Original Content Because Someone Had To, Chapter 2, Pt 3

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Chapter 2, Pt 2 | Chapter 3

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The Admiral was pale as updates from the main battle kept coming forward. It had been so one-sided at first; dozens of Council and Senate ships crippled or destroyed. Her fleet's guns were bigger. Shields stronger. Armour thicker. Her crews and captains were better. They held the edge on every front but one.

Humanity did not want a war of guns and bombs. Of violence and destruction. They sought to cripple or disable enemy ships, drive them off or force them to surrender. They weren't afraid to kill; humanity had always been too good at that.

They didn't want it, but they would if they had to.

But the Senate species fought for their people, in a way humanity did not. They fought for their children, for their future generations, for themselves, striving to eck out a better future in a system that benefited only a select few.

They fought knowing that to fail could mean disaster for their people. That to retreat would mean loss of political power, the defaulting of financial debts. To surrender was seen as weakness, a lack of worth to the Council species, a death sentence for their people.

So they fought with everything they had. As their ships died and were torn apart by human guns. As their systems failed and betrayed them, co-opted by human AIs. They fought and died fueled by the fear of what would come to their families, their species.

And fueled by that fear, that devotion to everything they held dear and the hope for a better future (that could not include them), they sacrificed themselves.

Each ship that threw itself into the path of a human vessel, each that came about to shield a Silliunce warship with their own lives. Every time it happened, the Admiral watched crews that willingly killed themselves to protect their loved ones. Good people, aliens though they may be, with simply, universal motivations.

Motivations, reasoning, desires, that weren't so different from a human. They just needed to know there was a better option, a better way.

Of course, there was also the far more personal pain that each time one of those Senate-race or member-species ships sacrificed itself, more of her own people died. Fathers and mothers, sons and daughters. Each ship lost meant so many families destroyed.

“Admiral to the fleet. Hermes and support ships are beginning to launch rescue teams. 1st, 2nd Destroyer Groups are to move to engage hostile reserve formation. Khonvoum is to draw the Wourillia battle group away from main engagement zone, try and bring them into 1st and 2nd's route of advance.” She studied the tactical displays as her staff assembled them, drawing light onto each phase and area of battle throughout the system, painting a single unified picture for her to interpret.

The Xelliant Hive ship was one of the largest space-fairing crafts she had ever seen. It was slow, impossible to maneuver, and had little by means of major anti-capital weaponry. But it was heavily armoured, and could take a hell of a beating.

She had no interest in dealing with it in combat; better to force them to surrender or flee. Taking it down in combat would tie up too many resources from the rest of the fleet, which was already laboring to deal with combat losses and the increasingly suicidal enemy. But curiously, the massive vessel seemed to have slowed down. It wasn't advancing aggressively towards the main battle space.

Through Loki, she was already aware that the Grand Admiral was encouraging the ramming tactic, gladly throwing away the lives and ships of his own allies to protect the Silliunce fleet, his own ship, and the mission as a whole.

They believed her fleet to be the only one humanity could possibly have fielded. That the fifty ships under her command was everything humanity could throw at them. That if they were broken here, the war would be all but over.

And he wasn't entirely wrong. She commanded the bulk of the fleet. But more ships were being built, launched, crewed. Just as the Council and Senate would be pushing more warship projects forward, seeking to field yet more craft. It would be a long war indeed.

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The Khonvoum combat AI relied on the dedicated drone-warships that shared his intelligence across their systems. The more 'Hounds' in his control, the more powerful his program, his mind, became. He had never before held so many Hounds at one time, and the result of that level of processing power revealed itself as advanced electronic-warfare capabilities and reaction speed to enemy action.

He had rode a dozen Hounds through the Sheldanta fleet. The drones were unshielded, lightly armoured, relying entirely on maneuverability and speed to avoid the enemy. He had lost one in his passage through the Sheldanta fleet, and mourned it silently as he followed Athena's directions to continue after new targets.

Each Hound, although smaller than a Destroyer, was far faster and just as well armed. Their sensor silhouette was tiny, easily missed, and they were nearly upon the Wourillia fleet before the feline-like aliens spotted him and brought their eleven-strong fleet around to meet Khonvoum's eleven Hounds head on.

If he could feel exhilaration, he would have. The Sheldanta had done well to strike one of his Hounds. They had been taken by surprise, yet had still put up a good fight. But there had never been much challenge to it. Khonvoum had known the outcome before the battle had begun.

His Hounds against the Wourillian fleet was a far more interesting engagement. Some part of him found it amusing; the humans called his ships hounds, while they considered the Wourillians to be feline-like in appearance. The similarities were superficial at best, but so too were those of his Hounds to dogs.

He would not have been surprised if it had all been Loki's doing, arranging the fleet arrangements and movements of the Punitive Fleet contingents to try and urge the Wourillia into his path.

The Wourillia were a predator-evolved species. They were built for the chase, and so as the two fleets neared they began to alter their course, meaning to lead Khonvoum's into charging their flanks and the brunt of their combined fire, before giving chase as the Hounds would surely pass through their ranks and continue on.

Instead, Khonvoum's own fleet charged ahead as if about to do exactly as the Wourillians wanted. But just as they came upon the enemy's weapons range, the Hounds split into two separate formations, charging either end of the Wourillian battle line. They were forced to make minor adjustments at the last moment, firing into what they tracked as the Hound's course, only for Khonvoum's ships to make a sudden last moment course correction and charge into the center of the Wourillian line instead.

Shots flew wide, weapons and gunnery crews struggled to track the last-second course changes, equally struggling to understand how any living crew could have survived such dramatic changes in course over such short distances.

A few shots found their mark, gouging rents into the armour of the lead Hounds. And the Hounds returned fire at point-blank. Wourillian shields flared and failed, hulls were pummeled by high-speed kinetic weapons. Their armour dimpled then shredded as those high-speed projectiles pierced the hull only to begin shredding through softer interior systems.

They didn't have the same opinion of how heavily reinforced the interior structure of a warship needed to be, and one-kilogram tungsten steel spheres flashed through the ship interiors, shredding systems and crew alike. Those that survived were faced with the explosive decompression of interior compartments. Lances of energy weapons fire melted and sliced through the already shieldless vessels.

In their first pass, the Hounds took three Wourillia craft.

The Wourillia struggled to bring their ships about to give chase, weapons again pivoting in their turrets to regain firing solutions on the human AI ships, they were met by the sight of those very same vessels braking and coming about in perfect symmetry, readying for another, albeit slower, run against the Wourillia battle line.

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Elements of the Punitive Fleet broke through the main line of battle and made full speed towards the Hermes and her escorts. Many were already damaged, but seeing openings in human formations they had surged forward, intent on trying to take out the human support vessels and earn themselves some credit in the eyes of the Council races.

That opportunity was quickly taken from them though, as 1st and 2nd Destroyer groups made their own advance in an obvious maneuver to reach the Silliunce flagship and its own escorts. Knowing a Councillor was aboard that flagship, those vessels that had been bound for the Hermes broke off their own advance, heading instead after the Destroyer groups.

Through it all, the Admiral and Athena worked tirelessly to coordinate the fleet and its myriad parts. Her staff was constantly compiling and updating data on the Hermes' many deployed squadrons. Ammunition stores, damage reports, fuel, debris trajectories.

Athena's attention was split between the information Loki constantly provided of plotted hostile movements and targeting systems, pushing forward tactical suggestions and observations to the Admiral's staff, and plotting their own side of the battle with her fellow AIs.

The myriad individual fleets that had made up the Punitive Fleet simply could not keep up with the human's ability to adapt and adjust their formations and tactics. As that revelation dawned on them, that the battle was lost before it had ever begun, the desperation began to reveal itself in the form of suicidal charges and deadly collisions. The member races knew the battle was lost, and knew what would happen if they did not make a good showing of themselves.

And the only way to do that was to die fighting.

The Silliunce of course had another option. Damaged Silliunce ships fled from battle, scrambling back towards the command ship to take up defensive station around the Councillor's ship. They too knew what was at stake should they fail, and letting a Councillor die was a death-sentence for their own genetic lines. However, they also knew that the Councillor would flee long before he was in direct risk, and that they could flee with him, 'protecting' him from the enemy.

The battle raged for hours. 1st and 2nd Destroyer groups joined the fray, leading their tails back into the heart of the battle, where the Georgios Averof's guns began to make short work of them.

Three Sheldanta ships entered the fray, making straight for the powerful battleship. The lead vessel was struck and shattered by a barrage of torpedoes. The remaining two made a good showing of themselves. Their shields sparked and spot-failured as they passed through debris fields or through firing arcs, but they surged onward.

Small and agile despite their piece-meal construction, the Sheldanta vessels danced through the battle, closing on the Georgios Averof through a field of debris and the shattered wreckage of a Silliunce vessel.

They flashed into the opening around the human battleship, a final suicidal dash akin to cavalry against a readied line of pikemen. The second ship vanished into a field of expanding debris as two of the Georgios Averof's main turrets brought it into their sights. The third leapt through, shields shattered and hull fatally charred.

It crashed into the Georgios Averof's shields, engines detonating on impact. A bright flash of light and a hole was torn in the battleship's defensive shields. Debris from the second craft tumbled through, crashing against the battleship's hull. Flashes of heat from the kinetic impacts.

The massive ship wasn't even visibly rocked by the impacts. Its shields slowly reformed over the hole the Sheldanta had punched into them. The main guns calmly resumed tracking new targets.

Khonvoum's Hounds dueled with the Wourillia, both fleets dancing around each other in an ever tightening dance. Each AI vessel destroyed lessened his ability to see and predict their movements. Each Wourillia ship lost meant a new hole in their formation, a new weakness for the AI to exploit.

Three hounds remained when the last two Wourillia ships fled; a first for their people. Damaged, barely able to limp away, they fell in around the massive Xelliant hive ship, not yet aware that it had already accepted Loki's option to surrender. Had been planning on surrendering to the humans the moment their Queen confirmed what she had hoped for; that the humans were admirable in their intentions, and that they would win the battle. She had seen a human once, sitting with a dying worker-form of her hive strain, and while her sisters might still believe there was no choice but to side with the Council, she was willing to try something new, if it meant her children could flourish in peace.

Aboard the flagship, with less than half the Silliunce fleet holding station around it , and most damaged, the Councillor stood over the dying body of the Grand Admiral, his claws dripping blood and screaming in rage at the crew that had so failed the Silliunce race, failed the Council, failed HIM.

Ignored by most, the communications technician had also been killed. The thought that a low-cast worker had been the only one of the crew that had understood what had gone wrong, working independently to fix the problem, was too insulting to let pass uncorrected.

The Silliunce fleet fled. And Admiral dos Santos let them.

Her fleet had numbered fifty crewed ships when the battle had begun. Khonvoum has lost nine of his Hounds. Each ship had taken years to build, and would be hard to replace.

But as the battle had grown desperate, the suicide runs of the lesser races of the Senate had taken a heavy tole. Dozens of ships had been lost, and most of those that remained were badly damaged. She had lost thousands of skilled crew, an irreplaceable resource.

Ships could be rebuilt, but experienced crew...friends and family. They could never be replaced.

The willingness of those aliens to throw themselves on the human guns, to kill themselves in desperate acts to cripple or destroy the human warships. It had shown her a glimpse of the war to come.

A long, brutal, and bloody war.

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“Coming alongside now, Sir. We've detected atmo in three areas. It's cold in there, but thermals are detecting heat signatures. A few dozen survivors, maybe.” The shuttle's flight engineer stood in the hatchway between the crew area and the main compartment of the rescue shuttle.

A dozen men and women were sealing their helmets and slinging gear, and the team leader offered a confirmatory thumbs-up before finishing sealing his helmet and activating his intercom. “Roger that. Three teams. Thumbs, Kettle.” He indicated to two members of the rescue team, senior and experienced hands, and they responded in turn.

Nicknames, of course. Thumbs, because he only had one real one. A poster boy in his early days of the 'don't put your fingers where you wouldn't put your...ahem' lesson. Kettle, because she was a large Congolese woman named Potter. And she liked tea, which had only come out after she'd received the name.

The rescue team formed up and the flight engineer sealed off the chamber before it depressurized. Moments later, the twelve were leaving the relative safety of the shuttle's hold, entering the hazardous realm of the tumbling debris field around the wrecked Sheldanta vessel.

They made their way into the ship easily enough; it had been torn open by weapons fire, the ship's haphazardly formed hull was potmarked from a dozen direct hits, and it was some sort of miracle that there could be anyone left alive on board.

Three other shuttles, little more than tugs, had carefully latched onto the debris and managed to slow its uncontrolled tumble through space. They were still working to slow it to a stop, and once done would immediately be off towards the next wreck and the next waiting rescue teams.

Apparently, the Sheldanta had learned long ago how dangerously fragile or prone to structural failure their scavenged ships could be, and many of the main rooms doubled as lifeboats.

The teams split up as they entered the ship, Kettle leading hers away along the ship's hull towards another tear that was closer to their destination. Thumbs took his team down a separate corridor, its length sickeningly twisted as the ship's hull had corkscrewed and twisted during the battle, and exposed to the void of space in some areas.

And Stone lead his own team towards the nearest of the three 'lifeboats.' He'd earned his nickname because he was known to be deadpan and steady, letting everything life threw at him wash over him like a stone in a river. Of course, stones in water tended to get worn away over time, no matter how study they seemed.

As they moved along, he carefully moved the shredded, charred body of a Sheldantan out of their path. The things were barely half his height, and the only reason the halls were large enough for him and his team to move through was because the ship was salvaged, not custom built. He spent a moment to study its face before gently pushing it away and into the void through another large hole in the bulkhead, pressing on.

They reached a sealed door, a single flashing green light above it.

The team worked quickly, without any guidance from Stone. Two worked at lining the surviving bulkheads on either side of the doorway with cable, then attaching a tarp-like membrane that quickly sealed off an air-tight space outside the door of the lifeboat. The cables were then attached to a power source and charged, and the membrane suddenly hardened as strong as steel.

The third crew member then activated the pack she had been carrying through the wrecked ship, and filled the newly formed chamber with atmosphere hospitable to the Sheldanta in the room beyond. The green light above the door suddenly flashed to orange, the sensor detecting atmosphere and unlocking automatically.

The four humans magnetized their boots and knee pads. They each dropped to their knees, hands held up and out from their bodies, and after a glance between Stone and one of the team members who was visibly nervous about what was about to happen, they opened the door.

Inside, a dozen Sheldanta survivors went from hopeful to terrified as they realized their rescuers weren't fellow clan-mates. Many were visibly wounded, but two still surged forward wielding make-shift weapons; tools or piping Stone wasn't sure. But clubs, certainly.

He raised his hands slightly higher, then bobbed his head twice towards the two, before speaking through his suit's loudspeaker. And translation software. “We come for clan and comrades.”

The two club-wielding adults stopped; fresh atmosphere was pumping into the room, breathable to the Sheldanta within. Most wore environment suits, but they hadn't yet donned their helmets, relying on the lifeboat room's air supply first before turning to their personal tanks. The air in the room had been getting thin, and those that had no suits to fall back on were clearly relieved by that rush of fresh air.

The group of Sheldanta shared glances. Stone watched, his HUD littered with updates on body language markers. They were nervous, understandably so. Angry, afraid.

“I offer honesty and truth. Your clan still fights. Three ships race to the Punitive Fleet's aid. They do this knowing the effort will fail, the battle lost. They do this knowing we will not spare them, and that they will die.” The group all turned to gaze at Stone as he spoke. The subtleties of the translations were immense. Too much so for Stone alone to be able to fully impress upon the gathered Sheldanta.

Loki had prepared the speech, and it was almost comical how his HUD showed him images of himself in various poses or stances, meant to mimic Sheldanta body language to help impart the exact meaning of the words. Language was a very complicated thing, after all.

“They pressed the attack, so the rest may live.” Stone had been briefed on what exactly he was trying to impart to the Sheldanta survivors. And he could only hope Loki had gotten it right, or that he hadn't screwed up the gestures and inflections.

There was a pause in the crowd, and then they all lowered themselves to their knees, much as the human rescuers had when the door had first opened. A gesture not entirely of surrender, but acceptance of the situation as well. Stone was gaining a new appreciation for the egg-heads that studied xeno-linguistics and xeno-psychology before the war.

Breaking entire civilizations of the cultural shackles they had been raised into wouldn't succeed through violence alone. Humanity had the edge in that, as was being demonstrated in the battle elsewhere in the system. But one species could hardly stand against dozens, not for long.

It had never been meant to be a war of guns and bombs.

Stone waved for his team to enter the room, and they quickly began working with the survivors to prepare them for extraction from the wrecked ship. Kettle and Thumbs signaled they had had similar success. Survival bags were pulled from pouches, and those Sheldanta without suits were coaxed into them, zipped up tight and their seals were triple-checked. As with those in environment suits.

And then the erected barriers were dropped, the atmosphere was vented, and a few dozen exhausted Sheldanta survivors, enemies of humanity due to the politics and social bindings of the Council and Senate, were led to the waiting shuttle, to be whisked away to the Hermes and her support crafts. They would receive medical treatment, food, rest. Humane treatment, as befitted prisoners of war taken on good terms.

It had never been meant to be a war of violence. It was a war of ideas. And humanity's ideas offered one thing few under the Council species' heels could have ever imagined.

They offered hope.

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Chapter 2, Pt 2 | Chapter 3
 
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