At the beginning of July, an order went out to Siegfried Kircheis, who was spearheading a detachment far removed from Reinhard to gain control of the outlying stellar regions.
Kircheis had been given full discretion over tactical administration of the occupied territories under his command. Some even called him, half-jokingly, the “Backwater King.” Not that anyone would have said this to his face, of course.
Backed by the young imperial marshal’s full confidence, the redheaded youth had worked diligently to subdue the frontier. Although there had been no large-scale combat, he had scored resounding victories in each of the more than sixty battles he had fought. He allowed citizens of the planets he occupied to govern themselves, while doing everything in his power to safeguard interplanetary security among them. His strict ban on the plundering of captured territory distinguished him from the usual brass and made a big impression on the population.
It was why Reinhard had given him the task in the first place.
After reading over his orders, Kircheis called for his two vice admirals, August Samuel Wahlen and Kornelias Lutz.
They may have been older, but then again, there was not a single admiral to be found in either the empire or the alliance who was younger than Reinhard and Kircheis.
“What’s the matter, Commander?”
“Pardon me, but I have received orders for us from Marquis von Lohengramm.” Despite his higher status, the redheaded youth knew to comport himself with respect around his elders. “Due to the discord between him and Duke von Braunschweig, Marquis von Littenheim is currently leading a fleet of fifty thousand ships our way. While this is nominally for the purpose of recapturing the frontier stellar regions, we can safely say it’s really a cover for factional activities. We have been ordered to engage and destroy.”
Lutz and Wahlen were ill at ease. It would be their first confrontation with such a large force in this civil war.
Some vital intelligence gathering revealed that von Littenheim’s forces had occupied the Kifeuser system—and specifically Garmisch Fortress within it—as their base of operations.
“A decisive battle awaits us in the Kifeuser system. When the time comes, I will lead a detachment of eight hundred ships from the main fleet.”
“Only eight hundred ships?”
Wahlen and Lutz widened their eyes at this figure. Kircheis nodded, calm as ever.
Although the enemy had deployed fifty thousand vessels, they were not deployed in formations according to function. Instead, a hodgepodge of military vessels of varying degrees of firepower and maneuverability—high-speed cruisers next to gunships, battleships side by side with torpedo boats—mingled in chaotic disarray. All of this connoted a lack of consistency in both the enemy’s tactical planning and chain of command.
“It’s an undisciplined mob, is what it is. We’ve no reason to fear,” declared Kircheis.
Lutz and Wahlen met the enemy head-on. Rather than take the front line, they opted for an echelon formation, with Lutz pushing out on port and Wahlen falling back on starboard. In the event the enemy attacked them en masse, Lutz was to engage first. In the time it took Wahlen to join the fray, Kircheis would swing his own eight hundred cruisers around to the enemy’s right flank. Then, once Wahlen had entered combat, Kircheis would charge the enemy’s nerve center, deliver a crippling blow, and exit from the left flank. In that moment of confusion, Lutz and Wahlen were to go on an all-out offensive.
“We can most likely win with this strategy—we just need to take care not to pursue them too far in afterward.”
The young redhead cocked a grin at his two vice admirals. It was all Lutz and Wahlen could do to hide their astonishment. As he proposed this formidable cut-and-run attack, a tactical plan that had the commander himself leading the charge, this seemingly mild-mannered young man smiled without the slightest air of nervousness.
One should expect nothing less of Marquis von Lohengramm’s most trusted retainer, they thought. Once again he had made a deep impression, proving that his ascendancy was more than just a benefit of being von Lohengramm’s childhood friend.
Kircheis’s plan was to take Yang Wen-li’s strategy of dividing his entire fleet into high-speed expeditionary and rear support forces, and deploy it at the tactical level in its most acute configuration.
Kircheis’s fleet held a diagonal formation and advanced with caution. Before long, Lutz’s portside fleet opened its gun bays at a distance of six million kilometers.
A dramatic cloudburst of energy stormed down on the von Littenheim fleet. Explosives etched a mosaic of light as Lutz’s fleet at last made contact with the enemy, and the close-range combat of dogfighting walküren was added to what had thus far been a battle fought with cannons.
Wahlen’s fleet was still at some remove from the enemy, catching only a negligible amount of the gunfire.
Kircheis stood up from his captain’s chair on the flagship Barbarossa and cleared his high-speed fleet of eight hundred for launch. They set out in the shadow of Wahlen’s advancing forces, waiting for the right moment to emerge, tracing an arc to strike von Littenheim where it would hurt the most.
Even as they turned to face the enemy’s massive oncoming fleet, von Littenheim’s forces were overtaken by gunfire from an unexpected direction. Commands to return fire flew, and the ships’ bows turned to meet the surprise attack squad. Only this time, beams and missiles in great numbers rushed in on them from the front. Wahlen’s fleet, now within range, had begun its attack.
Mayhem swept through von Littenheim’s forces as they scrambled to figure out whom to deal with first. It was more than Kircheis could have hoped for.
The flagship Barbarossa’s main battery launched three successive volleys. Blades of light cut through a row of von Littenheim’s ships. This chain of explosions resolved into a gaping hole at the center of the fleet, granting Barbarossa access as it stormed into the midst of its adversaries. Eight hundred ships did likewise.
An enormous wedge had been driven down the middle of von Littenheim’s forces, moving with blinding speed. Von Littenheim’s admirals attempted to surround the invaders, but unable to reckon with their celerity and deft maneuvers, their losses only grew. Kircheis’s fleet emerged from the port flank of the enemy column once, and with that alone the strategy had been successful. Even so, they altered course and breached the enemy’s core again. Kircheis and his eight hundred–strong fleet corkscrewed into the great army’s vulnerable heart.
Chaos and confusion escalated. Once it spread to the perimeter of the fleet, Lutz and Wahlen charged with everything they had. As the mayhem from within collided with that from without, von Littenheim’s army faced certain defeat. Their flagship Ostmark was detected at close range by Kircheis’s ships.
“That’s Marquis von Littenheim’s flagship. Don’t let it get away. I want the ringleader who started this war!”
As Kircheis shot out his orders over FTL, the entire fleet charged the enemy flagship, their only goal being total victory.
Marquis von Littenheim winced at the images on his screen as his allied battleships were reduced to clouds of white heat amid the hail of concentrated fire. As contact with his flagship grew imminent, his consternation turned into terror. By its commander’s order, now bordering on a scream, the Ostmark shifted course, as if out of madness, and fled.
If I’m going to fight with a brat, I would rather it had been the gold-haired one. That redheaded henchman of his is hardly up to snuff, but he’ll have to do.
Those were the words Marquis von Littenheim had uttered before trading blows with Kircheis.
Marquis von Littenheim’s boasting had been lost somewhere in the battle zone. Before he could withdraw, countless specks of light appeared before him. A fleet of his supply vessels had been stationed at the rear in preparation for prolonged battle. But now, to Marquis von Littenheim, they were nothing more than an obstacle in his path of retreat.
The gunnery officer could hardly believe his ears.
“But they’re on our side, Your Excellency. To fire on them now would mean …”
“If they’re on our side, then why are they blocking my esca—I mean, our change of course? I don’t care who they are. Fire! I said fire!”
Thus did the Battle of Kifeuser give rise to even greater tragedy. An unarmed supply fleet was attacked by its own for the sole purpose of opening an escape route. It was a grotesque symbol of the absurdity of war itself.
Aware that its allies were taking flight, the supply fleet slowly changed course. In the middle of that maneuver, however, the operators cried out with shock.
“Energy waves and missiles are rapidly approaching! Evasive maneuvers impossible!”
It was only natural that the officers should have reacted this way. Situated as they were in the rear, they expected to be spared from the cross fire, which could only mean that enemies had been lurking nearby.
“No, our allies are—”
A flash eradicated them all before the man could finish his last utterance.
The vessel which had now been sacrificed to friendly fire was the Passau 3, attacked by neutron warheads deployed from rail cannons.
In a single moment, a raging storm of neutrons filled the ship, felling the entire crew.
It meant an almost instant death. Only one man, a Sergeant Kurlich, who had been inspecting provisions in the ship’s cargo hold, managed to survive a few seconds longer, surrounded as he was by a thick inner wall and shipping containers.
The sergeant fell to the floor, unable to comprehend what had happened to him. Had the main fleet not been shielding them? Who could possibly have attacked them? Or had there been some sort of accident?
In any case, he had to get up. To go outside and ascertain what had happened. To live and return home, where his wife and newborn twins were waiting for him.
He couldn’t get up, however. A fleck of purple appeared on the back of the sergeant’s hand as he clung to the wall. The fleck grew larger, covering his skin and bubbling until it penetrated his biological tissues down to the very last cell.
When he came to, he found himself surrounded by smoke and corpses. He coughed violently, losing his balance as he tried getting to his feet. He looked down at his own body and especially his right arm, now missing from the elbow down.
During the explosion, a piece of flying debris had severed it. His muscles had immediately contracted from the suddenness of it all, resulting in surprisingly little pain and bleeding.
“Is anyone there?” Lieutenant Rinser called out, sitting on the floor. His third such attempt yielded a feeble response, and a small-framed figure came staggering over to him.
Rinser raised his eyebrows. Underneath the disheveled golden hair was a face—only that of a boy—caked with blood and ash.
“What’s a boy your age doing in a place like this?”
“… I’m a student. I was on my way to Garmisch Fortress for assignment as a cabin attendant.”
“Ah, I see. And how old are you?”
“I’m thirteen—or will be in five days.”
“The world really must be ending when mere children start showing up in war zones.”
The lieutenant breathed a sigh and, realizing it wasn’t the end of the world, knew that his and the boy’s wounds needed attention. He indicated where there was a first aid kit and had the boy bring it to him.
After numbing his pain receptors with a cooling spray, he disinfected the wound and wrapped it in protective gauze. The boy’s bruises and abrasions, along with his first-degree burns, showed that fate had been on his side. The boy gasped at the single screen that had managed to avoid being damaged.
“It looks like the enemy is approaching.”
“Enemy?” said the lieutenant warily. “Just who is this enemy? The ones who did this to us are—”
As he stood up, struggling for balance, Rinser activated the emergency signal system and pushed a green button.
“I hereby surrender. We have injured on board and seek asylum in the name of humanity.”
Humanity. The lieutenant curled his lips. If rescuing the enemy was humanity, then what did you call killing your own comrades?
“Are you going to surrender?”
“You disagree, boy?”
“Please don’t call me ‘boy.’ I do have a proper name. It’s Konrad von Moder.”
“Well, that’s a coincidence. I’m Konrad, too. Konrad Rinser. If the young Konrad thinks that surrendering is out of the question, then what do you propose we do instead?” said the elder Konrad derisively.
The boy’s face went red with embarrassment.
“I don’t know. I would feel sad to surrender, but it’s not like we can fight, either. I’m lost.”
“Then leave it to me,” said Rinser, awkwardly opening a bottle of rubbing alcohol with his remaining hand. “I’m fourteen years older than you, which comes out to fourteen more years of wisdom and experience. Not that any of that wisdom helped me to see my own commander’s true colors.”
The other Konrad watched—half-amazed, half-worried—as the young lieutenant tipped back the rubbing alcohol like a bottle of wine.
“Hey, don’t you look at me like that. Medicinal purposes only. It’s never failed me yet.”
The sound of a buzzer overlapped with the end of the lieutenant’s sentence. Relief had come.
Though Marquis von Littenheim had made his escape to Garmisch Fortress, his fleet had been almost completely destroyed. Among his fifty thousand ships, three thousand had hightailed it to Garmisch, while five thousand, after fleeing the battle zone, had scattered to random locations. Eighteen thousand had been annihilated, while the remainder had been summarily captured or had surrendered. Marquis von Littenheim’s disgraceful hit-and-run against allied ships had dampened the morale of his men.
Kircheis had Garmisch Fortress surrounded and was hastening preparations to take it by force when a single POW requested an audience. The young officer, still in his twenties, had yet to be fitted with an artificial hand, and the right sleeve of his uniform dangled loosely.
“I believe I can be of use to you, Your Excellency,” Lieutenant Rinser said by way of introduction.
“I suspect you already know. I am a living witness to the fact that Marquis von Littenheim killed his subordinates to save himself.”
“I see. So you were aboard one of the supply ships.”
“My arm was blown off in the attack. I say we show this,” he said, holding up the stump of his arm, “to the men in the fortress.”
“I take it your loyalty to Marquis von Littenheim was blown off with it?”
“Loyalty?” Rinser’s voice took on a cynical key. “That word has a beautiful ring to it—but one too often abused out of convenience. I think this civil war is a good opportunity for all of us to reconsider the value of loyalty. Now millions of people will see that certain kinds of leaders have no right to demand the loyalty of their subjects.”
Kircheis acknowledged the lieutenant’s point. To be sure, loyalty had never been a thing to be given unconditionally. It was necessary for its recipient to be worthy of it.
“Very well, then. I hereby request your cooperation. Send an FTL to the men of Garmisch asking for their surrender.”
Complicated feelings gleamed in the lieutenant’s eyes.
“If even five men within the fortress share our sentiments, then Marquis von Littenheim’s head will have already rolled.”
It had been half a day since Marquis von Littenheim’s escape when a single warship that had managed to escape Kircheis’s pursuit at last approached the fortress, and a lone officer appeared before the marquis.
The officer’s head was wrapped in a blood-soaked bandage, and a body—in truth, the upper half of one—was slung over his right shoulder.
This hulking officer walked up the silent corridor, for the guards dared not call out to him, and stopped before the sentries before speaking.
“I am Commander Rauditz of the Wesel sniper battalion. I wish to see Marquis von Littenheim.”
The sentry leader swallowed audibly.
“I would be happy to intermediate, but with that filthy, bloody body, I can’t allow you to …”
“Filthy, you say?!” The commander’s eyes flared with menace. After a breath, his harsh words resounded throughout the hall. “Filthy! These are the remains of the marquis’s loyal subject! This was my subordinate, who risked his life battling the enemy so that the Marquis could escape.”
Daunted by the lieutenant’s resolve, to say nothing of the corpse, the guards parted as Rauditz stepped forward.
The door opened to reveal Marquis von Littenheim’s figure seated at the other end of a table.
“What are you doing here, you impudent fool!”
The tabletop was a veritable forest of wine bottles and glasses. The marquis’s skin had lost the tautness and luster of the day before, his eyes were now dark and bloodshot, and even the edge in his voice had dulled.
“Private Paulus … this is Marquis von Littenheim, the man you threw your life away for. Reward him with a kiss of gratitude for his loyalty!”
Before he had even finished, the commander threw Paulus’s body with all the strength he could muster at their commander.
Having no time to dodge, Marquis von Littenheim held out his arms, catching the soldier’s body out of reflex.
With an indecipherable scream, Marquis von Littenheim toppled from his luxurious seat to the floor. Realizing the dead soldier was still in his arms, he let out a rather different kind of scream and heaved the body aside. The commander guffawed loudly.
“Kill him! Kill this ingrate now!” Marquis von Littenheim cried.
The lieutenant held his ground. On his face, caked with dried blood and oil, his lips contorted into a strange smile in defiance of the blasters aimed at him …
The silver globe of Garmisch Fortress floated in the centers of both viewscreens. A section of the outer wall erupted in a white flash, followed by eruptions of dull but massive beams of red and yellow light.
The operator had only stated the obvious, but the men nonetheless watched the image before them in a stupor.
“That’s near the command center.”
Lieutenant Rinser lowered his voice for some reason.
“I see. Very well, then.”
Kircheis did not want to squander the opportunity afforded him. He ordered his entire fleet to surround and bombard the fortress before dispatching landing ships and armed soldiers.
What little resistance they met with was sporadic. The soldiers, bereft of their will to fight, disregarded officers’ angry roars and forfeited their weapons in succession. Commanding officers, too, realizing the futility of any resistance, held up their hands in surrender.
Kircheis occupied the fortress—or, rather, the three-fourths of it spared from the explosion. Not even Marquis von Littenheim’s corpse was recovered, scattered in all directions as it had likely been by an inferno of combusted Seffl particles.
In one fell swoop, the nobles’ confederated forces had lost their second-in-command and a third of their military strength.
“The aristocratic forces are big on spirit, small on strategy.”
So the heterochromatic Oskar von Reuentahl had once said.
Hot-blooded imbeciles, all of them—a harsh evaluation, to be sure, but one that the battles fought thus far seemed to be confirming with the large number of military successes he and his comrades were scoring.
Even so, when battling with enemy forces in the Schan’n-tau Stellar Region, von Reuentahl had discovered something unexpected that forced him to change his thinking.
Hot-blooded as ever. And yet, he couldn’t help but recognize that they were efficiently organized and cleverly controlled. Von Reuentahl had repelled three waves of enemy aggression but was amazed by their tenacity and the cohesive coordination with which they launched their offensive. The losses incurred were greater than expected, and for von Reuentahl, the time had come to deliberate.
Von Reuentahl understood right away that a change of command was behind the enemy’s newfound efficacy, as it was likely Merkatz who now stood on the front lines. Outside of him, there was no one else among the aristocrats’ confederated forces capable of mobilizing troops so effectively.
Which meant that von Reuentahl was at a disadvantage only so far as a difference of military strength was concerned. He may not have been a visionary, but he could rightly assess the capabilities of his adversaries.
“Should we withdraw?”
Deciding to retreat when one should: also the mark of a great commander.
Even abandoning Schan’n-tau was, strategically speaking, not much of a problem. It wasn’t an indispensable tactical stronghold but only a blip on his expanding radar of influence. Though he wouldn’t mind folding his cards in this instance, von Reuentahl hesitated to make any snap judgments so that he might better make a lasting psychological impression on his opponents.
After a string of defeats and withdrawals, acquisition of the Schan’n-tau Stellar Region would give the appearance of victory to the confederated aristocrats. The latter’s esprit de corps would rise, and they would meet their next battle riding its wave. Pluck and spirit could often overcome an opponent’s careful planning and lead to victory; history was full of examples.
A malicious smile appeared suddenly in the brooding von Reuentahl’s blue and black eyes.
“Very well, we’ll withdraw. Schan’n-tau’s not worth the lives it would cost to defend. We’ll leave the recapture to Marquis von Lohengramm.”
If a superior officer lost a sector occupied by a subordinate, the superior officer would completely lose face. On the other hand, if a sector occupied by a subordinate were to be rescued by a superior officer, the end result would prove the superior officer to have abilities far beyond those of the subordinate. The superior officer would likely be irritated by the temporary setback, but if he said, “It’s beyond my ability. Please show me the true worth of your tactics,” that would inflate the superior officer’s pride and leave a great impression in the long run.
So von Reuentahl had reckoned. Since an overwhelming victory was not to be hoped for, that seemed the wisest course of action. It wasn’t a calculation that your average headstrong, self-interested military man could have come up with.
So deciding, von Reuentahl commenced preparations for retreat. With Merkatz as his opponent, it wouldn’t be so easy. This promised to be the defining moment of his tactical career.
On July 9, von Reuentahl set out on the offensive. At various points, he concentrated his military force and dealt the enemy damage everywhere he went.
The confederated forces of the aristocrats, however, were showing none of their former disorder, systematically intercepting their fire as they were. Seeing that von Reuentahl’s front lines had been stretched to their limits, they launched a precise counterattack. This alone showed just how skilled a commander Merkatz was.
Von Reuentahl made no attempt to respond in kind and instead pulled his central fleet backward. In the meantime, remaining forces were changing their angles ever so slightly and spreading out laterally. These maneuvers were conducted in concert, if only for the sake of show. Had one looked at them from the proper vantage point, the von Reuentahl forces would have been seen assuming a concave formation, flanking the enemy on three sides.
Merkatz’s staff officers were also aware of this. To their commander, they proposed that they should reduce their speed of advance so as not to pander to the enemy’s strategy.
On his flagship’s bridge, Merkatz crossed his arms, the movements of von Reuentahl’s army reflected unnaturally in his eyes. Von Reuentahl was a formidable tactician in his own right, and Merkatz wondered if all this fighting wasn’t just some ruse to throw them off as they made their escape …
In the end, Merkatz heeded the advice of his advisors. Because of his allies’ impetuous temperament, the cause of so many headaches, Merkatz had to be discreet when it came to tactics. If von Reuentahl did indeed intend to escape, then he could secure the Schan’n-tau Stellar Region without any further bloodshed. It would have been different if the opponent had been Reinhard himself, but since that wasn’t the case, he wanted to avoid a dangerous gamble.
The aristocratic forces had slowed their pursuit. This von Reuentahl verified, and without dropping his guard, he flexibly adjusted his concave formation while making a careful withdrawal. His forces soon reached Schan’n-tau’s outer rim, and when the distance between enemy and ally widened, he quickly reorganized his entire fleet into a defensive spherical formation and fled at maximum speed.
The Schan’n-tau Stellar Region had fallen into the hands of the confederated forces.
Upon hearing the report, Reinhard gave a wry smile. He understood all too well von Reuentahl’s decision to abandon Schan’n-tau.
Of course, to Reinhard, a broad-minded soul like von Reuentahl’s was more appealing than that of the simple military man who only grasped things on a tactical level. Allegiance could not be expected of such a man if it went unrewarded; to be his superior officer required constant demonstration of the talent and capability befitting his station. Reinhard rather liked that feeling of tension between superior and subordinate. It was because he did that even the charmless von Oberstein was able to work under him.
It was that same von Oberstein who now spoke.
“Admiral Merkatz has been renowned as a soldier since before you were born, Your Excellency. Things might get a bit troublesome if he’s been given free rein.”
“Free rein? But there’s the rub. I don’t think Duke von Braunschweig is clever enough to let Merkatz off his leash.”
“As you say. The opponent we face isn’t Admiral Merkatz but the ones pulling the strings above him.”
Upon his return to Gaiesburg, Merkatz was showered with all manner of flowery platitudes from his ecstatic brethren, but he returned not even a hint of a smile.
“It’s not so much that our forces acquired it as our enemy relinquished it. We must never overestimate our own abilities.”
A clichéd speech, even for you, Merkatz thought to himself, but seeing the uncertainty in these noblemen’s eyes, he felt like he had no choice but to start with the basics.
“I see. You’re a cautious man, Admiral,” said Duke von Braunschweig with a trace of annoyance. A dull man is more like it, he surely thought—which wasn’t all that far from the truth, as Merkatz didn’t feel anything. Whether such a trait was a plus or minus, he couldn’t say. Despite being decorated many times over, his dullness had likely gotten in the way of his becoming an imperial marshal. Then again, such tendencies might very well have been what had until now kept him from being ensnared in the usual conspiracies that went on at court.
At the end of July, an old-fashioned challenge to duel was sent from Reinhard to the nobles at Gaiesburg Fortress.
The challenge was replayed before the aristocratic forces’ top men on the VTR, and its message was more than enough to fuel their rage.
“Witless and cowardly noblemen,” Reinhard said to them. “Had you even the courage found in the tip of a rat’s tail, you would leave the comfort of your fortress and fight gloriously. And if you lack even that much courage, you would do well to abandon your baseless pride and surrender. It’s the only way to save your lives. I’ll not only allow you to live, I’ll even let you keep enough of your fortunes to feed those blithering mouths of yours. Marquis von Littenheim died a miserable death the other day, as a man of his cowardly nature surely deserved. Should you not wish to meet the same fate, even your feeble minds can figure out the better path to choose at this juncture …”
“How dare that brat speak to us like that?”
The young nobles went nearly insane with anger. That was exactly what Reinhard wanted. When one’s opponents lost their reason so easily, an obvious challenge like that was more than sufficient—that Merkatz begrudgingly acknowledged. Among the young nobles, there was even one who blew off steam by beating his soldiers with an electric whip. That youth had been amusing himself since childhood by whipping the serfs on his father’s lands.
Soon thereafter, Mittermeier’s fleet, the vanguard of Reinhard’s forces, began haunting the region surrounding Gaiesburg Fortress. These were clear provocations. They would parade themselves just out of range of their cannons, drawing in closer and then pulling away, pulling away and then drawing in closer.
Merkatz explicitly forbade a sortie of any kind. There was surely some terrifying trick lurking behind Mittermeier’s seemingly childish game. Though he explained this to the noblemen, they simply wouldn’t listen.
On the third day, they finally snapped. A group of young aristocrats disobeyed the prohibition order and launched an attack on Mittermeier’s fleet.
Mittermeier’s forces were seemingly caught off guard and easily fell into disarray. Mittermeier managed to escape, abandoning a considerable amount of armaments in the process. At least, that’s how it seemed in the eyes of the young nobles.
“He’s a quick one to blow away. Really puts the ‘gale’ in ‘Gale Wolf,’ doesn’t he?”
“You call that a trap? There was nothing to it. Admiral Merkatz is too cautious for his own good.”
Having secured military vessels and supplies in massive quantities, the young nobles made a triumphant return, their chests puffed out with pride. A harshly worded notice, however, awaited them on their return.
“You’ve all gone against the commander’s forbiddance, engaging the enemy when you knew you shouldn’t. A grave transgression, indeed. You’ll be judged in full accordance with military law. I’ll need you to hand over your insignias and your sidearms. Prepare to be court-martialed.”
It was only natural that Merkatz should adhere to protocol. Though they had emerged victorious, ignoring a commander’s order might prove detrimental in the future.
The young nobles were naturally filled with discontent. They had already inhaled the fumes of victory and carried themselves like heroes. Baron Flegel, who held the rank of rear admiral, tore off his insignia and threw it to the floor, shrieking like the lead in some classical tragedy.
“We’re not afraid to die. It’s one thing to do battle with the enemy and to fall on the battlefield, but to be judged by a commander who possesses neither bravery nor pride is more than I can stand. Spare me your court-martial. Let me kill myself right here, right now!”
“Rear Admiral Flegel speaks for all of us!” chorused the young aristocrats. “We mustn’t let him die alone. Let us all kill ourselves so that posterity may know the pride of the imperial nobles!”
It was narcissism to the extreme. Duke von Braunschweig did not rebuke them for it.
“As this is not a matter of battle, it is ultimately my right and my duty, as leader, to pass judgment.”
Since learning of Marquis von Littenheim’s death, almost all he had done was stick his nose into Merkatz’s decision making. He stood before these excited young men, speaking in his booming voice.
“Gentlemen, your courage and pride have shown everyone the true essence of imperial nobility. You have dealt a crushing blow to those conceited commoners. We have no need to fear Mittermeier, or even that golden-haired brat assuming the titles of marquis and imperial marshal. We will be victorious. And by winning, we will show them that justice is on our side. Long live the empire!”
“Long live the empire!” came the young noblemen’s enthusiastic cheers.
Merkatz had nothing more to say. Perhaps that was the moment his disappointment turned into despair.
Indeed, nodded the chief advisor with the artificial eyes.
After gathering in the flagship Brünhild, the admirals were given precise instructions for leading their fleets into their respective theaters of war.
It was August 15 when news of Mittermeier’s rapid approach reached Gaiesburg Fortress. Unlike before, today Mittermeier would be actively attacking with long-range hydrogen missiles.
“The defeated general has come yet again for another shameless loss. Mark my words: no matter how many times he fights, one who loses only begets more loss.”
They had already come to disregard Merkatz’s commands and rules. They boarded their warships and, not waiting for the space controller’s instructions, scrambled to be the first to attack.
True to form, Mittermeier was unable to keep himself from sneering.
“If only those idiotic sons of the aristocracy had stayed in their hole, they could have lived longer. Did they come out only to turn into so much space dust?”
Though he was of the same generation as “those idiotic sons of the aristocracy,” his combat experience and accolades were far greater than those of any of them.
Fighting against a gang who couldn’t even see through the ruse of his previous mock retreat bordered on the absurd.
However, that day they had had it confirmed that Duke von Braunschweig was also heading their way. Mittermeier’s responsibility was therefore enormous. He would have to endure two or three more such farces before the enemy caught on.
Both fleets clashed.
Innumerable cannons unleashed innumerable striations of light. These directional energies knocked out ships on both sides, crushing them, and rays of light from bursting explosions were rent asunder by new lights as well.
It was a short-lived battle, however, as Mittermeier’s army commenced its gradual retreat, choosing not to fight back against the all-out attack from the aristocratic forces.
“Such a disgrace. They’ve run away so many times it’s not even a point of shame for them anymore. Let’s finish the fools with one blow. Let’s seize the golden brat and hang him from the rafters.”
The noblemen let out a cheer, eagerly rushing to their warships.
There was, however, one man who harbored suspicions about Mittermeier’s flaccidity. Vice Admiral Fahrenheit, a formidable officer who had shared the battlefield with Reinhard and Merkatz, maintained an equal distance between Duke von Braunschweig and Merkatz, and bade caution to his young, hot-blooded allies.
“Keep your distance—it may be a trap.”
Which was fully possible. They had to be prepared.
Sure enough, when the aristocratic forces held off on their pursuit, Mittermeier came at them with a sudden counterattack. The aristocrats responded in kind, continuing to fight as Mittermeier retreated—thus urging the aristocrats forward. They repeated this dance numerous times. Mittermeier’s timing was nothing short of exquisite.
In this manner, the confederated forces were lured deeper and deeper into the heart of the formation that Reinhard and von Oberstein had carefully laid out for them. The front lines were stretched to their limits, and once the enemy’s communications were likewise adversely affected, Mittermeier again laid into them.
This again? When the overconfident aristocrats, watching idly, attempted a counterstrike, Mittermeier’s forces closed in on them with unbelievable speed and power, pulverizing their lead group with the first blow.
Many noblemen were reduced to plumes of fire along with their warships without ever knowing what had happened to them. By the time operators of those ships that had survived the first attack cried out that the situation had changed, their surroundings had already become a panorama of destruction and slaughter. Fragments of warships blown up by direct beam attacks glittered like shards of stained glass as their fleets were buffeted by waves of nuclear blasts.
“Do you see now, you foolish children? This is how we fight. Remember that for as long as you can in those primitive brains of yours.”
Mittermeier was going to savor his revenge to the fullest. Compared to the finger painting of the young nobles, his command of battle was a work of art.
The aristocrats’ confederated forces fell in column after column of ships, their chain of command having fallen apart well before that. In the face of Mittermeier’s ingenious tactics, they were doomed to be picked off one by one.
Resistance was, of course, not a viable option as one ship, and then another, was added to the festival of carnage.
“Retreat, retreat! Forget about the others—get out while you can!”
Fahrenheit, seeing the unfavorable turn of events, ordered a swift retreat, and the noblemen were eager to follow suit.
Waves of brilliant gunfire, however, assailed the remaining forces from either side, fired simultaneously by Admiral Kempf from the left and Admiral Mecklinger from the right.
The confederate forces disintegrated further with every passing second, their glorious columns of ships gradually losing density.
The nobles took flight. When at last they thought they were safe from Kempf’s onslaught, Wittenfeld and Müller’s fleets closed in on either side. In an instant, the panicking aristocrats were transformed, ships and all, into masses of wreckage drifting in space.
On the bridge of the flagship Brünhild, Reinhard wore a smile of satisfaction. Foreseeing the enemy’s escape route, he had laid an ambush. In this case, because said route was the same taken during the initial advance, the prediction had been an easy one to make. They would forgo intercepting their path of escape so as to stave off any last-ditch counterattack. Letting the enemy vanguard go past, they had attacked from the front and the rear. This not only gave them a positional advantage but also allowed them to psychologically overwhelm their enemies more effectively with them on the run compared to a pitched battle.
“Dead or alive,” said Reinhard, “I want Duke von Braunschweig brought before me. Whoever succeeds in doing this, even if a mere cadet, will be made an admiral and rewarded handsomely. Seize your chance!”
Their fighting spirit was now enhanced by greed. The noble confederates, who had lost their will to fight and run away, were now nothing more than game for hunters. With nowhere left to go, they were captured and destroyed at the end of each short, desperate counterattack.
When Duke von Braunschweig came to himself, there was not a single allied vessel in the vicinity of his flagship, and the innumerable points of light that were Mittermeier’s and von Reuentahl’s fleets were approaching from behind. A violent impact rocked his ship as a single rail-cannon shell blew off his rear gun turret completely. The lance of an energy beam grazed the body of his ship, shaving off an outer wall and sending up billows of metal dust. The gargantuan, invisible hand of death had taken hold of his vessel.
Just then, an enormous wall of light appeared ahead of him. Merkatz, concealed in the rear guard, showered the pursuing enemy with close-range volleys. Mittermeier and von Reuentahl hurriedly gave orders to pull back, but the intensity of their charge and the mentality of their officers, whose will to fight far outweighed their calm, meant that the command went partially unheeded.
Seeing his enemy’s sudden confusion, Merkatz gave orders to his fleet, which was in perfect formation to attack. With no bigger warships at his disposal, his force of destroyers, torpedo boats, and single-seat walküren was most suited for close combat.
These tore into Reinhard’s confused forces, destroying with utmost precision ships that had been forced into a tight formation. Now it was Reinhard’s vanguard forces that had ships bursting apart in balls of flame. It was all they could do to defend themselves, and pursuit was now out of the question.
Von Reuentahl and Mittermeier ground their teeth both in frustration at having lost Duke von Braunschweig after cornering him so well and in anger at the pitiful state of their own formations. Even so, they knew the foolishness of surrendering to emotion in the heat of battle. Shouting blistering words of reprimand all the while, they shored up their vulnerable rows of ships, calling for simultaneous retreat and regrouping. For mediocre commanders, it would have been an impossible task.
Had Merkatz possessed sufficient force strength, he might well have driven both of these great admirals to utter defeat. His soldiers were few, however, and he himself harbored no such illusions. He would obey Duke von Braunschweig and withdraw as instructed.
“Merkatz certainly has the skill of his years. He’s as strong as ever.”
So did the young marshal praise the enemy admiral. In any case, the enemy had been driven back into Gaiesburg. There wasn’t the slightest need for panic.
“Why didn’t you come to our aid sooner?” bellowed Duke von Braunschweig when he met with Merkatz again. These were the first words out of his mouth.
The face of the distinguished admiral did not change color. Rather, with an expression that said he’d expected this, he bowed his head in silence, even as the eyes of Lieutenant Commander von Schneider next to him flared with indignation and he took a step forward. Von Schneider’s arm, however, was grabbed by the hand of the senior officer whom he served.
When they retired to a separate room, Merkatz remonstrated his aide, who was still trembling with anger.
“Don’t be so upset. Duke von Braunschweig is unwell.”
As Merkatz saw it, Duke von Braunschweig’s pathology was that of one whose pride was easily wounded. He probably wasn’t even aware of it himself, but he believed that he was a great and infallible presence, which made it impossible for him to feel gratitude toward others. He likewise could not acknowledge the ideas of those who thought differently from him. To him, such people were traitors, and any advice from them he interpreted as nothing less than slander. Consequently, although von Streit and Ferner had made plans on his behalf, not only were their ideas rejected, they had ultimately been forced to leave von Braunschweig’s camp.
A man of his disposition would never recognize that society thrived on disparate ideas and values.
“It’s an illness kept alive by a five hundred–year tradition of privilege for the nobility. You might say the duke is a victim. If he’d lived a hundred years ago, that way might have worked. He’s an unfortunate man.”
Von Schneider, who was still young, was not as tolerant or as resigned as his commander. He took his leave from Merkatz and rode an elevator up to the fortress observation room. The inorganic sparkle of overlapping star clusters shone far beyond the transparent dome.
“Duke von Braunschweig may well be an unfortunate man. But are not those whose futures lie in his hands all the more so … ?”
To the young officer’s discouraging question, the stars responded only with silence.
Westerland was an arid world lacking in flora and water, but its population of two million was fairly large for such a remote territory. Intensive farming and harvesting of rare earth minerals was carried out at what few oases there were. Had it been a peaceful age, they might have transported a trillion tons of water to places that needed it, and development would have flourished.
Though Baron von Scheidt was not an entirely incompetent ruler, his youth made him rather obstinate when it came to policy. And because he had every intention of following his uncle’s lead, his exploitation of the populace only intensified.
Until now, things had held steady in this way. With Reinhard’s sudden rise to power, however, even the populace knew that the nobility’s governing leash had slackened, giving rise to civil war. Shocked and outraged that popular opposition was gaining traction, von Scheidt tried to suppress the resistance, but internal pressures only mounted.
Following one back-and-forth too many, at last the populace launched a large-scale revolt to repay von Scheidt for his tyrannical rule. What few guards he had were engulfed by the flood of angry citizens. Von Scheidt escaped by himself in a shuttle, but he had been seriously wounded, and he died from his injuries soon after his arrival at Gaiesburg.
“That insolent rabble … How dare they kill my nephew with their filthy hands.”
How easily those with privilege denied the existence and individuality of those without it. Not only did Duke von Braunschweig not recognize the people’s right to resist oppressive rule, he didn’t even acknowledge their right to live without the permission of the boyar nobles. He was certain in his mind that those who were sick and elderly, or otherwise unable to serve nobility, were no better than diseased livestock and therefore had no value in living.
And to think that such lowly ingrates had opposed the highborn—and to the point of killing his own nephew! Duke von Braunschweig was beyond aggrieved and believed his anger to be perfectly justified.
He was determined to bring his self-described “blade of justice” down on those who had wronged him.
“Launch a nuclear attack on Westerland at once, and don’t let a single one of those ingrates survive.”
Not everyone approved. This was partly because a nuclear strike meant using thermonuclear weapons, a method leading to widespread fallout that had been taboo ever since the Thirteen-Day War had in antiquity nearly wiped out the entire human race on Earth. Commodore Ansbach, who knew this by virtue of his prudence, tried to dissuade his incensed leader.
“It’s only natural that you should feel angry, but Westerland is Your Excellency’s own territory. What use would there be in launching a nuclear strike?”
Duke von Braunschweig made no response.
“Besides, now that we face Marquis von Lohengramm, we don’t have enough military strength as it is. Killing all the inhabitants is going too far. Why not just punish their ringleaders instead?”
“Silence!” the duke roared. “Westerland is my territory. As such, it’s my right to blow away those mongrels as I see fit. Did not Rudolf the Great slaughter millions of insurgents so that he might lay the foundations of the empire?”
Realizing it was useless to try to persuade him, Ansbach took his leave with a sigh.
“The Goldenbaum Dynasty ends here. How can it continue to stand when it cuts off its own limbs?”
The moment these words reached von Braunschweig’s ears by way of an informant, the duke flew into a rage and had Ansbach arrested, but after considering his achievements and popularity, he decided to keep him in confinement instead of executing him.
Merkatz requested an audience with the duke, hoping to appeal for Ansbach’s release and an end to the plans for a nuclear attack on Westerland, but the duke wouldn’t hear of it.
Duke von Braunschweig advanced to the execution phase of his plan for revenge.
A soldier of Westerlandian origin escaped Gaiesburg and defected to the Reinhard camp the day before the nuclear strike was to be carried out.
Upon hearing him out, Reinhard was about to dispatch a fleet to Westerland in an attempt to prevent the attack when his Chief of Staff von Oberstein convinced him otherwise.
“I say we let Duke von Braunschweig, mad as he is, carry out his atrocity,” he said coolly. “By recording him in the act, we prove the barbarism of the boyar nobles. No doubt, this will make the citizens and the common soldiers under their control defect. That would be far more efficient than getting in their way and stopping this.”
The golden youth knew nothing of fear, yet he recoiled all the same.
“You want me to stand by as two million people die, women and children among them?”
“If this civil war drags on any longer, even more people than that will die. And if the nobles should win, this kind of tragedy will occur many times. And so, by letting the entire empire know of their brutality, we’ll show they have no right to rule the universe …”
“So you’re suggesting I turn a blind eye?”
“Do it for the sake of the twenty-five billion citizens of the empire, Your Excellency. And furthermore, for the swift establishment of your hegemony.”
“… I understand.”
Reinhard nodded. His face had lost its characteristic glow. If only Kircheis had been at his side. He would never have advised such drastic measures.
This meant that hitting it with nuclear missiles could achieve the complete genocide of the planet’s two million inhabitants.
On that day, a meeting was taking place by one of those oases. Though they had driven out the nobles by their own strength, the insurgents had no plans in place for what to do next. Where should they go from here? How could they ensure the peace and happiness of their people? These were the main questions on their agenda. To those who had not engaged in independent debate for such a long time under noble rule, the meeting was an enormous undertaking and therefore something to celebrate.
“Is not Marquis von Lohengramm an ally of the people? Let’s ask him to protect us.”
When that opinion was offered, voices of approval arose from the crowd. It was their only hope. When the talk settled down, a small boy being held in his mother’s arms pointed up to the sky.
“Mommy, what’s that?”
The people looked up to see a beam of light running diagonally across the cobalt sky.
A pure-white flash bleached the entire scene.
Immediately thereafter, a red dome rose up above the horizon, expanding rapidly to a height of ten thousand meters before forming a mushroom-shaped cloud of superheated ash.
The shock wave came at them as a tsunami of intense heat, traveling at seventy meters per second and surpassing temperatures of 800 degrees celsius, scorching the topsoil, the scant vegetation, the buildings, and the people’s bodies. Clothing and hair burst into flames, and keloids formed on bubbling skin.
The screams of children burning alive hung in the searing air, then suddenly thinned out to silence. The voices of mothers calling out their children’s names, of fathers fearing for their families, were cut short soon after.
Massive amounts of dirt flew high into the air, becoming a cascade of sand that poured down on the earth, providing a burial for two million charred corpses.
“We will beam these images throughout the empire. Even a child will understand that righteousness is on our side. The nobles have signed their own death warrant,” von Oberstein explained in his usual monotone, to which there was no immediate response. “What’s the matter, Your Excellency?”
Gloom hung heavily over Reinhard’s expression.
“You told me to avert my eyes. And this tragedy is the result. There’s nothing to be done about it now, but was there really no other way?”
“Perhaps there was, but it was beyond my means to come up with one. As you say, there’s nothing to be done about it now. We must make the most of this situation.”
Reinhard stared at his chief advisor. It was unclear whether the hatred swelling in his ice-blue eyes was directed at von Oberstein or at himself.
Images of the Westerland tragedy were transmitted over FTL, causing outrage and trembling in every corner of the empire. Popular sentiment swiftly began breaking away from the old aristocratic regime, and even the nobles began to foment the view that Duke von Braunschweig was done for.
Kircheis, who had conquered the frontier stellar regions, made for Gaiesburg to rendezvous with Reinhard. Seeing those images, he too felt renewed anger toward the exalted nobles. But then, one day midvoyage, Wahlen’s fleet captured a shuttle. It carried only a single officer, who said that although he had been forced to participate in the Westerland nuclear strike as a subordinate of Duke von Braunschweig, he had deserted en route. That was well and good, but there was one thing he said that Kircheis couldn’t shrug off. Hardly believing his own ears, he questioned him further.
“I’ll say this as many times as I have to. Despite being informed that the noble forces were to massacre the two million inhabitants of Westerland, Marquis von Lohengramm let them die, and all for the sake of propaganda.”
“That must have been because he didn’t believe the intelligence. Is there any proof that the marquis intentionally let the people of Westerland die?”
“Proof?” said the officer with a derisive laugh. Weren’t the images they were broadcasting throughout the galaxy proof enough? Were they really recorded by chance, taken from only a short distance above the planet, somewhere in the stratosphere?
Kircheis silently dismissed the defector and put a gag order on his troops. It was unbelievable—something he didn’t want to believe. But was it possible this was the truth?
“I’ll be meeting with Reinhard very soon. And when I do, I’ll confirm the truth for myself.”
And if he did, Kircheis asked himself, what then? It was fine if this was a false rumor. But what if it was the truth?
There was no clear answer.
Until now, Reinhard and Kircheis had shared one and the same sense of justice. Would the day come when they might diverge, even if one could never exist without the other … ?
(T/L – Note :
Literally need food so bye So I will post Chapter 7 and Chapter 8 on Monday)