The voice of the star Amritsar was ever raised in a soundless roar. In its fearsome inferno of nuclear fusion, countless atoms collided, split apart, and reformed, and the tireless repetition of that cycle spilled unimaginable energies out into the void. Varied elements produced multicolored flames that erupted in dynamic bursts of motion measured in the tens of thousands of kilometers, painting the worlds of its respective onlookers in reds, yellows, or purples.
“I don’t like this.”
Vice Admiral Bucock’s whitish eyebrows were drawn together as he peered at the comm panel.
Yang nodded in agreement. “It’s an ominous color,” he said. “No doubt about it.”
“Well, the color is, too, but it’s the name of this star I don’t like.”
“Amritsar, you mean?”
“The initial is A, same as Astarte. I can’t help thinking it’s an unlucky letter for our side.”
“I hadn’t thought about it enough to notice.”
Yang was in no mood to make light of the old admiral’s concern. After half a century spent in the empty depths, there were special sensitivities and heuristics that men such as he developed. Yang was more inclined to put stock in the superstitious words of the old admiral than in the decisions of Supreme Command Headquarters, which had designated Amritsar as the site of the decisive battle.
Yang was hardly feeling high-spirited at this point. Although he had fought hard and well, this retreat had cost him one-tenth of the ships under his command, while also putting an end to his attempt at a counterattack. All that he felt now was exhaustion. While his fleet was being resupplied by Iserlohn, while the wounded were being sent back to the rear, and while the formation was being regrouped, Yang had gone to a tank bed to rest, but mentally it hadn’t refreshed him in the slightest.
This isn’t going to work, he thought. The Tenth Fleet, having lost its commander and more than half of its force strength, had also been placed under Yang’s command. It seemed even Supreme Command HQ had in some way acknowledged his ability—in managing the remnants of defeated forces, if nothing else—but he wasn’t feeling grateful for the added responsibility. There were limits to both his abilities and his sense of responsibility, and no matter how much might be expected of him—or how strongly his arm might be twisted—the impossible was still impossible. I’m not Griping Yusuf, but confound it, why do you have to give me such a hard time?
“At any rate,” Bucock had said just before ending the transmission, “I wish that bunch at Supreme Command HQ would come out to the front themselves and have a look around. They might understand just a little bit of what the men are going through.”
He had called to discuss adjustments to the positioning of their ships, but the conversation’s latter half had turned into an excoriation of Supreme Command Headquarters. Yang hadn’t felt like telling him he’d gotten off the subject. He, too, felt the same sense of exasperation.
“Please have something to eat, Excellency.”
Yang turned around from the now blank comm panel and saw Sublieutenant Frederica Greenhill standing there holding a tray. On it was a roll of roast gluten stuffed with sausage and vegetables, winged bean soup, a slice of calcium-fortified rye bread, fruit salad smothered in yogurt, and an alkaline drink flavored with royal jelly.
“Thanks,” he said, “but I’ve got no appetite. I sure would like a glass of brandy, though …”
The look in his aide’s eyes denied the request. Yang looked back at her, broadcasting objection.
“Why not?” he finally said.
“Hasn’t Julian told you you drink too much?”
“What, you two have ganged up on me?”
“We’re concerned about your health.”
“There’s no need to be that concerned. Even if I drink more than I used to, it’s still just barely what the average person does. I’m a good thousand light-years from hurting myself.”
Just as Frederica was about to answer, though, the harsh, grating voice of an alarm rang out: “Enemy ships closing! Enemy ships closing! Enemy ships clos—”
Yang lightly waved one hand toward his aide.
“Sublieutenant, enemy ships would appear to be closing. If I live through this, I’ll make it a point to eat healthy for the rest of my life.”
The alliance’s force strength had already been halved. The death of a daring and brilliant tactician like Admiral Uranff had come as a particularly hard blow. Morale was not good. How long could they hold out against a thoroughly prepared Imperial Navy that was coming against them, on the heels of victory and ready to employ all the proper tactics?
Von Reuentahl, Mittermeier, Kempf, and Wittenfeld—courageous admirals of the empire—lined up the noses of their battleships and charged forward in a tight formation. Although this had the appearance of the sort of brute-force assault that ignores the finer points of strategy, Kircheis was leading a separate force to circle around to the alliance’s back side, so it in fact both disguised the empire’s intent to catch the enemy in a pincer movement and was the sort of ferocious attack needed to avoid giving the alliance a chance to catch its breath.
“All right,” Yang ordered. “All ships: maximum combat velocity.”
The Thirteenth Fleet began to move.
The clash of the two forces was on. Countless beams and missiles hurtled past one another, and the light of nuclear explosions seared the darkness. Hulls were rent asunder and sent flying through the empty space, tumbling in mysterious dances, borne along by winds of pure energy. Across their eddies the Thirteenth Fleet haughtily sped, racing toward the enemy that lay ahead of them.
The Thirteenth Fleet’s assault was carried out according to a schedule of decelerations and accelerations that Fischer had calculated with utmost precision on Yang’s directive. The Thirteenth Fleet rose fearsomely up from the light of Amritsar’s immense flames, like a tattered corona sent flying from its sun by centrifugal force.
As the swift assault leapt toward them from that unexpected angle, the Imperial Navy commander who undertook to meet it was Mittermeier. He was a courageous man but had undeniably been taken by surprise; he had let Yang take the initiative.
The Thirteenth Fleet’s first attack was quite literally a blistering one for Mittermeier’s regiment.
Its firepower was concentrated to an almost excessive density. When a single battleship—and a single spot on the hull of that battleship—was struck by half a dozen laser-triggered hydrogen missiles, how could it possibly defend itself?
The region surrounding Mittermeier’s flagship was made an enveloping swarm of fireballs, and Mittermeier, taking damage on his own port side as well, was forced to pull back. Even in retreat, however, his remarkable skill as a tactician was plain to see in the way he was flexibly changing his formation, keeping the damage he took to its barest minimum, and watching for his chance to strike back.
Yang, on the other hand, had to content himself with dealing a limited amount of damage, as he dared not pursue the enemy too far. Damn, Yang thought, just look at all these talented people Count von Lohengramm has! Although if we still had Uranff and Borodin on our side, we could have probably fought the empire on equal footing …
Just then, Wittenfeld’s regiment came rushing in at high speed, interposing itself in the space between the Thirteenth and Eighth fleets—a region called Sector D4 for convenience’s sake. It was a move that could only be described as daring or foolhardy.
“Excellency, a new enemy has appeared at two o’clock.”
Yang’s response—“Uh-oh, that’s a problem”—could hardly be called a proper one.
Yang had a strong point in common with Reinhard, though. He recovered his wits quickly and started giving orders.
On Yang’s command, the fleet’s heavily armored dreadnoughts lined up in vertical columns to form a protective wall against enemy fire. From the gaps between them, gunships and missile ships—weakly armored but with mobility and firepower to spare—laid down a ruthless barrage of return fire.
One after another, holes opened up all over Wittenfeld’s regiment. Even so, he didn’t drop speed. His return fire was witheringly intense and caused Yang’s blood to run cold when one part of his dreadnought wall crumbled.
Even so, there was no serious damage to the Thirteenth Fleet as a whole, although the wounds suffered by the Eighth were deep and wide. Unable to counter Wittenfeld’s speed and fury, columns of ships were being shaved off the Eighth Fleet’s flank, and it was steadily losing both its physical and energy-based means of resistance.
The battleship Ulysses had taken damage from imperial cannon fire. This damage was of the “minor but serious” variety. What had been destroyed was the microbe-based wastewater treatment system, and for that reason, the crew was forced to continue fighting with their feet drenched in regurgitated sewage. This would surely make for a delightful war story if they ever returned home safely, but if they died out here like this, it was hard to imagine a more tragic and ignominious way to go.
Yang could see before his very eyes an allied fleet on the verge of dissolving into the depths. The Eighth Fleet was like a flock of sheep, and the Wittenfeld regiment a pack of wolves. Alliance vessels flew this way and that trying to escape, only to be destroyed by vicious, incisive attacks.
Should we go and help the Eighth Fleet?
Even Yang had his moment of hesitation. Judging by the enemy’s spirited action, it was clear that if the Thirteenth Fleet made a move to assist them, things would degenerate into a rough-and-tumble brawl, and their systematic chain of command would not hold. That would be the same as committing suicide. In the end, there was nothing he could do but order more concentrated cannon fire.
“Forward! Forward! Nike, goddess of victory, is flashing her panties right in front of you!”
Wittenfeld’s commands could hardly be called refined, but they certainly raised his men’s morale, and heedless of fire incoming from the side, the swarm of Schwarz Lanzenreiter utterly dominated Sector D4. It looked as though the forces of the alliance had been split in two.
“It would appear we’ve won,” said Reinhard, allowing just the faintest hint of excitement to creep into his voice as he looked back at von Oberstein.
Looks like we’ve lost, Yang was thinking at almost the selfsame instant, though he couldn’t say so out loud.
Since ancient times, the utterances of commanders had possessed a seemingly magical power to make the abstract concrete; whenever a commander said, “We’ve lost,” defeat would inevitably follow—though examples of the opposite were extremely rare.
Looks like we’ve won.
It was Wittenfeld who was likewise thinking this. The alliance’s Eighth Fleet was crumbling already; there was no fear now of being caught in a pincer movement.
“Good, we’ve got a step up on them. Now it’s time to finish them off.”
Wittenfeld was thinking eagerly, The Thirteenth Fleet has preserved a lot of its strength, but I’ll deliver a killing blow in a dogfight.
“Have all vessels that can function as mother ships deploy walküren. All others, switch from long-range to short-range cannons. We’re going to fight them up close.”
That aggressive intent, however, had been anticipated by Yang.
When the imperial force’s firepower temporarily weakened, Yang instantly intuited the cause: a switchover in their attack methodology. Even though it might have taken them longer, other commanders could also have guessed what Wittenfeld intended. He had moved too early. When Yang saw the error, he determined to put it to maximum use.
“Draw them in,” he said. “All cannons, prepare for a sustained barrage.”
Minutes later, the roles had reversed, and it was the imperial forces of Sector D4 that were facing imminent defeat.
Seeing this, Reinhard spoke out unconsciously: “Wittenfeld blundered into that. He sent out his walküren too early. Can’t he see that they’ve become easy prey for the enemy fusillade?”
It seemed that a chink had appeared in even von Oberstein’s icy demeanor. His naturally pale face looked as if it were illuminated by a comet’s tail. “He wanted to secure victory with his own hands, but …”
The voice in which he answered was nearer a groan than anything else.
The alliance forces, having drawn Wittenfeld’s regiment into range for a point-blank attack, were dealing out destruction and slaughter at will. Launched from magnetic-rail cannons, artillery shells of superhard steel pierced the armor of enemy ships, and bursts of fusion shrapnel and photon rounds reduced walküren, and their pilots, to microscopic particles.
Colorful and colorless flashes overlapped with one another, as every instant saw the opening of gateways to the netherworld, through which ever more soldiers were passing.
It seemed that the black of the Schwarz Lanzenreiter—Wittenfeld’s pride and joy—was coming to suggest the color of burial shrouds.
The communications officer turned toward Reinhard and shouted, “Excellency! Communiqué from Admiral Wittenfeld—he’s requesting immediate reinforcements.”
The communications officer recoiled from the young, golden-haired marshal’s pointed response.
“Yes, Excellency, reinforcements. The admiral says he’s going to lose if battle conditions continue to worsen like this.”
The heel of Reinhard’s boot sounded harshly against the floor. If there had been an unsecured station chair nearby, he would have probably been kicking it over.
“What is he thinking?” Reinhard shouted. “That I can pull a fleet of starships out of my magic top hat?”
An instant later, though, he had his anger under control. A supreme commander had to remain calm at all times.
“Message to Wittenfeld: ‘Supreme Command has no surplus forces. If we send in ships from the other lines of battle, the whole formation will become unbalanced. Use your present forces to defend your position with your life, and execute your duties as a warrior.’ ”
No sooner had he closed his mouth than he issued a new command.
“Break off all communications with Wittenfeld. If the enemy picked that up, they’ll realize the difficult spot we’re in.”
Von Oberstein’s eyes followed Reinhard as he turned his gaze back toward the screen.
Harsh and cold, but the correct thing to do, thought the silver-haired chief of staff. Still, could he take the same action toward any man, without respect of person? A true conqueror must have no sacred cows he’s unwilling to grind into hamburger …
“They’re doing well, aren’t they?” Reinhard murmured as he stared at the screen. “Both sides, I mean.”
Though their supreme command was far to the rear and their overall command structure lacked smoothness, the alliance forces were putting up a good fight nonetheless. The Thirteenth Fleet’s maneuvers were particularly impressive. Yang Wen-li was their commander, Reinhard had heard. It was often said that a great general never had weak troops. Would that man always appear standing in his way on the road he must travel?
Reinhard unconsciously looked back at von Oberstein.
“Has Kircheis arrived yet?”
The chief of staff answered simply and clearly, but then asked a question which, intentionally or no, had a ring of sarcasm to it. “Are you concerned, Excellency?”
“I’m nothing of the sort. I was just checking.”
Swatting aside the question, Reinhard closed his mouth and stared at the screen.
At that moment, Kircheis, leading a huge force amounting to 30 percent of the entire fleet, was taking a wide detour around the Amritsar system’s sun and swinging around toward the rear of the alliance forces.
“We’re a little later than planned. Hurry!”
In order to escape detection by alliance forces, Kircheis’s regiment was flying near the surface of the sun, but its navigational systems had been affected by magnetic and gravitational fields more powerful than anticipated, to the point that the astrogators had been forced to work out their courses using primitive percom calculators. That was why his forces had lost speed, although now they had finally reached the region of space they were bound for.
To the rear of the alliance force lay a deep, wide minefield.
Even if imperial forces were to circle around to their aft, they would find their advance blocked by forty million fusion mines. That was what the alliance leadership believed. Yang was not entirely persuaded, but he figured that even if the enemy did have an effective means of getting through the mines, they couldn’t do it quickly, so it would be possible to prepare a formation for fighting back by the time they arrived at the battlespace.
However, the empire’s tactics surpassed even Yang’s expectations.
Kircheis’s order was relayed down the chain of command: “Release directional Seffl particles.”
The imperial military, one step ahead of the Alliance Armed Forces, had succeeded in developing Seffl particles that could be aimed in a single direction. Their first deployment? This battle, now.
Pulled along by spy vessels, three tube-shaped emission devices drew near to the minefield.
“Do it quickly,” Captain Horst Sinzer, one of the staff officers, said in a loud voice, “or there may not be any enemies left for us.”
Kircheis showed a hint of a wry smile.
The densely clustered particles penetrated the minefield like a pillar of cloud in the interstellar medium. The heat and mass detection systems with which the mines were equipped did not react to them.
A report arrived from the ship at the front of the vanguard: “Seffl particles have penetrated to the far side of the minefield.”
“Very well. Ignite them!”
At Kircheis’s cry, the lead vessel carefully aimed three beam cannons, each in a different direction, and fired.
An instant later, the minefield was speared by three enormous pillars of fire. After the white-hot light had subsided, holes had been bored through the minefield in three places.
Three tunnel-shaped passages—two hundred kilometers in diameter and three hundred thousand kilometers long—had been created in the very midst of the minefield in hardly any time at all.
“All ships, charge! Maximum combat velocity!”
Driven by the commands of the young red-haired admiral, the thirty thousand ships under his command raced through these tunnels like swarms of comets and bore down upon the alliance’s undefended rear.
“Large enemy force sighted aft!”
The swarm of luminescent objects was so great that their numbers were impossible to determine, and even as alliance operators were detecting them and crying out in alarm, hole after hole was beginning to open in the alliance’s ranks due to cannon fire from the vanguard of Kircheis’s regiment.
Astonished, the commanders of the alliance forces lost their wits. Their terror and confusion, amplified many times over, infected their crews—and in that instant, the alliance lines crumbled.
Ships broke ranks, and the imperial forces rained down cannon fire against alliance vessels beginning to scatter in disorder, pounding them mercilessly, smashing them into pieces.
The victor and the vanquished had been decided.
Yang looked on in silence at the sight of his allies in full rout. It just isn’t possible for human beings to anticipate every situation, he realized belatedly.
“What do we do, Commander?” asked Patrichev, making a loud noise as he swallowed hard.
“Hmmm … It’s too early to run away,” he replied in a voice that somehow sounded like he was talking to himself.
On the other hand, victory was in the air on the ridge of the imperial flagship Brünhild.
“I’ve never seen a hundred thousand ships set to flight before.” Reinhard’s voice was like that of a youth as it rang out. Von Oberstein responded prosaically:
“Shall we bring the flagship forward, Excellency?”
“No, let’s not. If I were to intercede at this stage, I’d be accused of robbing my subordinates of opportunities to distinguish themselves.”
That was a joke, of course, and it showed just how fully at ease Reinhard was.
Though the battle itself was building toward its final curtain, the intensity of the slaughter and destruction showed no sign of waning. The fanatical attacks and the hopeless counterattacks were repeated again and again, and in localized pockets there were even imperial units that found themselves at a disadvantage.
At this stage, no one was even thinking of how much meaning there was in tactical victory; those who had victory before them were apparently striving to make it more thorough, while those on the verge of defeat seemed to be praying that they might atone for their ignominy, even if by taking just one more enemy soldier with them.
But what was bleeding the victorious imperial forces even more than this insanely intense combat was the organized resistance of Yang Wen-li, who was staying behind on the battlefield so that his allies might escape to safe territory.
His technique involved concentrating his firepower on localized regions so as to divide the empire’s force strength and disrupt their chain of command, then dealing blows to the separated forces individually.
The intoxicating feelings that made noble, tragic beauty out of self-destruction and shattered jewels were utterly alien to Yang. While covering the flight of his compatriots, he was also securing an exit route for his own forces and watching for his chance to withdraw.
Von Oberstein, glancing back and forth between the main screen and the tactical computer panel, spoke a warning to Reinhard: “Someone needs to reinforce Admiral Wittenfeld—Admiral Kircheis or anyone will do. That enemy commander is aiming for the weakest part of the envelopment. He’s planning to break through with one sudden push. Unlike before, our forces can afford to spare some ships now, and should do so.”
Reinhard scratched his golden hair and swiftly shifted his gaze: to the screen, to several different panels, and to his chief of staff’s face.
“You’re right. Even so, confound that Wittenfeld—his failure was his alone. May he be cursed forever for it!”
Reinhard’s orders leapt across the void via FTL. Receiving them, Kircheis stretched out his ranks, attempting to deploy another line of defense to the rear of Wittenfeld’s regiment.
Yang, who had still been watching for his chance to pull out, noticed this movement of imperial forces and for an instant felt like his blood had stopped flowing. His way out was being shut off! Had he been too late? Should he have made his escape at some earlier time?
However, luck was on Yang’s side in this.
Seeing the sudden movement of Kircheis’s regiment, the alliance battleships that happened to be in the path of that advance were seized with panic, and paying no heed to the fact that they were near large masses, warped out.
This was not necessarily an unusual occurrence. Starships that knew it was impossible to flee would sometimes choose the fear of the unknown over certain death and flee into subspace with courses still impossible to compute. When flight was impossible, surrender was also an option, and the signal for indicating such intent was also known to both sides. But sometimes people in a frenzy of terror didn’t think of that. What sort of fate awaited those who fled into subspace, no one knew. It was like the world of the dead; there was no consensus opinion.
Nevertheless, they chose their fates with their own hands, and for the others, this spelled grave misfortune. Operators in every regiment of the imperial fleet shouted warnings at the tops of their lungs as they detected ships ahead of the formation vanishing, accompanied by the eruption of violent quakes in space-time. Those cries were overlapped by shouted orders for evasive maneuvers. The forward half of the fleet got caught up in those chaotic undulations, and several ships collided amid the confusion.
For this reason, Kircheis had to spend time reorganizing his fleet, which meant that precious minutes were given to Yang.
Wittenfeld, eager to recover his honor, was leading a numerically inferior number of subordinates in courageous battle. However, each move he made was in response to an enemy that appeared in front of him—not with an eye toward the tide of the battle as a whole.
Had he been paying attention to Kircheis’s movements, he might have been able to guess what Yang was planning, even with communications with Reinhard shut off, and thus effectively cut off Yang’s path of retreat.
Lacking an organic connection with his allies, however, his force was merely a numerically smaller unit and nothing more.
That was the state of Wittenfeld’s regiment when Yang suddenly slammed all his remaining force strength against it.
In his eagerness to make up for his prior blunder, Wittenfeld was filled with fighting spirit, and he was an able commander as well. But at that moment, he also suffered from a critical lack of the force strength necessary to make the most of those qualities.
And he was out of time.
In the space of an instant, ships just a few rows down from Wittenfeld’s flagship had been shot through and destroyed. Even so, the commander was still shouting for a counterattack, and if staff officers like Captain Eugen had not held him back, his forces would have likely faced literal annihilation.
Yang led the Alliance Armed Forces Thirteenth Fleet away from the field of battle along the escape route he had secured. Both Reinhard and Wittenfeld were looking on as that still-orderly river of lights flowed away into the distance—Wittenfeld from nearby in stunned silence, Reinhard from afar, trembling with rage and disappointment.
In the space between them were Mittermeier, von Reuentahl, and Kircheis, the last of whom had had to give up on blocking their retreat. Those three young, capable admirals opened comm channels and began to speak with one another.
“The rebel forces have quite a commander.”
Mittermeier praised him in a straightforward tone of voice, and von Reuentahl agreed.
“Yes, I look forward to meeting him again.”
Von Reuentahl was a very handsome man. His dark-brown hair was nearly black, but what surprised people when they first met him was the fact that his eyes were different colors. His right eye was black and his left eye blue—a physiological condition called heterochromia.
Nobody said, “Let’s go after them.”
They all knew that the last chance for that had been lost and had sense enough to avoid chasing after them too far. A thirst for battle alone could not keep them alive, nor could it keep alive their subordinates.
“The rebel forces have been driven from the empire’s territory, and they will probably flee to Iserlohn. That’s enough of a victory for the time being. They’re not going to feel like launching another invasion for quite a while and have probably even lost the strength to do so.”
This time it was Mittermeier who nodded at von Reuentahl’s words.
Kircheis was following the disappearing lights with his eyes. What will Reinhard think? he wondered. Just as in the Battle of Astarte, his perfect victory was flung to the ground in the very last stage. He’s not going to be in as magnanimous of a mood as last time, is he?
“E-gram from Supreme Command!” said the communications officer. “ ‘Make your way back while mopping up the stragglers.’ ”
“Gentlemen, you’ve all done a superb job.”
On the bridge of the flagship Brünhild, Reinhard expressed his appreciation to his returning admirals.
One by one, he gripped the hands of von Reuentahl, Mittermeier, Kempf, Mecklinger, Wahlen, and Lutz, and praising their heroic deeds, promised them promotions. In Kircheis’s case, he simply clapped him on the left shoulder and said nothing, but between the two of them, that was enough.
It was when von Oberstein informed him of Wittenfeld’s return to the flagship that the shadow of displeasure crept into the graceful countenance of the young imperial marshal.
Fritz Josef Wittenfeld’s regiment—if it could even still be called such at this point—had just returned with heads hung low. No one in the imperial military had lost more subordinates and ships in this battle than he had. His colleagues von Reuentahl and Mittermeier had both been in the thick of fierce combat, so for his part, it was impossible to lay the blame on others for his heavy losses.
The joy of victory yielded its seat to an awkward silence. Pale faced, Wittenfeld walked up to his senior officer, and, as if bracing himself for the worst, hung his head low.
“This is where I want to say that the battle is won, and you, too, fought heroically, but I can’t even do that.”
Reinhard’s voice rang out like the crack of a whip. Brave admirals who would not budge an eyebrow in the face of a huge enemy fleet unconsciously drew in their necks, cringing.
“Understand this: impatient for glory, you charged ahead at a moment when you shouldn’t have advanced. That one misstep could have thrown off the balance of our entire line of battle, and our fleet could have been defeated before the other force arrived. Moreover, you’ve done needless harm to His Imperial Majesty’s military. Have you any objection to what I’ve just said?”
His reply was pitched low and devoid of spirit. Reinhard took one breath and then continued.
“A warrior clan is upheld by rewarding the good and punishing the evildoers. Upon our return to Odin, I will hold you accountable. I’m putting your regiment under Admiral Kircheis’s command. You yourself are confined to quarters.”
Everyone must have been thinking, That was harsh. A wordless stir rose up like a cloud, until Reinhard cut it off with the word “Dismissed!” and stalked off toward his quarters, taking long strides.
The colleagues of the unfortunate Wittenfeld gathered around him and began speaking words of encouragement. Kircheis glanced at them and then followed after Reinhard. As he did so, he was being carefully observed by von Oberstein.
He’s a capable man, the chief of staff said silently to himself, but it will be problematic should his relationship with Count von Lohengramm come to be seen as one of excessive privilege. A conqueror should not be bound by personal feelings.
In an empty hallway that led only to the private quarters of the supreme commander, Kircheis caught up with Reinhard and called out to him.
“Excellency, please reconsider.”
Reinhard whirled around with fierce energy. A fire burned in his ice-blue eyes. The anger he had been holding back in front of others he now let explode.
“Why do you want to stop me? Wittenfeld failed to carry out his own responsibilities. There’s no point pleading his case. It’s only natural he be punished!”
“Excellency, are you angry right now?”
“What of it if I am!”
“What I’m asking you is this: what is it that has you so angry?”
Unable to grasp his meaning, Reinhard looked back at the face of his red-haired friend. Kircheis calmly accepted his stare.
“Enough with the ‘Excellency,’ already—what do you want to say? Tell it to me clearly, Kircheis.”
“In that case, Lord Reinhard, is it really Wittenfeld’s failure that you’re angry about?”
“Isn’t it obvious?”
“I don’t believe it is, Lord Reinhard. Your anger is really directed at yourself. At you, who have secured Admiral Yang’s reputation. Wittenfeld is merely caught in the cross fire.”
Reinhard started to say something but then swallowed it. A nervous shuddering ran through his clenched fists. Kircheis let out a light sigh and stared unthinkingly at the golden-haired youth, eyes filled with kindness and consideration.
“Is it really so maddening to have made a hero of Admiral Yang?”
“Of course it is!” Reinhard shouted, clapping both his hands together. “I managed to endure it at Astarte. But twice in a row and I’ve had enough! Why does he always appear right when I’m on the verge of complete and total victory, to stand in my way?”
“He probably has his complaints as well. Like, ‘Why can’t I face Count von Lohengramm at the start of the battle?’ ”
To this, Reinhard said nothing.
“Lord Reinhard, please understand that the road isn’t level and smooth. Doesn’t it go without saying that there will be difficulties along the way when climbing toward the highest of seats? Admiral Yang is not the only obstacle on your path to conquest. Do you really think that you by yourself can eliminate all of them?”
For that Reinhard had no answer.
“You can’t win the hearts of others by ignoring their many achievements for the sake of one mistake. With Admiral Yang in front of you and the highborn nobles at your back, you already have two powerful enemies. On top of that, you’re making enemies even within your own ranks now.”
For a time, Reinhard made not the slightest of movements, but at last with a deep sigh, the strength drained out of his body.
“All right,” he said. “I was wrong. I won’t seek redress against Wittenfeld.”
Kircheis bowed his head. It was not just for Wittenfeld himself that he was so relieved. He was also happy to know for sure that Reinhard had the broadness of mind to accept frank words of reproof.
“Could you relay that to him for me?”
“No, that won’t do.”
At Kircheis’s prompt refusal, Reinhard acknowledged what he was getting at and nodded.
“That’s true. It will be meaningless unless I tell him myself.”
If Kircheis were to pass along word of Reinhard’s intent to forgive, Wittenfeld—having been reprimanded by Reinhard—would likely continue to hold a grudge against him, while feeling gratitude toward Kircheis. Human psychology was like that. For that reason, Reinhard’s indulgence would ultimately have had no meaning, which was why Kircheis had refused.
Reinhard started to turn on his heel but then stopped and spoke once more to his trusted friend and aide.
“Yes, Lord Reinhard?”
“… Do you believe I can seize this universe and make it my own?”
Siegfried Kircheis looked straight back into his dear friend’s ice-blue eyes.
“To whom but Lord Reinhard could such a wish be granted?”
The dead and the missing numbered an estimated twenty million. The numbers their computers output chilled the hearts of the survivors.
In the midst of the life-and-death struggle, the Thirteenth Fleet alone had preserved a majority of its crew alive.
Yang the magician had worked a miracle even here—already a light akin to religious faith shone in his subordinates’ eyes as they looked at the young black-haired admiral.
The object of that absolute trust was on the bridge of the flagship Hyperion. Both his legs were ill-manneredly propped up on top of his command console, the interlaced fingers of both hands rested on his stomach, and his eyes were closed. Beneath his youthful skin, there stagnated a heavy shadow of exhaustion.
He cracked his eyes open and saw his aide, Sublieutenant Frederica Greenhill, standing there a bit hesitantly.
Yang laid one hand on his black uniform beret.
“Pardon me, acting like this in front of a lady.”
“It’s all right. I thought I might bring you some coffee or something. What would you like?”
“Tea would be lovely.”
“With plenty of brandy, if possible.”
Frederica was about to start walking away when Yang unexpectedly called her to a halt.
“Sublieutenant … I’ve studied a little history. That’s how I learned this: In human society, there are two main schools of thought. One says there are things that are more valuable than life, and the other says that nothing is more important. When people go to war, they use the former as an excuse, and when they stop fighting, they give the latter as the reason. That’s been going on for untold centuries … for untold millennia …”
Frederica, not knowing how to respond, gave no reply.
“You think we’ve got untold millennia of that ahead of us too?”
“No, never mind the human race as a whole. Is there anything I could do that would make all the blood I’ve spilled worthwhile?”
Frederica just stood there, unable to answer. Suddenly Yang looked slightly at a loss, as if he had noticed her discomfort.
“I’m sorry, that was a weird thing to say. Don’t give it a second thought.”
“No, it’s all right. I’ll go make tea—with a little bit of brandy, was it?”
“Yes, sir, with plenty.”
Yang wondered if Frederica was letting him have brandy as a reward, though he wasn’t watching her as she left. He closed his eyes again and murmured to himself:
“Could Count von Lohengramm be aiming to become a second Rudolf … ?”
Of course, no one answered.
When Frederica came back carrying a tray with the tea, Yang Wen-li was fast asleep in that same position, his beret resting on the top of his face.