Weren’t they going to catch an enemy half their size in a three-way pinch, wipe them out, and raise a song of victory … ?
Suddenly, an operator’s voice rang out across the bridge from his microphone. “Enemy fleet closing.”
“From either one or two o’clock …” Yang murmured. Though he spoke only to himself, the following report came as if in answer:
“Bearing 0110, elevation minus eleven degrees, closing at high speed.”
Yang did not respond to the tension that then gripped the bridge of the flagship Patroklos in its talons.
This was all as he’d anticipated. The imperial force had struck the alliance Sixth Fleet on its aft starboard flank and bored right on through to emerge from the fore on its port side, tracing a natural curve as it now turned its spearhead toward its last remaining enemy, the Second Fleet. With the Second Fleet advancing straight ahead, it only followed that the imperial fleet should appear from somewhere between one and two o’clock.
“Battle stations!” ordered Vice Admiral Paetta, and Yang thought, You’re too slow.
To wait for the enemy to come to you and then fight back was the orthodox tactic, but in this case, it was impossible to ignore the fact that Paetta’s thoughts were locking up. Measures that needed to be taken also needed proper timing to work. With rapid maneuvers, it wouldn’t have been impossible to hit the enemy force from behind and then coordinate with the Sixth Fleet to catch them in a pincer movement.
In battle, it was impossible to sacrifice no one. Yet at the same time, the effect of victory was lessened in inverse proportion to mounting losses. It was in finding the point that made both propositions compatible that tactics as a discipline found its raison d’être. In other words, it meant getting the maximum effect for the minimum losses, or to put it more coldly, finding the most efficient way to murder your comrades. Yang wondered doubtfully whether his commander understood that.
It was too late to do anything for those sacrificed already. And from the start, this wasn’t something that could be swept under the rug by saying, “It couldn’t be helped.” The military leadership should be hanging their heads in shame for their poor tactical leadership. But that would come later, after all was said and done—what they had to think about now was how to prevent an expansive reproduction of their mistake and how to come up with some way of turning a disaster into a blessing.
If regrets could bring back slain officers and soldiers, the brass should be shedding tears by the kiloliter. But ultimately, they would be doing nothing more than playing at sorrow, wouldn’t they?
“All ships, open fire!”
Whether that order came before or after, no one could tell. A flash of light strong enough to make people think their retinas had been fried stole the vision of all who were on the bridge.
With a lag of half an instant, Patroklos’ body was jostled by an explosive burst of energy, then tossed and turned in every direction.
Noises of things falling over and objects colliding overlapped with screams and shouts of anger. Not even Yang was able to avoid falling down. He took a hard blow to the back and had the wind knocked out of him. As his helmet communicator picked up a chaotic jumble of noises and voices and a fierce flow of air from the surrounding area, Yang straightened out his breathing and covered his sightless eyes with the palms of his hands—protecting them, albeit after the fact.
And who needed a dressing-down over that one? Failing to adjust the screens’ photoflux capacity was not an easy blunder to forgive. If this kind of thing kept happening, it would be a wonder if they didn’t lose.
“… this is aft turret! Bridge, please respond. Awaiting orders!”
“—engine room. This is the engine room. Bridge, respond please …”
At last Yang opened his eyes. An emerald fog hung over his whole field of vision.
He sat up and noticed the person lying next to him. A thick and sticky, deeply hued fluid covered everything from his mouth down to his chest.
“Commander,” Yang said in a low voice, staring closely at the vice admiral’s face. He planted both his legs firmly and got to his feet.
A fissure now ran through one section of bulkhead, and the air pressure was dropping rapidly. It looked like a few who hadn’t had their magnetic boots switched on had been sucked out. The opening, however, was being rapidly sealed by a vaporized bonding agent blown against it from the self-repair system’s operations gun.
Yang looked around the bridge. This was a mess; hardly anyone was still standing. After confirming that his helmet communicator still worked, Yang started giving out instructions.
“Commander Paetta is injured. Would a navy surgeon and paramedics come to the bridge, please. Operations officers, find out how badly we’re damaged and begin repairs—you can report in later. Please hurry. Aft turrets, all ships are already in combat, so you shouldn’t need any particular instructions—perform your assigned duties. Engine room: did you say something?”
“I was worried about things on the bridge, sir. No damage here.”
“Well, thank goodness for that.” There was a note of sarcasm in his voice. “The bridge is operational, as you can hear. Now I want you to calm down and focus on your duties.”
He took another look around the bridge.
“Is there an officer here who isn’t injured?”
One man stepped forward with a slightly perilous gait. “I’m all right, Commodore.”
“You are, um …”
“Lieutenant Commander Lao, of the staff officer team.” The small-eyed, small-nosed face peeking out of the space suit’s helmet looked about the same age as Yang. In addition, two astrogators and one operator raised their hands and stood, but that was all.
Yang slapped his helmet over where his cheek was. The Second Fleet’s leadership had been essentially wiped out.
A naval surgeon came running in with a team of paramedics. Quickly and efficiently, they checked out Vice Admiral Paetta and told Yang that a broken rib had punctured his lung when his chest slammed into the corner of a control panel.
“He’s had some pretty bad luck,” the doctor opined unnecessarily. On the other hand, one couldn’t deny that Yang’s luck had been good.
“Commodore Yang …” Vice Admiral Paetta called his young staff officer, assailed by torments both physical and mental. “You take command of the fleet …”
“You’re the highest-ranked officer who’s still in one piece. Show me … what you’ve got as a tactician …” The vice admiral stopped speaking suddenly—he had lost consciousness. The navy doctor called a robot car that served as an ambulance.
“He thinks highly of you, doesn’t he?” said Lieutenant Commander Lao, impressed.
“Does he? I wonder.”
Lieutenant Commander Lao, unaware of the clashes of opinion between the vice admiral and Yang, gave a doubtful glance at that answer. Yang walked over to the comm board and flipped on the switch for external communication. It seemed the machines were built more sturdily than the people.
“Attention, all ships. This is Fleet Commander Paetta’s next-in-command, staff officer Commodore Yang.”
Yang’s voice raced through the empty spaces, piercing the void.
“The flagship Patroklos has taken a hit, and Commander Paetta is seriously injured. On his order, I’m taking over command of the fleet.”
Here he paused for the space of a single breath, giving his comrades the time they needed to recover from the shock.
“Don’t worry. If you follow my orders, you’ll be all right. If you want to get back home alive, I need you to remain calm and do as I say. At the present moment, our side is losing, but the only thing that matters is to be winning in the last moment.”
Hoo-boy, even I’m talking awfully big. Yang was smiling wryly, but only on the inside; he didn’t let it come to the surface. In the position of commander, you had to puff out your chest even when you felt like hanging your head.
“We’re not going to lose. All ships: concentrate on destroying your targets one by one until I send further instructions. Over.”
That transmission was being monitored by the imperial forces as well. On the bridge of the flagship Brünhild, Reinhard raised his finely shaped eyebrows slightly. “You’re not going to lose? If they follow your orders, they’ll be all right? It seems the rebel forces have people who can spout a lot of bluster, too.” A cold glint like that of a shard of ice sheltered in his eyes. “At this point, how do you intend to make up for your weaker force? … Hmm, never mind. Let’s just go with ‘Show me what you’ve got.’ Kircheis!”
“Regroup our ranks. Tell all ships to assume spindle formation. You understand why?”
“You intend a frontal breakthrough?”
“Correct, as I’ve come to expect from you.”
Through Kircheis, Reinhard’s order was transmitted to every vessel in the imperial force.
But for his helmet, Yang would have taken off his beret to scratch through his black hair at that moment. When there was little difference in force strength, the most effective tactic for the attacking side was either the frontal breakthrough or the partial encirclement. He’d been guessing they would choose the more aggressive of the two, and it looked like he’d managed to hit the nail on the head.
“Lieutenant Commander Lao.”
“Yes, Acting Commander, sir.”
“The enemy’s assuming a spindle formation. They’re going to go for a frontal breakthrough.”
“A frontal breakthrough!”
“They’re in high spirits after wiping out the Fourth and Sixth Fleets. The imperial force probably won’t even think of anything else.”
Lieutenant Commander Lao glanced forlornly toward Yang as he provided his commentary. The faintheartedness in the alliance force—of which Lao’s expression was representative—was the real fruit of the empire’s aggressive tactics, Yang reflected.
“How do you plan to counter it?”
“I’ve got something in mind.”
“But how do we communicate with the other ships? There’s a danger that the enemy’s listening to our transmissions. Flash signals have the same problem, and shuttles would take too long.”
“Don’t worry—use multiple channels and tell all vessels to open the C4 circuits of their tactical computers. That’ll be enough. If that’s all we say, the enemy shouldn’t understand even if they pick it up.”
“Acting Commander, sir, does that mean … Your Excellency had already worked out a plan and input the data … long before this battle even started?”
“Though I’d rather have seen it go to waste,” said Yang. Perhaps in his tone of voice there was a slight note of self-justification. Icy glares had been standard recompense for prophets of defeat, even when Cassandra was queen in Troy. “Never mind that—hurry up and relay my instructions.”
“Yessir, right away.”
Lieutenant Commander Lao hurried off at a jog toward the reoccupied communications officer’s seat. With only five officers left unharmed, running the bridge was impossible, so about ten men were summoned from other departments. Warships didn’t carry excess personnel, so that meant Patroklos would be shorthanded elsewhere. It couldn’t be avoided, though.
Taking its time, the imperial force prepared its spindle formation and then began its charge. The alliance ships met them with guns blazing, but the imperial ships paid them no mind. As the distance between the two narrowed, erupting beams began to weave countless patterns of crisscrossing bars.
Commanded by Fahrenheit, the empire’s vanguard squadron didn’t slow as it came plunging into the ranks of the alliance.
“All enemy ships are charging us!”
The operator’s voice was shrill and sharp.
Yang looked up at the panel on the ceiling. A 270-degree wide-angle monitor was inset there. As the enemy vessels accelerated and closed the distance, they seemed to be leaping ferociously toward the throat of the alliance. Their movements were dynamic and precise. In the face of that, the alliance forces intercepting them couldn’t help appearing sluggish and lackluster.
Well, let’s see what happens.
In the command chair, Yang crossed his arms. He wasn’t really as composed as he appeared to be. At present, the enemy’s actions were within the bounds of Yang’s predictions. The problem was what his allies would do. All would be fine if they went along with his plan, but one misstep and things would likely spin out of control, and the whole force would be put to flight. And what would he do then?
Scratch my head and pretend to look embarrassed, Yang told himself, answering his own question. He couldn’t predict everything, nor was there an infallibly correct move he could make. He wasn’t responsible for things beyond his power.
The projection panel that made up the ceiling was covered in pulsating lights. The battleship Patroklos was now in the midst of a whirlpool of particle beams. Beams came at them from fore and aft, port and starboard, up and down, in thickness resembling clubs more than lances.
Patroklos itself had opened fire as well, sending out exhalations of death and destruction that slammed against its enemies. An immense waste of human energy—or material energy—was being justified as the path toward victory and survival.
“Enemy battleship closing! Judging by its model, it’s probably Wallenstein.”
Wallenstein had already taken considerable structural damage, having apparently charged straight through the fire. Its half-ruined main battery took aim at Patroklos from straight ahead, but Patroklos’s response, this time, came swiftly.
“Fire all main cannons! Target is right in front of us!”
The order came from Lieutenant Commander Lao, who was temporarily doubling as gunnery chief.
Patroklos’s front cannons spat out synchronized beams of neutrons, scoring a direct hit on Wallenstein, dead in its midsection.
After an instant’s agonized buckling, the Imperial Navy’s gargantuan battleship blew apart. Cheers rang out in the comm circuit of Yang’s helmet, but their end notes transformed into cries of renewed horror. Crashing haughtily though the shining white whirlpool of the fusion explosion, the next enemy vessel, Kärnten, revealed its stately form. Yang acknowledged anew the dignity and grandeur of the Imperial Navy’s formation, as well as its strong fighting spirit.
It was clear that their powerful will to fight was one born of their overwhelming victories. For a moment, Yang was captivated by the thought that he might be witnessing the moment in which a great general was born.
“Some generals are called ‘wise’ and others ‘fierce,’ but a commander who transcends those categories—who inspires in his men a faith unbreakable—is one whom I call ‘great.’ ” Yang had read those words in a history book. Reinhard von Lohengramm must still be quite young, but at the very least, he’s on his way to being ‘great.’ He’s a threat to alliance forces, and to the old power structures in the Imperial Navy, he’s most likely a threat as well.
Yang crossed his arms the other way and savored what small satisfaction he could in the thought that he was probably sitting right in the midst of history’s current.
Even during that interval, the state of the battlefield was changing moment by moment.
Kärnten and Patroklos had exchanged fire, but amid the confusion of battle, they had moved apart, with neither having delivered a killing blow.
Yang shifted his gaze to the simulated-battlefield model that the tactical computer displayed on his monitor. Simplified shapes showed the distribution and condition of both forces.
Backward rippling motions were occasionally running through the alliance fleet, but overall the display showed the imperial force’s advance and the alliance force’s retreat.
Those movements were gradually increasing in velocity. The empire advanced, the alliance fell back. The tiny, reverse-propagating ripples vanished, and the more the simulated image was simplified, the more the effect was amplified. To most anyone’s eyes, the empire appeared ready to take victory by the hand, and the alliance defeat by the tail.
“Looks like we’ve won,” murmured Reinhard.
Meanwhile, Yang was also nodding toward Lieutenant Commander Lao.
“Looks like it’s going to work,” he said, not vocalizing his relieved Thank heavens!
What had been worrying Yang was whether or not the ships on his own side would follow their instructions. He had confidence in the planned operation itself. At this point there was no longer any way to win. It was, however, still possible to finish this without losing. But that could only happen if the other ships followed the plan.
There were no doubt obstinate squadron commanders who scorned the idea of obeying a young and inexperienced commander like Yang, but in the absence of any other effective battle plan, there was little choice but to accept Yang’s orders. If the desire for survival motivated them more than any sense of loyalty, though, Yang had not the slightest objection.
A hint of puzzlement began to appear on Reinhard’s face.
He stood up from his seat, put both hands on the command console, and glared up at the overhead screen. Irritation was beginning to boil up all through his body.
His allies were advancing, and his enemies retreating. Hit by the frontal breakthrough attack, the alliance’s fleet was being split to the left and right. The scenes on the screen, the simulation that the tactical computer was reconstructing on his monitor, the status reports coming in from the vanguard—all were describing exactly the same situation.
Yet even so, a sound of distant thunder was beginning to rumble faintly in the back of his mind. He became aware of a sick feeling eating away at his nerves—the kind you get right before you realize that some dirty trick has just been played on you.
He put the fist he’d made with his left hand up against his mouth, resting his teeth lightly on his index finger’s second joint. And in that instant, for no reason whatsoever, he intuited what his enemy had in mind.
That low cry, drowned out by the shouts of operators, reached the ears of no one.
“Their force has split apart to port and starboard! They’re—they’re going to rush past us along both flanks!”
Amid a shocked stir, Reinhard cried out for his red-haired adjutant. “Kircheis! We’ve been had. The enemy wants to separate on both flanks and come around on our back side. They’re using our frontal breakthrough against us. Damn them!”
The golden-haired youth slammed his fist down against the command console.
“What shall we do? Reverse course and intercept?”
Kircheis’s voice had lost none of its cool self-possession. That had a calming effect on the nerves of his momentarily enraged commanding officer.
“Don’t be absurd. You want me to be a greater imbecile than that Fourth Fleet’s commander was?”
“In that case, all we can do is advance.”
“Exactly.” Reinhard nodded and gave orders to his communications officer. “All ships, full speed ahead! Clamp on to the back side of the enemy rushing past us. Bear to the right. And hurry!”
Thirty minutes later, both formations were spread out in the shape of a ring. It was a strange sight. The alliance’s vanguard was engaged in a blistering assault on the imperial fleet’s tail end, while the imperial vanguard was attacking one tail end of the forked alliance fleet.
Viewed from far away in the depths of space, it might have looked like two glittering, gargantuan serpents trying to swallow one another, each from the other’s tail upward.
Staring at the simulated model on the screen, Lieutenant Commander Lao said admiringly in Yang’s direction, “I’ve never seen a battle formation like this.”
“I’d imagine not … It’s a first for me, too.”
But Yang’s words were only halfway true. Back when humanity had lived only on the surface of a backwater planet called Earth, this kind of formation had appeared on battlefields any number of times. Even the brilliant tactics employed by Count von Lohengramm had precedent in ground wars. Since ancient times—for better or worse—military geniuses inevitably took the stage during eras of war, turning on its head what had been orthodox tactical thought until their arrival.
“Look at this miserable excuse for a battle formation!”
The enraged cry rang out on the bridge of Brünhild. Reinhard suppressed his voice and snarled. “Won’t this mean a battle of attrition … ?”
A report was delivered to him of the death of a high-ranking officer. Rear Admiral Erlach had been blown away with the ship he had been aboard. Ignoring Reinhard’s order to go full speed ahead, he had been trying to turn around and intercept the alliance force when in midturn his ship had taken a direct hit from a neutron-beam cannon.
What sort of imbecile tries to turn a ship around right in front of enemies that are snapping at his heels! He has only himself to blame. Yet even so, there’s no denying this casts a slight pall over the empire’s victory.
Yang had understood from the moment he launched this operation that it would turn into a battle of attrition. The imperial fleet’s commander, Count von Lohengramm, was no fool. He wasn’t likely to continue a fruitless battle that did nothing but increase the bloodshed and destruction. That had been the plan: to force the enemy into making that decision …
“The enemy should start pulling out soon,” Yang said to Lieutenant Commander Lao.
“Are we going to pursue?”
“… Let’s not.” The young commander shook his head. “Let’s follow their lead—when they withdraw, so do we. We’ve done all we can up till now—there’s no way we can continue fighting.”
A conversation was being held on the bridge of Brünhild as well.
“Kircheis, your thoughts?”
“It might be about time for a tactical withdrawal …” It was a reserved but unambiguous answer.
“You think so, too?”
“If we do continue to fight, the damage on both sides will only increase. That would serve no military purpose.”
Reinhard nodded agreement, though a shade of dissatisfaction drifted across his youthful cheeks. Even if he accepted the reasoning, he wasn’t satisfied emotionally.
“Is that frustration?”
“Nothing of the sort, though I did want a more unambiguous victory. It’s just a pity is all, like leaving off the finishing touches of a painting.”
That’s just like you, thought Kircheis, an unconscious half smile forming around his mouth.
“You annihilated two of their fleets by attacking their forces separately, even while being hemmed in on three sides by a force twice the size of our own. And although the remaining fleet did swing around and get our back, you still fought them to a standstill. Isn’t that enough? To hope for any more would be what we call ‘just a little greedy.’ ”
“I know. And there’s also the idea of leaving something to look forward to on another day.”
Though the two fleets continued to fire away at one another, the formation was at last spreading gradually outward horizontally as the two forces began putting distance between one other. The rate of fire slowed as well, and the density of the energies being unleashed thinned out precipitously.
“He’s quite good. Better than I had expected.” In Reinhard’s voice there was blended both irritation and praise. The young commander with the golden hair was deep in thought, and after a few minutes he called out for his adjutant.
“What was the name of the Second Fleet’s commander—the man who took charge midway through?”
“Commodore Yang Wen-li.”
“That’s right—Yang. Send him an e-gram in my name.”
Kircheis, smiling, asked, “What sort of message shall I send?”
“ ‘My compliments to you, Commander, on a battle bravely fought … Be well till the day of our next encounter …’ Something along those lines should be fine.”
“As you wish.”
Kircheis relayed Reinhard’s order to the communications officer, who responded with a slight, quizzical tilt of the head. Kircheis returned a pleasant smile. “Like you, Officer … I’m in no hurry to fight such a tough opponent again. Better to have easy wins than run into enemies we have to praise.”
“Absolutely, sir,” the comm officer replied with a nod.
New orders from Reinhard rang out: “We’re returning to Odin. All ships, get into formation.”
After appending a few additional commands—“We’ll put in at Iserlohn Fortress along the way … Calculate the damage to friends and foes ASAP”—Reinhard lowered the back of his command chair until he was facing the hemispherical ceiling almost directly and closed his eyes.
He felt exhaustion come bubbling up from beneath the surface of his consciousness. It should be all right to sleep for just a little while. Just a short rest. Kircheis would wake me if anything were to happen. Just leave the settings for the trip home to the inertial astrogation system …
“You have an e-gram from the imperial fleet, Assistant Staff Offi—I mean, Acting Commander, sir …”
The face of Lieutenant Commander Lao, who had come to inform him, was brimming with curiosity. This battle has been nothing but surprises from start to finish, his expression was saying.
“Read it for me.”
“Um, all right. Here goes: ‘My compliments to you, Commander, on a battle bravely fought … Be well till the day of our next encounter. Senior Admiral Reinhard von Lohengramm, Galactic Imperial Navy. Over.’ ”
“ ‘Bravely fought,’ he says? I’m so honored.”
Next time we meet I’m gonna grind you into powder, was how Yang took the message.
Childishness was what he should probably call it, but it failed to arouse any ill will on his part.
“What should I do? Shall I send a reply?”
Yang answered Lieutenant Commander Lao’s question in a halfhearted tone. “I doubt they’re really expecting something like that. Never mind, just ignore it.”
“… Yes, sir.”
“Instead, hurry up and get the survivors aboard. I want to save as many as we can.”
After taking his leave of Lieutenant Commander Lao, Yang turned his gaze to his console. The operations proposal he had submitted to Vice Admiral Paetta before the start of combat was lying on the floor beneath it. A bitter smile adorned Yang’s mouth. He had never hoped to be proven right like this. How high would the death toll climb? Yang could imagine the faces at military HQ, every hair on their heads standing on end.
On the side of the empire, 2,448,600 personnel participated in combat; the alliance fielded 4,065,900. The empire deployed over twenty thousand vessels, and the alliance more than forty thousand. Deaths on the side of the empire numbered over 153,400; for the alliance that number exceeded 1,508,900. Over 2,200 imperial ships were either lost or destroyed, while the alliance lost more than 22,600. The losses of the alliance climbed to between ten and eleven times those of the empire. The empire’s invasion of the Astarte system, however, had been deflected just narrowly.