For the first month, a dazzling excitement was the constant companion of all the alliance’s space fleets. Then the warmth of that friendship cooled, and what remained was disappointment and, even worse, anxiety and impatience. There was a question the men began asking one another—the officers in places where no enlisted men would hear and the enlisted men in places where there were no officers.
Why doesn’t the enemy show themselves?
With Admiral Urannf’s Tenth Fleet in the lead, the alliance force had penetrated roughly five hundred light-years into imperial territory. Two hundred star systems had fallen into their hands, and of those, over thirty were inhabited, albeit with populations whose levels of technological development were low. A total of about fifty million civilians were living on these worlds. The colonial governors, frontier counts, tax officials, and soldiers who were supposed to be governing these people had all fled, and the alliance had been met with virtually no resistance to speak of.
“We are a liberation force.”
That was what the alliance’s pacification officers announced to the throngs of abandoned farmers and miners.
“We promise you liberty and equality. You won’t suffer anymore under the oppression of despotism. You’ll be given full political rights and begin your lives anew as free citizens.”
But to their disappointment, what they found waiting for them were not the fervent cheers they had envisioned. The crowds didn’t show the slightest interest, in fact, and the pacification officers’ impassioned eloquence rolled right off their backs. When the farmers’ representatives spoke, they would say:
“Before you give us any kind of political rights, we’d appreciate it if you’d give us the right to live first. We’ve got no food here. There’s no milk for our babies. The military took it all when they left. Before you promise freedom and equality, can you promise bread and milk?”
“O-of course,” the pacification officers would reply, though inside they were disheartened by these prosaic requests. Nevertheless, they were a liberation force. Guaranteeing the necessities of life to multitudes groaning under the heavy yoke of imperial governance was a duty eclipsing even combat in importance. Foodstuffs were disbursed from each fleet’s supply department, and at the same time, requisitions were sent to Supreme Command Headquarters on Iserlohn: 180 days’ worth of food for fifty million people, seeds for upwards of two hundred varieties of crops, forty production plants for artificial protein, sixty hydroponics plants, and all the ships needed to carry them.
“This is the minimum needed to rescue the liberation zone from a state of perpetual famine. These figures will grow steadily larger as the liberation zone expands.”
Rear Admiral Caselnes, the expeditionary force’s rear service chief of staff, let out an involuntary growl at the sight of that annotation, which came attached to the requisition form. One hundred eighty days’ worth of food for fifty million people? The grain alone would hit ten million tons. To move it would require fifty transport vessels in the two hundred thousand-ton class. Most importantly, that much food greatly exceeded the production and storage capacity of Iserlohn.
“Even if we empty every warehouse on Iserlohn, that only comes to seven million tons. And even with the artificial protein and hydroponics plants running at full capacity—”
Caselnes cut off his subordinate’s report: “It won’t be enough—I know.”
The resupply plan, designed for the thirty million soldiers of the alliance, had been drawn up by Caselnes himself, and he had been confident regarding its implementation.
It would be a different story now, though, because on top of that they had to handle a noncombatant population nearly double the size of the entire expeditionary force. He would need to make corrections to the plan that would triple its scale, and he would need to do it fast. Caselnes could easily imagine the cries from the fleets’ supply departments as they strained under the excessive burden.
“Still, are these pacification officers all imbeciles?”
What was sticking in his craw was that line in the note attached to the requisition form: These figures will grow steadily larger as the liberation zone expands. Didn’t that mean the burden on the resupply effort was only going to get heavier? This was no time for childlike rejoicing over the expansion of seized territory. And furthermore, there was a faint suggestion of something else in all of this—of something that was terrifying.
Caselnes requested a meeting with the supreme commander, Marshal Lobos. In his office, he found Rear Admiral Fork of the operations staff present as well. This he had been expecting; Fork enjoyed a greater share of the supreme commander’s confidence than even his chief of staff, Senior Admiral Greenhill. He could usually be found keeping a watchful eye by his boss’s side, and lately there were whispers that “the Supreme Commander’s nothing but a microphone for the ops staff. When he opens his mouth, it’s really Rear Admiral Fork who’s speaking.”
“This must be about the requisitions from the pacification teams,” Marshal Lobos said, rubbing his meaty jowl. “Whatever it is, I’m busy enough even without it, so make this quick.”
One didn’t get to the rank of marshal by being incompetent. Lobos was a man who knew how to get results on the front lines, methodically process paperwork in the rear, lead large forces, and manage staff. Or at least he had known, until some point during his forties. Now, however, his decline was plain to see. He was lethargic in all things, and his lack of energy was especially noticeable when judgment, insight, and decision making were called for. Which was probably why Rear Admiral Fork was being allowed to do as he pleased, making all the decisions.
There were a number of theories as to what had caused this once-gifted commander to end up like this. Some said that the strain he had put on his mind and body as a young man had resulted in the onset of encephalomalacia, or softening of the brain; others said that it was chronic heart disease, or that he had never gotten over losing out to Sitolet in the race for the director’s seat at Joint Operational Headquarters—the uniformed men unfolded wings of imagination as they gossiped with one another.
When those wings spread too far, theories emerged such as the one where Lobos—who had never met a pretty girl he didn’t like—had caught some horrible disease from a woman with whom he’d shared a night. That particular thesis came with a special extra: the claim that the woman who had given the marshal his ignominious illness had been an imperial spy. Dirty smiles would appear for a moment on the faces of those who heard this rumor, after which their shoulders would draw up as though they’d felt a chill.
“I’ll be brief, Excellency. Our forces are facing a crisis. A very serious crisis.”
Caselnes chanced opening with his sword brandished high and waited to see how Lobos would react. Marshal Lobos stopped the hand that was massaging his chin and shot a doubtful look back at the rear service chief of staff. Rear Admiral Fork twisted his pale lips slightly, though this was merely force of habit.
“What’s this all of a sudden?”
There was no echo of shock or surprise in the marshal’s voice, but Caselnes wondered if he were not so much calm and collected as emotionally stunted.
“You’re aware of the requisitions coming in from the pacification teams?” Caselnes asked, which might have been a rude thing to say. Fork clearly seemed to think so; though he said nothing out loud, the crook of his mouth grew larger. Perhaps he intended to make something of it later.
“I know about them,” said Lobos. “I get the feeling they’re asking for too much myself, but given our occupation policy, what choice do we have?”
“Iserlohn doesn’t have supplies in the quantities they’re demanding.”
“Then pass the requisitions on to the homeland. The bean counters might go into hysterics, but they can’t refuse to send you what you need.”
“Yes, sir, they’ll certainly send it. But once those supplies have reached Iserlohn, what do you think happens next?”
The marshal started stroking his chin again. No matter how hard you rub it, it’s not gonna scrape off all that fat, Caselnes thought.
“What do you mean, Admiral?”
“What I mean is that the enemy’s plan is to overload our capacity to resupply the force.” He spoke in a harsh tone of voice, though what he’d wanted to do was scream, Can’t you even see that! at him.
“In other words, the enemy is going to attack the transport fleet and try to cut off our supply line—that’s your opinion as rear service chief of staff?” said Rear Admiral Fork.
It was disagreeable to be interrupted, but Caselnes nodded.
“But everything from here to the front lines five hundred light-years away is under occupation by our forces. I don’t think there’s any need to be so worried. Though, ah, of course we’ll attach an escort, just in case.”
“I see. Just in case, huh?”
Caselnes said that with all the sarcasm he could muster. What did he care what Fork might think?
Yang, please make it back home alive, Caselnes silently called to his friend. He couldn’t help thinking, This is way too stupid a fight to get killed in.
In the alliance’s capital of Heinessen, a fierce debate was unfolding between factions supporting and opposed to the large-scale requisitions from the expeditionary force.
Those in favor said, “The expedition’s original goal was to liberate a people groaning under the oppression of imperial rule. Rescuing fifty million people from famine is obviously the moral thing to do as well. Furthermore, when people learn that our forces have saved them, that—coupled with their opposition to imperial rule—will cause public sentiment to tilt inevitably in the direction of our alliance. For reasons both military and political, the expeditionary force’s requests should be honored and foodstuffs and other necessities be given to the residents of the occupied zone …”
There was also a counterargument: “This expedition has been poorly planned from the start. The initial plan alone required expenditures totaling two hundred billion dinars—that comes to 5.6 percent of the national budget for this year and more than 10 percent of the military’s budget. Even with those expenses alone, it’s certain we’ll be way over budget when financial accounts are settled. Add in securing the occupied zone and provision of foodstuffs for its residents, and fiscal bankruptcy becomes certain. They should end this campaign, abandon the occupied territories, and return to Iserlohn. Just holding Iserlohn is enough to block incursions from the empire …”
Ideological appeals, cold calculations, and emotions all ran together, and it seemed as if this fierce debate might go on forever.
A report—or rather, a cry—from Iserlohn, however, was what settled the matter: “At least give our soldiers the chance to die in battle. If you spend every day doing nothing, nothing awaits them but inglorious deaths by starvation.”
Supplies were assembled in accordance with the military’s demands, and they began shipping them out, but not long after, additional requisitions came in for almost the same amounts as the previous ones. The occupied zone expanded, and the number of people residing within it swelled to one hundred million. Naturally, there was no way to avoid an increase in the amount of supplies needed …
Those who had supported the earlier requisitions felt humiliated, as one might expect. The opposing side said, “Didn’t we try to tell you? There’s no end to it, is there? Fifty million has turned into a hundred million. Before long, a hundred million will turn into two hundred million. The empire intends to destroy the finances of our alliance. The government and the military blindly walked right into this and are not going to be able to avoid responsibility. We have no other options left. Withdraw!”
“The empire is using the innocent civilians themselves as a weapon to resist our force’s invasion. It’s a despicable tactic, but considering that we’re doing this in the name of liberation and rescue, one can’t help admitting it’s an effective one. We should go ahead and withdraw. Otherwise, our force is going to stagger along under the weight of all the starving civilians it’s carrying and ultimately be pummeled by a full-on counterattack when its strength gives out.”
So spake João Lebello, chairman of the Finance Committee, in the High Council.
Those who had supported the mobilization said not a word. Instead, they merely sat in their seats looking glum—or rather, shell-shocked.
Madam Cornelia Windsor, chairwoman of the Intelligence Traffic Committee, was staring at the ashen screen of a computer terminal displaying nothing, her comely face gone rigid.
By this point, even Madam Windsor knew all too well that there was nothing else to do but withdraw. Nothing could be done about the expenditures thus far, but the nation’s finances could not endure further expenses.
However, if they pulled out now without having achieved any kind of military successes at all, she would lose face for having supported it. Not only those who had opposed this deployment from the start, but also those of the prowar faction presently supporting her, would no doubt seek to hold her politically accountable. The seat of council chair that she had longed for since she first decided to go into politics would recede from her as well.
What were those incompetents at Iserlohn doing? Madam Windsor was seized with a fearsome anger; she ground her teeth and clenched her fists, and her beautifully manicured nails dug into the palms of her hands.
There was no choice but to withdraw, but before that, even if only just once, how about showing everyone a military victory over the Imperial Navy? If they did that, she herself would save face, and this campaign might also avoid being held up as a symbol of folly and waste by future generations.
She glanced over at the elderly council chair. That old man who so thickheadedly, unconcernedly occupied the most powerful seat in the nation …
The head of state, ridiculed as “the one nobody chose.” At the end of a graceless game produced by the mechanics of the political sphere, he had come out on top through no effort of his own, like a fisherman coming upon a sandpiper fighting with a clam, easily taking both. I was fooled into supporting this because he talked about the next election. She hated the chairman from the bottom of her heart for throwing her into this mess.
On the other hand, Defense Committee Chairman Trünicht was feeling quite pleased with the clarity of his own foresight.
It had been obvious to him that things would turn out this way. At its present level of national and military strength, there had been no way the alliance could have successfully invaded the empire. In the very near future, the expeditionary force would meet with miserable defeat, and the current administration would lose the support of the masses. However, Trünicht himself had opposed that ill-conceived deployment, and thus having shown himself a man of true courage and discernment, would not only emerge unscathed by this, he would likely gain the reputation of a true statesman. That would leave only Lebello and Huang to compete with, but they had no support among the military and defense industry. Which meant that, ultimately, the seat of High Council chair would go to Trünicht.
That was what he wanted. In his heart he was smiling with satisfaction. It was he himself who would be called “the greatest head of state in the history of the alliance … the one who brought down the empire.” There was no one save himself who was worthy of the honor.
In the end, the argument for withdrawal was rejected.
“Until some sort of result has been achieved on the front, we shouldn’t do anything that would shackle our forces.”
This was the prowar faction’s argument, delivered in a slightly shamefaced tone of voice. That “result” would for Trünicht be an altogether splendid thing. Although naturally, the sort of result he was counting on was a very far cry from the one the hawks were hoping for.
“Until supplies arrive from the homeland, each fleet should procure the supplies it deems necessary locally.”
When that directive was relayed to the leadership of each of the alliance fleets, faces turned red with anger.
“Procure supplies locally?! Are they telling us to plunder?”
“What’s Iserlohn thinking? Do they think they’ve become pirate chieftains?”
“When your supply plan fails, it’s the first step on the road to strategic defeat. Militarily, that’s just common sense. They’re trying to force the front lines to take the blame for it.”
“Didn’t Supreme Command HQ say the supply system was perfect? What happened to all their big talk?”
“They’re telling us to somehow procure something that was never even here in the first place!”
Though Yang did not join in with this chorus of rumbling complaints, he fully agreed with them. Supreme Command HQ was behaving extremely irresponsibly, but since irresponsible motives had been behind this deployment from the get-go, it had been too much to hope for that there would be any responsibility in its execution and operation. He hated to think what Caselnes must be going through.
Even so, we’re at our limit, he thought. Thanks to its having continued to feed residents of the occupied zone, the Thirteenth Fleet was now just about to reach the bottoms of its stores. The unease and dissatisfaction of Captain Uno, the supply chief, exploded:
“The civilians aren’t looking for ideals or justice. All they care about is their stomachs. If the Imperial Navy were to bring in foodstuffs, they’d bow themselves to the ground, shouting, ‘Hail to His Highness the Emperor!’ They only live to satisfy their base instincts. So why do we have to starve in order to feed them?”
“So we don’t become Rudolf.”
Giving only that for an answer, Yang called Sublieutenant Frederica Greenhill and had her open an FTL comm channel between himself and Admiral Uranff in the Tenth Fleet.
“Well, if it isn’t Yang Wen-li,” said the descendant of ancient horse clans from the comm screen. “It’s rare to hear from you. What’s going on?”
“Glad to see you’re looking well, Admiral Uranff.”
That was a lie. The strong and sharp-eyed Uranff was showing the shadows of weariness and exhaustion all over. Although he came highly praised as a courageous commander, it seemed that problems of an altogether different dimension from that of courage and military strategy were driving the man to his limits.
When asked how his stockpile of foodstuffs was holding out, Uranff’s disgust went up another notch.
“There’s only one week’s worth left. If there’s no resupply before then, we’ll have no choice but compulsory requisi—no, there’s no point dressing it up—to plunder from occupied territory. The liberation force is gonna be shocked when they hear that. Assuming there’s anything down there to plunder.”
“About that, I’ve got an opinion I’d like to share …” Yang said. “How about we just chuck these occupied zones and withdraw?”
“Withdraw?” Uranff’s brows twitched slightly. “Before we’ve exchanged fire even once? Isn’t that a little passive?”
“We should do it while we still can. The enemy is draining our supplies and waiting for us to starve. And why do you think that is?”
Uranff thought for a moment. “Most likely, they’ll hit us with everything they’ve got. The enemy has the home-field advantage, and their supply lines will be short.”
“Hmm …” Uranff was famed for his daring, but it was no surprise that a chill seemed to have run down his spine. “But if we withdraw in a chaotic rush, we’ll just end up inviting the enemy offensive, won’t we? In which case, we’ll make matters a whole lot worse.”
“The big prerequisite is being prepared to fight back. If we pull out now, we can do that, but if we wait until our men and women are starving, it’ll be too late. The most we can do is retreat in an orderly fashion before that happens.”
Yang made his case vehemently. Uranff listened in silence.
“Also, the enemy will have their forecast for the time they think we’ll be getting really hungry. If they see us pulling out, interpret it as a full-fledged retreat, and come charging after us, there’ll be any number of ways we can fight back. On the other hand, if they think it’s a trap because we’re leaving too early, well, that’s fine, too—we might just be able to withdraw unscathed. The odds of that are not very high, though, and they’ll only get lower with each passing day.”
Uranff thought about it, and it didn’t take long to reach a decision.
“All right. You’re probably right. We’ll begin preparations for withdrawal. But how should we go about informing the other fleets?”
“I’m about to put a call in to Admiral Bucock. If I can get him to contact Iserlohn, it should carry more weight than if I do it …”
“Very well, let’s both make this happen as fast as we can.”
As soon as Yang had finished conferring with Uranff, an urgent communiqué arrived.
“A civilian riot has broken out in the Seventh Fleet’s occupation zone. The scale is extremely large. It was caused by the military’s suspension of food distribution.”
Frederica wore an agonized, frustrated expression as she gave the report.
“How did the Seventh Fleet deal with it?”
“They put it down temporarily by using infirmity gas, but it apparently started up again the minute the effects wore off. It’s probably just a matter of time before the military escalates its methods of resistance.”
Yang couldn’t help thinking, This whole thing has turned into a tragedy.
An alliance invasion calling itself a liberation force—a force for protecting the people—had turned the masses into its enemies. At this stage of the game, there was probably no longer any way to dissolve the mutual distrust. Meaning that the empire had succeeded splendidly in tearing the alliance forces and the occupied people apart.
“Absolutely splendid, Count von Lohengramm.”
I couldn’t have done this … taking it this far, this thoroughly. Even if I knew I could win if I did it, I just couldn’t. That’s the difference between Count von Lohengramm and me, and that’s the reason he terrifies me.
Because someday, it may well be that difference that leads to disaster …
The voice of the old admiral was scathing. In force and gravitas, there was no way Fork could come close to matching it.
The young staff officer was taken aback for just an instant before haughtily retorting, “Appointments with His Excellency the Supreme Commander, as well as reports and the like, all go through me. What is your reason for requesting an appointment?”
“I don’t have to talk to you.”
Even Bucock forgot his age for a moment, assuming the posture of someone spoiling for a fight.
“Then I can’t connect you.”
“What … ?”
“No matter how high your rank, you have to observe the rules. Shall I end this transmission?”
You made up those rules yourself, didn’t you! thought Bucock, though in this case he had no choice but to concede.
“All the fleet commanders on the front lines want to withdraw. I’d like to obtain the supreme commander’s consent in this matter.”
“Did you say ‘withdraw’?” Rear Admiral Fork’s lips twisted into the very shape the old admiral had been expecting. “Admiral Yang might say something like that, but I didn’t expect to hear someone as renowned for his courage as you, Admiral Bucock, arguing for withdrawal without combat.”
“Stop it with the cheap shots,” Bucock said. “We wouldn’t be in this mess if you people hadn’t come up with such a slipshod deployment proposal in the first place. Try feeling just a little bit responsible.”
“This is the perfect chance to slaughter the Imperial Navy in one fell swoop. What are you so afraid of? If I was in your shoes, I wouldn’t withdraw.”
That insolent and thoughtless remark set off flashes like supernovas in the old admiral’s eyes.
“Is that so? Fine, then—I’ll switch places with you. I’ll come back to Iserlohn, and you can come to the front in my place.”
Fork’s lips were reaching a point at which they could twist no further.
“Please don’t suggest the impossible.”
“You’re the one insisting on impossibilities. And you’re doing it without budging from the safe place where you’re sitting.”
“Are you insulting me, sir?”
“I’m just sick and tired of listening to lofty-sounding words,” Bucock said. “If you want to show your talent, you should do it with a record of accomplishments, not eloquent speeches. How about giving command a try and finding out whether or not you’ve got what it takes to give orders to others?”
The old admiral fancied he could hear the sound of the blood draining from Fork’s narrow face. What he saw, however, was not his imagination. The young staff officer’s eyes lost focus as confusion and terror spread out over his features. His nostrils flared, and his mouth opened into a bent quadrilateral. He raised both his hands, hiding his face from Bucock’s view, and after a pause of about one second, a cry rang out that was somewhere between a moan and a scream.
Bucock looked on speechlessly as the image of Rear Admiral Fork sank down below the bottom of his comm screen. In Fork’s place, he saw figures running back and forth, but for the moment there was no one to explain what was going on.
“What’s happened to him?” he asked Lieutenant Clemente, the aide who was standing off to one side.
But Clemente didn’t know either.
The old admiral was made to wait in front of the screen for about two minutes.
At last, a young medical officer in a white uniform appeared on the screen and saluted.
“Sir, this is Lieutenant Commander Yamamura. I’m a medical officer. At present, His Excellency Rear Admiral Fork is being treated in the infirmary. Please allow me to explain the situation.”
Something about Yamamura struck Bucock as a little self-important. “What’s wrong with him?”
“Neurogenic blindness brought on by conversion hysteria.”
“Yes, sir. Feelings of frustration or failure caused him to become abnormally agitated, and this temporarily paralyzed his optic nerves. He’ll be able to see again in about fifteen minutes, but at times like this it’s possible for episodes to happen any number of times. The cause is psychological, so unless the cause can be removed—”
“What can be done about it?” Bucock demanded.
“You mustn’t oppose him. You mustn’t engender any feelings of failure or defeat in him. Everyone should do as he says, and everything needs to go his way.”
“Are you being serious, Medical Officer?”
“These are symptoms we sometimes see in small children who grow up in environments where they always get their way, and develop abnormally large egos. It’s not a problem of good and evil. The only important thing is that his ego and desires be satisfied. Therefore, it won’t be until the admirals apologize for their rudeness, give their all in executing his plan, and realize victory so that he becomes an object of praise … that the cause of his illness will be resolved.”
“Well, I’m awfully grateful to hear that.” Bucock was in no mood for losing his temper. “So thirty million soldiers have to stand in the jaws of death in order to cure this guy’s hysteria? That’s just wonderful. I’m so moved I think I’m just gonna drown in a sea of tears.”
The medical officer made a weak smile. “If we focus on the single point of curing His Excellency Rear Admiral Fork’s illness, that is what it will take. If we widen our view to include the entire military, a different way of solving the problem presents itself, naturally.”
“Exactly—he should resign,” the old admiral barked. “It may be for the best this has happened. The imperial military would be dancing for joy if they learned that the strategist in charge of thirty million troops has the mentality of a kid crying for chocolate.”
After a slight hesitation, Yamamura said, “In any case, I’m not authorized to speak on any matter outside of his medical condition. I’ll put on His Excellency the Joint Chief of Staff …”
Disgusted, Bucock thought, So the unofficial wedding of politicians hoping for an election victory and a bright young soldier given to childish fits of hysteria has resulted in thirty million troops being mobilized. You’d have to be a self-intoxicated masochist or one serious warmonger to hear that and genuinely want to fight harder.
“Admiral …” The man who replaced the medical officer on the comm screen was Senior Admiral Greenhill, the expeditionary force joint chief of staff. There was a deep shadow of anxiety on his handsome, gentlemanly face.
“Well, Admiral Greenhill, I’m sorry to bother you at such a busy time.” It was one of the old admiral’s virtues that people just couldn’t hate him, even when he was being openly sarcastic.
Greenhill smiled the same sort of smile that the naval doctor had. “I’m sorry as well that you had to see such an unsightly moment. We’ll need the supreme commander’s sanction, but I think we’ll be giving Rear Admiral Fork some R & R right away …”
“In that case, how about the proposal from the Thirteenth Fleet to withdraw? I’m 100 percent in favor. The men on the front lines are in no shape for combat, mentally or physically.”
“Wait just a minute. This also requires the supreme commander’s sanction. Please understand, I can’t give you an answer right away.”
Vice Admiral Bucock gave him a look that said he had had about enough of bureaucratic answers.
“I’m aware this may sound indiscreet, Admiral, but I wonder if you could arrange for me to speak directly with the supreme commander?”
“The supreme commander is taking a nap right now,” Greenhill said.
The old admiral’s white eyebrows drew together, and he blinked his eyes rapidly. Then, slowly, he asked: “What did you just say, Admiral?”
Senior Admiral Greenhill’s reply was all the more solemn. “The supreme commander is taking a nap. His orders are not to wake him for anything outside of an enemy attack, so I will relay your request to him when he wakes. Please, wait until then.”
To that, Bucock made no attempt at answering. His eyebrows quivered so slightly that the movement was almost undetectable. “Very well. I understand very well.”
Well over a minute passed before the old admiral continued, in a voice of tightly restrained emotion. “I’m just carrying out the duty I have as a frontline commander toward the lives of my subordinates. Thank you for your trouble. When the supreme commander wakes, please tell him that Bucock called and hopes he had pleasant dreams.”
Bucock cut the transmission from his end, staring with a heavy expression at the comm screen, which had become a monotonous shade of grayish white.
Reinhard finished reading the reconnaissance team’s report, nodded once, and summoned the red-haired vice admiral Siegfried Kircheis. To him, he assigned a mission of great import.
“A fleet of supply ships will be dispatched from Iserlohn to the front lines. That’s the enemy’s lifeline. Take all the forces I’ve given you and go smash it. I’ll leave the details to your own discretion.”
“As you wish.”
“Use whatever intelligence, organizations, and supplies that you need.”
Kircheis saluted, turned on his heel, and started to leave, but Reinhard suddenly called him to a halt. His friend looked back mistrustfully, to which the young imperial marshal said, “This is to win, Kircheis.”
Reinhard knew. He knew that Kircheis was critical of the harsh tactic he’d employed, of letting the people in the occupied territories starve in order to shackle the enemy’s hands and feet. It didn’t show in Kircheis’s face, let alone in his words, but Reinhard understood only too well. He knew the kind of man that Siegfried Kircheis was.
Kircheis saluted once more and left the room. Then Reinhard informed the rest of the admirals.
“While Admiral Kircheis is knocking out the rebel supply fleet, our forces will launch an all-out assault. At that time, I’ll put out a false report that the delivery fleet came under fire but is now safe. That’s to prevent the rebel force from losing its last hope and resorting to the actions of a cornered animal. At the same time, it’s also to keep them from realizing we’ve gone on the offense—naturally, they’ll realize at some point, but the later the better.”
He glanced over at the man who was sitting by his side. Before, it had always been a tall, redheaded youth at his side. Now it was a man with half-silvered hair—Paul von Oberstein. Though he had made the decision to put von Oberstein there himself, it still felt a little strange.
“Furthermore, our supply corps will provide food to the people the moment the occupied territories are recovered. Although this was permitted in order to oppose the rebel invasion, driving His Majesty’s subjects to starvation was never our military’s wish. Furthermore, this is a measure necessary to demonstrate to the residents of the frontier that it’s the empire alone which is responsible enough to rule them.”
Reinhard’s true intent was not to win hearts and minds for the empire, but for himself, although there was no need to go out of his way to tell them that here and now.
The alliance transport fleet, under the command of Admiral Gledwin Scott, consisted of one hundred transport vessels in the hundred thousand-ton class and twenty-six escort craft. Regarding the number of escorts, Rear Admiral Caselnes, the rear service chief of staff, had argued, “That’s not enough—at least give them a hundred!” but the request had been denied.
The reasons given had been that the empire seemed unlikely to send a very large force to attack a transport fleet and that dispatching too many ships would leave Iserlohn’s security forces shorthanded.
What kind of excuse is that, when you’re sitting far removed from the front lines in an “impregnable” fortress? Caselnes was so angry he was about to burst.
Admiral Scott was far more optimistic than Caselnes. When Caselnes had told him just before departure to be on the lookout for enemies, Scott had brushed off the admonition, and even now he wasn’t on his bridge but in his cabin enjoying 3-D chess with a subordinate.
When fleet staff officer Commander Nikolsky came to get him, his face was as white as a sheet. Scott, who had been just about to put his opponent in check, asked crossly, “Something happen on the front? I hear a lot of noise out there.”
“On the front?” Commander Nikolsky stared back at his commander in disbelief. “This is the front. Can you not see that, Excellency?”
Held in his fingertips, a small panel connected to the bridge’s main screen was showing a rapidly expanding cloud of white light.
Admiral Scott was speechless for a moment. Not even he could believe those were friendlies. A surprisingly large enemy force was enveloping them.
“This many …” Scott finally squeezed out. “I can’t believe it! Why this many for one measly transport fleet?”
As he was racing down the corridor to the bridge in a hydrogen-powered car driven by Nikolsky, the admiral kept asking stupid questions. Don’t you understand the point of your own mission? Nikolsky was about to say, when the cry of an operator burst from the hall speakers:
“Multiple enemy missiles, closing!”
An instant later, that cry became a veritable scream.
“Unable to respond! There are too many!”
A communications officer stood up from his station chair and turned toward Reinhard, face flushed with excitement. “Message from Admiral Kircheis! Good news, sir. Enemy transport fleet annihilated. In addition, twenty-six escort ships destroyed. Our side’s losses limited to one battleship with moderate damage and fourteen walküren …”
Shouts of joy filled the bridge. Though the Imperial Navy’s repeated pullbacks had been born of strategic necessity, it had nonetheless been in retreat ever since the fall of Iserlohn, and for its soldiers, this was the thrill of victory that had been missing for far too long.
“Mittermeier, von Reuentahl, Wittenfeld, Kempf, Mecklinger, Wahlen, Lutz: follow the plan, and hit the rebel forces with everything you have.”
Reinhard gave the assembled admirals who were standing by their orders.
The admirals responded with a hearty “Yes, sir!” and were about to depart for the front lines when Reinhard called them all to a halt and ordered an attendant to bring wine for each of them. It was an advance celebration of their victory.
“Victory is already assured. But more than that, we have to make this victory a perfect one. The conditions are all in order. Do not allow those rebel upstarts to return home alive. May the favor of our great lord Odin be upon you. Prosit!”
“Prosit!” the admirals shouted in chorus. Then, after draining their glasses, they hurled them to the floor as was the custom. Innumerable shards of light danced brilliantly across the floor.
After the admirals had left, Reinhard stared fixedly at his screen. There he could make out a cluster of sterile, inorganic lights that were infinitely colder and more distant than the scattered flecks of light upon the floor. He loved those lights, however. It was to take hold of those lights and make them his own that he was where he was right now …
October 10 of the Standard Calendar, 1600.
Admiral Uranff, who was positioning his fleet in orbit above Planet Lügen according to gravity-gradient stabilization, could tell that the enemy attack was coming. Of the twenty thousand reconnaissance satellites that had been positioned throughout the region, about one hundred of them in the two o’clock direction had ceased transmitting images after displaying countless points of light.
“Here they come,” Uranff murmured. He felt a current of tension running through him all the way to his terminal nerves. “Operator, how long until contact with the enemy?”
“Between six and seven minutes, sir.”
“All right, then. All ships: prepare for all-out war. Communications officer: send messages to Supreme Command HQ and the Thirteenth Fleet. ‘We have met the enemy.’ ”
Alarms rang out, and orders and responses flew back and forth across the bridge of the flagship.
“The Thirteenth Fleet will eventually be coming to assist us,” Uranff told his subordinates. “That’s ‘Miracle Yang.’ When that happens, we can catch the enemy in a pincer. Don’t doubt our victory.”
Sometimes commanders had to make their subordinates believe things that they didn’t even believe themselves. Yang will probably be under attack by multiple enemies at the same time we are and not have the luxury of coming to assist the Tenth Fleet, Urannf thought.
The Imperial Navy’s massive attack had begun.
“Excellency! There’s an FTL from Admiral Uranff.”
“They’re under attack?”
“Yes, sir. He says combat with the enemy began at 1607.”
“So it’s finally started …”
An alarm rang out at that moment, drowning out the tail end of his words. Five minutes later, the Thirteenth Fleet was exchanging fire with an imperial force led by Admiral Kempf.
“Enemy missiles closing from eleven o’clock!”
At the operator’s cry, Captain Marino, captain of the flagship Hyperion, made a quick-witted response: “Eject decoys! Heading nine o’clock!”
Yang remained silent and focused on his own job, which was operational command of the fleet. Defense and counterattack at the individual ship level was the job of the captain; if a fleet commander were to involve himself to that extent, first of all, his nerves would never hold.
Missiles tipped with laser-triggered fusion warheads bore down on them like ferocious hunting dogs.
To counter them, decoy rockets were fired. These emitted tremendous amounts of heat and electromagnetic radiation to fool the missiles’ detection systems. The missiles in the cluster turned their noses at sharp angles and went after the decoys.
An ominous glow was steadily filling the black void as energy collided with energy and matter clashed against matter.
“Spartanians, stand by for launch!”
The order was relayed, and a pleasant tension ran through the minds and bodies of several thousand spartanian crew members. These were children such as the war god Ares might grant his petitioners, possessed of fierce confidence in their skills and reflexes, to whom the fear of death was but an object of ridicule.
“All right, let’s head out and go around!”
The man who gave this enthusiastic shout aboard the flagship Hyperion was ace pilot Lieutenant Waren Hughes.
Hyperion was carrying four aces. Besides Hughes, there were lieutenants Salé Aziz Cheikly, Olivier Poplin, and Ivan Konev. To show off their titles, each had had an ace mark of spades, diamonds, hearts, or clubs stenciled in special paint onto the hull of his favored spartanian. Having nerve enough to think of warfare as a sport was likely one factor that had kept them alive this long.
After leaping into his spartanian, Poplin shouted out to the mechanic, “I’m shooting down five, so start chilling the champagne!”
But the answer that came back wasn’t what he’d expected:
“There’s no way that’s happening, but I’ll at least get you some water!”
“At least try and play along,” Poplin grumbled, as he and the other three pirouetted out into the space together. The wings of the spartanians shone with rainbow hues, reflecting the light of distant explosions. Missiles rushed toward them with hostile intent, and beams came racing in to attack.
“Think you can hit me?!” Poplin shouted.
All four men were making similar boasts. It was the pride of warriors who had crossed the lines of death any number of times and yet lived to tell the tale that was making them do so.
Showing off divine skill, they banked sharply, dodging past missiles. The slender trunks of the missiles that attempted to follow them, unable to endure the sudden shift in g-force, broke apart from their centers. Up ahead, imperial walküren danced into view, tilting their wings back and forth as if in ridicule as they came in spoiling for a dogfight.
Hughes, Cheikly, and Konev met them gladly, and one by one enemy craft exploded into balls of flame.
One of the alliance aces—Poplin—was flushed crimson with anger and suspicion, however. At a rate of 140 rounds per second, he was firing on the enemy with uranium-238 rounds. These had excellent armor-piercing ability and became superheated and exploded upon striking a target—yet all his shots were merely being swallowed up by the void, hitting nothing.
Without his help, the other three had already drawn first blood, destroying a total of seven enemy fighters.
“What’s the matter with you?” Vice Admiral Kempf, commanding officer of the imperial force, said with a sharp exhalation of disgust.
Kempf was an ace pilot himself—a hero of many battles who in his silver-winged walküre had flung dozens of enemy craft at the Grim Reaper’s feet. Though he was extremely tall, the breadth of his body was such that people didn’t really notice. His brown hair was cut short.
“Why are you wasting time on enemies like that? Form half-envelopment formations to their afts and drive them into firing range of the battleships!”
Those instructions were right on target. Three walküren assumed a half-envelopment formation to the aft of Lieutenant Hughes’s spartanian and skillfully maneuvered him into a battleship’s firing range. Realizing the danger, Hughes banked sharply and sent a hail of U-238 rounds into the cockpit of one enemy fighter, and then tried to thread his way through the gap he had opened. However, he had failed to take into account the enemy battleship’s auxiliary cannons. Beams flared, erasing both Hughes and his ship from this world in a single shot.
Cheikly was also felled using the same tactic. The remaining two aces barely managed to shake off their pursuers, and ducked into a blind spot of the battleships’ cannons.
Poplin’s sense of self-respect had been hopelessly wounded. It was bad enough that Konev had sent four enemies to their graves already, but Poplin, unable to shoot down a single enemy, had done nothing but run, dodging back and forth.
When he discovered the reason why not a single round had hit its target, his sorrow blazed forth into fury. When he returned to the mother ship, he jumped down from the cockpit, ran toward a mechanic, and grabbed him by the collar.
“Bring out that murdering chief mechanic! I’m gonna kill him!”
When Tech Lieutenant Toda, the chief mechanic, came running, Poplin gave his vitriol free rein.
“The sights on my guns are nine to twelve degrees off! Are you even servicing them, you salary-thieving—!”
Tech Lieutenant Toda’s eyebrows shot upward.
“I’m doing my job—I take good care of them. After all, a human you can make for free, but a fighter craft costs a lot of money.”
“That supposed to be funny, jackass?”
Poplin flung his pilot’s helmet to the ground; it caromed off the floor and went high up into the air. Poplin’s green eyes burned with anger.
In contrast, Toda’s gaze narrowed and sharpened. “You wanna go a round, dragonfly?”
“Bring it on. I’ve lost count how many imperials I’ve killed, but every one of ’em was a better man than you. I’ll even give you a handicap—one hand’s plenty for the likes of you!”
“Listen to you! Trying to shift blame for your own mistakes!”
There were shouts at them to control themselves, but by that time the punches were already flying. Blows were exchanged two or three times, but finally Toda, driven into a purely defensive fight, began to stagger. Just as Poplin’s arm was drawing back again, however, someone grabbed hold of it.
“Enough of that, you fool!” said a disgusted Commodore von Schönkopf.
Things settled down right away. There was no one who failed to acknowledge the hero of the capture of Iserlohn. Though naturally, for von Schönkopf himself, it was terribly disappointing to have no other role in the fighting but this.
Furthermore, all vessels under his command were painted black and known collectively as the Schwarz Lanzenreiter, or Black Lancers. This force was the very embodiment of swift and violent strength. Uranff had fought a tough, shrewd battle, delivering a steady stream of damage to this force. However, he had taken just as much in return—not percentagewise, but in terms of raw numbers.
Wittenfeld had a larger force than Uranff did, and furthermore, his troops hadn’t been going hungry. Both the commanding officer and his subordinates were fresh and full of energy, and although they were taking considerable casualties, they succeeded at last in fully enveloping the alliance fleet.
The Tenth Fleet, unable to advance or retreat, had no way to avoid the concentrated fire of Wittenfeld’s fleet.
“Fire at will! If you shoot, you’re bound to hit something!”
The imperial force’s gunnery officers rained a monsoon of energy beams and missiles down on the densely clustered vessels of the alliance fleet.
Energy-neutralization fields ruptured, and hulls were pounded by unendurable shocks. The concussions finally breached the interiors, filling the ships with explosions, and soldiers and officers were vaporized by hot, murderous gales.
Pulled by the planetary gravity, shattered vessels that had lost propulsion were now falling. Among the planet’s inhabitants, children forgot their hunger for a brief while, enthralled by the ominous beauty of the countless shooting stars screaming across the night sky.
The Tenth Fleet’s armed potential was just about exhausted. Conditions were terrible: 40 percent of all vessels had been lost, and half of the ships that remained were unable to continue fighting.
Rear Admiral Cheng, the fleet’s chief of staff, turned toward the commander with a face gone white as a sheet.
“Excellency, it’s no longer possible to continue combat operations. All we can do now is decide whether to surrender or run.”
“So it’s one dishonor or the other, is it?” Vice Admiral Uranff said, showing a hint of self-deprecation. “Surrender is not in my nature. Let’s try to run. Relay the order to all ships.”
But even to run, they would need to blaze a bloody trail through enemy lines. Uranff reorganized his remaining force into a spindle formation and slammed all of it at once against one point of the encirclement. Uranff knew how to concentrate his force and use it.
Using this bold and clever maneuver, he succeeded in extricating half his subordinates from the jaws of death. He was killed in action himself, however.
His flagship had stayed in the encirclement to the last, and at the very moment it had attempted to break through, had taken a direct hit from an enemy beam up one of its missile tubes and blown apart.
Vice Admiral Borodin, commander of the Twelfth Fleet, under assault by Vice Admiral Lutz, had fought until a scant eight gunships remained to him, and when both battle and escape became impossible, had shot himself through the head with his own blaster. Fleet command had passed to Rear Admiral Connally, who stood down and surrendered.
The other fleets were also under attack—the Fifth Fleet by von Reuentahl, the Ninth by Mittermeier, the Seventh by Kircheis (who had already destroyed the transport fleet), the Third by Wahlen, and the Eighth by Mecklinger—and pullback had piled upon pullback.
The sole exception was Yang’s Thirteenth Fleet. He had employed a clever half-moon formation against Kempf’s fleet, dodging the enemy’s attacks and bleeding them with alternating strikes on their port and starboard flanks.
Surprised at the unexpected amount of damage he was taking, Kempf had decided that it was better to grit his teeth and choose drastic surgery than to stay the course and die miserably from blood loss. He elected to retreat and regroup his forces.
Seeing the enemy pulling back, Yang made no attempt at using the opening to go on the offense. What matters in this battle is surviving it, not winning it, Yang was thinking. Even if we were to beat Kempf here, the enemy would still have the overall advantage. In the end we’d just end up getting pounded from all sides when the other regiments ganged up on us. The thing to do is run as far from here as we can while the enemy’s pulling back.
In a grave and solemn voice, Yang addressed his forces:
“Attention! All ships: run away!”
The Thirteenth Fleet ran away. But in an orderly fashion.
Kempf couldn’t help being surprised when the enemy—which had the advantage—not only did not give chase, but began a rapid pullback. Though he had been bracing himself for considerable losses when they pursued and attacked, he had been duped instead.
“Why don’t they use their advantage and attack?”
Kempf was both soliciting opinions from his staff officers and wondering aloud.
His subordinates’ responses were split into two camps—the hypothesis that “the alliance force must be rushing to the aid of another force that’s in trouble” and the hypothesis that “their aim is to deliver a killing blow by showing us an opening and inviting us to thoughtlessly go on the offense.”
Ensign Theodor von Rücke, a young officer fresh out of officers’ school, opened his mouth fearfully. “Sir—I mean, Commander—I think it’s possible that they don’t want to fight and are just trying to get away.”
This suggestion went completely ignored, and Ensign von Rücke backed down, alone and red-faced with embarrassment. No one—himself included—understood that he was closer than any of them to the truth.
Kempf, who had a lot of common sense as a strategist, arrived after much thought at the conclusion that the enemy pullback was a trap, and giving up the idea of a second counterattack, set to the regrouping of his fleet.
Meanwhile, Yang Wen-li and his forces continued their escape, arriving in a region of space the imperial forces called War Zone C. There, imperial forces engaged them again, and a new battle began to unfold.
Meanwhile, the Ninth Fleet, commanded by Admiral Al Salem, was under withering assault from Mittermeier’s imperial fleet and had been set to flight repeatedly. Admiral Al Salem was struggling desperately to prevent the chain of command from collapsing.
The swiftness of Mittermeier’s pursuit and assault was such that the vanguard of the pursuing imperial fleet and the rear guard of the fleeing alliance fleet actually got jumbled together, with ships of both forces flying side by side in parallel. One soldier after another was flabbergasted to see the markings of enemy vessels up close through the portholes.
Also, the high matter-density readings detected in that narrow region of space sent the collision-avoidance systems of every ship into overdrive. Whatever direction they tried to turn, however, they found the way was blocked by both enemy and friendly ships, and some vessels had even started spinning as a result.
They did not exchange fire. It was plain to see that if vast energies were released with the ships packed so closely together, an unstoppable chain reaction would result, and all of them would perish together.
Still, bumps and collisions did occur. This was because collision-avoidance systems, unable to find a safe direction in which to advance, had been driven to a horrid state of autonomy, causing some ships to switch over to manual piloting to keep them from going mad.
The astrogators were sweating hard, and this had nothing to do with the temperature-control function of their combat suits. Clinging to their control panels, they could see the enemy right in front of them, struggling with the shared goal of avoiding collisions.
The chaos finally ended when Mittermeier ordered his subordinates to drop speed and increase the distance between the two fleets. Of course, all this meant for the alliance forces was that the enemy fleet was regrouping and would presently return to its strategy of pursue and attack. As the imperial force put a safe distance between itself and the enemy fleet, the alliance’s ships and soldiers were steadily lost amid the deluge of enemy fire.
The hull of the flagship Palamedes was damaged in seven places as well, and the fleet commander, Vice Admiral Al Salem, was injured, with broken ribs. His vice commander, Rear Admiral Morton, took over in his stead and just barely kept the remaining force together, treading a long road toward defeat.
The hardships of the path to defeat were of course not theirs alone.
Each of the alliance fleets was enduring that same sorrow now. Even Yang Wen-li’s Thirteenth Fleet was no longer an exception.
By that time, Yang’s Thirteenth, having retreated to a distance of six light-hours from the site of the initial battle, had been forced into a fight with enemies four times more numerous. Moreover, Kircheis, commander of the Warzone C imperial forces, had already set the Seventh Fleet running for their lives and was committing forces and supplies to his front line constantly in order to wear down Yang’s fleet through uninterrupted combat.
This tactic was an orthodox one—not the product of some clever strategy—but it was extremely reliable when put into operation, causing Yang to sigh, “No opening to attack, no opening to run. It seems that Count von Lohengramm has some excellent people working for him. Nothing strange or flamboyant—just good tactics.”
He couldn’t help being impressed. For although he was using orthodox tactics, it was clear that his numerically inferior alliance force was being driven to defeat.
After thinking about it, Yang decided on the tack he should take: abandon the space they had secured and yield it to the enemy’s hands. However, Yang’s orderly retreat would draw the enemy into the midst of a U formation, and then, when their ranks and supply lines were stretched to the breaking point, he would counterattack from three sides with all his forces.
“There’s no other option. And naturally, it depends on the enemy going for it …”
If he’d had the time to accumulate force strength and perfect independence of command, Yang’s strategy might have both secured some measure of success and put a stop to the imperial force’s advance.
However, he was ultimately unable to do either. While enduring the fierce onslaught of imperial forces approaching in overwhelming volume, Yang was struggling to regroup his fleet into the U formation when new orders arrived for him from Iserlohn.
The 14th day of the present month,
Concentrate forces at Point A of the Amritsar star system. Cease combat immediately and change course.
When Yang heard those instructions, Frederica saw a shadow of bitter disappointment flash across his face. It was gone in an instant, but in its place he let out a sigh.
“Easy for you to say.”
That was all that he said, but Frederica understood how hard it would be to retreat under these circumstances, right in front of the enemy. They were not up against an incompetent, either. Kempf was in the same position: if he could have pulled back, he would have done so from the start. He was fighting on because he couldn’t do otherwise.
Yang followed his orders. But during that difficult fighting retreat, the casualties among his fleet were doubled.
“Though the enemy continues to flee, they’re retaining such order as they are able and would seem to be making for Amritsar.”
“That’s near the entrance to the Iserlohn Corridor. But I don’t think this is merely an attempt to flee inside. What do you think?”
“That they likely intend to gather their strength and take the offensive again. Though it’s a little too late, it looks like they’ve realized the foolishness of spreading their forces so thinly across our space.”
“It is indeed too late.”
Scratching with well-formed fingers at the golden hair that spilled down from his forehead to his eyebrows, Reinhard smiled a cold little smile.
“How shall we respond, Excellency?”
“Naturally, we’ll gather our forces at Amritsar as well. Why deny the enemy their wish, if it’s to make Amritsar their graveyard?”