Original Content Because Someone Had To, Chapter 2 Pt 1

#1
As part of the ongoing edit/rewrite of this story...well, I had already done a major rewrite of part 2, which is now 'chapter 2.' There has been some additional editing done from its second iteration, but over all no major changes here.

Chapter 1 | Chapter 2, Pt 2

-----

The children were quiet, all watching their teacher, or glancing at their kil'tan classmate. They were young, and knew little of the conflict which had torn the known galaxy asunder so many years ago. They knew it only as the Liberation Wars, or the Great Rebellion.

It was celebrated annually, with gatherings and moments of silence to honour the war dead and to appreciate the liberties and freedoms gained. To lament the horrors of the past, and what had been lost, and to appreciate the future they had been offered.

The kil'tan child was silent, its secondary manipulators scratching at its carapace'd underbelly with nervous energy. “How?”

“It took the Council two of their years to assemble a fleet to deal with the humans. But the humans had been preparing even before their ambassador spoke to the Senate.”

-----

“I beg forgiveness, Councillor. But is it wise for someone of such importance as yourself to accompany the fleet? We know little of the Terran military capabilities.” The Grand Admiral of the Punitive Fleet stood next to the seated Silliunce councillor.

After two years of preparation the Punitive Fleet had finished assembling and was navigating its way across the gravity well of an unnamed dead star. One hundred and seventeen vessels from a dozen Senate species had gathered in their independent squadrons. They were less than an hour from making their first jump into what was believed to be Terran-controlled space, the location of the First Contact between the Terran merchant-marine and a Council patrol ship.

“They have been space faring for only a few hundred years. The Silliunce have ruled the stars for thousands. Whatever these humans may believe, their place shall be at our feet.” The Councillor's tone was dismissive and irritated. Irritated that the Grand Admiral, commanding four Silliunce battleships and their associated escorts and support vessels was concerned for his safety, showed such obvious doubt and cowardice. The Punitive Fleet would prove more than enough to...

“GRAND ADMIRAL! Multiple energy spikes ahead! There are...” the bridge of the Silliunce admiral's command ship erupted in sudden activity as reports started to come in. “Sensors are down!” Through the looming windows of the command deck, the flashes of dozens of ships dropping out of FTL could be clearly seen towards the system's outer edge. The light of those flashes reached their eyes minutes after the events that had caused them, which meant that the human fleet was already as many minutes closer to them, and they were suddenly blind.

“Hunter's Roar reports unidentified targets and weapons locks! There are unknown ships all around us!”

“What is going on?!” The Grand Admiral stalked into the center of the command deck as the confusion continued. Crew worked diligently to find an answer for the admiral, but strange reports continued to flood their terminals. There was no way the human fleet could have reached them so quickly. To have done so, they would need to have been travelling at at least light speed in system!

“Kinetic penetrations starboard! Casualties reported on the Soaring Wind!” A barrage of contact reports were streaming in from various ships of the Punitive Fleet. The Grand Admiral was confused by the report of impacts; there was no tell-tale shaking of the ship's hull, no muffled sound of explosion. Not even the flash of shields. But then those sounds and flashes came as the same crew member again reported a second round of impacts.

“All guns target and fire at all viable targets!” The Grand Admiral barked the order as he became overwhelmed by the total lack of information he was being provided with, and even as he finished speaking, the battleship shuddered as weapons fire impacted the heavily armoured hull.

“Hull breach, gun decks!”

“Casualty reports coming in!”

“More unidentified targets! Gunnery crews targeting and returning fire!”

The Councillor sat unmoving, frozen with rage. The Punitive Fleet was being made fools of, and there was nothing he could do about it. Not that that mattered to him; with each shudder of the ship's hull and confused, useless report by the command stations, he found himself just a bit closer to simply striking the Grand Admiral down and sorting things out himself.

“Sir! Emergency call from the Malicious! They have been boarded. They have lost control of engineering and central computer! The Captain is triggering the self-destruct timer!"

And then suddenly, everything stopped. “Admiral! System security has identified an unknown signal and blocked it. Systems are coming back online now! Whatever that signal was, it was huge...”

The admiral turned towards the speaker; the ship's onboard computers technician rarely had anything to say during combat maneuvers, “What are you talking about?!”

“There are a series of micro-satellites around the fleet, admiral. They were inert, and the computer wrote them off as simple debris. They activated when we came into range, and they began attacking our systems.” The technician shrank in his chair, expecting the admiral, or more likely the Councillor, to explode with rage at the discovery.

There was a moment of silence as the bridge crew struggled to clear the remaining errors and sensor ghosts from their systems. The Grand Admiral could only glare out the windows of his ship towards where the FTL flash of what must have been the human fleet had entered the system.

“What is the situation?” The Silliunce Councillor addressed the sensors operator, who was frantically trying to clear the errors in the ships sensors.

“There are...there are no enemy ships around us, Councillor. The fleet was firing on itself...”

The Councillor rose from his seat and approached the sensor operator's station, and the crew member only had time to realize someone had approached before the Councillor had grabbed the crewman's throat from behind, clawed fingers digging into leathery hide with ease. Blood sprayed across the terminal, followed by thick strands of viscera as the operator's throat was torn free and flicked upon the terminal.

His death was slow.

The Grand Admiral and much of the bridge crew remained silent as their dying crew member thrashed on the floor in a quickly widening puddle of blood, and the Councillor stalked back to his seat. “Grand Admiral. What. Is. The situation of the fleet.”

The bridge door opened and a fresh crewman darted to the sensor station, coldly dragging their dead predecessor out of the way before setting to work.

The Grand Admiral stared at the display, his mind racing to understand, again, what was happening. Every ship in the fleet displayed some degree of battle damage, and his communications officer was in a heated argument with the captain of the Malicious over the apparently fake report of having been boarded. Believing his ship lost, he was frantically working with his own central computer technician to disarm the ship's self destruct system.

The newly seated sensors operator turned to the Councillor directly, rather than the Grand Admiral, “Enemy ships ahead and closing fast! I am having trouble fixing their positions, sir. They are employing active and passive stealth measures.”

-----

“Admiral dos Santos to the Fleet. I've nothing to say that the politicians haven't already. Today, we fire the first shots in a war we have been preparing for for years. You know your duty, and what's at stake. Do your children proud.”

The human Admiral, a petite woman of steel-grey hair and sharp features, stood in the war room of the Hermes, the largest carrier in the Terran fleet. The ship's captain continued to see to the vessel's preparations for the coming battle from the command deck.

She surveyed the fleet on a holographic display; fifty warships, the best humanity could produce, were arrayed in their formations, and the carrier group was deploying squadrons of strike craft. They were outnumbered more than two-to-one. The Punitive Fleet had almost three times the tonnage of her fleet, and would employ tactics and formations that had been proven in combat for centuries.

But, they were fractured. Each Senate species' ships operated as an independent fleet rather than an extension of the whole. The Grand Admiral would be commanding the ship on which he rode, as well as dictating orders to the rest of the Silliunce fleet and the Senate species admirals. Orders that would then be interpreted differently by every sub-admiral, who in turn commanded their own ship and their own fleet. They would be slow to respond to changes in the battle.

The opening salvo from the human fleet came in the form of more electronic warfare. The Admiral glanced to her left, to the holographic display of a combat AI, modeled after the ancient goddess Athena, who was coordinating with the five other combat AI's of the fleet. They barraged the Punitive Fleet with signals and false readings, actively infiltrating their communications network, wreaking havoc on their fleet's ability to function coherently.

The second salvo was kinetic. Torpedoes leapt ahead, arcing high above or below the plane the Punitive Fleet was arrayed along, before coming to a stop and going dark, waiting to pounce when Athena and her siblings gave the signal.

Depleted uranium penetrators were launched at fractions of the speed of light, flashing across the void towards the enemy fleet, meant more to force the Punitive Fleet further out of formation then to actually strike the enemy ships.

And waves of strike craft fanned out from their launch bays to take up station along their assigned capital ships as the fleet advanced towards the reeling Punitive Fleet, carrying payloads of high-yield nuclear warheads and armour-penetrating missiles.

-----

“Councillor? The human fleet is advancing. They have launched kinetic weapons at the us. Sub-formations are maneuvering to avoid the kinetics’ plotted trajectories.” The Grand Admiral stood in the center of the bridge, assessing the advancing human fleet while his crew processed the chosen courses of action of the dozen member-race fleets and made that information available to him.

He in turn had ordered his own fleet to adjust course, and nodded in approval as the various sub-admirals formations made orderly course corrections. The momentary confusion when the human fleet had first arrived had caused much of his fleet to fall out of formation. It had fanned the Punitive Fleet out across a larger frontage, but they would continue to advance as those useless kinetics flashed through the region his fleet no longer occupied.

“You are all running from the first shots these young upstarts fire, Grand Admiral? Afraid of such crude weapons? Victory is assured. Start acting like it.” The Councillor’s tone was sharp, acid-laced, threatening. Baring if a ship took multiple hits, those kinetic projectiles were unlikely to penetrate the shields of most of even the Senate-species ships.

The Grand Admiral was quickly reminded that anything short of a perfect, and aggressive, victory would likely not be well rewarded. Nor would letting his ship near enough the enemy's guns to put the Councillor at risk, meaning that he would have to hang back, and allow the sub-admirals and their member-race fleets do the brunt of the work.

The humans had a mere fifty ships. Some too small to even be called proper warships (much like the pathetic, ramshackle crafts of the Sheldanta fleet), but two rivaled even the Grand Admiral's command ship in size. They were strikingly different in design, one knife-shaped and long, its surface layered in what his staff were certain were weapons batteries. Some sort of battleship, he had to assume; it would receive the most attention from his fleet's guns.

The other, a massive rectangular thing, was covered in what seemed to be loading bays. A mobile repair and fueling ship, perhaps, one capable of serving an entire fleet. It was a sure sign that the human fleet was acting far beyond its operational boundaries, and without that one ship would surely never have been able to operate so far from known human space.

“We will make an example of that warship at the fore of the human formation. Our weapons will tear it asunder, and the rest of their fleet will surrender to you, Councillor.” The Grand Admiral was confident of this; his people had never known defeat, after all. They were the most powerful of the Alliance species, just as the Councillor was the most powerful of the Council. They had dozens of slave species, controlled hundreds of worlds. The humans would soon learn the hard way the error of their cause.

Of course, there was still the question of what had happened to his fleet mere minutes before the human fleet had been spotted. The false reports, the failing sensors, the fact that his ships had fired upon each other. Despite the strange signal that his newly appointed communications technician had found, he simply could not believe it to have been the case. The humans surely could not have had any part of it.

Such a coordinated, real-time assault on their systems could not have been achieved by an automated system, nor could it have been carried out by the still distant human fleet.

His gaze locked on the two-dimensional display of the human fleet which hung on a monitor above him. The enemy's fleet continued to advance at the same speed as when it had first appeared. The display tracked the kinetic projectiles advance. His crew estimated the moment his fleet would pass those useless hunks of metal, no more dangerous than a meteor to a ship that could simply move out of the way.

There was a brief flicker of the image. Nothing changed. No delays, no ships out of position, no loss of information. The human fleet continued to advance, the member-race fleets continued to outmaneuver the crude kinetic weapons.

“Inform the sub-admirals to mark the enemy's large craft as their priority target, and good hunting.”

-----

“Loki has infiltrated their communications networks, Admiral. He is downright giddy, ma'am. They have so many holes in their security nets, since it has to be compatible with each member-race's own systems to allow them to cooperate.” Athena and the fleets other five combat AIs reported directly to the Admiral, despite technically being housed on six different ships in the fleet.

Athena called the battleship Georgios Averof home, while Loki's home was actually the super-carrier Hermes, although the mischievous AI was currently gallivanting about through the Punitive Fleet's communications network, laying the groundwork for his next trick.

Three of the other four AIs were working closely with sub-formation commanders, directing the stealth torpedoes and coordinating squadrons of drone strike craft that worked in tandem with the human-piloted fighters and bombers. The last AI had yet to arrive, but wasn't far behind.

Athena, in turn, was the most senior of the fleet's AI staff, and she coordinated and assisted the Admiral, acting in part as one of her own support staff. That she was willing to entrust the Georgios Averof to her human crew was a sign of the trust and faith she had in their abilities. It was, after all, not just her home but her body as well.

The Admiral only smiled, her hands dancing across the three-dimensional holographic display of both her and the enemy's fleets. Data markers, ship symbols and squadron numbers, intricate series of coloured lines marking trajectories and weapons ranges.

Around her, her staff worked to get the finishing touches on the formations and targeting priorities for the dozens of squadrons of piloted crafts that were swarming ahead of the Hermes, movements for the sub-formations of destroyers and cruisers, all meant to lure the enemy in on the Georgios Averof.

“All ships, ahead full. 1st and 2nd Destroyer Squadrons are clear to break off formation and maneuver into attack positions. Athena, ask Loki to be ready to begin in ten minutes. And inform Captain Everett to ready the Georgios Averof's main cannon. These arrogant bastards were kind enough to break up their formations for us, but I want them shaken up a bit before the Hounds arrive.” She again glanced at the powerful AI, fashioned after the ancient Greek goddess of war, and shared a smile with the holographic image, as the fleet began to accelerate, unseen by the Punitive Fleet's sensors.

“Of course, Admiral.” Athena smiled, as she studied the tracker of Khonvoum's (the African Bambuti people's creator deity and the great hunter) telemetry and position, growing rapidly closer from out of system.

-----

“Grand Admiral?” The newly appointed sensors officer sat at the station of his former colleague, studiously ignoring the dried blood on the seat and poorly scrubbed from the monitors. The Silliunce technician studied the readings his station provided with intent curiosity, as the sensors reports from other ships of the Silliunce fleet were providing seemed to contradict each other.

But every time he received such a report and flagged it for the Grand Admiral's attention, the file would vanish or suddenly be located in a different location. He frowned for a moment, the scaled flesh along his snout pulling away from rows of misaligned fangs, clawed hands curling and scraping nervously against the flanks of his controls.

The Grand Admiral of the Punitive Fleet ignored the technician as the myriad Captains of the Silliunce portion of the fleet petitioned for their right to lead the vanguard against the large human warship, even as the two fleets continued to close on each other and the other member-race fleets advanced on their own routes, following the plans of their individual admirals.

“Grand Admiral? I think...”

He snarled in annoyance, waved off the Captains, temporarily dismissing the various monitors that showed their bickering arguments, and turned to the technician. He could feel the Councilor’s eyes on him, an impatient glare. “What is it, technician? What is so important?”

“I think...I think there is something wrong with our...”

He didn't get to finish. A new warning appeared on his screen, seconds ahead of a sudden flash of light barely seen ahead and off the command ship's flank through the large armoured windows. “The Thrown Spear is hit!”

The Grand Admiral snarled with frustration and moved back to his own command station, “What? Show me!”

The sensors tech transferred it to one of the Grand Admiral's monitors, where it replaced the reported courses of the member-race fleets. On the screen, a Silliunce warship was tumbling and breaking apart. It had been struck almost head on, and the vessel had warped and twisted from both the sudden force of the impact and the briefly continued push of the main engines. Even as he watched, detonations tore the engines free of the spiraling ship, and for one almost comical moment they lunged away from the dead craft before detonating.

“What caused this?!” He turned on the sensors operator, prowling across the bridge to the suddenly nervous technician's station.

“It was the large human ship, Grand Admiral...it was detected almost the same time the Thrown Spear was hit...” The technician scrambled to show the towering commander the imagery of what had happened. A bright flash of light at the nose of the large human warship, and only a few seconds later the Thrown Spear was floundering.

His mind raced to understand what had happened. The humans were still minutes away from entering his fleet's longest weapons ranges. And even once in range of those furthest-reaching guns, there was little chance of actually hitting anything. But the humans clearly didn't need to work under the same limitations...

He watched the imagery replay a second time, and then the image changed. The human ship was closer, and the same flash of light pulsed from its prow. One of the Sheldanta warships exploded next. The ramshackle craft simply disintegrated into a rapidly expanding cloud of debris, and the rest of the Sheldanta fleet immediately began to spread out, swaying through space much like the movement of a sea-creature through water.

“All ships of the Punitive Fleet! Evasive actions!”

-----

“Athena? Complement your crew for me, would you? First blood goes to the Georgios Averof.” Admiral dos Santos flashed a predatory grin as she watched the second enemy ship die. One of her staff glanced up at an old-style analog clock mounted to the wall, then sent orders to the sub-formations to begin their next phase of maneuvers. Naturally, although the concept of the clock itself was ancient, practicality had required some modernization of its inner mechanisms, ensuring its accuracy.

“Of course, Admiral. Loki reports he is ready to begin, and the Hounds should be here shortly.” The Athena AI smiled as well. Less predatory, but coldly confident of what the outcome would be. The enemy fleet was so slow to respond, so easily infiltrated. Too many commanders, each trying to do everything themselves. They were about to learn many important lessons the hard way, she was certain.

“Loki may begin. And ask him to stop changing my desktop backgrounds, would you?”

-----

1st Destroyer Group consisted of five warships. They were built for speed, meant to get in close and hit hard before racing away. Skirmishers, tasked to harass the enemy's center or work around their flanks, and the five ships were racing towards one of the enemy's many separate formations, a dozen crafts belonging to one of the many member-races, little more than well-treated slaves to the Council species.

Captain Grainger almost felt bad for them. The crews aboard those ships were simply doing what they had been taught was right. They were fighting to maintain the order of things, everything they knew and believed in. He couldn't hate them for that, but he could pity them...they had never been shown a better way, were ignorant to the possibility of such a thing.

And they wouldn't be alive to see the sort of future their children would have. It was a sobering thought, one that he had spent many hours in confessions and discussion with the ship's chaplain. But he had come to terms with it; war was a terrible thing, but sometimes violence could open the door to peace.

“All hands. The Hounds are expected to arrive shortly. Nav, full speed ahead. We need to close the distance. Ready weapons. As soon as any enemy ship can be confirmed as an F-Kill (fighting kill), allow them a chance to reach any escape pods they may have, or to try and quit the battle themselves.” He sat on the bridge of his ship, and glanced to a screen that showed him the trajectories and status of the other ships of 1st Destroyer Group.

A few squadrons from the Hermes had moved to join them, and they flew in the wake of the destroyers, ready to race ahead or provide close support depending on how the enemy responded. The enemy ships were piece-meal and haphazardly built, and some looked very old indeed, as if they had been overhauled continuously over many generations of owners.

They had also been the first of the enemy formations to begin evasive movements to avoid the Georgios Averof's main guns. A sign that, at least compared to the other many commanders of the enemy's fleet, this one was a bit quicker on the up-take.

But not quick enough.

-----

Khonvoum technically shared his AI software across multiple drone vessels. The more that were gathered in a formation, the more of them assigned to his control, the more computational power the AI had. He had never been assigned more than three.

For this battle, he had twelve.

Using an experimental FTL relay, his drone craft could travel magnitudes of speed faster to aligned beacons than crewed ships could through grav-well jumps. Beacons like the micro-satellites that had been seeded along the edges of human space, awaiting the arrival of the enemy fleet.

The Sheldanta fleet unknowingly advanced through a second cloud of those tiny satellites. They didn't know that the Loki AI had already begun infiltrating their communications networks, spreading through the enemy fleet like a virus. He worked subtly, creating false telemetry reports, creating delays in various systems, but many of the enemy ships didn't rely as heavily on automation as the human fleets. He couldn't directly influence systems that relied entirely on mortal crews to function, or that weren't directly interfaced into the communications systems.

Luckily, sensors were. And sensors could be easily fooled.

The flash of light of the arrival of Khonvoum and his Hounds cast shadows of the lead Sheldanta ship's bridge crew on the back wall. Many raised their arms to shield their eyes, despite the automatic tinting of the windows to shield them from harm.

They barely had a chance to process the sudden appearance of twelve impossibly sleek, tiny warships, each smaller even then the Sheldanta vessels. An impressive feat, considering an adult Sheldanta stood about waist-height to a full grown human.

The twelve Hounds appeared already moving at full speed, and flashed passed the lead Sheldanta ship to plunge into the fleet in its wake. Demonstrating an ability to calculate firing solutions, load and launch payloads, and maneuver that far outstripped anything the Sheldanta could manage, the crew of that lead ship were hardly able to process that those ships had even arrived, before their shields were raked with hundreds of one-kilogram kinetic penetrators fired at some three thousand kilometers a second.

The Sheldantan warship's shields flashed brightly and vanished in an instant, and those penetrators that didn't atomize against the hodgepodge vessel's shields, crashed into the ship's hull, itself moving tens of thousands of kilometers a second towards those penetrators. It vanished in a cloud of debris as fast as its shields had vanished.

The second and third ship in the Sheldanta formation didn't fare much better.

-----

The Grand Admiral tried not to tuck his chin under the Councillor's glare. A natural reaction, meant to protect one's fragile throat to a more aggressive male, and an embarrassingly cowardly feature to see in the fool tasked to lead the first Punitive Fleet assembled in hundreds of years.

The Councillor remained in his lavish seat aboard the flagship's bridge, idly scraping dried blood from the scales of his hand, or from under his claws, while the Grand Admiral delivered his report of the fleet's progress. The choice of vessel to serve the role had been a simple one, as the Ascendant Fury had served as the flagship of the last Punitive Fleet as well, and he paid the coward little attention as he considered the venerable warship's grand history.

The Grand Admiral had nothing flattering to say of the Senate-race fleets. The Senate member species had assembled fleets of their best crews and bravest commanders, all tasked to further their species' value to the Council races by any means necessary. Despite that, they had begun to fall apart as they neared the human fleet. Slow to respond to orders, slow to maneuver and push towards the humans, slow to share their sensor data.

Yet more evidence of how inferior they were, how much like foolish game animals they were.

And then something changed. A flash of light from the far wing of the Punitive Fleet's formation, distant and certainly minutes old by the time he saw it. Confusion rocked the Grand Admiral and his crew, as the sensors operator clearly had no idea what was going on despite how close that pulse of light had been.

The Councillor was no master of fleets and tactics, but it was obvious the Grand Admiral was not nearly as qualified as the Silliunce emperor had been led to believe.

Then something else changed. The tactical displays and sensors reports flickered and refreshed, displaying very different information then they had mere moments before. The communications operator let out a pleased, if frustrated, hiss at the same time. “Grand Admiral! The humans are interfering with our systems somehow!”

The Councillor's gaze locked on the tactical display of the Grand Admiral's station. A dozen unknown ships were tearing through the Sheldanta fleet, with three of their numbers destroyed and four others damaged as those unknown ships passed through the tiny Sheldanta formation far too fast to be safe for the human crews. The conflict had to have been raging for minutes at least, maybe longer, and the sensors operator, and the Grand Admiral himself, had had no idea until the light of the conflict had reached them.

And a formation of human ships, that had moments before had been shown in formation with the main human fleet, had rapidly closed the distance, already entering weapons range of the debris field that was the lead Sheldanta vessel.

And weapons lock warnings were flashing on ships of the Kelliant Consortium, as the seventeen vessels representing five different economic powerhouses scattered to escape dozens of previously dormant stealth torpedoes. Many of those ships scattered the wrong way, and threw themselves into the path of another formation of human warships that had closed much faster than the Grand Admiral's crew had been tracking previously.

The communications operator called over two additional crew to help sort through a sudden rush of reports and messages from the rest of the fleet. The large human warship let out another flash of light, and a second Silliunce warship was struck a glancing blow which tore away meters of armoured hull and an entire wing with one of the three main engines, causing the vessel to list and begin to spiral as it surged forwards and away from its original course until the crew were able to regain control.

He simply sat and watched as the Sheldanta fleet struggled to break away from the sudden enemy strike, while the Kelliant Consortium fleet scattered and was over-run by more human warships. While that large warship at their center, with its impossible main guns, continued to approach directly into the heart of the Punitive Fleet's formation.

Watched as the Grand Admiral floundered into uncertainty, visibly shaken by how suddenly everything was changing. Watched while a member of the worker class, one of the lowest of Silliunce society, worked the communications terminal and, although clearly struggling due to the lower intelligence common to such pitiful low-casts, was working actively to deal with the problem.

It was disgusting.

-----

“1st Destroyer Group to form up on Valiant. Close to five-hundred and advance to engagement speed.” Captain Grainger's fingers danced through the holographic command relay next to his seat, making minor adjustments to his group's formation and target priorities.

Khonvoum's formation of Hounds had punched clear of the enemy formation, leaving a pair of enemy warships floundering in their wake and many of the others struggling to repair spot-fractures of their shields and hull breaches from the impacts of their scatterable munitions, lovingly nicknamed Ball-bearings, for obvious reasons.

But the enemy, the Sheldanta, had put up a fight. One of the Hounds was lost in the brief seconds that they passed through the enemy fleet, and two others were damaged. An impressive feat, considering both the sheer speed the Hounds moved at, and the reaction speed of their controlling AI.

1st Destroyer Group met the enemy at almost the same moment as 2nd Destroyer Group, which descended upon the Kelliant Consortium's fleet, millions of kilometers away.

The Valiant closed with the four other destroyers on her flanks, catching up from behind the fleeing Sheldanta fleet, and Grainger nodded to the weapons officer as they came within range. Deck guns raised from their armoured housings and spun to bring the nearest enemy ship to bear. Flashes of heat from the barrels was answered by the flaring and shattering of the Sheldantan ship's shields, already weakened by the passing of the Hounds.

Its hull twisted and melted. Chunks were cast away, the ship's outer hull made of seemingly haphazardly layered slabs of salvage and modules. It dropped speed immediately though, and suddenly fell away from the Valiant weapons arcs, and its own weapons flashed kinetic penetrators against the destroyer's shields.

The navigator was forced to alter course to avoid the field of debris the enemy ship had cast off, which briefly exposed their weaker rear shields to the enemy's fire. The Sheldanta's weapons may have been far behind what the humans could field, but the crews were no fools and knew how to employ them. And how to think on their feet.

-----

“Admiral, 1st Destroyer Group is clear of the Sheldanta formation. No major damage reported, three additional enemy ships are confirmed sunk.” Athena smiled with pride as the 1st Destroyer Group raced ahead of the Sheldanta fleet and began circling around, intent on making another pass through their formation.

Khonvoum's Hounds were racing towards the next battlegroup in the enemy's fleet, a loose formation of bulky, heavily armoured warships of the Wourillia. A predator-evolved species of wiry, sleek frames and powerful muscles, known to kill their prey by wearing them down or savaging them in brutal melee. Their ships followed the same mentality as their evolution; fast in short bursts, coated in thick armour, meant for brutal close-in fighting.

Another species eager to prove its usefulness to the Council races, eager to earn itself a higher station.

The Admiral nodded, as she in turn made the finishing touches to the main fleet's formation. 2nd Destroyer Group had met fiercer resistance as one of the Kelliant Consortium vessels, engines damaged by chaser-fire from the 2nd, floundered on its course and crossed into the path of the Testament.

The crew of the Testament had barely avoided a full collision, instead scraping across the enemy ship's hull as both vessels' shields had flared out and died on impact. The Testament was damaged but still able to maneuver at speed, and had begun to break off from the 2nd Destroyer Group to make its way back towards the main fleet's rear and away from the battle.

“We will be entering range of the enemy's long range weapons shortly, ma'am.” One of her staff had finished studying the technical data Loki had provided, and was busy working with Athena to estimate the dispersion pattern the enemy would use to fire on the main fleet.

“Affirmative. Inform the rest of the fleet to make evasive action as necessary. Georgios Averof is to maintain heading and show these fools the error of their way.” The Admiral glanced at the tactical display of the battleship. Tens of meters of prow armour, a dozen separate antimatter reactors dedicated entirely to the multiple shield emitters. It was a flying tank, as was befitting a proper Battleship. Meant to wade in and take a beating, and dish out better then it got.

Of course, that all mattered more on how accurate the enemy's fire was to begin with. A questioning glance to Athena was met with a wry smile, as she had just finished sifting through Loki's latest status update as he continued to gallivant through the enemy's systems.

-----

“All fleets are to open fire on that behemoth! Tell the Sheldanta to stop dying like the cowards they are! They are to do everything, EVERYTHING in their power to break those damn humans. They still outnumber them damn it all!” The Grand Admiral was growing harried with the sudden and brief surges of information.

Something was clearly wrong; one moment he would be flagged by a dozen priority messages from his communications crew, and then those messages would vanish. His sensors operator couldn't answer why they could not confirm how far away the enemy's large central warship was, let alone where exactly the rest of the damn fleet was.

And all the while, the Councillor watched him with those dangerous, vicious eyes. Clearly, the Councillor was not much impressed with the Grand Admiral of the Punitive Fleet. And so he grew more nervous.

“Weapons range confirmed to main target, Grand Admiral!” The sensors technician struggled to clear the interference that seemed to be actively battling him every step of the way.

“All ships, lock and fire! FIRE!”

-----

The Georgios Averof plowed directly into the heart of the enemy's fire. The rest of the fleet, relying on Athena and the Admiral's staff's calculations and estimates, made minor course corrections to avoid the brunt of what the enemy fleet threw at them.

Minutes passed as her main fleet's formation swelled then began to close in again to avoid the scattered bursts of enemy fire, and then the Georgios Averof was lit up like a small sun. Its shields flared constantly as all sorts of munitions struck harmlessly against its powerful shields, or were struck down by swaying arms of interceptor fire, loaded with tracer rounds more for show to dishearten the enemy further than for any practical targeting reasoning.

Nuclear warheads, kinetic penetrators, an array of energy weapons. All failed to penetrate the battleship's shields and defences, and it carried past the brunt of the enemy's fire with a pulse of light all its own making.

And another enemy warship detonated as it was struck by the battleship's main gun.

-----

Gathering-Party Leader Fuulian grasped the navigation struts of his family's ship, glaring at the display screen that showed the gracefully turning enemy ships. A young race that had thundered out of the aether with insults and spat in the face of tradition and all that was Right in accordance with the Gods themselves.

Those five enemy ships had torn through the ships of his cousins and had escaped unharmed, but not again. His clan was down to less than half of what had answered their leaders’ calls. His sons and daughters, serving aboard the other ships of the Sheldanta's tithe to the Counsel's call to arms, had been lost so quickly.

His people had never been built for war. They were tiny compared to the other races of the Senate, and were little better than animals in the eyes of most of their betters, as was their place. But there was some hope among his people that if they acquitted themselves well in the war with the humans, they would rise in station. For that faint glimmer of hope, they were the first to officially answer the Council's call.

His crew struggled to ready the weapons and grapples. They were a scavenging race, and knew little of fighting with ships. They usually just swept through battlefields in the aftermath of the fighting, gathering salvage and supplies, not actually committing to the battle itself.

One of his cousins brought his vessel ahead of Fuulian's, shielding it with his own body as the human warships approached again. He could see the effects of those perfectly identical ships had on his cousin's vessel, as blossoms of heat tore along its patchwork hull and chunks of debris was cast loose.

But it worked. Just as his cousin's ship floundered and dropped away, its engines crippled from a blow that had cut clear through the ship's prow and poorly reinforced interior, the lead enemy warship came into range.

He issued no command; his family knew what they were about. The main guns caused the ship to shudder violently, metal screaming as it was twisted by the chatter of the cannons, throwing everything they had into the path of the lead enemy ship. And before they came abreast, electromagnetically charged grapples were launched, drawing thick cables with them into the void of space. They punched through the enemy's shields, weakened by the main guns of his cousin's vessel and his own, and dug deep into the armoured hull.

Where they dug in and vacuum-welded themselves into the metal of the human ships. The two vessels, passing in different directions, found themselves connected by those massive cables, the spools of which locked the moment their grapples had found purchase.

Fuulian knew what would happen next. His family knew. They knew there was nothing to be done but say their final prayers as those grapples were fired, knowing that their actions offered the rest of their people a chance for a better future, perhaps not as slaves, food, and entertainment, for the Council races.

-----

Captain Grainger watched as the lead Sheldanta ship had broken apart. It had refused to break off, instead shielding the next ship in their formation with its own quickly-shattered hull. Whether it was intentional, or if they had simply lost navigational control he couldn't say. But they had kept firing even as their ship died around them, kept fighting even as his gunners tore a hole from fore to aft, and destroyed their engines from the inside.

The Valiant's shields flared constantly as they impacted with the lead ship's shots, and began to collapse as they met the second enemy vessel's fire. The rest of 1st Destroyer Group held the same formation as during the first pass, and the Sheldanta fleet would be run between three columns of Destroyers, and likely torn to shreds in the process.

The fools refused to surrender, refused to abandon ship. It was a terrible...

“IMPACT! All hands bra...”

He was just beginning to turn to look at the sensors operator, who had detected what was about to happen seconds too late. The grapples launched by that second Sheldanta punched through their weakened shields, dug into the hull of the Valiant, and their cables pulled tight.

The Valiant was jerked off course too sharply for the inertial dampeners to compensate. It spun hard to port, as the second Sheldanta ship to which they were connected fired its engines at full power. The two vessels spun and broke apart, huge chunks of their hulls torn open to vent atmosphere and expose their crews to the vacuum of space.

Not that any on either ship were alive to worry about it.

-----

Chapter 1 | Chapter 2, Pt2
 
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