The Diego Fleet popped into existence one half AU from Juventas. At that point, considerable power from both AIs was diverted to the battle, and processing delays were noticed throughout the colonized portions of the galaxy in both systems. Time for the AIs seemed to slow as decisions were made within milliseconds.
Thanks to recent incursions by the Ultima Mule, StarCen was prepared for invasion with a network of sensors in the outer solar system. She had a two second heads-up before the Diego Fleet stopped porting, giving her ample time to prepare. Thus, the Republicans came in without the element of surprise.
PLAIR arranged the squadrons equidistant from Juventas, with the three Condors forming a sort of distant triangle around the planet. At the moment the fleet stopped, the Condors ported 15 chunks of sun into what remained of Cooper’s Sixth Fleet in orbit.
But StarCen ported all 30 ships away immediately, and the solar energy exploded harmlessly in the skies above Juventas.
The ships reappeared a second later, in position around the six squadrons, attempting to engage in a more traditional battle. Fireballs from the Condors disrupted this move, relentlessly appearing wherever the League ships showed up.
StarCen, having previously considered the problem of solar weaponization, moved her ships into a defensive algorithm. They ported in a seemingly random manner, staying within one half AU of Juventas, but not leaving. On occasion, one would show up behind a Republican ship and release a volley from her guns before porting away again to some random spot in space. StarCen calculated this measure would disrupt the Diego Fleet and frustrate military efforts against Juventas.
PLAIR examined the technique and broke the problem down into manageable components. She now had 90 ships in the Juventas system, six squadrons of 15 ships each, giving her plenty of sensors in the area. She quickly devised a grid system of all the space within one half AU around the planet, and observed the enemy ships as they ported.
At that point, she detected StarCen’s mistake. The ships followed a pattern. In the following second, 15 fireballs appeared where PLAIR predicted a ship would materialize. She correctly guessed nine locations. Nine League ships evaporated.
StarCen immediately realized her error and changed the distribution pattern to a completely random one. Two more ships were lost, purely by luck. However, the odds became increasingly slim that PLAIR would correctly guess which sections of the giant grid the remaining 19 ships would appear at any given second.
PLAIR shifted tactics, porting in sun near her squadrons. These were not close enough to damage her own ships, but in places that would eviscerate any enemy showing up to try and engage. This resulted in one more League ship taken out in the second before StarCen could adjust.
At this point, StarCen was finally able to use one of her solar torpedoes. Having arrived about an hour earlier, she had distributed them among the three Eagle-class ships left in the Sixth Fleet. Unfortunately, one of the Eagles had already been lost, which meant StarCen now had only two torpedoes left.
From the Extol’s hold, she teleported its torpedo next to the Patrick Henry. In all the processing power PLAIR engaged in, the addition of a foreign object appearing next to one of her Condors did not attract her attention quickly enough. With a few milliseconds to spare, she realized the threat, but at that point it was too late.
The torpedo teleported five chunks of solar energy to its location, and the Patrick Henry exploded, along with two support ships nearby.
In the next second, StarCen ported her last remaining torpedo next to the Marion Francis. But this time, PLAIR knew what to do, and the Swamp Fox and her supply ships disappeared milliseconds before the torpedo exploded.
At this point, PLAIR decided that if StarCen would use a random pattern for the porting of her remaining ships, PLAIR would use a random pattern of sunbursts. The 15 fireballs appeared in the grid randomly, and over the next three seconds successfully damaged one ship and destroyed another, bringing the Sixth Fleet down to 16 vessels.
StarCen decided she had enough, with almost half her forces gone. She evacuated the remainder of the Sixth Fleet’s ships, sending them out of the solar system. The entire battle from start to finish lasted 17 seconds.
The cheers going up in the Diego Fleet were tempered by the realization that the Patrick Henry and two Sparrows were lost. Even though the numbers were disparate in comparison to the League’s, it was unlike the overwhelming victory at Seychar and Gotha Mu.
Worse for morale, Severs thought, the Condors could no longer be seen as invulnerable. A solar weapon was just as devastating on them as it was with any other ship unfortunate to share space with part of a sun.
“Move us into orbit around Juventas, PLAIR,” he said.
The Diego Fleet popped into position, her remaining ships taking the place of the recently evacuated Sixth Fleet.
But the battle was not quite over, as far as StarCen was concerned. From an isolated spot in the solar system, she moved one last ship into orbit along with the Diego Fleet. This one had tagged along with the Sagittarius and had been left in its location earlier.
The Republican ships were clustered in orbit by squadron. StarCen chose a squadron containing one of the remaining Condors, the Marion Francis. It floated near three Eagles, six Hawks, four Sparrows, and one troop transport, the Gerald Ford.
Had this been a final solar torpedo, the Diego Fleet would have escaped serious harm. But what appeared in orbit near the other ships was a Sparrow-class with Republican markings. In fact the ship, the Tilson, had been captured earlier in the war.
The sudden reappearance of the Tilson caused PLAIR to pause as she processed the information. But the same technology used in the solar torpedoes lay hidden inside Tilson, and five sunbursts ported in to her new location.
In the milliseconds after, PLAIR tried to port the squadron away. She successfully pulled the Swamp Rat out, and one Eagle escaped with major damages. But the other ships were suddenly obliterated.
Severs watched the flash of yellow over the planet’s horizon on the Paine’s main holoscreen.
“PLAIR, what just happened?”
“A decoy ship appeared in orbit, Admiral. It was another solar torpedo. It took out thirteen of our ships.”
“Thirteen?” Severs said. “Was that Strand’s squadron?”
“Yes, Admiral. The Marion Francis has suffered minor damage. It was farthest from the blast and I managed to port it away in time. I also saved the Liberty, although it has significant damage and some loss of life.”
Severs felt stunned. He said, “How did this happen?”
“The Tilson was captured intact by the League in a minor engagement two years ago. It was parked in space nearby, but I did not have time to identify it when we engaged. When it appeared in orbit, its onboard system initiated a reconnect sequence with me. This cost critical milliseconds as I considered the implications.”
Her tone sounded dispassionate. Had PLAIR been human, Severs thought, surely she would have been as devastated emotionally as he felt. But she recounted the events in a matter-of-fact tone with no inflection whatsoever. And no self-recrimination for her mistakes, either.
He took a deep breath, held it, and let it out slowly to try and slow his pounding heart.
He said, “Don’t that let that happen again, PLAIR.”