Cyrus Star System
It had taken nearly a week but finally Ferguson's reinforcements arrived to join the fleet, six jump points opening a safe distance away heralding a small task force of capital ships and their escorts. Great care had been taken to disguise these vessels and mask their true purpose and capability. A casual observation by the enemy would reveal them to be nothing more than standard Nova class Dreadnoughts, a formidable but not unusual vessel. The truth was something different.
"Admiral, General Knox is requesting deployment orders." Commander Austin relayed across, pressing the small communication headset to his ear. "He has six units ready to engage immediately."
"Have him deploy in line abreast behind the Dreadnought force." Ferguson replied as he put aside his reports and notes and brought himself up to speed for the coming action. "Keep the dreadnoughts in staggered formation, Knox can fire through the gaps in the fleet."
"Aye sir, fleet is deploying."
"Bring all units up to first degree readiness, launch all fighters and prepare to receive the enemy."
With Minbari ships standing off in the system outside weapons range the EA ships were already wary and it did not take long to close air tight doors and bring weapons from hot standby to fully operational. Ferguson's status board lit up as each vessel checked in, the blocky formation turning from blue to green signalling every unit was prepared.
"All fleet units will standby on my orders." The Admiral resolved. "General Knox may commence operations at his leisure."
The six new dreadnoughts deployed into their assigned position under the curious watch of both their human allies and the distant Minbari. For a few weeks now both sides had been locked in a staring match across the Cyrus system with neither the Earth or Minbari fleets in a position to commence an attack. Their strength was roughly equal and while Earth could claim to have a more flexible fleet the Minbari still held the proverbial high ground having vessels with superior range and accuracy. It was a stand off with neither fleet willing to cross open space under the guns of the other.
This was where General Knox came in with Earth's solution to breaking the stalemate. While the ships he brought were Nova class hulls they had been heavily modified with their cannons, hangar decks and internal stores removed and replaced with a single spinal rail gun of immense proportions.
The cannons were planetary defence weapons shoehorned into a dreadnought hull with considerable difficulty and expense. They were slow, vulnerable to any hostile unit if caught alone and very few in number designed primarily for bombarding enemy starbases and ground based fortifications. However they also fired a solid lump of metal the size of a freight train at massive velocities with greater range and power than anything beside the largest nuclear missiles and unlike those missiles the solid projectile was virtually impossible to deflect or destroy.
They had never been used in action before and were not built to fight warships, fortunately the new sensors and targeting systems that allowed Earth to beat Minbari stealth also gave these immense weapons the capacity to engage moving targets such as, for example, Minbari war cruisers. The designers had named these titanic weapons 'Murphy Guns' after the proverbial guru of bad luck. They had taken Murphy's primary law of 'No plan survives contact with the enemy' and altered it to 'No plan survives contact with this giant frickin' gun' and used that as their mission statement. Now finally it would be put to the test.
The six siege ships now dropped their cover, switching power to their spinal cannon and bringing the targeting systems online. They had assumed position behind a screen of regular dreadnoughts, the commanders of the fleet watching with malicious glee as the power readings spiked. The leading vessel in the formation would take the first shot, the EAS Gustav, to gauge the effectiveness of the experimental weapon and feed data to its sisters.
The first of the massive bullets was winched up and settled into the breech mechanism, the zero gravity within the vessel helping considerably. The electromagnetic rails arced as they were fed massive quantities of power, the entire ship humming as the decks shuddered and vibrated. At the bow within the fake hangar opening the muzzle of the gun made final adjustments, locked it's targets and made ready for the final order. The engine room set the engines for a sudden automatic burn to try and counter the recoil at the moment of firing, all hoping that the weapon did not explode, melt or simply break free of its cradle and rip out the heart of the ship.
The tension was palpable, the entire Earth fleet waiting poised for what promised to be a spectacular event one way or another. The targeting system beeped ready, the capacitors kicked in a final boost of power, and as soon as the gun matched itself to the sensor readings it fired.
Even at emergency burn the recoil pushed the ship back snapping the crew forward in their seats, the restraints digging uncomfortably into their shoulders and waists. The compression systems did their job, the gun remained attached to the firing vessel and returned forward ready for another shot. The burst of energy was impossible to hide, lighting up every sensor system in the region as the silver streak of the round crossed open space toward its target.
"What happened?" Shakiri glared at the flash from the distant EA ships mapped to the holographic curtain of the command deck. "What was that reading?"
"It was a muzzle blast, unknown weapon, projectile is incoming!" His second warned. "Very high speed!"
"Track it's course, then..."
He was interrupted by a spark on the hologram beside him, a Sharlin suddenly jerking backwards scattering debris behind it in vast quantities. It stood motionless for a heartbeat and then exploded as its reactor consumed it.
"That was the Firenn, direct hit." His Captain warned. "Reading more sensors locks, Earth force ships are firing again, five more incoming!"
The rest of the siege ships now engaged mirroring the success of the lead vessel. Four found their targets and struck them directly, the fifth was a glancing hit but even so the sheer force of the kinetic impact scraped off a third of the mass of the unfortunate Minbari ship and carried it away.
"The Burning Spear is on fire and out of control, more incoming!"
"Can we return fire?" Shakiri demanded to know.
"Not at this range Shai Alyt."
"Then it appears we have but one choice."
It took considerable effort for Ferguson not to grin like a maniac, the elder Admiral required to maintain a professional air in front of subordinates at all times. The rest of his bridge crew fortunately had no such appearance to maintain and burst out in cheers with every Minbari ship shattered.
"Four more hits!" Austin slammed his hands together, ecstatic to be giving the Minbari a taste of some pay back. "Knox is opening up a hole in the centre of the enemy formation, he hopes one of the ships in the middle is the enemy flagship."
"If we can snipe the commander it will help." Ferguson nodded. "They are starting to take evasive action, it won't do much good, Knox may need to switch to cluster rounds."
"He's already alternating shell types." Austin confirmed. "He reports twenty rounds per gun remaining, after that the gun barrels will be wrecked and need replacing."
"The Minbari won't know that, right now their Commander is working out how long he can endure having his capital ships sniped before his fleet is useless."
Another set of Minbari ships vanished in flame and fractured crystal.
"He has three options, the first is to retreat which is the most sensible." Ferguson considered. "Withdraw and return later with a better balanced force, but he won't do that, no Minbari warrior would flee from battle. He could disperse, go full evasive, break up his fleet but that would allow us to move in, concentrate our conventional ships and destroy him piecemeal. Which leaves one option for him. Attack."
"That seems to be confirmed sir, I have movement across the Minbari lines." Austin nodded. "They are assuming attack positions, a frontal assault."
"And that is textbook desperation." Ferguson exhaled, shaking his head at his opponent. "Have General Knox maintain fire and then withdraw to a reserve position. Dreadnought group will hold fast and standby for broadside fire, we'll let them break against this metal wall. All other units move to the flanks and engage the Minbari as they advance. They will come straight for the Murphy guns, straight down the centre relying on speed to save them. It won't."
The Minbari were on the move, exactly as Ferguson had predicted. Unable to weather the attacks and with no idea how limited the EA ammunition was they chose to attack and remove the source of their torment. Shakiri brought his fleet up to attack speed, ready to utilise the formidable engine power of his forces to close the gap quickly and minimise his exposure to human weapons. Unfortunately this was exactly what Ferguson wanted.
As the Minbari made their move he too redeployed, the wall of dreadnoughts turning broadside on to face the Minbari advance, cannons swinging out and flank missile silos popping open one after the other exposing nuclear tipped hypervelocity missiles to the enemy. It was a solid line of dark grey and blue, the classic iron wall of Earth force that had blunted virtually everything that had ever been thrown against it from Narn missile cruisers to Dilgar Dreadnoughts and everything in between. Only the Minbari had ever taken such a formation head on and won, but that was before Earth could fight back and even then the pure volume of fire had blasted several warcruisers. It was time to see what happened when the irresistible force of a Sharlin grand assault ran into the immovable object of a human dreadnought wall.
But while Shakiri was gambling on one tactic Ferguson was not so unwise. He deployed his escorts above and to the left of his his main defence, the two flanking forces advancing along the path of the Minbari advance. Their orders were to simply rain down fire from the left and from above intersecting at ninety degrees and catching the Minbari fleet in a three dimensional crossfire. His cruisers and frigates could not match a Nova for firepower of course but they could still hurt a Minbari capital ship and were a threat to the smaller escorts Shakiri had brought with him, and they were present in significant numbers.
All the while the Murphy guns maintained a steady fire picking off important looking ships at range. Ferguson assigned his Starfury units to protect them, his main concern being the Minbari fighters swarming ahead and tearing up the defenceless siege ships. It was a bit of a risk not to send the Furies forward to whittle away exposed guns and propulsion systems among the Minbari ships but given the amount of firepower waiting to be unleashed it was probably wise to keep his airwings as far away from the cauldron as possible.
"Minbari are coming into range." Austin warned. "General Knox is withdrawing."
The Minbari began to engage, their first salvoes slicing through a trio of Novas. The jamming suites prevented the Minbari from exploiting their accuracy at this range but simply weight of fire was going to cost human lives.
"All dreadnoughts hold fast." Ferguson ordered. "We'll get our chance very soon."
Knox was still firing as he withdrew earning back some vengeance, a salvo of cluster shells wiping out a Minbari frigate wing as they were pelted with submunitions hitting at insane velocities.
"Flanking forces report Minbari are in range."
"All cruiser and escort units, commence firing, guns only." Ferguson ordered. "Time to main contact?"
"Forty seconds until they come within our range." Austin replied sharply and professionally, filtering and relaying information as soon as it crossed his console. "Cruiser forces are engaging."
The Hyperion wings began their part of the plan hailing pulse cannon rounds down on the passing Minbari ships. Shakiri had ignored them, writing them off as a minor threat and now he was starting to regret it. The EA ships burned holes in the Sharlin cruisers, massed fire from six vessels turning one into a flaming wreck as it passed under their guns. Rail guns on the escorting Artemis frigates added to the violence as explosions and tracer fire peppered the advancing force.
The Minbari simply soaked up the damage and pushed on. Shakiri did not alter his plan, he kept his focus on the siege ships even though they were by now no longer the main threat. His flanking ships were being melted away, his frigate and light cruiser units unable to respond due to lack of orders. Many Minbari commanders knew it was a mistake, they desperately wanted to break formation and engage the human cruiser units, it was indeed their entire reason for existence. But instead of being released to hunt in their wolfpacks and tie up the human light units they were instead kept in tight with the Sharlin formation and suffered for it.
In his mind Shakiri believed he was right, that it was better to mass his fleet into one great hammer to smash the human battle line and destroy the siege ships, that he would crush both forces at once in a single glorious attack. None could stand before such a force, who was there who could check the unleashed might of the Warrior caste in its full fury?
"All in the valley of death rode the six hundred." Ferguson whispered to himself.
"Nothing Commander, just reminding myself that blindly following orders into suicidal attacks isn't exclusively a Minbari trait. We have guns on both flanks, guns ahead of them, they are in the mother of all kill boxes and they are still advancing. Is that bravery Commander? Or desperation?"
"They're boneheads sir, that tells me all I need to know."
"Doesn't really matter. Dreadnought group standby for salvo fire."
The iron wall now made ready, the ranks of heavy guns making their final adjustments. With such a huge target and with so many ships preparing to fire there was no question that tens of thousands of Minbari were about to die. The only question was whether they would collapse before the momentum of the attack carried them through the dreadnought wall.
"Make sure all weapons are set for pulse mode." Ferguson checked, a final dreadnought falling to Minbari fire as the range counter turned green. "Commence firing."
There was no one in the Earth fleet that did not appreciate the spectacle of nearly two hundred dreadnoughts engaging at once. It was the ultimate example of what Earth Force brought to the battlefield, pure, unsophisticated, overwhelming firepower. The fleet simply filled space with highly energised particles, a mix of the older blue coloured rounds and newer orange pulses showing which chips had been upgraded. The leading elements of the Minbari fleet flew into them and stopped dead, entire squadrons and flotillas knocked out of the sky and transformed into smoking ruins. More ships advanced, more fell, but it did not stop the Minbari advance in its tracks. The follow up vessels pushed forward, navigating around the wrecks, enduring the barrage for a few moments before succumbing. Each successive force pushing further forward and still retaliating, still claiming Earth warships with calmly executed return fire despite the maelstrom engulfing them.
This was the critical moment. Ferguson was fully committed, as was Shakiri, the Minbari advance was slowing down but still forcing its way forward and still claiming human ships. One side or the other had to break, either the Minbari ships crumbled or Ferguson's ships burnt out their guns and slackened their defence which would let the Minbari get close enough to break through.
"Weapons capacity at ninety percent and falling." Austin warned. The rapid salvoes fired by the dreadnoughts were horrifically destructive but also exceeded the limits on the cooling systems placing a direct limit on their use. All the Minbari had to do was endure for a few more seconds and they could still win despite their losses.
Ferguson of course had no intention of allowing that.
"All units, nuclear launch authorised, saturation strike." He gave the order with as much venom in his voice as he could manage. "Launch them all."
His fleet had few pure missile ships in it, not many had survived the initial one sided battles, but the majority of EA ships maintained a healthy missile armament of their own and could bring a lot of warheads to the field. Both the dreadnoughts at the front of the battle and the flanking cruisers and frigates let go with everything they had, a classic mass attack with everything timed to impact simultaneously. With the Minbari so focused on the attack, with their sensors clouded by the volume of gunfire, with their escorting ships badly mauled and out of proper position, with the entire force concentrated together in a packed formation Ferguson's ships found themselves with the optimum target.
This was not an innovative battle, there was no great new strategy or radical manoeuvre, it was an almost text book battle with a main line of Dreadnoughts, cruisers and frigates on the flanks, Furies on CAP duty and a well timed nuclear strike to tip a wavering enemy into collapse. It was the classic Earth Force strategy, human kinds signature space battle, and it worked. It was tried, tested and when employed by a competent Admiral and well trained crews the results were utterly devastating.
The Minbari broke. Their forces evaporated and boiled away, hammered by gunfire or slammed by the shattered debris from their brethren. The heart of the formation was transformed into a furnace of radiation and plasma, their defensive strategies too weakened or too slow to stop the missile strike. Eighty percent of the Minbari fleet was lost in the space of thirty seconds and in the face of certain death Shakiri also broke and abandoned the field, jumping away and leaving his surviving subordinates to their own devices.
"Jump points." Austin noted. "Surviving ships are withdrawing."
"Keep firing." Ferguson ordered. "Don't make it easy for them."
Several more Minbari ships succumbed to gunfire as they made their escape, a couple of hundred vessels making it to hyperspace where they would be long gone by the time Earth Force could follow. Ferguson let them go, he didn't have the supplies to chase them over the border anyway.
"Enemy forces have withdrawn, the Cyrus system is ours." Austin grinned.
"Get a signal off to Command, inform them Minbari fleet routed with heavy casualties, we have secured the border and all Earth Alliance territory has now been liberated. We request resupply and are prepared to advance into Minbari territory as soon as practical."
"Aye sir." Austin went to work. "Are we really ready to attack sir? Invade Minbari space?"
"If the politicians have the will power we have the firepower." Ferguson nodded. "But I don't know, it'll be brutal but so far the Minbari have given us no indication they want to surrender. We might have to if we want to end this."
"Message away sir." The Commander informed.
"It'll be a week or two before we are rearmed and ready to go anyway, set defensive stations, deploy piquet ships and stand down the fleet." Ferguson concluded. "Good day's work everyone, lets tend our wounds and be ready for the next round."
"I did warn you." Branmer said with an utterly neutral expression. It was the closest he had ever got to yelling 'I told you so!' as loudly as possible and it was only a life time of priestly training that compelled him not to.
"At the time the Council was correct." Coplann chose his phrasing carefully. "However it seems circumstances have changed and Shakiri is no longer favoured."
"Shakiri was well read in the art of war." Neroon spoke up, ever beside his master and obviously enjoying the vindication heading their way. "Unfortunately nobody ever won a battle by sitting down and reading about it."
"Shakiri had the relevant seniority and position to assume command." Coplann continued, clearly not comfortable. "But I am forced to agree that his experience was… lacking."
"He understood the concepts of winning battles but not how and when to apply them." Branmer sighed. "He is a fine fleet commander, but he is not ready to be granted a position of full command. He needs someone to make the decisions for him, to give him the orders which I am sure he would execute superbly. He is in no way fit to be the one issuing the orders, his vision is too, shall we say narrow, for it?"
"Narrow is not the word I would use." Neroon savoured the pained look on Coplann's face. "Buffoon I think works better. Perhaps complete moron sits better?"
"I remind you he is still your senior officer." Coplann cautioned.
"And I remind you he just lost our last standing fleet!" Neroon spat back. "And the only reason he is still my senior officer is because he did not have the courage or honour to die with his men instead of abandoning them to save his own skin!"
"Enough now." Branmer quelled the rising tensions. "What is done is now done. How many ships did Shakiri save?"
"Not enough, and most were damaged." Coplann winced visibly. "Maybe fifty can be made operational in the next week, the rest will take months to repair."
"Valen's name." Neroon spluttered, laughing with incredulity of the news. "The entire fleet of the Warrior caste reduced to fifty ships? You expect them to hold the border against thousands of battle hardened human war vessels?"
"No." Coplann raised his chin. "I expect you to."
Branmer nodded slowly.
"Are you asking me to become Shai Alyt again?"
"The Council has granted you the position, it is already done."
"I see." Branmer considered for a moment. "I refuse."
Coplann froze, his brain clanking to a halt, unable to process the data. Even Neroon seemed moderately surprised.
"But... the Council... your duty..."
"I refuse, unless my condition is met." Branmer continued. "I will have free reign to prosecute this war. I will not have to make constant reports, the Council will not interfere, and the Caste elders will swear loyalty to me directly on their honour."
"You ask for a lot Branmer."
"So does the Council Satai Coplann." The former priest grunted. "You ask for a miracle, I simply ask for the impossible."
"The Council will ensure you have what you want." Coplann agreed.
Branmer gave a curt nod then headed for a console and pressed a few controls, the holographic curtain descending around them and turning dark as it brought them an image of space.
"I have been training the defensive units, the fleets of the worker and religious castes." he announced, pointing to a fleet of ships practising against each other. "Teaching them how to act aggressively but with control."
"Their formations are sloppy." Coplann cast a warriors eye over the fleet. "Their spacing is uneven, and they are not moving in synchronisation."
"All of which is irrelevant, this isn't a parade, its a war." Branmer dismissed. "I don't care if they are not equally distant on the same line as each other provided they maintain interlocking fields of fire and flank cover."
He pressed a few buttons.
"Watch, a simulated flank attack by human cruisers."
Coplann observed the fleet responding, detaching frigates to intercept.
"Simulated missile strike."
Again the fleet altered, spreading out with escorts and fighters racing forward to lay down a barrier of point defence fire.
"Dreadnought attack, Starfury assault, hyperspace ambush." Branmer cycled each scenario and each time his fleet responded. "What is missing?"
"I don't know."
"Orders." Neroon answered for him. "All warrior caste fleets need set direction, a pattern to follow. Upset the pattern and we have trouble reacting, we tend to wait for direct orders from above. It is what doomed Shakiri's fleet."
"My forces do not need that, I have taught them to react to unexpected developments, to act without requiring permission." Branmer explained. "Yes they are rough around the edges, they are not so fast to act as warriors or as disciplined, but they are much more flexible and they are far better at reading a battle than most of the Alyts you know. I'd take these ships over five times their number commanded by someone like Shakiri."
Coplann nodded with acceptance.
"You taught them to fight as humans fight."
"I taught them to fight how we used to fight, back in the days of Valen." Branmer clarified. "Which is not disimilar. Valen emphasised flexibility, moving not like a sword and shield but like a river. Melting away so attacks found nothing, parting before the enemy to avoid damage, and gathering like a flood to sweep the land clear before us. Always changing, always adapting, ready to become what we needed to become."
"When we cannot shape the enemy to our ways, we must shape ourselves to them." Neroon affirmed. "Fight as they do, exploit their weaknesses, make their strengths our strengths."
"Is this fleet ready?" Coplann asked. "We still need time to retrain warriors to man the mothball fleet, to turn them from infantry into starship crews."
"I need two more months, sadly we don't have two months. Tell the Council they will be ready to deploy immediately."
"Very good, once our..."
"But I will not be defending our borders." Branmer interrupted. "We will attack."
Coplann frowned, Neroon suppressing a wide smile.
"I don't think that is wise."
"I am Shai Alyt and have full authority to conduct this war as I see fit." Branmer reminded. "We need to seize the initiative, strike hard while Earth regroups, while they won't be expecting us. You cannot let Earth dictate this war to us, we have to be the ones deciding where and when to fight, they have to react to us not the other way. We don't have the strength to hold them and if Earth learns that fact we are going to be in trouble."
"The Council will not like this."
"They will like humans invading Minbar far less." Branmer retorted. "We need time to build our forces, ideally we need a decisive victory that cripples the Earth fleets and makes invasion impossible. I will take our fleet to Beta Durani, their main supply and staging area, and there I will do what I can to prevent invasion and give us a favourable negotiating position."
"What do you mean negotiating position?"
Branmer frowned, then shook his head and walked away, Neroon following close behind with an equally unimpressed glance leaving Coplann to digest the conversation. He was a warrior and part of the Council but he was no fool and knew deep down branmer was right. He had his loyalty to the Council and his loyalty to the people of Minbar and until today they had been one and the same. Now he wasn't quite so sure.
While it pained his warrior heritage to admit it he needed to talk to Delenn.