This is the rest of the story. Click here for the beginning
Making a jump always felt like an anti-climax to Captain Ebdaren. Other than a brief tingling sensation nothing else seemed to change. There was never a planet close enough to a jump point to be visible to the naked eye, and the local star was almost always so far away it was only a brighter point of light than the rest of the stars.
Very occasionally, if you happened to be looking in the right direction, you might notice the system’s star vanish or see the new system’s star appear. But that never felt dramatic enough for a journey which had covered dozens of light years in a single step.
The jump was instantaneous for those making it, but took closer to a few minutes when measured by those in the start or end system. Towards the end of the period the disruption caused by the incoming ships could be detected in the target system, which gave a significant advantage to any defenders. Not least because it took a good hour to recharge the jump engines after they were used. An hour before the incoming ships could possibly have the chance to jump away again.
The fleet jumped… and from Ebdaren’s point of view arrived immediately. No alarms rang out. There were no warnings of non-fleet ships in the area. But then he hadn’t expected there to be. The Gulvarian system only had a single jump point. It in turn was accessible from jump points in five other systems, but four of those were long range jumps no sane captain would choose if they could possibly avoid it.
Avoiding it wasn’t difficult as most traffic through those systems wouldn’t be heading to the Gulvarian system anyway, even as a step on the way somewhere else. Anyone travelling to the Gulvarian system would have used the same jump as his fleet.
There was little enough traffic. The only reason the whole system hadn’t dropped into total disarray and slowly died seemed to be more down to political wrangling than any actual value the system held.
But he and his small fleet were here and unsurprisingly there were no threats waiting for them, so he focused on the state of his fleet.
Even though the ships had made the jump together their formation was badly disrupted. That was one of the quirks of using jump drives to travel, one that persisted even on the latest military vessels. The ships always ended up scattered over an area, out of whatever formation they started in. It was another reason those defending against an incoming fleet always had an advantage.
Huge amounts of effort and money had gone into research to resolve the problem. The ability to emerge in a precise formation would be a huge military advantage when entering a danger zone. Yet it still eluded both humanity and every alien race humanity had knowledge of.
For now the captain allowed his executive officer to handle drawing the ships back into formation, even as he knew it was pointless. There was no danger here. There was no threat. Just an intelligence officer in the system whose paranoia had grown to…
“Captain!” called out the sensor officer. “Incoming jump activity! Multiple signals! Origin unknown but not any of the known jump points leading here.”
Captain Ebdaren froze for a moment, hardly believing what he was hearing, then his training kicked in.
“Tactical, I want our shields charging to maximum and all weapon stations ready to fire. XO, you have command of the ship. I need to coordinate getting the fleet into position. Sensors, I want to know who that is as soon as they materialise.”
A series of acknowledgements rang out. He focused both on the positions of his fleet and where the computers predicted the incoming ships would arrive. It was only ever an estimate, the same factors which scattered an incoming fleet also made it hard to be precise in predicting where ships would arrive if you were waiting for them.
The fact the computers couldn’t identify an origin point for the incoming ships worried him a lot. That meant it was a very long jump, even longer than those which were known, and that in turn meant they were highly unlikely to be human ships.
Unlikely but not impossible. It might be a freighter chancing an extremely long run to try and increase profit, but what could be brought to this backwater system which would be worth taking such a risk?
No, he knew it was very unlikely to be a merchant. That meant it was something else, and probably not anything human. He grimaced. Maybe the intelligence officer had been right and there was something going on in this system. If so, then it was about to happen to him and his fleet. All he could do was wait, see what arrived, and try to keep his fleet intact.
* * *
Barely two minutes passed from the alarm being raised to the incoming ships materialising. Everyone in the fleet was on high alert, watching and waiting as the scattered ships tried to get into position.
Then it happened. One moment there was nothing else around them… the next there was. And to the captain’s horror far more ships had appeared than his fleet held, some of them damn big. To make things worse some of the newcomers had materialised within his own scattered formation.
“Captain,” called out the sensor officer. “Those are Garag ships, and they’re powered up for a fight.”
Ebdaren hesitated for a second, weighing up the risks of starting a conflict which might not otherwise erupt against the disadvantages of not being the first to fire. Especially against Garag ships.
He quickly made his mind up. The Garag were not supposed to be anywhere near this sector, let alone this system. They’d arrived ready for a fight and he’d been ordered here due to a perceived threat to the system. He pushed down the irony of having dismissed the threat only minutes before as he snapped out orders.
“All ships, engage Garag ships. Focus on those within our formation. Picket ships and cruisers, defend the troop carrier. Everyone else, form up on the Stellar Storm.”
Even as the acknowledgements came in he could hear his own ship’s weaponry firing. He was happy to see several small Garag ships exploding immediately. Small ships, not even as powerful as his own picket ships, who’d had the bad luck to emerge close to the Stellar Storm and its devastating weaponry.
The tactical display told him such early victories wouldn’t last. The Garags outnumbered his fleet at least five to one. They had many smaller ships so in terms of actual power it was more like three to one, but that was still a battle he wasn’t going to win.
Ice settled around his heart, panic threatening to follow, but he forced it all away. He wasn’t a Garag. They tended to view battles in terms of how many forces were destroyed on each side. What mattered to him was the tactical outcome. Given the situation he found himself in, what would be the best result for his forces?
He sent another order, aiming to move his whole fleet away from the bulk of the Garag forces. He had an advantage there. Garag ships were generally heavily armed and armoured, which made them tougher but less manoeuvrable than human ships. They were also slower than newer human ships. Decades of experience had taught humanity they couldn’t out-muscle the Garags, but that often it was enough to just outmanoeuvre them.
As his fleet moved away he could see they would be able to leave the heaviest of the Garag forces behind before risking losing any of their larger ships. But one of the picket ships had already taken significant damage. Too many Garag ships had appeared near it, making a quick escape impossible. While it should have been faster than any of the larger human ships, it was already losing ground on them.
Worse, though, was the Invictus. It was an old ship, built at a time when humanity still thought it could build bigger and tougher ships than the Garags. A tactic which had failed miserably. In the end the few ships which hadn’t been completely destroyed, like the Invictus, had been moved to sectors where they wouldn’t ever face Garags again.
This sector being one of them… until now. The Invictus could barely manage half the speed of the Stellar Storm, and that meant it was already in serious trouble.
By good luck it had exited the jump furthest from the planned exit point, which meant it had started at the front of the human ships as they began to accelerate away from the fight. That advantage hadn’t lasted for long. It was falling back quickly.
The troop carrier and the two cruisers were already overtaking it. Both types of ship featured massively overpowered engines to get them where they needed to go quickly. The undamaged picket ship was also closing in on the Invictus and even the Stellar Storm was reeling it in quickly.
He had three options. One was to slow the fleet to the speed of the Invictus and attempt to take on the might of the Garag fleet. They would take out a number of the Garag ships before being destroyed… but not enough. Not when they were the only human reinforcements on the way to help in the system, for the moment at least.
Just this Garag fleet, even if reduced by a fight, would likely be enough to overwhelm the forces humanity had in place around the main Gulvarian planet. Most of the defences were fixed orbital weapons which always fared badly against the heavily armoured Garags. An oversight maybe, but who would ever have imagined the Garags attacking here?
If he got the Stellar Storm and the two cruisers to Gulvarian then they’d make it much harder for the Garags to take out the fixed defences. His fleet would also be in a stronger position taking on the Garags with the extra firepower of the fixed defences tilting the balance.
The second option was to keep the fleet moving and try to mount a fighting retreat making use of his own ship’s versatility to try and keep the Garags off the Invictus. But that would only be delaying the inevitable. The Invictus would still be overwhelmed long before the fleet reached the main planet, and the tactic would place the rest of the fleet in significant danger. It was possible none of them would survive.
The third option was the one he knew he had to choose, but it still made his heart ache. He’d had to do it before. If he became an admiral he knew he’d damn well have to do it again. But ordering someone to their death while you made your escape was always the hardest of command decisions.
There was no use delaying. He opened a video channel to the captains of the Invictus and the damaged picket ship. One look into the eyes of the Invictus’s captain told him she knew what was coming. The panicked look on the much younger captain in charge of the picket ship showed he did not.
“Captains, I’ll have to be brief. You can see the situation. Neither of you has the speed to get clear of the main Garag forces. If all our ships remain to fight our mission will be a failure before we’ve even begun. We will inflict heavy damage… but we won’t survive.
“What I must ask of you is hard for me, but will be far harder for you. I need you to stay and engage the Garag ships. Destroy or damage as many as you are able to. You won’t be fighting in vain. Every blow you strike will strengthen the defence of this system, reducing the Garag force that threatens it.
“I don’t order this lightly, but it has to be done. I promise every single crew member on both your ships will receive a commendation for bravery.”
The young captain’s jaw dropped, but before he could say anything the Invictus’s captain cut in.
“Understood, Captain. We’ll give them hell. The Invictus might not be able to run as fast as the newer ships, but she’s got one hell of a bite and a lot of staying power too. With your permission I would like command over both ships. I believe if we work in coordination we can achieve more.”
“Granted. Any other questions?”
“Captain… do I…” the young captain stumbled to a halt, breathing fast. Ebdaren allowed him a few precious moments to pull himself together.
“Captain Ebdaren,” he continued. “What do I tell my crew?”
“Nothing, other then to keep fighting. Every one of them signed up to serve. They all knew their lives would be on the line at times. Sometimes we have the chance to see that coming, other times it’s thrust upon us. Telling them the situation won’t serve any purpose other than to scare them. Some of them will figure it out, but most will die with courage and not fear in their hearts. Do them the honour of not shattering that.”
The young captain frowned for a moment, then nodded firmly.
“Aye, Captain. It will be an honour to take as many of those damn Garags as we can with us before we go.”
“I’m counting on it. Your names will go down in history for this, as heroes of the Gulvarian system. Now get to it!”
Both captains acknowledged his order, then he cut the link, struggling against the feeling that he should do more to try and save them. His head knew there was nothing more he could do… but his heart refused to be convinced.
* * *
Captain Ebdaren watched as the Invictus and the picket ship completed their turns, sweeping back around to engage the Garag forces at speed.
Within a couple of minutes almost all of the Garag forces would be able to attack the two human ships. He could already see that all the Garag ships were swinging to engage the Invictus, even those who’d had a reasonable chance of attacking the rest of the human fleet for a time until it outdistanced them.
He shook his head. The Garags truly lacked any concept of tactics most of the time. He’d heard that there were a rare few amongst the aliens who were far smarter, who would suddenly pull off complex tactical manoeuvres, but if they existed they were few and far between.
Not that the Garag tactics, or lack of tactics, wasn’t effective much of the time. If attacking a fixed or slow target they could easily overwhelm any defenders. He grimaced. Targets didn’t get much more fixed than a planet sweeping through its orbit, and that’s just what he was going to have to defend.
Now the rest of his fleet was guaranteed an escape with very little further combat he started worrying these might not be the first Garag ships to come through the jump point. If there had been others then his fleet might well be following the path they’d already taken… and with their faster speed they might even catch up with them. If that happened his fleet could be destroyed without anyone knowing what had happened to it.
He called up the captain of the undamaged picket ship and gave new orders. Once they were well beyond sensor range of the Garag ships the small ship was to loop around, swinging back to reach the jump point in a few hours time.
Even if there were any Garag forces remaining near the jump point the picket ship should be able to come in fast enough to avoid much damage before jumping. Command needed to know that their understanding of the situation was completely wrong. They’d dismissed the threat as the paranoid imaginings of an intelligence officer, but the threat was real and immediate. If more forces weren’t sent soon then the Garag could end up taking the system and killing most of those who lived there. Not to mention gaining whatever advantage they saw in doing so.
With those orders given there was little else to do. He had the troopship and the cruisers slow to a speed the Stellar Storm could keep up with, then all he could do was wait. Wait and watch as the Invictus and its small companion made their last stand.
* * *
Ebdaren winced as the damaged picket ship finally fell to the Garags, disappearing in a blinding explosion. They’d gone with pride though, pride and honour. Despite being so heavily outgunned the young captain had managed to keep his small ship fighting for far longer than anyone could have expected, and had been directly responsible for finishing off at least five Garag ships.
The first four were small ships but the last had been much larger. With his ship’s shields failing and weaponry destroyed the young captain had powered his ship toward a much larger Garag ship, a battlecruiser. One whose shields the Invictus had just battered down.
Despite intense defensive fire ripping into the picket ship it had somehow reached its target, slamming into it with force even as the picket ship’s engines overloaded and failed catastrophically. Now the picket ship was gone, and so was the Garag battlecruiser.
As for the Invictus, it was on its last legs but it had lived up to its captain’s promise to inflict heavy losses. At least half its weapons were still firing, but its shields were only flickering to life intermittently and most of its armour was gone. It couldn’t hold out much longer.
The Invictus was too slow to go the way of the picket ship, so now it was focusing its weaponry on one large Garag ship. There was only a slight chance the Invictus could finish off the larger ship before being destroyed itself, but at the very least it would leave the enemy ship heavily damaged and unable to fight effectively without a full overhaul.
All of this information was coming second hand. The two damaged ships had held out long enough that they were no longer within sensor range of Ebdaren’s fleet. The Invictus was transmitting details of the battle, a signal which was becoming more and more heavily degraded due to the damage the destroyer was taking.
As well as external feeds Ebdaren was watching a feed from the Invictus’s bridge. Smoke hung in the air from extinguished fires and its captain had a nasty gash across one shoulder, but there was still an intensity shared by those aboard and a determination to keep hurting the Garags.
Suddenly there was confusion and cursing. Somehow the large Garag ship had rebuilt its shields. The Invictus’s fire was no longer striking the body of the ship. That was a huge disappointment, they’d thought its shields were all destroyed.
Then there was more confusion. The fire wasn’t reaching anywhere near the Garag ship. It wasn’t being stopped by the enemy’s shields, which still read as being down. The fire was being blocked by… well, seemingly nothing. The Garag’s return fire was also being blocked in a similar area of space.
Intense bursts of fire appeared from that patch of nothing, lancing into the Garag ship and tearing it apart in seconds. Uncertain cheers rang out around the Invictus’s bridge. The Garag ship was gone… but had it really been their kill? Or something else’s?
Moments later the intense beams lashed out again… this time striking the Invictus. A moment later the feed dissolved into static. It could only mean one thing… the Invictus was gone… and it had been destroyed by something unknown. Something powerful enough to withstand the fire from both the Invictus and the powerful Garag ship while still staying completely hidden.
Powerful. Invisible. And fast? Ebdaren snapped out orders, altering his fleet’s direction enough that anyone tracking the course it had taken from the battle would have no hope of finding it. Maybe he was just being paranoid. Maybe not.
Then he settled back in his seat and truly started to worry. Just what in the stars was going on? The large Garag fleet turning up here was bad enough, but now a powerful yet invisible ship of a kind he’d never heard of was involved too.
An invisible ship which seemed to view Garags and humans as enemies. Or maybe simply as inconveniences judging by how much firepower it had unleashed and how much punishment it had soaked up. Either way, it was an unpleasant and unwelcome addition to an already dangerous situation.
Did the human forces at the main planet know of this new threat? Did they even know of the Garags? He would know soon enough… and he had a feeling that whatever happened now, he’d damn well deserve to be made an admiral when this tour was over. Or he’d be dead. Or, quite possibly, both.