“Sometimes, those who have more tricks up their sleeves win the battle.”
I don't have to hear the scout's whole report to know that this is bad news. Waving a hand, I order the man to sound the alarm. While doing so, I try to think of a way to escape this battle, I get out of my chair and leave my office. Ignoring the chaos around me, I head directly towards Nova's office. If that annoying woman has a trick up her sleeve, then she should use it right now.
All around me, men and women are running to their stations. Most of them are pilots who have to get to their ships. I don't feel comfortable in sending them into battle, but it will be unavoidable.
Leaving the hangar's military area, I walk to the palace. Illum's public alarm sounds. It's an annoying hooting sound which swells and dims in regular intervals. But the civilians around me don't act immediately. They look confused. It takes them several seconds to understand that this isn't an exercise. Once they realize their situation, they start moving, slowly.
I reach the palace and head directly into Nova's office. She is standing on her balcony, looking at the sky. Though, there isn't much to see. Illum is hidden within a cloud. Beyond the sphere-shaped barrier which is surrounding us, only dull, white fog paints the scenery.
“They found us,” I say loud enough for her to hear me.
She doesn't look at me. “Hm. I wonder how they accomplished that? I thought that my protections against scrying spells were sufficient. On the other hand, who knows which methods of spying were smuggled onto Illum up until now. A small transmitter would be hard to detect.”
“I don't think that they needed anything fancy. Their ships are fast and can cover a lot of distance. In addition, the weather is rather nice. We are the only cloud in an otherwise blue sky. It takes no genius to figure out that there is something strange about us,” I muse.
Nova turns around and looks at me. “How is the situation?”
“We counted fifty ship's from the Empire. Their cuboid designs are easy to identify. They are approaching us in a single, large formation from the west, slightly above our altitude.” I clear my throat. “There are also twenty-five weapon platforms from the Sociocrathy. They are quickly approaching from the east, trying to cut off our path.”
Nova returns to her office. “Those are a lot of ships and they are able to match our altitude. It seems like someone gave them a little technological help. And, aren't we missing two ships? There were fifty-two of them at the World Assembly.” She gestures towards her office table and a three-dimensionalonal representation of our situation appears above it. “I didn't expect such a strong reaction.”
“It's unlikely that our scout miscounted. Maybe the missing ships were sent back to the Empire, or they are hiding somewhere. We aren't the only ones with a form of stealth-tec,” I muse. After a moment of consideration, I continue, “I think that your portal spell might have been the deciding factor for the Sociocrathy to intervene. Hesh's abduction alone would have caused a reaction from the Empire. The prince isn't known to hold back.”
She looks at me and raises an eyebrow. “I never admitted that I did abduct Hesh.”
“We both know that you are the one who is behind his disappearance.” I sigh, studying her regal expression. “But that's beside the point. They will reach us in an hour, maybe less. We didn't get accurate readings on their speed.”
“I really have to think of a working concept for long range sensors. Reinventing radar will be a pain in the ass. The calculation power isn't a problem, but I will have to develop a completely new set of machinery.” Nova nods and reaches down to pet Lucifer. The ghost cat is lying on her office chair, curled up into a ball. The purring furball grew from a kitten into young cat. Just like a real cat, he ignores Nova's attention stoically.
The door opens and the Sovereign steps into the office. “I've heard about the sighting. How much time do we have?”
I turn to Janice, surprised. “I thought that you went with your fleet.”
She shakes her head. “How could I leave my granddaughter behind? We still have an agreement.”
Nova crosses her arms in front of her chest. “It's not like you can do anything against a whole fleet. And how did you manage to hide on Illum?” Pulling her eyebrows together, Nova's eyes flick around, looking at something only she can see. “I saw you leave on your flagship.”
Janice waves her hand dismissingly. “I came back to Illum after I gave my generals their orders, then I wandered Illum's lower levels until the real alarm went off. The rest of the time I spent in my quarters. All of your surveillance techniques don't help if you don't use them. After all, you only have limited time and attention span. There is too much information for you alone to manage.”
Nova grunts, but doesn't reply. She clearly isn't pleased.
Janice continues. “It's true that I can't help much. My fleet is about a day away, but I think that I can rescue a few people once the dying starts. I intend on getting at least Nova safely back to Mirai, even if Illum falls. And if I have to pull rank and drag her by one ear, then I'll do it.”
The Sovereign surely doesn't lack confidence. On Illum Nova seems like a god, but I have heard stories about necromancers on battlefields. Each death boosts their power. Janice said that Nova has the upper hand while she is on Illum... but is that also true if the Sovereign's power is boosted by a large scale battle? Would it even the playing field?
Nova dismisses the Sovereign's words. “It won't come to that. Illum still has a few hidden cards to play. I admit that the odds are worse than I expected, but I won't roll over and give up.” She plays with her long hair, curling it around her finger. Her mind is clearly somewhere else.
We remain silent.
It takes a few minutes, but slowly the rest of the command staff arrives at Nova's office. I use the time to fill everyone in on the situation. None of them are pleased to see such a large force assembled against us.
Another messenger arrives, giving us more accurate information on the location and speed of the forces which are assembled against Illum. I decide to shake Nova out of her dreams. “They are forty minutes out. Nova, we need a plan, but I can't come up with one if I don't know Illum's exact capabilities. You kept your mouth shut about our weaponry. Now is a good time to come clean.”
She tilts her head and looks at me. “There are few viable options. Illum can't rise fast enough to escape them and yesterday's report was clear enough on the fighter's capabilities.” Tapping her chin with one finger, she looks out of the window. “Launch our air-force now, but send only the experienced pilots. They are to form up and attack the Sociocrathy's weapon platforms in a pre-emptive strike. The less reliable pilots stay inside the hangar.”
I glance at the three dimensional map. “If they fly to meet the weapon platforms, they won't be able to be back in time. The Empire's ships will catch up with us before they are back. Our fighters need twenty minutes to reach the weapon platforms. Even if they take them down instantly and turn around the same second, which I don't believe, it will be a close call.”
Nova nods and I feel my weight shifting. The sensation is gentle, but noticeable. Illum is changing course.
“We will meet the Empire's fleet even sooner than that. I want the small vessels to be out of the way while Illum engages the Empire's ships.” Nova turns her attention to the map. “It should be doable.”
I am not sure about her plan, but I use my ring to send out the required orders.
The Sovereign squints her eyes and studies Nova. “Illum can take fifty of the Empire's finest ships head on?”
Nova shrugs as the clouds beyond her window dissipate, revealing clear, blue sky. “I hope so.” She walks around her office table and leaves the room, heading to the staircase which leads to the observation platform above the palace.
I study the Sovereign's taut expression. The others, Fae, Tristen, Kiara and Brian look agitated. It's clear that none of them know any more than I about Illum's power. Admittedly, the flying island already proved its ability to wipe out two airships with ease. But can it stand up to a whole fleet of fifty ships? “We should have kept the Sovereign's fleet closer. With the additional ships it would've been easy to repel the enemy.”
The Sovereign shakes her head and follows Nova up a narrow stairway. “Nobody anticipated that their ships can travel at this altitude. The intention behind our plan was to avoid a confrontation entirely. I am also surprised that it didn't work out. The plan was sound, but we clearly lacked vital information. Rufus must have had his fingers in this. It would be just like him to leak critical technology at an inopportune moment.”
I notice that Nova's movements aren't as fluent as usual. Normally, her movements flow in a sensual manner, but now she seems to be agitated and stiff.
We reach the end of the stairway and step onto the observation platform. The cloud which covered us is behind us, but without the barriers which held it in place it quickly loses its form and density.
A steady stream of various aircraft are flowing out from the hangar at Illum's underside. I sigh in relief upon seeing that the hangar's crew is doing an admirable job at organizing the starts of so many ships in quick succession. Getting all pilots queued up to enter their machines is a nightmare. It took us two weeks to work out a viable solution which doesn't end in assured chaos.
At the horizon, I can see a flock of little, dark objects. Those are surely the Empire's ships. I walk over to the storage shelf which is positioned next to the staircase. Inside it are several telescopes. After handing them out, I walk up to the balustrade to take a good look. The Empire's fleet is composed of airships of various sizes.
The smallest ones are comparable to my old frigate. With a weak defence, they should be equipped with several spell projectors, making them dangerous for any slower ship or ground-based forces.
Then there are some larger vessels, which make up most of the attack force. With a hundred metres in length, they are comparable to an Alliance destroyer. They are slow but are heavily shielded. With the ability to overlap their barriers, they should be taken seriously.
Lastly, there are the Empire's dreadnoughts. Large ships with over a hundred metres in length. Just as in the Alliance, none of the three dreadnoughts looks like the other. Such large ships require huge power stones which are really rare, so the ship is built for the power stone, instead of the other way around. This practice results in quite unique ship designs.
“I think that I know which ships are missing,” I inform the others. “Two of their dreadnoughts aren't with the fleet, maybe even the prince's flagship.” I lower the telescope and notice that our swarm of aircraft is deployed. They form up and fly eastwards to meet the Sociocrathy's weapon platforms.
Nova doesn't pay them any attention. Her entire concentration is focused on the Empire's fleet. “The missing ships are bugging me. I don't like games with hidden pieces.” She looks around as if she is able to see something which we can't. “Does the Empire have cloaking technology?”
Janice purses her lips. “We keep track of all of their large ships. They shouldn't have the knowledge, but the prince's flagship and her sister-ship were newly deployed just over a year ago. It's possible that they have a few tricks up their sleeves.”
“It's not like I can change my set of cards at this point,” Nova mumbles.
We wait and watch the Empire's fleet coming closer. When they are ten kilometres away, Illum's force cannons fire and settle into a steady staccato. It takes three entire seconds before the barriers of the Empire's ships flare up. They are clearly struggling to hold off the sheer amount of projectiles, but then the Empire's ships draw closer together.
“They are layering their barriers to protect each other,” I inform Nova. She must realize what's going on, but I say it anyway to make sure that she understands the problem.
The Empire's fleet answers a few seconds later with a barrage of fireballs. Most of the spells are three metres in diameter, but the three dreadnoughts play in a wholly different league. Huge spheres of fire appear in front of each of the three ships and shoot towards us.
Nova immediately redirects the fire of our force cannons. One of the large fireballs explodes before it reaches us, quickly followed by the second. The third sphere shoots across the remaining space between them and us. It strikes our barrier and spreads out like liquid fire, eating away at our barrier's spell matrix. Illum vibrates like a bell, but our barrier holds.
Some of the smaller fireballs also find their target, but they are far less effective.
Grabbing the balustrade, I announce my displeasure. “I don't think that we should take a second one of those on purpose.”
“No, we shouldn't,” Nova says and answers the Empire's attack with a barrage of missiles, quickly followed by a second one. I already saw them in action, but these are smaller and quicker than the ones in my memory. And there are hundreds of them.
Quickly realizing the danger, the Empire's fleet answers with several beams of searing light. Sweeping the spells back and forth across the cloud of incoming objects, they take out several scores of missiles. Most blow up, taking out other missiles.
Finally, the surviving missiles reach the fleet, converging on several ships. The overlapping barriers flare up, but the missiles punch unhindered through the first layer, exploding on the second or third. The explosions within the barriers weaken not just one barrier, but two.
Entire sections of the fleet's barrier network collapse. The remaining missiles find their targets. Seven ships are torn to shreds and one of the frigates simply disappears in a huge explosion. The force of the explosion makes me doubt that there is something left that's bigger than my thumb.
One of the dreadnoughts takes a heavy beating. The front section of the three hundred metre long cuboid is split apart, taking out several spell projectors and rendering the vessel pretty much useless. But the stubborn ship stays afloat.
Illum's force cannons keep pressuring the fleet. Having lost their shielding, four of the larger ships tilt as projectiles punch through the wood as if it isn't there. Having lost some of the vital enchantments, they roll over and plummet out of the sky.
The second barrage of missiles is about to hit when some of the Empire's ships push out their barriers considerably, stacking several layers on top of each other. Covering such a large area, the barriers are weakened considerably, but that's not the point.
Illum's missiles pass unhindered through the first and second layer, just to explode far away from the actual defences.
Nova clicks her tongue in displeasure. “They have figured it out. Someone taught them modern battle strategies!”
“Aren't the missiles smart enough to recognize the issue?” I ask.
She shakes her head in dismay. “I went for cheap and quick to produce, hoping that nobody would figure out their weakness. The fairies are already enchanting the missiles on the assembly line. Otherwise I would have had just a few missiles.”
The enemy fleet steadily hammers Illum's barriers with fireballs, and then the two undamaged dreadnoughts fire again. Again, one of the liquid fireballs is taken out by the force cannons, but being even closer to the enemy, they can't catch the second attack in time.
Again, liquid fire splashes against our barriers. They flicker, and this time a hole opens inside the force fields. A jet of flames pushes through and hits the large sphere of glass at Illum's side. The thick glass melts and cracks. The contained water evaporates and covers the entire area in mist.
Nova presses her lips into a thin line. “They destroyed the public pond... That wasn't nice.”
I want to complain about her aloofness, when the air to Illum's left shimmers and two dreadnoughts appear out of nowhere. They collide with Illum's weakened barriers and punch through. One collides with the outer ring, the other swivels and crashes against the inner island. The ground beneath my feet shakes as troops spill out of the huge ships.
Brian and Tristen are instantly busy with their command rings, ordering our guards to the affected areas. Fae curses, and Kiara lets out a shriek, fearing what's about to happen.
Janice turns to her granddaughter. “Are you still so sure that Illum will survive this?”
Nova ignores the two dreadnoughts which are clinging to Illum's side like predators to their prey. Coming even closer, the rest of the Empire's fleet is now clearly visible. Just a little longer and they will try to board us with their own troops.
“So, they have showed us their hand.” Illum's ruler draws in a deep breath and lets out a long sigh. “I really didn't want to use this.”