That was the name given to this vital stronghold of the Galactic Empire. Located 6,250 light-years from the imperial capital of Odin was Artena, a star in the prime of its life, originally a solitary sun with no planets of its own. It was its astrographical importance that had led the Galactic Empire to construct in its orbit an artificial world sixty kilometers in diameter for use as a base of operations.
When the galaxy was viewed from directly “above,” Iserlohn appeared situated near the tip of a triangular region where the Galactic Empire’s influence was reaching out toward the Free Planets Alliance. This entire swath of territory, a difficult region for astrogation, was the interstellar graveyard known as “Sargasso Space,” where the founders of the Free Planets Alliance had once lost many of their comrades. Later, this bit of history, which imperial VIPs found most satisfactory, had even played a role in strengthening their resolve to build a military stronghold in this region from which to threaten the alliance.
Variable stars, red giants, irregular gravitational fields … through dense concentrations of these, there ran a narrow thread of safety, and Iserlohn was sitting right in the middle of it. To travel from the alliance to the empire without passing through this area meant using a route that went through the Phezzan Land Dominion, and use of that route for military operations was problematic to be sure.
The Iserlohn Corridor and the Phezzan Corridor. Statesmen and tacticians of the alliance alike had taken pains to find out whether a third route connecting the alliance and the empire could be discovered, but defects in their star charts and interference both seen and unseen from the empire and Phezzan had long frustrated those intentions. From Phezzan’s perspective, the very worth of its existence as a middleman trading post was at stake, and the discovery of a “third corridor” was not something they were going to stand idly by and let happen.
Because of this, the realization of the Alliance Armed Forces’ plan—summed up in the words, “We’ve gotta invade imperial territory!”—was dependent on the fight to capture Iserlohn. Across four and a half centuries, they had dared six times to launch large-scale attacks to take the fortress, and repulsed every time, these failed attempts had birthed the imperial military boast, “The Iserlohn Corridor is paved with the corpses of rebel soldiers.”
Yang Wen-li had twice taken part in operations attempting to topple Iserlohn. He had been a lieutenant commander at the time of the fifth operation and a captain at the time of the sixth. Twice he had witnessed massive fatalities and had come to know the stupidity of trying to push through on sheer force alone.
We can’t take Iserlohn by attacking from the outside, Yang had thought in the midst of a fleet set to flight. But given that, how could we do it?
In addition to being a fortress, Iserlohn harbored a fleet fifteen thousand ships strong. The commander of the fortress and the commander of the fleet were both full admirals. Could there not be some kind of opening there they could take advantage of?
Count von Lohengramm’s recent incursion had also used Iserlohn as a forward base of operations. No matter what, Yang had to topple this ominous military stronghold of the empire. And moreover, he had only been given half a fleet to do it with.
Sitting in front of him, Yang just smiled and didn’t answer. Caselnes slammed his papers down on the table loudly and looked with deep interest at his underclassman from Officers’ Academy.
“Our forces have tried six times to take Iserlohn, and six times we’ve failed. And you’re telling me you’re gonna do it with only half a fleet?”
“Well, I thought I’d give it a try.”
The eyes of Yang’s former upperclassman narrowed ever so slightly at this answer.
“So you do think there’s a chance. What are you gonna do?”
“That’s a secret.”
“Even from me?”
“Getting to act all high and mighty about it is what makes you appreciate this kind of thing,” Yang said.
“You got that right. Let me know if there’re any supplies I can ready for you—I won’t even ask for a bribe.”
“In that case, one imperial warship, please—you ought to have one that’s been previously captured. Also, if I can get you to ready about two hundred imperial uniforms …”
Caselnes’s narrowed eyes opened wide.
“What’s the deadline?”
“Within the next three days.”
“… I’m not gonna ask you for overtime pay, but you’re at least treating me to a cognac.”
“I’ll buy you two. And by the way, I’ve got one more request …”
“Make it three. What is it?” Caselnes asked.
“It’s about those extremists called the Patriotic Knights.”
“Oh yeah, I heard. That must have been awful.”
Since Julian was going to be at home by himself, Yang requested that arrangements be made for military police to patrol the neighborhood in his absence. He had thought about leaving the boy with some other family, but it was unlikely that Julian, the household’s commanding officer whenever Yang was out, would have stood for it. Caselnes said he would see to it right away, then looked at Yang again as though he had remembered something.
“Oh yeah, the high commissioner of Phezzan—lately he’s been awfully curious about you.”
The special entity known as Phezzan held an interest for Yang that was a little different from what it held for others. That dominion had been the creation of a great merchant of Terran birth named Leopold Raap, but many things about his background and source of funds were unclear. Had someone for some reason caused Raap to create the entity known as Phezzan? Yang, having tried and failed to become a historian, thought about things like that as well. Naturally, though, he had not spoken of this to anyone else.
“Looks like you’ve caught the interest of the Black Fox of Phezzan. He may try to scout you.”
“I wonder if Phezzan tea is any good?”
“Flavored with poison, most likely … Incidentally, how is the planning coming along?” Caselnes asked.
“Things that go according to plan are pretty rare in the world. That said, I can’t rightly not make one.”
So saying, Yang departed. A mountain of work was waiting for him.
It wasn’t just that the ships and personnel of the Thirteenth Fleet numbered half what was usual. Most of its officers and soldiers were surviving remnants of the Fourth and Sixth fleets that had been defeated so soundly at Astarte; the rest were new recruits lacking in combat experience. An up-and-coming rear admiral their commander may be, but Yang was still just a twenty-something kid … and seasoned admirals’ words of surprise, shock, and derision had reached his ears: It seems a babe not yet out of diapers intends to beat a lion to death barehanded—that should be fun to watch. If you’re forced into it, you’re forced, but to go willingly—oh, dear!
Yang didn’t even get upset. You’d have to be one heck of an optimist to not have doubts about this operation, he thought.
The only one who had taken up for Yang was Vice Admiral Bucock, commanding officer of the Fifth Fleet. An unsociable, white-haired admiral seventy years of age, he was known as a stubborn individual with a short temper. When saluted by the likes of Yang, he would return a disinterested salute with a suspicious look in his eye that all but said, “Where’d this greenhorn come from?” At the White Stag—a club for high-ranking officers—his fellow admirals had been using Yang and the Thirteenth Fleet as fodder for jokes when that “scary old man” had said, “I hope you all don’t end up with egg on your faces later. You might just be looking at a redwood sapling and laughing at it for not being tall.”
They had all fallen completely silent. They had remembered the capability that Yang had displayed at Astarte and in battles prior. At the words of the elderly admiral, their group mentality had dissipated. The admirals had drained their glasses and gone their separate ways, an awkward feeling in the chest of each from having said something they couldn’t quite patch over …
Yang, to whose ears that story had found its way, had made no particular effort to thank Vice Admiral Bucock. He had known that if he did attempt such a thing, he would be laughed to scorn by the white-haired admiral.
Though the admiralty’s opposition had subsided for the time being, the overall situation had not taken that much of a turn for the better. The gloomy fact solemnly remained of the hybrid half fleet, composed of defeated survivors and green recruits, that was heading off to attack an impregnable fortress.
Yang put a great deal of thought into the selection of his executive staff. For his vice commander, he chose Commodore Edwin Fischer, a skilled, seasoned officer who had fought well in the Fourth Fleet. For chief staff officer, he chose Commodore Murai, a man lacking in originality but possessed of a precise and well-ordered mind. For assistant staff officer, he named Captain Fyodor Patrichev, who had a reputation as a good fighter.
Yang would get commonsense advice from Murai and make use of him as an advisor for ops planning and decision making. Patrichev he would have yelling at and encouraging the troops. And of Fischer, Yang wanted the fleet run steadily and soundly.
I think I can be satisfied with the postings so far, but it wouldn’t hurt to find an aide-de-camp, Yang thought. He put in a request with Caselnes for an “outstanding young officer” and a communiqué arrived later that said, “I’ve got just the person. Graduated salutatorian from Officers’ Academy in 794—one heck of a better student than you. Presently assigned to the Data Analysis Department at Joint Operational Headquarters.”
The officer who appeared before Yang shortly thereafter was a beautiful young woman with hazel eyes and golden-brown hair that had a natural wave; even a simple black-and-ivory-white military uniform looked pretty on her. Yang took off his sunglasses and stared at her fixedly.
“Sublieutenant Frederica Greenhill reporting. I’ve been assigned to work as aide-de-camp to Rear Admiral Yang.”
That was her introduction.
Yang put his sunglasses back on to hide his expression, thinking there must surely be a black, pointy tail hiding in the back of Alex Caselnes’s uniform slacks. The daughter of Dwight Greenhill, assistant director at Joint Operational Headquarters, Frederica had a reputation as one who possessed astonishing powers of memory.
And so it was that the personnel assignments for the Thirteenth Fleet were decided.
On April 27 of SE 796, Rear Admiral Yang Wen-li, commander of the Free Planets Alliance Armed Forces Thirteenth Fleet set out on the path to topple Iserlohn.
Officially, this voyage was to be the new fleet’s first large-scale maneuver, to be held in a backwater star system in the direction opposite that of the alliance’s empire-facing border. They departed from Heinessen using 50-C pulse-warp navigation, headed in the direction opposite that of Iserlohn, and after continuing for three days, recalculated the route and executed eight long-range warps and eleven short-range warps, finally entering the Iserlohn Corridor.
“Four thousand light-years in twenty-four days. Not bad,” murmured Yang. But it wasn’t just not bad; the fact that this hastily assembled, prefab fleet had been able to somehow reach its destination without a single ship going missing was downright praiseworthy. Of course, this success was all due to the experienced hand of the vice commander, Commodore Fischer, lauded for his masterly performance in the operation of the fleet.
“The Thirteenth Fleet has an expert on that, so …” Yang would say, leaving relevant matters entirely up to Fischer. When Fischer said something, Yang would only nod approval.
Yang’s mind was focused on one thing only: how to capture Iserlohn Fortress. When he had first revealed his plan to the fleet’s three executive officers—Fischer, Murai, and Patrichev—they had been at a loss for words.
Fischer, in late middle age with silver hair and a mustache; Murai, a thin, nervous-looking man close in age to Fischer; and Patrichev, with long sideburns on his rounded face and a uniform that seemed fit to burst from the strain of holding in his body—all three of them for a while simply stared back at their young commander.
The moment passed, and then Murai asked the obvious question: “And if it doesn’t work, then what?”
“Then all we can do is run away with our tails between our legs.”
“But if we do that …”
“Then what? Don’t worry about it. Taking down Iserlohn with half a fleet was an unreasonable demand from the start. The ones who end up embarrassed in front of everybody will be Director Sitolet and me.”
After he dismissed the three of them, Yang called for his aide, Sublieutenant Frederica Greenhill.
In her position as his personal aide, Frederica had learned about Yang’s plan before the three executive officers, but she had raised no objection, nor even shown any sign of anxiety. No, far from that, she had predicted success with a certainty exceeding that of Yang himself.
“What is it that makes you so confident?” Yang just couldn’t help asking, though he was well aware what a strange thing that was to say.
“Because, Admiral, you were also successful eight years ago, at El Facil.”
“That’s still awfully flimsy grounds, though, don’t you think?”
“Maybe … but at that time, Admiral, you succeeded in planting absolute trust in the heart of one little girl.”
Yang gave her a quizzical look.
To her doubtful-looking superior, the officer with the golden brown hair said, “I was on El Facil with my mother at that time. My mother’s ancestral home was there. I clearly remember the young sublieutenant who was nibbling on a sandwich while commanding the evacuation proceedings; he had hardly enough downtime to eat. That sublieutenant, though, has probably long forgotten the fourteen-year-old girl who brought him coffee in a paper cup when he choked on that sandwich, hasn’t he?
Yang had no ready reply.
“And also what he said after his life had been saved by drinking that coffee?”
“What did he say?”
“ ‘I can’t stand coffee. Would’ve been nice if you’d made it tea.’ ”
Feeling the start of a fit of laughter coming up, Yang cleared his throat loudly to drive it from his body. “Did I say such a rude thing?”
“Yes, you certainly did. As you were crushing the empty paper cup in your hand.”
“Is that so? I apologize. You need to find a better use for that memory of yours, though.”
The words sounded reasonable enough, though they were nothing more than sour grapes. Frederica had once discovered six slides out of fourteen thousand taken of Iserlohn in which the pre- and postbattle images did not match; she had proven already how valuable her powers of memory could be.
“Call Captain von Schönkopf for me,” Yang said.
Exactly three minutes later, Captain Walter von Schönkopf appeared in front of Yang. He was captain of the Rosen Ritter, or “Knights of the Rose” regiment, which was affiliated with the Alliance Armed Forces ground battle commissioner’s department. He was a man in his early thirties with a refined appearance, though those of his own gender often considered him a “pretentious SOB.” Born to respectable imperial aristocrats, he would have ordinarily been standing on the battlefield in an imperial admiral’s uniform.
The Rosen Ritter had been established primarily by the children of aristocrats who had defected from the empire to the alliance, and had a history going back half a century. That history was written partly in golden lettering and partly in blots of black ink. The regiment had had twelve prior captains in its history. Four of them had died in battle, fighting against their former homeland. Two had retired after rising to the admiralty. Six had fled to their former homeland—some stealing away quietly and others switching sides in the midst of combat.
There were those who averred, “That guy’s unlucky. Since he’s number thirteen, he’s sure to become traitor number seven.” As for why the number thirteen was unlucky, there was no general consensus. One theory said it was because the thermonuclear war that had nearly eradicated humanity on Terra (and provided the impetus for the survivors to completely abolish nuclear-fission weapons) had lasted thirteen days. Another claimed it to be because the founder of an old, long-extinct religion had been betrayed by his thirteenth disciple.
“Von Schönkopf reporting, sir.”
His respectful tone of voice was a poor fit for his impudent expression. As Yang looked at this former imperial citizen three or four years his senior, he thought, Taking a contrived attitude like that might be his way of sounding out others. Though even if it is, I can’t bring myself to go along with it on every point …
“There’s something I need to talk with you about.”
“Probably so. It’s about capturing Iserlohn,” Yang said.
For a few seconds, von Schönkopf’s line of sight wandered about the room.
“That would be extremely important. Is it all right to consult a junior officer like me?”
“It can’t be anyone but you. I want you to listen close.” Yang began to describe the plan.
Five minutes later, von Schönkopf had finished listening to Yang’s explanation, and there was a strange look in his brown eyes. He seemed to be trying hard to suppress and conceal utter shock.
“Let me jump the gun and say this, Captain: this is not a proper plan. This is a trick—actually, it’s a cheap trick,” Yang said, taking off his black uniform beret and twirling it ill-manneredly on his finger. “But if we’re to occupy the impregnable fortress Iserlohn, I believe it’s the only way. If this doesn’t work, then it’s beyond my ability.”
“You’re right—there probably is no other way,” said von Schönkopf, rubbing his pointed chin. “The more people depend on sturdy fortresses, the more they tend to slip up. A chance of success most certainly does exist. Except—”
“If, as the rumors suggest, I were to become traitor number seven, this will have all been for nothing. If that were to happen, what would you do?”
“I’d have a problem.”
Von Schönkopf gave a pained smile at the sight of Yang’s dead-serious look.
“Yes, indeed—that would be a problem. But is that all it would be? Surely, you’d think of some way to cope.”
“Well, I did think about it.”
“I couldn’t come up with any ideas. If you betray us, I throw up my hands and run home right then and there. There’ll be nothing else I can do.”
The beret slipped off Yang’s finger and fell to the floor. The hand of the former imperial citizen reached out and picked it up, and after brushing away the dust that hadn’t even clung to it, handed it back to the senior officer.
“Sorry about that.”
“Don’t give it a second thought. So, you’re saying you have absolute trust in me?”
“To be honest, I don’t have a lot of trust in myself,” Yang replied flatly. “But unless I trust you, the plan itself will be over before it starts. So I’m going to trust you. That’s the big prerequisite.”
“I see,” von Schönkopf said, though the look on his face said he hadn’t necessarily taken Yang at his word. The commander of the Rosen Ritter regiment glanced toward the young senior officer again with a sort of look that was partly trying to penetrate Yang’s real intentions, partly trying to figure out his own.
“May I ask you one question, Admiral?”
“The orders you were given this time were utterly impossible. They told you to take half a fleet—with undisciplined troops equivalent to a rowdy mob—and bring down Iserlohn Fortress. Even if you’d refused, there wouldn’t have been many who would’ve blamed you. So the fact you agreed to this must mean that you already had this plan in mind. However, I’d like to know what was going on in your head underneath all that. Lust for honor? Or for advancement?”
The light in von Schönkopf’s eyes was sharp and ruthless.
“I don’t think it was any lust for advancement,” Yang said. His reply was indifferent, as though he were talking about someone else altogether. “If I’ve got people calling me ‘Excellency’ before I turn thirty, then that’s enough for me already. ’Cause first of all, if I’m still alive at the end of this mission, I intend to get out.”
“Yeah, well, I get a pension, and there’s also a retirement allowance … It should be enough for me and one other to live a comfortable, if modest, lifestyle.”
“You’re saying you’ll retire under these conditions?”
Yang smiled at the sound of von Schönkopf’s voice; it as much as said he was struggling to understand.
“About those conditions: If our forces occupy Iserlohn, that will cut off what is pretty much the empire’s only route for invading us. As long as the alliance doesn’t go and do something stupid like using the fortress as a platform for its own invasion of the empire, the two militaries won’t be able to clash even if they want to. At least not on a large scale.”
Von Schönkopf listened, silently.
“At that point, it’ll be up to the diplomatic skills of the alliance government, and since we’ll have gained an advantageous foothold militarily, they may be able to manage a satisfactory peace treaty with the empire. As far as I’m concerned, I can retire with peace of mind if that happens.”
“Though I wonder if that peace can be lasting.”
“Lasting peace has never existed in human history, so I’m not gonna hope for that. Still, there have been peaceful and prosperous stretches lasting several decades. If we have to leave some kind of heritage for the next generation, the best thing we can ultimately give them is peace. And maintaining the peace that the previous generation handed to them will be the next generation’s responsibility. If each generation remembers its responsibility to future generations, a long-term peace will be maintained. If they forget, then they’ll squander that inheritance, and the human race will be back to square one. And hey, that’s okay, too.”
Yang lightly placed the beret he’d been playing with back on his head. “In short, all I’m realistically hoping for is peace for the next several decades. But even so, a peace that long would be a million times better than a wartime period one tenth as long. There’s a fourteen-year-old boy living in my house, and I don’t want to see him dragged into the battlefield. That’s how I feel.”
When Yang closed his mouth, silence fell. It didn’t last long.
“Forgive me, Admiral, but you’re either an exceptionally honest man or the biggest sophist since Rudolf the Great.” Von Schönkopf flashed a wry smile. “At any rate, that’s a better answer than I was hoping for. That being the case, I’ll do my utmost as well. For a not-so-everlasting peace.”
Neither of the two men were the type to clasp the other’s hand in deep emotion, so from there the conversation delved immediately into businesslike matters, as they discussed the details of the operation.
There were two full admirals of the imperial military at Iserlohn. One was the fortress commander, Admiral Thomas von Stockhausen, and the other the commander of the Iserlohn Fleet, Senior Admiral Hans Dietrich von Seeckt. Both were fifty years of age, and while tallness was also a trait they both shared, von Stockhausen’s waistline was a size more narrow than von Seeckt’s.
They were not on friendly terms, but this had less to do with individual responsibility than with tradition. They were two commanding officers of equal rank in the same workplace. It was a wonder when they didn’t lock horns with each other.
Emotional conflicts naturally extended even to the troops under their command. From the standpoint of the fortress’s garrison, the fleet was like an obnoxious houseguest that would fight outside, then come running back when things got dangerous, looking for a safe place to hide—a prodigal son, as it were. And if you asked the fleet crewmen, they would say that the fortress garrison troops were a bunch of “space moles” holed up in a safe hideout and amusing themselves by playing at war with the enemy.
Two things just barely bridged the rift between them: their pride as warriors “supporting the impregnable fortress of Iserlohn” and their enthusiasm to do battle with the “rebel army.” In fact, when enemy attacks came, they competed for success unyieldingly, even as they despised and cursed one another. This resulted in the achievement of enormous military successes.
Whenever the military authorities proposed combining the offices of fortress and fleet commander to unify the chain of command, the idea was squelched. This was because a decrease in the number of commander-level positions presented a problem for the high-ranking officers and also because there were no prior examples of the conflicts between the two leading to a fatal result.
It was May 14 of the standard calendar.
The two commanders, von Stockhausen and von Seeckt, were in their conference room. Originally, this had been part of a salon for high-ranking officers, but as it was equidistant from both their offices, it had been remodeled as a fully soundproof meeting room. This measure had been taken because neither was fond of going to the other’s office, and since they were both within the same fortress, it wouldn’t do to rely solely on televised communications.
For the past two days, communications in the vicinity of the fortress had been garbled. There was no room for doubt that a rebel force was approaching. However, there had been nothing like an attack yet. The two commanders were meeting to discuss what to do about this state of affairs, but the conversation had not advanced in a necessarily constructive direction.
“You say we should launch since they’re out there, Commander, but we don’t know where they are, so how are you going to fight them?”
Thus spoke von Stockhausen, to which von Seeckt countered:
“That’s exactly why we should go out: to find out where they’re hiding. If the rebels do come to attack, it’s likely they’ll mobilize a large force.”
At von Seeckt’s words, von Stockhausen gave a nod of complete self-assuredness. “Which will end with them being beaten back again. The rebels have attacked us six times, and six times they’ve been repulsed. Even if they’re about to come again, it only means six times becoming seven.”
“This fortress is truly amazing,” the fleet commander said, implying, It’s not because you’re particularly capable.
“At any rate, it’s a fact that the enemy’s nearby. I’d like to mobilize the fleet and go find them.”
“But if you don’t know where they are, you’ve got no way of finding them. Wait a little longer.”
Just as the conversation was beginning to go in circles, there was a call from the communications room. It said that a strange transmission had been picked up.
Although the jamming was fierce and the transmission faded in and out, at last it revealed the following situation:
A single Bremen-class light cruiser carrying vital communiqués had been dispatched to Iserlohn from the imperial capital of Odin but had come under enemy fire inside the corridor and was presently being pursued. They were seeking rescue from Iserlohn.
The two commanders looked at one another.
In a growl from the back of his thick throat, von Seeckt said, “It’s unclear where in the corridor they are, but at this point we have no choice but to move out.”
“But is that really a good idea?”
“What do you mean by that? My troops are a breed apart from space moles who only want security.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
The two of them arrived at the joint operations meeting room and took their seats, disgusted faces side by side.
Von Seeckt gave orders to launch the fleet to his own staff officers, and von Stockhausen stared off in another direction while he was explaining the situation.
When von Seeckt finished speaking, one of his staff officers stood up from his seat.
“A moment, please, Your Excellency.”
“Ah, Captain von Oberstein …” said Admiral von Seeckt, without one iota of goodwill in his voice. He hated his newly assigned staff officer. That salt-and-pepper hair, that pale, bloodless face, those artificial eyes that emitted a strange glow from time to time—he didn’t like any of it. He’s a very portrait of gloom, he thought. “You have some opinion?”
At least on the surface, von Oberstein seemed unperturbed by his superior officer’s halfhearted tone.
“Very well, let’s hear it,” von Seeckt prodded reluctantly.
“Well then, I’ll tell you. This could be a trap.”
“Yes, sir. To draw the fleet away from Iserlohn. We mustn’t go out. We should observe the situation without making a move.”
Von Seeckt snorted with disdain. “So what you want to say, Officer, is that if we go out, the enemy’s waiting, and if we fight, we’ll be defeated.”
“That isn’t what I meant.”
“Well then, what did you mean? We’re soldiers, and fighting is our duty. Rather than seeking our personal safety, we should think proactively about destroying the enemy. And more importantly, what can we do if we can’t help a friendly ship that’s in trouble?”
He felt antipathy toward von Oberstein, and he also had to consider his appearance in front of von Stockhausen, who was observing this development with an ironic smile. Also, von Seeckt was a guns-and-glory sort of leader, the kind who couldn’t bear to wait on the sidelines when the enemy was before him; it was not in his nature to stay holed up in the fortress and wait for an assault. He believed that if he did that, a career spent on battleships would have been a waste.
“I don’t know, Admiral von Seeckt—your staff officer does have a point. We know the precise positions of neither our enemies nor our allies, and the danger is great. How about waiting just a little bit longer?”
It was von Stockhausen’s opinion from the sidelines that decided the matter.
Von Seeckt said so flatly.
At last the Iserlohn Fleet, composed of fifteen thousand ships large and small, commenced leaving port.
Von Stockhausen watched the departures via the screen of the port traffic control monitor in the fortress command room. The sight of the battleships like huge towers on their sides and sleek streamlined destroyers launching in orderly formations, departing for a battlefield in the void, was truly magnificent.
“Hmph. I hope you come back smarting,” von Stockhausen murmured to himself. He could not bring himself to say things such as “die” or “lose,” not even as a joke. That was his own way of exercising moderation.
About six hours passed, and then once again a transmission came in. It was from the Breman-class light cruiser in question, and the following words were teased out from the static: “We’ve finally arrived near the fortress but are still under pursuit by attacking rebel forces. Request artillery bombardment to cover our approach.”
As he ordered the gunners to make preparations for covering fire, von Stockhausen wore a deeply bitter expression. Where had that imbecile von Seeckt gone off to? It was a fine thing to talk a big game, but was the man not even capable of helping an ally who was all alone out there?
“Ship reflections on-screen!” reported one of his men. The commander gave orders to augment and project the image.
The Bremen-class light cruiser was approaching the fortress with all the unsteadiness of a drunkard. The multiple points of light that could be seen in its background were, of course, enemy vessels.
“Prepare to fire!” von Stockhausen ordered.
However, just before entering firing range of the fortress’s main cannons, the ships of the alliance force halted altogether. They were floating—timidly, it seemed—beyond an invisible border, and when they saw the Bremen-class light cruiser heading into port, guided by a signal from the fortress’s port traffic control room, they began turning their noses around in apparent resignation.
“Prudent fellows, you know it’s hopeless.”
The imperial soldiers broke out into raucous laughter. Their confidence was as unshakeable as the fortress was impregnable.
Having entered port and been moored there by magnetic fields, the Bremen-class light cruiser was a tragic sight to behold. Just by looking at its exterior alone, it was possible to make out a dozen or so damaged areas. White shock foam was sticking out of rents in the hull like the intestines of some animal, and the number of hairline cracks was impossible to count, even with the fingers and toes of a hundred soldiers.
Hydrogen-powered cars loaded with ground crew came racing toward it. These were not fortress troops, but troops under the Iserlohn Fleet’s commander, and they sympathized from the bottoms of their hearts when they saw the ship’s wretched condition.
A hatch on the light cruiser opened, and a youthful-looking officer appeared, white bandages wrapped around his head. He was a handsome man, but his pale face was sullied with a caked, reddish-black substance. “I’m Captain Larkin, commander of this ship. I’d like to see the commander of this fortress.”
He spoke the official language of the empire clearly and articulately.
“Yes, sir,” said one of the maintenance officers, “But what in the world is going on out there?”
Captain Larkin gave a frustrated sigh. “We aren’t too sure ourselves. We came from Odin, you know. However, it looks like somehow your fleet has been destroyed.”
Glaring sharply at the ground crew as they swallowed hard and peered at him in disbelief, Captain Larkin shouted, “It appears that somehow the rebel forces have come up with a new way to pass through the corridor. This threatens not only Iserlohn but the survival of the empire itself. Quickly, now, take me to the commander.”
Full Admiral von Stockhausen, who had been waiting in the command room, rose from his chair when he saw five of the light cruiser’s officers enter the room surrounded by security personnel.
“Explain the situation—what’s going on out there?” As von Stockhausen walked toward the captain with long strides, his voice was pitched higher than usual. He had been informed already, and if the rebel forces had devised a way to pass through the corridor, it meant that the very significance of Iserlohn’s existence would be called into question and it would be up to him to develop some way to counter the movements of rebel forces.
Since Iserlohn was itself a fixed-point construction, it was exactly for times like these that the Iserlohn Fleet was needed. And von Seeckt, that wild boar, had gone charging off with it! Von Stockhausen was having trouble maintaining a calm demeanor.
“This is what’s happened …” The voice of this Captain Larkin was low and weak, so von Stockhausen, feeling impatient, drew near to the man. “This is what’s happened: Your Excellency von Stockhausen, you have become our captive!”
A frozen instant melted, and by the time the security guards had with sharp curses drawn their blasters, Captain Larkin’s arm was wrapped around von Stockhausen’s neck, and a ceramic firearm—invisible to the fortress’s security system—was pointed at the side of his head.
“Why, you …” growled Commander Lemmrar, head of the command room’s security detail, his ruddy face growing even redder. “You’re friends with those rebels. How dare you try such an outrageous—”
“I’m going to ask you to remember me. I’m Captain von Schönkopf of the Rosen Ritter regiment. I’ve got both hands full right now, so I can’t wash off the makeup to greet you properly.” The captain laughed as though invincible. “To be honest, I didn’t think things would go this well. I made sure to forge an ID card before I came, but nobody even checked it. That’s a good lesson to learn—that no matter how secure the system, it all depends on the people running it.”
“And who is that lesson for, I wonder?” With these ominous words, Commander Lemmrar aimed his blaster at both von Stockhausen and von Schönkopf. “You planned on taking hostages, but don’t think that you rebels are the same as imperial soldiers. His Excellency the Commander is a man who fears dishonor more than death. There is no shield here to protect you!”
“His Excellency the Commander seems annoyed at being so overestimated.” Smiling scornfully, von Schönkopf shot a glance toward one of the four men encircling him. That man produced a ceramic disc, small enough to hold in his hand, from beneath his imperial uniform.
“You know what that is, right? It’s a Seffl particle emitter.”
Von Schönkopf spoke, and it was like an electric current had run through the wide chamber.
Seffl particles were named for their inventor, Karl Seffl. A researcher in applied chemistry, he had synthesized the particles for mining ores and performing civil engineering work on a planetary scale, so—to put it briefly—these particles were like a gas that would react to a set amount of heat or energy, setting off an explosion within a controllable range. Humanity, however, had always adapted industrial technologies to military use.
Commander Lemmrar’s face looked almost completely dark. Blasters, which fired energy beams, had just become impossible to use. If anyone fired, everyone would go down together. The Seffl particles in the air would be ignited by the beam, reducing everyone in the room to ashes in an instant.
One of the security guards had raised his voice in what sounded like a shriek. Commander Lemmrar, eyes brimming with a vacant light, looked at Admiral von Stockhausen. Von Schönkopf loosened his arm ever so slightly, and after taking two ragged breaths, the commander of Iserlohn Fortress surrendered.
“You win. It can’t be helped—we surrender.”
Von Schönkopf let out a sigh of relief in his heart.
“All right, everyone: you know what to do.”
As instructed, the captain’s subordinates set about their tasks. Port traffic control programs were altered, all manner of defense systems were deactivated, and sleeping gas was released throughout the fortress by way of the air-conditioning system. Technicians who had been hiding inside the Bremen-class light cruiser disembarked and executed these operations with skill and efficiency. While only a small group of people yet realized what was happening, Iserlohn was being invaded, as if by a cancer, and its functions shut down.
Five hours later, the imperial soldiers were released from a sleep as cloudy as bean soup and were stunned speechless to find themselves stripped of their arms and taken captive. Adding up all combat, communications, supply, medical, maintenance, traffic control, technical, and other personnel, their full number rose to five hundred thousand. With its gargantuan factories for production of food and other necessities, Iserlohn was equipped with an environment and facilities capable of supporting a population, including fleet personnel, exceeding one million. The empire’s intention that Iserlohn must be an “eternal fortress” in both name and in fact was clear to see.
However, officers and troops of the Alliance Armed Forces Thirteenth Fleet were now in command.
Iserlohn Fortress, which in the past had like a vampire consumed the blood of millions of Alliance Armed Forces soldiers, changed hands without a single drop of new blood being shed.
The imperial military’s Iserlohn Fleet had been roaming about the corridor’s obstacle- and danger-filled interior seeking the enemy.
The communications officers had been hard at work trying to raise the fortress, and at last, turning pale, they called for Commander von Seeckt. Having eliminated the persistent jamming waves, they had finally restored communications, but what they had received from the fortress was a transmission saying, “A mutiny has broken out among the men. Requesting assistance.”
“A mutiny inside the fortress?” Von Seeckt clucked his tongue. “Can’t that incompetent von Stockhausen even control his own men?”
Von Seeckt’s feelings of superiority were being tickled by the polite request for aid. When he thought about how this would leave his colleague indebted to him in no small measure, he felt delighted all the more.
“Putting out the fire at our feet has priority. All ships, head back to Iserlohn immediately.”
“Wait just a moment,” someone replied to von Seeckt’s order.
The voice was so quiet as to cast a pall of gloom over the bridge, and yet it riveted the entire room. When von Seeckt saw the officer who had come out before him, an expression welled up on his face of open hatred and opposition. That salt-and-pepper hair, those deathly pale cheeks—it’s Captain von Oberstein again!
“I don’t recall asking your opinion, Captain.”
“I am aware of that. If I may, however?”
“… What do you want?”
“This is a trap. I think it may be better not to return.”
Von Seeckt was silent for a long moment.
Without a word, the commander drew in his lower jaw and glared hatefully at an unpleasant subordinate who said unpleasant things in an unpleasant tone of voice.
“It appears to me that every little thing you see is a trap in your eyes.”
“Excellency, please listen.”
“That’s enough out of you! All ships, come about and head for Iserlohn at combat velocity two. This is a great chance to put those space moles in our debt.”
His broad back moved away from von Oberstein.
“Small men who are full of anger but have no true courage are not worth talking to.”
He spat those words with cool contempt, and von Oberstein turned on his heel and left the bridge. No one tried to stop him.
After stepping into an exclusive elevator that reacted only to the voiceprints of officers, von Oberstein began to descend through the massive ship, equivalent in size to a sixty-story building, heading toward its lowest level.
“Main fortress cannons already charged and ready.”
“Target acquired! We can fire anytime.”
Tense voices filled the air of Iserlohn Fortress’s command room.
“Draw them in just a little more.”
Yang was at von Stockhausen’s command table. He wasn’t seated in the commander’s chair—rather, he was sitting cross-legged atop the table, and in that unseemly position he was staring at an approaching cluster of shining points that covered the giant screen of the tactical display. At last, he took a deep breath and said, “Fire!”
The order Yang had given had not been spoken loudly, but via his headphones, it was transmitted accurately to the gunners.
They tapped their screens.
The gunners watched as masses of light—white, abounding in brilliance—leapt away and bore down upon the swarm of twinkling specks.
Over a hundred ships in the imperial fleet’s vanguard took the assault from Iserlohn’s main battery head-on and were instantly annihilated. The excess of heat and the high concentration of energy did not even give them time to explode. After organic and inorganic matter alike had been vaporized, there remained nothing except a near-perfect emptiness.
The ships that had exploded were those in the second rank of the imperial force and those flanking the vanguard. Ships on the periphery were buffeted by the energies and sent tumbling off course, and even ships positioned outside that region were shaken violently in the aftermath.
Shrieks and screams occupied the communications channels of those imperial ships that had survived that first attack.
“Why are they firing on allies?!”
“No, that’s not right. It’s gotta be those guys who mutinied—”
“What do we do?! We can’t fight back. How do we maneuver away from those main guns?”
Inside the fortress, the alliance force’s officers and troops alike had gasped and fallen silent, their eyes riveted to the screen. They had beheld for the first time the devilish destructive power of Iserlohn’s main battery, dubbed “Thor’s Hammer.”
The entire imperial force was squeezed in the grip of terror. The fortress’s main battery, which up until that moment had been their matchlessly powerful guardian deity, had become an irresistible bludgeon in the hands of an evil spirit, brought down upon their crowns.
“Counterattack! All ships, give me a synchronized barrage from main cannons!” Admiral von Seeckt’s angry cry rolled out like thunder.
In its own way, that cry had the effect of restoring discipline to the confused servicemen. Pallid-countenanced gunners reached for their consoles, synchronized their automated targeting systems, and pressed the buttons on their touch screens. Hundreds of beams traced geometric lines across the void of space.
It was impossible, however, to destroy the outer hull of Iserlohn Fortress with only the power output by ship-based cannons. The bombardment struck the outermost hull, and the beams were deflected, scattering futilely.
The humiliation, defeat, and terror that the officers and crew of the Alliance Armed Forces had in times past tasted was now amplified and fed back to the imperial forces.
Flares of light ten times as thick as the beams unleashed by the ship cannons burst forth once again from Iserlohn Fortress, and again wrought wholesale death and destruction. Gigantic holes had appeared in the columns of the imperial fleet, too wide to close easily, edges adorned with the ruined husks of ships and fragments of the same.
After being fired upon only twice, the imperial force was half paralyzed. The survivors had lost their will to fight, and they were only just barely able to remain where they were.
Yang looked away from the screen and rubbed himself around his stomach. His feeling was, If we don’t go this far, we can’t win this.
Captain von Schönkopf, watching the screen at Yang’s side, gave a purposefully loud cough.
“This isn’t what you call combat, Excellency. This is a one-sided massacre.”
Yang, who turned toward the captain, wasn’t angry.
“I know. You’re exactly right. But we aren’t going to behave like the empire does. Captain, try advising them to surrender. If they don’t want to do that, tell them to retreat and that we won’t chase them.”
“Yes, sir.” Von Schönkopf looked at the young senior officer with deep interest. Other soldiers might also go so far as to advise surrender, but they probably wouldn’t tell the enemy to escape. Was this a strength or a weakness in this most rare of tacticians, Yang Wen-li?
On the bridge of the flagship, a communications officer cried out: “Excellency, there’s a transmission from Iserlohn!” Von Seeckt glared at the man with bloodshot eyes, to which he said: “Iserlohn is occupied by the alliance—I mean, rebel—forces, after all. Their commander, Rear Admiral Yang Wen-li, says the following: “There’s nothing to be gained by further bloodshed. Surrender.’ ”
“Surrender, he says?”
“Yes. And one other thing: ‘If you don’t want to surrender, then retreat—we will not pursue.’ ”
For a moment, faces all around the bridge came alive again. Running away! Finally, an intelligent option! Those lively expressions, however, were erased by a ferocious shout of anger.
“How could we do such a thing!” Von Seeckt stamped on the floor with his uniform boots. Yield Iserlohn to rebels, lose almost half the ships under his command, go back to face His Majesty the Emperor in defeat? Was that what this rebel commander was telling him to do? For von Seeckt, such a thing was impossible. Better to shatter as a priceless jewel, the saying went, than lead a long and shameful life as a worthless tile. The last honor that remained to him now was that of the shattered jewel.
“Communications Officer, transmit the following to the rebel forces.”
As the officers and crew surrounding von Seeckt listened to the content of his message, the color drained from their faces. The fierce light in their commander’s eyes shot right through their countenances.
“On my command, all ships will plot collision courses and charge Iserlohn. Surely none of you would begrudge our lives at a time like this.”
The bridge was silent.
No one answered him.
Meanwhile at Iserlohn, von Schönkopf informed Yang, “There’s a reply from the imperial forces.”
He wore a frown on his face.
“The heart of the warrior thou knowest not; to die and honor’s cause fulfill is the path we know; to live smeared with disgrace is a path we know not.”
“Hmm,” Yang said.
“What he means is that under these circumstances, all they can do now is charge ahead with all ships to die glorious deaths, and in so doing repay his Imperial Highness’s favor.”
“The heart of the warrior?”
Sublieutenant Frederica Greenhill sensed the ring of a bitter anger in Yang’s voice. In fact, Yang was enraged. Want to die to atone for defeat in battle? Fine and dandy. But if you’re gonna do that, why can’t you just die alone? Why take your subordinates with you by force?
It’s because of men like this that the war can’t end, Yang thought. I’ve had enough. Enough of dealing with men like this.
“All enemy ships are charging!” cried an operator.
“Gunners! Concentrate fire on the enemy flagship!”
It was the first time Yang had ever given an order this incisive. Frederica and von Schönkopf stared at their commander, each with their own expression.
“This is the last barrage. If they lose the flagship, the rest of them will run.”
With great care, the gunners targeted their quarry. Countless arrows of light were unleashed by the imperial force, but not even one had any effect.
The sights were aligned perfectly.
And that was when a single escape shuttle was ejected from the stern of the imperial flagship. The humble fleck of silver quickly melted away into the blackness.
Had anyone noticed it? After the space of another breath, rounded pillars of light came stabbing through the darkness a third time.
At their focal point was the imperial flagship, and it looked as though a circular region of space had been sliced out from the rest. Full Admiral von Seeckt, with his angry voice and hulking body, had been reduced to particulates measurable only in microns, along with his ill-fated staff officers.
As the surviving imperial ships realized what had happened, they began to swing their noses around one after another and withdraw from the firing range of Iserlohn Fortress’s main battery. Since the commander calling for their noble and beautiful deaths had vanished, there was no reason to throw their lives away in reckless combat—or rather, one-sided slaughter.
In the midst of them was the shadow of the escape shuttle carrying Captain von Oberstein. As it advanced on semi-autopilot, he cast a glance back over his shoulder at the spherical shape of the colossal fortress that was dwindling in the distance.
In the moment before his death, did Admiral von Seeckt shout “Hail to his Imperial Majesty” or some such? How absurd.
Only the living can retaliate.
Ah well, von Oberstein murmured in his heart. If he had leadership skills and the power to get things done in addition to his resourcefulness, he could take the likes of Iserlohn back anytime. Or even if they just left Iserlohn in the alliance’s hands as things stood, it would lose all its value when the alliance itself was destroyed.
Whom should he choose? There was no one with talent among the blue-blooded aristocrats. Should he pick that young, blond-haired fellow—that Count Reinhard von Lohengramm? There didn’t seem to be anyone else …
Threading past the stricken, fleeing ships of her comrades, the shuttle flew away through the midst of the night.
Inside Iserlohn Fortress, however, a volcano of joy and excitement was erupting, and every open space was occupied by voices of laughter and song, heedless of key or scale. The only ones keeping quiet were the dazed-looking prisoners who had learned of their circumstances, and the director of the big show, Yang Wen-li.
When Frederica answered his call, the young, black-haired admiral was just stepping down to the floor from the command table.
“Contact the alliance homeland. Tell them that it’s over, that we won, and even if I am told to do this again, I can’t. Take care of the rest—I’m gonna find an empty room and get some sleep. At any rate, I’m bushed.”
A windstorm of cheers greeted Yang Wen-li, who had returned to the Free Planets Alliance’s capital of Heinessen.
The great defeat in the Astarte Stellar Region that had happened just recently was promptly forgotten, and Yang’s clever scheme and Marshal Sitolet’s insightful judgment in appointing him were praised to the limits of what flowery language could be devised. At the carefully prepared ceremony and at the banquet which followed, Yang had a fabricated image of himself shoved into his face till he was sick of it.
When he was at last free, Yang returned home with an exasperated expression on his face and poured brandy into some tea that Julian had brewed for him. In the eyes of that young man, the amount seemed a little excessive.
“They’re all the same—nobody understands,” griped the hero of Iserlohn as he took off his shoes, sat down cross-legged on the sofa, and sipped his tea, which had become mostly brandy by this point. “Magic and miracles—they have no idea how hard people work. They just say whatever they feel like. The tactics I used have been around since ancient times. It’s a way to separate the enemy’s main force from their home base and take them out separately. I’m not using any magic—I just added a little spice to that, but if I slip up and fall for their flattery, I might be told next time to go to Odin unarmed and take it over alone.”
And before that happens, I quit, he didn’t say.
“But everyone’s saying such wonderful things about you.” As he spoke, Julian casually moved the bottle of brandy out of Yang’s reach. “I think it’s all right to be honestly glad, just like they want you to be.”
“You’re only praised while you’re winning,” Yang replied in a tone that was neither glad nor what Julian wanted it to be. “If you keep fighting, eventually you lose. Talking about how they turn on you when that happens can be fun if it’s somebody else it’s happening to. And by the way, Julian, can you at least let me drink as much brandy as I want to?”