Special thanks goes to sigi87 and Last Ride of the Valkyries for their technical assistance with this and some other ideas that will pop up later.
I've also found two errors that I will be addressing in the coming days, one minor and one major. The design of the PA's cruisers has changed to evenly space their retros along their full length, instead of grouping them at the front and rear of the ships. That's minor. The major error is that in ME canon, Ashley Williams was born a year after Shanxi. As I established in Chapter Five that her father isn't even born yet, that's a bit of a problem (which I really should have seen, since I already established that Garrus has been born). So Chapter Five will get a rewrite that I'll post next week, bringing it into line with canon.
"Well, so much for that theory," Tlaloc said with a sigh as he watched the alien ships start moving in new patterns. "I'd hoped bringing down their last dreadnought would convince them to give up."
"General Williams says their ground forces are still loading onto their transports," reported the glowing outline that represented Shelly, his aid. Her parents were both dinosaurs, and they'd apparently thought it was a hilarious name for their Human daughter. It's a wonder they hadn't been brought up for child abuse, he decided. "According to the reports they sent, I doubt we can expect the enemy to retreat until all their troops are recovered."
"I don't want them to retreat, I want them to surrender," he replied, his claws scraping across the tile floor as he moved to get a different perspective on the hovering images around them.
He knew he must look ridiculous with the holo-helm clamped over his narrow face, but a virtual reality helmet was a lot easier to build than a huge holotank. Besides, the hold was crowded enough as it was. He was already worried he'd clip one of the other Megas who had assumed their duty stations down here. It didn't matter if you were an admiral, you didn't poke the ship's cook in the ass without consequence. The fact that their cook was an eight meter-long Carnotaurus just made it worse.
"They've got some of our people on those ships," he reminded, his eyes narrowing. "I want them back."
"That's going to be hard to do, sir. Williams' has had his people working on a translator for the alien language ever since they invaded, but it's still not ready. How are you going to convince them to surrender if you can't even talk to them?"
"I figured I'd kick their asses for a bit, and then once the fight's been knocked out of them I'd try charades," he remarked with an amused cackle. Seeing the look of confusion on Shelly's face, he sighed. "I'm going to use those graphics Williams used before they blew up our satellites. A picture's worth a thousand words, and so on."
He swung his neck down to examine a formation of enemy frigates and was struck again by how strange it was seeing Shelly at the same height he was. As a Quetzalcoatlus, he was used to towering over anything that wasn't a Mega. Humans like Shelly barely came up to his shoulder, and he had fingers longer than she was tall. But the virtual environment they shared rendered everyone at equal heights. It had to, since images scaled comfortably for a tiny Microraptor would be ridiculously small for a Apatosaurus and vice versa. He was told that he, like most Megas, looked ridiculous shrunk down to the size of a Micro, but in his opinion Micros looked equally comical blown up to match his towering five meter height.
"Now, what have we here?" he remarked, examining a line of small drones that had darted ahead of the incoming alien fighters. "Looks like more recon drones."
"Shall I have the frigates take them out?" Shelly asked, highlighting a trio of the vessels floating near the incoming drones.
"Please do, as soon as they're in range. No one likes a snoop."
A few seconds ticked past, and then the zig-zagging trails of jump missiles shot out of the frigates' missile pods, darting quickly across the distance toward the enemy drones. They broke away, dropping countermeasures and fleeing at high speed. The missiles quickly sorted between their targets and the decoys, closing the distance and downing the drones in tiny splashes of nuclear fire.
The countermeasures and evasive maneuvers worried Tlaloc. The alien commander had to know these drones would be shot down just like the first pair had been. The only reason to send them in ahead of the rest was to test the missiles for weak points. The aliens had already found they could interfere with the targeting of the K-PG missiles by using smaller ships to cast sensor shadows. They weren't stupid and they still had numbers on their side. They could turn this around if he got sloppy.
"Sir, the Tunguska has a shooting solution against one of the alien cruisers. They're requesting permission to use one of K-PG weapons."
"Granted. Tell them they're weapons free for their entire payload."
A few seconds ticked past as Tlaloc waited for his message to be relayed to the distant dreadnought. Tightbeam laser communication suffered from light lag like everything else, and he'd chosen to leave his command cruiser safely hidden in the shadow of Shanxi's moon. It was far enough from the battle that all the data he received was a second or two out of date and his orders took the same time to transmit. The lag was annoying, but the fact that it also kept him far beyond the range of any possible attack more than made up for it. With her stealth armor absorbing any emissions and her thrusters off, the Ruby was almost invisible behind the curve of the moon's surface.
A flash of light heralded the launch of a K-PG missile, and Tlaloc flipped the virtual display back to true scale so he wouldn't have to watch the destruction of the alien cruiser. This whole thing was such a waste. They should be preparing to fight the Architeuthis together, not killing each other over whatever it was that had provoked these aliens to invade. He sighed. The aliens had too much spine for their own good. He'd tried to bluff them into surrender with the decoys, and they hadn't even flinched. Now their heavy elements were scrap and they were still advancing.
"This is new…" he mused, watching as the angled formations of enemy fighters and bombers abruptly swerved and began going back the way they'd come.
For a moment he dared to hope it meant they'd had enough and were retreating, but he rejected that conclusion almost instantly. The frigates and cruisers were still moving forward. The enemy commander had likely just concluded that getting through their missile screen would be impossible.
"Oh, that's what you're up to," said Tlaloc as the alien squadrons started shifting their courses for a third time. "Clever, but it isn't going to save you."
"What isn't?" Shelly asked, trying to see what he was talking about.
"The fighters are linking up with the frigate formations," explained the dinosaur, sweeping a wing forward to point at a cluster of small enemy ships. "They're going to try and shield them behind the frigates' point defense systems."
"Would that work?"
"Not as well as I suspect they're hoping, but better than I'd like," he answered as another enemy cruiser exploded in a prick of simulated fire. The firing time between K-PG shots was much lower than what Tunguska should have been able to pull against such close formations, he noted darkly. The aliens must still be using their frigates to block missile targeting. "If they move in the right patterns, they can force the jump missiles to turn at the last minute. That will make them go slow enough that laser point defense turrets might be able to take out a few before they hit."
"But even if they survive the missiles they'll still have to go past our frigates, and they've got their own lasers."
"I suspect they're hoping that our frigates will be too busy shooting at theirs to worry about simple bombers. They've got more than twice our frigate compliment and their ships are much more durable than ours."
"But we're faster. Couldn't we just hit and run?"
"I firmly intend to do just that, if they'll let me," Tlaloc said, narrowing his eyes at the approaching line of frigates. "I've got a bad feeling about this though."
Seconds ticked past in tense silence, punctuated only by another tiny flare marking the grave of a third alien cruiser. Then a translucent shell appeared around the Alliance fleet, flashing red as frigate after enemy frigate began pouring over the invisible like.
"They're past the point of no return then. All cruisers are weapons free. Mark targets and engage. We're outnumbered here, so tell them to make sure they aren't overlapping their shots."
"Never figured we'd be the ones outnumbered," Shelly remarked with a smile, her hands flashing through the air as she issued his orders. "It's a lot different being on this side of the battle."
"It's a lot different being in battle at all. Our crews have only ever run simulations before," he reminded, opening his toothless beak in a thin smile.
Privately, the fact that none of his ships had seen real action concerned him more than a little. He'd read the reports from Shanxi. The enemy obviously had a very 'by the book' sort of military, which implied that there was a book to go off of. These aliens had obviously figured out interstellar war decades ago, while a significant portion of his crews were old enough to remember when the idea FTL travel had been nothing more than science fiction. The rookies on the ground had done well, but space was a very different arena.
He zoomed back in, just in time to see the lines of Void Claw cruisers begin opening fire. Thin lines highlighted the frigates they had targeted, and Tlaloc was pleased to note that they'd spread their targets out considerably. When the first frigates went down, they'd quickly be able to move to the next ship in the enemy formation.
As the line of shells tore through the empty space that still separated the two fleets, he saw instantly that they didn't have a chance at connecting. The frigates were already starting to scatter. Like his own ships, they were designed for maneuverability. They'd have to get much closer before his cruisers would be able to do more than slow them down.
"Now here's our moment of truth," Tlaloc remarked as the first shots flew harmlessly past the evasive frigates. "They know we can't really hit them at this distance, but we're still close enough to pose something of a threat. So are they going to stay here and form a picket, or will they keep coming?"
The winged alien vessels danced in place a bit more, sliding neatly into nine groups of six. The new formations were much looser than the tight arrows they'd originally used, making sure that each ship had plenty of room to maneuver. Fighters, drones, and bombers trailed behind them in streams, drifting from side to side to confuse incoming missiles. As the new formations completed, they swing in unison to face his fleet again and blasted forward at high speed.
"Damn it. I thought that's what they were when I saw how many of the damn things they brought," he snarled, his huge jaws snapping dangerously. "Tell the cruisers not to let up. Bring those frigates down."
"Sir, they're still way out of range. The odds of us hitting them at this distance-"
"If they aren't zero, they're good enough for me," sighed Tlaloc.
"May I ask why?" Shelly said as she began transmitting the new orders. "It seems like a waste of time."
"It won't when those formations finally hit us. Are you familiar with what a 'wolf pack' is?"
"You mean aside from a literal pack of wolves?" she joked, making the large dinosaur smirk a little. "I remember it's an old-wet navy term, from back in the twentieth century. Something to do with submarines, I think?"
"Precisely. Historically, groups of small vessels like submarines or destroyers have been able to bring down larger ones by getting in close and using weapons like torpedoes to inflict heavy damage. We never brought that tactic to the stellar level because getting that close to an Architeuthis is suicide."
"…but they did. So those frigates are going to get in close and hammer us with some kind of short range weapon?"
"LADAR scans say they've got missile racks. I just needed to know if they were anti-ship or for point defense like ours are. Now we know," Tlaloc said with a nod. "A picket ship wouldn't be interested in getting any closer than it had to."
"Are they going to be an issue?"
"Probably not. They'll most likely go for Tunguska first, since she's the most obvious threat. She's got enough redundant systems that they could blow her in half and she'd still be able to fight. With the size of her laser grid and the frigates to help, we'll shred them before they can do much real damage. Still, those things would probably rip through our cruisers like paper, so I'd rather not take any chances. Rearrange our frigate groups to thin Tunguska's screen a bit. I want her to be as tempting a target as possible."
"Aye aye, sir."
As she began transmitting again, he shuffled forward and spun the display to give him a different angle on the battle. There was an enduring myth that Soarers like him made better pilots and admirals because their natural ability to fly made them more three-dimensional thinkers. It wasn't true, of course. Atmospheric flight had about as much in common with space flight as it did with swimming. But Tlaloc had to admit that things usually made more sense to him when viewed from above or below.
His gaze drifted over to a single enemy squadron near the planet that still hadn't moved. It was far beyond the range of even a K-PG missile, and he'd assumed it was left as a rear-guard for the vulnerable transport ships. But as another alien cruiser exploded, he began wondering if the aliens had left it behind to serve as an emergency command post. It wasn't any further from the fight than his ship was, and with the way the aliens had deployed they had no chance of slipping through to take it out. If they had, it showed a remarkable amount of forethought on their part, even if they had known about the K-PG weapons beforehand.
A swirl of motion from his right drew his gaze back to the incoming lines of frigates. Their speed was starting to drop off, and they were now focusing more on dodging than on closing the distance. A twitch of one claw zoomed in on the dancing frigates as the large dinosaur pondered the reason for this sudden change in behavior.
"Perhaps they were pickets after all?" Shelly suggested, noticing where his attention had been drawn. "If their cruisers have shorter range than we estimated, they'd have to move their pickets forward to compensate."
"Maybe. Something still doesn't add up here," Tlaloc mused. He flicked a few of his smaller claws again, and the translucent green sphere flashed into place around his fleet again. "Just as I thought. They aren't setting pickets. They're covering for the cruisers."
A jerk of his head sent the display burring away in a stream of stars, jerking the point of view to a halt near the lines of enemy cruisers. Like the frigates, they had been divided into nine separate groups, with three cruisers to a formation. Initially they had approached in a cautious pincer formation, presumably to allow them to encircle his smaller fleet. The K-PG weapon had put an end to that, and now they were charging forward in a single huge wave. He noted that the forward elements had still held their speed back enough to allow the rear-most vessels to catch up, which was irritating. If they'd charged blindly forward, he could have just had his cruisers focus their fire and destroy them as they came. Now they'd have to split their fire again.
Extending a wing, he spun the view and pulled it back, showing that the alien cruisers were coming dangerously close to the point of no return. Once they crossed it, their own momentum would carry them into the range of his guns, and they'd have no choice but to try and engage. Turning to retreat inside the line would leave them floundering, their much larger broadside profiles completely exposed. They'd be sitting ducks.
"I'm not sure I understand," said Shelly, staring at the alien ships. "Couldn't we just shift to shoot at the cruisers instead of the frigates? We'd probably be able to hit them at much greater distances, since they're less maneuverable."
"By now the enemy's calculated how fast our bullets fly. They know how close they can afford to get before they're at serious risk. That's why the frigates slowed down," he explained. "They're timing it so their cruisers and frigates enter our optimum firing range at the same time. They have enough ships that we won't be able to stop both groups."
"We won't?" she asked, her holographic face now looking somewhat worried.
"Not if we just sit here. Our cruisers have double the range theirs do, but we're outnumbered almost two to one. Not odds I like." Tlaloc flashed another toothless grin. "Which is why we're going to do this instead."
He stretched out a wing and made several sweeping motions. Green lines immediately sprang from their frigates, flying forward to end in malevolent red icons near the enemy wolf packs.
"You're setting the pickets on an intercept trajectory?" Shelly wondered, walking through the virtual constructs to examine them from different angles. "I thought we decided their frigates were built for ship-to-ship engagements. The Radiant Crest class was just designed for point defense. If we go up against them, our ships will get torn to bits!"
"Not quite. Our ships are slightly faster, so they only need to get close enough to grab the enemy's attention, and then they can run like hell," he explained. "Their frigates will have to either break off to give chase, leaving their cruisers vulnerable, or ignore us and continue on their present course."
"…where our frigates will be able to slide in behind them and attack while they're distracted," she finished. "It's a good plan, but their lasers are still going to be a problem."
"No they won't. Their commander already made sure of that." He moved the perspective back to the alien frigates and highlighted the squadrons of fighters that still followed them. "They have to protect their attack craft. If we lower the speed on the jump missiles enough to give them something to shoot at, their lasers will already be running hot by the time we get to combat range."
"They're going to figure out something is wrong when they notice that the missiles are moving slower than they were before."
"Hopefully, by the time they do it will be too late. If not, we at least cleared out their fighters."
"Aye, Admiral. I'll calculate the optimum launch range for the frigates."
Another alien cruiser exploded in a flash of light and miniature debris. They were falling faster now. With their frigates preoccupied protecting themselves against his cruisers, the aliens couldn't use their sensor shadow trick any more. Tunguska was taking full advantage of this, and as Tlaloc watched another of the winged craft exploded a few seconds later. A brilliant light in the corner of his eye drew his gaze back to the enemy frigates, just in time to see the battered remains of an alien ship be smashed to pieces by a follow-up shot from one of his cruisers.
On the one hand, the fact that they'd finally succeeded in bringing down one of the frigates was quite comforting. The Void Claw class had been designed to carry enough ammo to fire continuously for over an hour, but it was good to know they weren't completely wasting their time. On the other hand, the second shot against the disabled frigate hadn't been necessary.
The information his ancestors had been able to collect suggested that Architeuthis were dangerous even when horribly damaged, likely due to their synthetic nature. To counter this, all PA gunnery crews were trained to continue firing until the enemy was confirmed destroyed. But against these weaker ships such tactics were more of a hindrance than a help, Tlaloc realized. Once enough of their critical systems failed, the alien vessels posed no serious threat. The time spent lining up a coup de grâce on a crippled ship could be better spent moving to the next target. Besides, there were humanitarian issues to consider. He wanted no part in the slaughter of helpless sailors, regardless of what planet they came from.
"Shelly, please order the fleet to disregard standard protocols regarding crippled enemy vessels. Provided they pose no immediate threat, lame ducks should be ignored."
She nodded, fingers flashing through the air in a glowing blur. Zooming the display back out, Tlaloc saw his frigates moving forward, abandoning their posts on the edges of the Alliance formation to slice straight toward the approaching aliens. Their blocky appearance belied the freakish speed they were capable of, and the distance was closing rapidly. Another cruiser exploded in the distance, and as if it was a signal the space around his frigates burst outward in a storm of missiles.
They were holding back as he'd ordered, fortunately, but it was still impressive. With active LADAR sweeps and networked info streams, the ships were theoretically capable of alpha-striking their entire payloads in a single unstoppable tide of ordinance. Considering that the fleet's frigate compliment had enough missiles between them to take out fighter swarms ten times the size of what these aliens were bringing, an alpha-strike now would be horrific overkill. Instead, each ship had only launched ten missiles, firing in a rippling wave that would hopefully keep the enemy lasers shooting almost constantly.
Even if it was only a fraction of what they were really capable of, seeing three hundred missiles flashing their way toward the enemy like slow-motion lightning was certainly impressive. He hoped the alien commander would be just as impressed. He needed the enemy off guard, too caught up with trying to stop the sudden wave of missiles that they didn't see the hidden stratagem behind the attack.
It certainly seemed like they were taking the bait. The attack craft scattered the moment the missiles launched, swirling like hornets whose nest had just been kicked. The area around the frigates was abruptly coated in contacts as countermeasures flashed and chaff blisters burst. It appeared the enemy was throwing out everything but the kitchen sink to try and spoof the jump missiles.
Tlaloc was actually impressed. Even if he hadn't ordered the missiles to reduce speed, that level of sensory confusion might have forced them to slow down anyway, just to sort through it. As it stood, the decrease in speed reduced the effectiveness of the enemy decoys and ECM, keeping their impact to a minimum. It didn't matter anyway. The enemy attack craft had been quite careful to keep behind their protective frigates. The moment the jump missiles got close, point defense lasers started viciously slashing them to pieces.
Between their reduced speed, the enemy ECM, and the practiced precision of the alien lasers, a mere handful of jump missiles were able to slip through to bring down their targets. Reviewing the floating datafeeds that hovered in his peripheral vision, the towering Soarer noted that enemy casualties had been limited almost exclusively to harmless recon drones. The alien commander was obviously shepherding his more dangerous craft carefully.
In a normal battle, the massive computers built into his command cruiser would already be plotting the range and arcs of the alien point defense lasers so the second wave of missiles could time their jumps to ensure minimum exposure. He contemplated having Shelly set the jump missiles to maximize their time inside the enemy point defense grid instead, but rejected the idea. Slowing the missiles was dangerous enough. Changing the timing on their jumps would be too much of a coincidence to be believable.
So instead he sat back and watched as a second wave of missiles crashed blindly against the alien defenses. The third wave was already on its way, and a fourth had just cleared the launch tubes. According to his datafeed, there would be time for a total of five salvos before his frigates made contact. Shelly had apparently given orders to gradually increase the number of missiles with each successive salvo, a display of initiative which made Tlaloc preen his bristly feathers in quiet pride. Escalating strikes would not only put more pressure on the enemy lasers, but also serve to allay suspicion about why they hadn't grouped them into a single huge salvo.
Though the enemy frigate groups were now mostly shrouded from view behind a curtain of enlarged explosions and notification icons, Tlaloc was still able to spot an unforeseen fringe benefit the missile barrages were providing. The aliens had apparently formed some sort of point defense block that allowed them to overlap their lasers for maximum effect, but the new formations came with a serious drawback: the blocks were too rigid to allow the small ships to use their full maneuverability. Combined with the decreasing distance, this lack of agility was allowing his cruisers to finally start landing shots on the enemy frigates.
First one ship turned a fraction too late, catching a shell along its bow. The shot crushed its forward section instantly and sent it into a bizarre spiral as the crew frantically tried to regain control. A thousand kilometers away, a second ship overestimated its momentum, sliding straight into the path of a shell that snapped it cleanly in two. A minute later, a ship in the rear of the enemy line took a hit to its stern, blasting its engines apart in an explosion that left the front half of the vessel a gutted wreck.
An alert appeared beside Tlaloc's head, notifying him that Tunguska had finally exhausted its supply of K-PG missiles. That was excellent news. With their frigates about to be negated, their heavy ships destroyed, and their cruisers' numerical advantage now almost non-existant, victory was now all but impossible for the alien fleet. The only question was how long it would take them to realize it.
"Our frigates are about to enter engagement range," Shelly reported, waving a hand to display the estimated 'real-time' position of their ships. "Should we order them to break off?"
"Let them do a little damage first," Tlaloc suggested. The final wave of missiles had just hit, so the enemy lasers would be at their weakest. "We want to keep their attention. Hit them just hard enough to let them know we have teeth, and then have our ships scatter."
The virtual display slowly began catching up with the translucent projections, alerts and datapoints flashing here and there to display the results of their final missile strike. All told, the missile waves had been surprisingly effective. Of the six hundred fighters, drones, and bombers the aliens had launched, less than two hundred remained. Thermals scans showed the alien lasers glowing like miniature stars, dwarfed only by the massive blast of their drives. In moments, their cruisers would be in range of Tunguska and the rest of his fleet. He had the enemy right where he wanted them.
Below him, the thin line of Alliance frigates made contact with their sleek alien counterparts in a dazzling lightshow of scorching laser blasts. Several of the alien vessels unleashed volleys of seeking torpedoes at the approaching ships, but the slow projectiles were easily cut down. As the tiny shapes dueled, an alert chimed to inform him of the first Alliance casualty of the battle: Oak. A pair of enemy frigates managed to catch her between them and scored a lucky hit on her fuel tanks. The subsequent detonation consumed the ship with all hands.
That pattern was beginning to repeat across the battlefield as the hostile ships started clumping together to leverage their last numerical advantage. Though the alien vessels didn't have as many laser emplacements as their Alliance counterparts, they were much more durable. Worse, while their lasers might have been beginning to overheat, they had conventional weapons they could fall back on instead. If his frigates were busy intercepting torpedoes, they couldn't shoot at the alien ships. Outnumbered two to one like this, a direct battle with the alien frigates wouldn't end well.
Just as the first damage alerts began appearing over some of his more heavily engaged ships, the deadly scuffle ended. His frigates spun in place and shot off in a dozen different directions, engines blazing at full burn. Now, the moment of truth. Would the enemy ships follow, or try to attack Tunguska while the huge ship was exposed?
To his surprise, they decided to do both. Without missing a beat, the alien formations split, half of them peeling away to chase the frigates while the others suddenly accelerated toward the rest of his fleet. The surviving attack craft slid behind the second group, weaving between their larger brethren for protection.
Staring at the display, Tlaloc suddenly came to a horrific realization. He had fallen for the same trap he had set for the enemy. If he ordered his frigates to intercept the group now heading for the main Alliance fleet, they'd be torn to pieces by the squadrons hunting them. If they turned to engage their pursuers, they'd never make it back in time to stop the second set of frigates. The aliens had completely outmaneuvered him, and in so doing had turned the battle on its head. They were the ones with the advantage now.
Why hadn't he thought that they might split their forces? In retrospect, it was the obvious course of action. They had the numbers to both attack and defend, why wouldn't they use them? Considering how autonomous his own captains were trained to be, he should have expected that the aliens would be capable of similar tactics.
In his heart, he knew why he hadn't expected the maneuver. He was still thinking in terms of the Architeuthis. Simulated war games were common training exercises for Alliance crews, and as a senior officer he'd played as the Achiteuthis many times. As Shelly had mentioned, this battle was somewhat similar to one of those simulations: a weak but numerically superior force against an outnumbered opponent with superior ships. He'd instinctively slipped into the same lines of thought, assuming out of pure habit that the aliens would act like an Alliance commander would against an Achiteuthis fleet. Against the Achiteuthis, the alien commander's decision to split their smaller ships would have been suicide. With their armaments, the aliens would have had to throw all their frigates into one massive wave to do any real damage to one of the Achiteuthis' huge capital ships.
But the aliens weren't fighting an Achiteuthis. Alliance cruisers didn't have the armor of their squid-like dreadnaughts or the flexible firing arcs of their smaller escorts. Against small, agile ships, his forces were extremely vulnerable. For all her size, even Tunguska still couldn't attack multiple ships at once like an Achiteuthis could. She could be overwhelmed.
Which was precisely what the aliens intended, Tlaloc realized. Their frigates weren't going to attack Tunguska at all. It was too big to easily damage and wasn't an immediate threat. No, they'd go for his cruisers first. Once they had been destroyed, then they'd turn to take out the dreadnaught, attacking from every angle at once to drown her in bullets.
It would work, too. Void Claw cruisers had almost no armor or point defense lasers, so they'd be sitting ducks if the frigates could get in close. He'd practically told the aliens as much when he'd left a corridor open for them to attack Tunguska. It was intended as a trap, but to them it probably looked like he was rerouting ships to protect his cruisers. Without realizing it, he'd managed exposed a vulnerability he hadn't even known he'd had.
"We've made a mistake," he announced, his eyes narrowing. "Order our cruisers to scatter and fall back toward Rally Point Alpha, firing as they go. Tunguska is to advance toward the enemy at full burn, with orders to pursue and engage at will."
"Sir, with the cruisers falling back, advancing will leave her completely exposed," Shelly warned.
"Tunguska's not their target. Even if she was, I'd rather they shoot her than the rest of the fleet. Have the frigates continue scattering, but arc their trajectories to bring them back toward the cruisers. We won't be able to intercept the enemy's second group, but hopefully they'll get back in time to help fight it off. Tell the cruisers to continue focusing their fire on the frigates going after them. We'll need to take out as many as we can before they get close. Have them start focusing their fire, three ships to each target."
"That's a lot of firepower for such small ships, admiral."
"We don't need it for the firepower, we need it for the accuracy. Spreading out our fire isn't working. It's too easy to dodge, and our gunners aren't trained for it. This way, the enemy ships will have three times as many shots to try dodging."
"Aye, sir. I'll send the order."
"There's more. We're through messing around with their attack craft. Upload the data for the enemy's laser grids, ramp our missiles back up to their full speed, and have every ship in range fire a fifty missile barrage. Prioritize their bombers. I want them gone."
Tlaloc's eyes narrowed as he watched the screen. The alien frigates that pursued his fleeing pickets were actually outnumbered, but they still moved in coherent formations, using coordination to make up for their slightly lower speed. It was obvious that they were trying to cut his ships off and keep them from rejoining the rest of the Alliance fleet. Beyond them, the enemy cruiser formations were now within range of his ships, but with his own cruisers occupied trying to hold back the rapidly closing frigates, only Tunguska was free to engage them.
And engage them she did. The dreadnought's accelerator cannons, each a kilometer long and arrayed laterally through its wide hull, were roaring silently in the darkness of space, spewing a rolling wave of lethal shells at its distant targets. The aliens were obviously aware of how deadly such a barrage would be, and had apparently already taken steps. As she began firing, the enemy formations broke around Tunguska like water against a rock, peeling away to try and keep out of her range. The huge ship slid forward to pursue, but the alien cruisers were too fast, always dancing just out of her reach.
That too was likely part of the enemy's plan, Tlaloc suspected, keeping the slower dreadnought too occupied chasing shadows to do any serious damage. That was fine by him. If they were busy keeping out of her reach they couldn't attack his other ships, and her threat radius was high enough that she'd almost be more effective at disrupting the enemy than she was at hurting them.
He shifted the perspective on the display with a tap of a claw, peering carefully down at the line of alien cruiser formations slowly creeping toward his fleet. Even though his cruisers were dispersing, they weren't going to be able to spread and fall back in time to out-distance the enemy ships, not if they wanted to shoot while they did it. Once the alien frigates made contact, the gap between the two lines would close even faster.
Straightening, he swept a wing slowly across the virtual battlefield, carefully selecting a path for Tunguska to follow. If the alien commander was even half alive, he'd be able to keep his cruisers out of her range, but the time spent maneuvering would be time they wouldn't be able to use to attack his ships. Above all else, he had to buy more time.
"Have Tunguska follow this course, and keep her shooting at anything dumb enough to get inside her range," Tlaloc ordered calmly. "Let's keep them on their toes."
In the distance, the display flared as hundreds of jump missiles flashed toward the departing enemy frigates. Several of his ships weren't even in launch range anymore, but the huge blasts dropped by those that were would likely be more than enough. The dispersal of his own pickets prevented the various missile swarms from coordinating into a single overwhelming cloud as they had done before, but the increased speed and intelligence of the weapons more than made up for that deficiency.
Instead of blindly stumbling into the enemy's laser grid, the missiles blasted through thousands of kilometers like bullets to close the distance before slowing and turning just outside the enemy's laser range. Once the missiles acquired their targets again, they shot into the center of the alien formations faster than their lasers could track, exploding in a spheres of nuclear fire where the missiles' guidance computers thought their targets should be. Sometimes the alien ships got lucky and dodged at the last moment. A fighter or bomber swerved left when the computer thought it would go right. Sometimes it was their lasers that were fortunate, sweeping their lethal beams into the path of an incoming missile almost by chance. But for every projectile the enemy dodged or intercepted, two more hit their marks. By the time the fifth and sixth wave of missiles stabbed into the enemy formation, there was barely anything left to attack.
Though their current formation was much more fluid than their earlier point defense blocks had been, the decreasing distance was now giving the alien ships less and less time to react. As ordered, his cruisers had begun combining their fire, bracketing the enemy between their shots. Dodging the first shell put the enemy in the path of the second, which put them in the path of the third, and so on. It was a lethal dance that had only two outcomes: either the target would break off, or it would be destroyed.
One by one, their pilots began to make mistakes, dodging a moment too late or pushing their ships beyond what they could handle. The glowing lights of the alien formation slowly started to fill with burning comets as the heavy Alliance guns took their toll, but still the frigates came on.
Tlaloc sighed. His crews were performing perfectly, even better than he could have hoped, but it was like swatting flies with a sledgehammer. The huge spinal guns on his cruisers were just too big and fired too slowly. They could reduce half the enemy frigates to space dust, but by then the rest would be too close for such unwieldy weapons to make any difference. They needed their escorts.
With another wave, he moved the view to follow the twisting trails of his frigates. They were operating independently now, as they'd been trained to do, arcing and sliding their way back toward their fleeing charges. As predicted, the enemy seemed determined to stop them.
While his ships had spread out, theirs had consolidated into hunting pairs. The huge distances involved in space combat meant that they couldn't possibly intercept all of his ships, and they didn't seem interested in trying. Instead, each pair selected one of the Alliance frigates and ignored the others in favor of stalking their chosen target with methodical precision. It was a tactic they'd obviously used before, and coordinated movements of the hunting pairs seemed to perfectly-designed to cancel the speed and agility of his ships. This left him in an uncomfortable position.
He could order the frigates that hadn't been intercepted to continue onward to assist the cruisers. This might preserve more of his heavy ships, but it would be at the cost of his escorts. Outnumbered two to one, those left behind would have no chance against the enemy hunters, which would undoubtedly come after the rest of his ships once they finished here. But if he ordered the frigates to turn and support their comrades, the cruisers would be defenseless. With a click of his beak and a disgruntled ruffle of feathers, he made his choice.
"All frigates are to cease evasive maneuvers and engage the enemy. Stack up, one for one, and stay close. Don't give their lasers a chance to cool," he instructed. "Vessels that become critically damaged are cleared to alpha strike their remaining ordinance against the nearest enemy ship. It likely won't do any good, but maybe we'll get lucky. Have Navigation start working on new jump coordinates for our fleet."
"We're abandoning the planet?" Shelly asked, surprised.
"No, but this deployment's FUBAR. In about a minute the whole battle is going to turn into a meat grinder, one we can't afford. So I want the frigates and cruisers out of here. Let them think we're retreating. Tunguska will stay here and spike its core emissions to make it seem like her drives need time to charge. With luck the aliens will go after her instead of pursuing our ships, but if they don't we'll lead them on a merry chase while shesecures Shanxi and resupplies."
"And if they do go for Tunguska? She's not going to be able to take on so many ships at once. It'll be like those horrid bullfights people used to watch."
"I have no intention of letting it get that far. We just need some distance, so the fleet will only be going far enough to fool the enemy into thinking we're leaving. Then we can bring them back in and smash their fleet between Tunguska and our cruisers. With light lag, by the time they see us turn around we'll already be back in the system."
"Aye aye, Admiral. Setting jump coordinates for five light minutes out. We should be receiving the data from the fleet's pathing lasers in just a few seconds."
"Thank you. Notify me once the calculations are complete."
Tlaloc frowned and turned his long head to glance at the holographic ships hovering just behind his shoulder. The sight of frigates dueling against one another had never been something he'd ever thought he'd see, and the ethereal elegance of the rolling battle caught him off-guard for a moment. His parents had shown him films of Human dogfights, with daring pilots frantically spinning through the air to get behind one another. This wasn't even close to those old vids.
Instead of trying to slide behind their opponents, the swirling ships seemed to be trying to maneuver to wherever their enemy's laser coverage was weakest. Frigates corkscrewed and rolled through the stars, simultaneously trying to orient toward their opponents' hottest lasers while lining up the freshest of their own guns. In addition to trying to pull their lasers into position, the alien vessels also continually tried to line their bows up with any nearby Alliance ships, unleashing storms of torpedoes as close as they possibly could. Most of his ships simply intercepted them with their powerful laser grids, but as he watched he saw one scarred frigate, Poppy, unleash a barrage of jump missiles that flashed forward to take out a wave torpedoes with surgical precision.
Pulling up the information for Poppy, he noted that its primary bridge had already been destroyed, slashed open by the same laser strike that had mangled its dorsal section. Most of its command staff was dead, and the ship was now being controlled from the secondary bridge by Lieutenant Commander Dexileth, an Allosaurus. The gunner who had programmed in the clever trick with the missiles was Ensign Shepard, who had apparently been forced into the post when the first gunnery officer had been killed.
Shepard's trick appeared to be catching on as more and more of Alliance frigates followed Poppy's example and began using their jump missiles for point defense. They weren't nearly as effective as lasers, but even a few less targets to shoot at gave their weapons some much-needed rest.
Even with this new trick, the casualty count was already much higher than Tlaloc would have liked. His frigates simply weren't designed to fight engagements where the enemy could shoot back, and their lack of armor made them extremely vulnerable. As he watched, another went down, cut in half by a pair of alien lasers.
They were still giving as good as they got. The advantage provided by the heavy armor of the enemy vessels was quickly negated by the sheer number of lasers the Alliance frigates could bring to bear. Their targeting computers made sure every laser focused on the same point, melting the alien metal like wax. Just in front of his long nose, Tlaloc saw one of his ships shoot past an enemy frigate in a high-speed pass, four lasers firing together to peel its spine open in a spray of molten armor.
An alert sounded in his ear, causing the large dinosaur to flick the display back to his cruisers. The wolf packs were almost on top of them now, far too close for their guns to be of any use. On some unknown signal, the alien frigates broke from their formations and peeled away, each racing after one of his cruisers with unerring precision.
With a twist of one claw, he issued orders for the scattered vessels to shift their fire toward the approaching enemy cruisers. Trying to line up a bow shot on the agile frigates at point blank range was a doomed endeavor, no matter how mobile his cruisers might be. Surviving long enough to make the FTL jump was more important than inflicting damage now, but the alien cruisers were as exposed as they'd likely ever be. If any of them could manage to get a clean shot, they might as well take it.
The frigates were close now, and Tlaloc had a perfect view of just how effective the small vessels could be when they were finally in their element. His cruisers were agile, almost impossibly so considering their huge length. The rows of thrusters that ran across their hulls were blazing in glowing lines of fire, throwing them across the sky like leaves in a hurricane, but against the alien frigates it made no difference. Unlike the Achiteuthis ships the cruisers had been designed to fight, their new opponents could not only keep up with the evasive dance, but stay a step ahead of it. No matter how the larger ships spun or swerved, the aliens moved to cut them off, with every turn bringing them just a few kilometers closer.
They waited until they were just a handful of kilometers away from their targets before finally opening fire. The calliope-designs of the enemy torpedo racks rippled in waves of glowing blue fire as they unleashed dozens of glowing bolts at almost point-blank range. Though they had never trained against guided weapons like these, Tlaloc noted with some pride that his captains reacted instantly and intelligently, throwing their ships away from the approaching missiles to buy more time for their defense grids to intercept the projectiles.
The lasers needed all the advantages they could get. Each cruiser only mounted two, one on their dorsal section and one on their ventral. Even that measly level of protection was only included as an afterthought, without any serious expectation that the weapons would ever be used. Now they were all that stood between his ships and a fiery end.
Tlaloc's eyes narrowed as the same scene repeated itself a dozen times over, scattered across over a thousand kilometers of empty space. An enemy frigate would swoop past a cruiser and unleash a lethal hail of torpedoes. The huge ship would flash its retros, throwing it sideways through space as it frantically attempted to stop the swarm of projectiles. Most times, they were successful. Sometimes they weren't.
Jaguar was the first to fall. Her overworked lasers missed a single torpedo, which plowed straight through its weak barriers to impact directly against one of her maneuvering thrusters. By the time the emergency cutoffs engaged, the resulting chain reaction had already made its way to Jaguar's central fuel line. There was no warning, no time to evacuate. It simply exploded in a titanic blast that ripped the entire cruiser into a thousand pieces of drifting molten slag.
While she was the only ship destroyed, several others had taken hits to less critical locations. Three other ships were reporting damage, and two of those three had apparently taken severe damage. Elk had lost all of her starboard retros when one of her fuel lines was severed by debris, and Cardinal's main gun had been warped almost a centimeter out of alignment. It was a miracle the weapon hadn't deformed enough to tear the ship completely apart. This unexpected twist of good fortune came as cold comfort, however. The enemy frigates were already coming around for a second pass. As the cruisers' lasers started to overheat their chances of interception grew smaller and smaller, and Jaguar had already proven that even one torpedo was too many to let through.
Though their fate was largely sealed now, the Alliance ships gamely kept up the fight. Even as they flipped and twirled to buy themselves a few more precious seconds, many still found the time to spin their bows toward the distant enemy cruisers and fire a few parting shots before darting away again. Firing on the run was what they had been trained for, after all, and it seemed that exactly what they were running from made little difference to most of his captains.
The aliens hadn't expected this, Tlaloc noted with satisfaction. Presumably they thought the cruisers would try futilely to use their guns against the frigates in a frantic attempt to save themselves. He fluffed his feathers in dark amusement. It seemed that now it was the enemy's turn to make foolish assumptions. Self-preservation was a luxury the Alliance Navy could never afford, and his sailors knew it. So long as more was gained than sacrificed, death held no terror for them.
More focused on evading the guns of Tunguska than they were on the other embattled Alliance vessels, the alien cruisers were slow to react to the incoming shells. Their sluggishness cost them dearly. Sturdier than the frigates, Tlaloc knew it would take more than one hit to bring these ships down. But so did his squadron leaders. The shots from his ships had been focused and precise. Though they maneuvered independently, they fired together.
A nod of his head enlarged one of the enemy cruiser formations, just in time to show the first hit bring down the lead cruiser's barriers in a flash of light. A second shot, fired by a completely different ship, smashed into its underside seconds later, blasting a twisted hole in the ship's belly seventy meters across. The third shot missed, but according to his display, a fourth was already on the way.
Even as the alien frigates got close enough to launch their second wave of torpedoes, ending four of his cruisers in fireballs or silent screams of ruptured metal, the icons for the enemy cruisers also began winking out. Spines snapped, engines exploded, and hulls were shredded as the Alliance ships finally entered into their own. As the cruisers shifted to focus on the new threat and start returning fire, someone made another mistake. One of the squadrons baiting Tunguska was slightly too slow, forced off its planned course by a series of shots from his cruisers. Seeing her moment, the huge dreadnought pounced.
She targeted the center of the alien formation, her six cannons vomiting a rippling stream of death into the stars. Though the alien pilot was alert enough to swerve out of the way of her first and second shots, the third brought down the ship's barriers. The forth went wide, but the fifth collided with the vessel's starboard wing. The impact not only severed the wing, but twisted the cruiser even further off course. Before the crew could correct, the seventh shot hit, blowing a huge hole in its bow. The eighth shot collapsed several bulkheads, crushing a two hundred meter section of the ship like a can under a Thunderer's heel. The ninth shot blew the alien vessel clean in half. The whole thing was over in just seven and a half seconds.
Of the two remaining ships in that formation, the farthest had already fled beyond where Tunguska would have had a reasonable hope of destroying it. But the nearest was still in range, its thrusters firing as hard as they could to escape her reach. It was a doomed effort. The cruiser's narrow stern profile allowed it to dodge the first four shots, but the fifth obliterated its barriers in a crackle of energy. The ninth connected with its engines, consuming the entire aft section in a horrific chain reaction. The titanic dreadnought left the cruiser's burnt remains alone, turning her attention toward a different squadron, which was now noticeably giving the huge vessel a wider birth.
"Jumps plotted and sent," Shelly called from somewhere behind him, her voice triumphant. "Allied ships should be departing the system…now."
Zooming the display out again, Tlaloc patiently waited for it to catch up with the lag. A few seconds later, the floating holograms of the dozens of Alliance vessels still in the system froze, then blasted forward at extreme speed until they left the display's field of view. The ships had flown off in all directions, but their paths would curve and eventually intersect at the rendezvous point Shelly had selected for them. The sudden dispersal was just another smokescreen to discourage pursuit. It wouldn't be nearly as effective against these aliens, who actually had the numbers to chase them, but with luck Tunguska's presence would serve as enough of a deterrent to keep the enemy in the system.
"How many did we lose?" he asked, carefully surveying the scattered enemy ships. They were milling around in confusion, which was to be expected. Though pursuit calculations were much simpler than those required for a jump like his ships had just done, he still wouldn't know if they had taken the bait for another minute or so.
"All told, we've got seventeen frigates and nine cruisers out of action," Shelly supplied, her voice grim. "Of those, two frigates and three cruisers are just disabled. The crews have already evacuated, but if the aliens don't finish them off we can probably drag them back to drydock and have them patched up in a month or two."
"Damn it all. They took out almost half our fleet?"
"They didn't do any better than we did, sir. Worse, actually. We took out both their dreadnoughts, fourteen cruisers, and thirty eight of their frigates. We also shot down almost all of their drones and attack craft. I think a few broke off for repairs before we brought the hammer down, but even the best estimates suggest ninety percent casualties."
"God, what a waste," he sighed, shaking his huge head. "So many dead, and for what? This whole thing is just so pointless."
"From what I understand, sir, war usually is."
"I just wish our new guests felt that way," muttered the dinosaur before returning his attention to the drifting holograms of the alien fleet. "Their window is up. If they haven't chased our smaller ships yet, they aren't going to. Have Tunguska come to a new heading thirty degrees off Rally Point Gamma and clear for heavy action. This next part is-what in the hell are they doing now?"
His feathers rippled in surprise as instead of attacking like he had predicted, the enemy ships began to disperse, swerving away to gradually loop back toward Shanxi. This was extremely bizarre. He supposed the aliens might just be trying to be merciful, but that didn't track. Even if they expected his force to take hours or days regrouping, they had to know it could still fight. An invader would want to destroy as many of his ships as they could, to prevent them from being used in battle later on. Considering that the aliens had barely scraped a draw despite having a major numerical advantage, letting his entire force freely disengage was strategic insanity. What were they up to?
"Admiral, Tunguska just received an infographic from the alien fleet," Shelly announced, her tone perplexed. "I think you'll want to see this."
A virtual window appeared in the air before Tlaloc's face, and after a moment's pause began playing the alien transmission. He'd watched the video exchanges General Williams had traded with the invaders when they first arrived, so the crude images came as no surprise. The content of the message, however, came as a bit of a shock.
The video began with a rendering of a debris field, with bits of destroyed alien and Alliance vessels clearly visible in the wreckage. Glowing silhouettes abruptly appeared in the debris, spikey red figures shaped vaguely like the aliens, and a jumble of Human and dinosaur forms rendered in green. Beside the silhouettes a handful of other shapes popped into existence, triangular red capsules and green pods that bore a very strong resemblance to the older cryo-boats Comet Alpha had been carrying when she had been destroyed.
After a few seconds where the red and green shapes drifted silently, the video zoomed out, showing a red alien cruiser hovering on one side of the debris field, with a green image of Tunguska waiting on the other side of the field. The huge dreadnought was noticeably not rendered to scale. The colors of the ships suddenly changed, both vessels turning pure white and rotating so they no longer faced each other.
The floating figures and pods immediately began moving, the red alien shapes sliding smoothly toward the enemy cruiser while the green ones were sucked toward Tunguska. Once all the drifting figures had been removed, the alien ship turned and flew away, leaving the dreadnought behind. The debris field vanished, replaced by a crude map of Shanxi's local orbit. Red triangles showed the locations of the various alien ships, and a huge green triangle marked Tunguska's position.
The red icons began moving, milling around in areas where the fighting had been thickest before setting course back for Shanxi. A thin red circle appeared, radiating out from the clustered group of alien transports that still hovered near the planet. Some hasty mental math told him the circle likely stretched at least a full light second. He smirked. Tunguska must really have spooked them if they thought their transports needed that much space to be safe.
"Sir, does this mean what I think it does?" asked Shelly, her expression hopeful.
"They're letting us recover our escape pods," he confirmed with a nod. "They want a truce."
"Should I start preparing our own video?"
"Don't bother. As long as we don't make any aggressive moves, they won't shoot at us. By now, they've likely recovered almost all of the troops they had on the planet. Once they've collected their sailors and destroyed their wrecks so we can't pick through them, they'll leave the system. There's nothing left for them here."
"Tunguska isn't equipped for recovery duty," she reminded, her hands flashing through the air to highlight the dozens and dozens of beacons that marked their drifting lifeboats. "Should I try to rig something?"
"No. By the time we came up with anything useful, the rest of the fleet will have returned and we won't need it. Best just to keep her broadside facing the enemy and just wait."
"I guess that's it then." Her glowing face went pensive for a moment. "Sir, if they're retreating, that means we won, right?"
"Yes, lieutenant, that's usually what it means," he answered, smiling his strange bird-smile.
"But I saw the videos of wars on Earth, before the dinosaurs came and we stopped fighting each other. Everyone was always so happy when they won. They had parades and they kissed and… Sir, I don't feel happy. I just feel empty."
"So do I," he confessed with a sigh, hanging his huge head. "But I'm afraid that we'll all start getting used to it before long. Signal Tunguska. I need to send a message."
"Aye aye. I'll bring up some of the icons we used for previous videos."
"Not that kind of message. I want to send a live audio and video transmission to the alien fleet."
"Sir, I doubt they'll be able to understand you. If we haven't been able to translate their language yet, they probably haven't been able to translate ours."
"It doesn't matter. The message isn't for them."
He straightened to his full impressive height and stretched out his wings, flapping experimentally. The wind blew Shelly's holographic hair back like she'd just stepped into a gale, and a few muffled cries suggested his display had disturbed a few of the other Megas nearby. Ignoring them (rank had its privileges, after all), he settled into a professional stance and unclipped his holo-helm. Taking a deep breath, he nodded toward Shelly, who pressed something he could no longer see, activating the recording.
"To all individuals who have been taken captive by the unknown alien invaders, this is Admiral Tlaloc. I have a message for you. Shanxi stands strong, and we are in the process of securing her orbit as the enemy withdraws. The Alliance was victorious. Your sacrifices were not in vain. But we have not forgotten you."
He unfurled his wings to their full expanse, ten meters wide. This time, no one complained as he angrily flapped and settled into an aggressive stance, his beak snapping viciously.
"Until every last one of you is returned, there will be no peace, no rest. We will never stop looking for you. There is nowhere these aliens can take you that we won't follow, no fortress we will not siege. I will personally tear apart this galaxy star by star if that is what it takes. So as sector commander, I give formally give you these orders: sit tight. Stay strong. We're coming for you."