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This is it, Ricci thought.

Despite the issues with missed supply ships. Despite losing Hawks and even Eagles to privateers on the minor planets in this quadrant. Despite now fighting to gain back an entire fourth of the League, this is it.

This is the moment we’ve all been waiting for, she thought grimly. They were now one AU out from Juventas, pausing to catch their breath, so to speak. The next port would bring them within range of the Diego Fleet.

And it’s all going to be over in a matter of seconds, she thought. It will be decided one way or the other.

She stood on the bridge of the Resolute along with the other officers on deck. For a moment, she and Captain Volkov shared a glance.

Ricci nodded.

Volkov turned to face the main holo.

She said, “StarCen, engage.”

At that moment, the battle was out of Ricci’s hands. She only hoped all her planning and forethought would not be in vain.

The Third Fleet popped into position around Juventas, evenly spaced, immediately launching 24 solar torpedoes which popped into place the moment they appeared.

PLAIR had been expecting the attack, though, and teleported all her ships away from danger in microseconds. All 24 torpedoes flashed harmlessly in Juventas’s sky.

The six Condors in the Diego Fleet, now further away and out of orbit but still nearby, teleported 31 chunks of sun in a delayed grid pattern around the globe. They did not appear simultaneously, but were staggered in such a way to show up near ships teleporting into new positions, trying to get away from other fireballs.

This technique was new, and surprised StarCen to the extent that it destroyed two ships, severely damaged six and lightly damaged two more. She pulled the Third Fleet further out to exit the grid pattern.

PLAIR launched 31 more fireballs again in the next second, trying to reach out to the ships now further away. StarCen ported them to new random locations in time and launched 14 more torpedoes, porting them into position beside Republican ships.

Again, the effort proved insufficient as PLAIR pulled all targets away in time.

Then PLAIR ported her own torpedoes, surprising StarCen who was not quite fast enough to move three more ships. All were severely damaged but relatively intact. She quickly pulled the broken vessels out of the solar system and away from the conflict.

Again this time something new occurred. Near the ships StarCen had pulled away, PLAIR’s torpedoes did not go off. In the microseconds that followed, StarCen realized PLAIR was refusing to commit to activating solar material if the torpedoes were not going to successfully damage a ship. The torpedoes would be reused, so to speak.

The innovation was duly noted, and StarCen moved all her Hawks and support ships out of the solar system, leaving only her Eagles. She reprogramed the subroutine for torpedoes and copied the technique. One would appear near a Republican ship, and if the ship ported away in time the torpedo would not go off. Instead, it was ported to another enemy vessel.

For the next three seconds this deadly dance continued with no fireworks.

Then the Republicans sprang a trap. Ships in the Diego Fleet appeared in the system’s asteroid belt, three AUs out. When the League torpedoes appeared nearby, the ships popped away just as the anti-teleportation grid carefully hidden among the asteroids activated.

In the confined space of the torpedo shells, which were quickly built and already very expensive, no one thought to shield the Wu Drives. Why bother? The torpedoes were expected to be one time use items.

When the fields activated, all remaining League torpedoes were suddenly rendered inert, floating uselessly among the asteroids.

Now with the upper hand on available weaponry, the Diego Fleet attacked the Third Fleet in earnest with 31 chunks of sun coming from the Condors and Republican torpedoes following League Eagles relentlessly. Two more in the Third Fleet were destroyed in one second, followed by three the next.

StarCen devoted considerable processing power in the following second, weighing the results of the battle so far. She factored in the losses to pirates in the outer planets, and the losses in the earlier rounds against Juventas and came to a speedy conclusion.

She withdrew all her forces from Juventas.

Back on the Thomas Paine, Severs glanced at the clock on his holo.

“Hm, 14 seconds. That must be a new record.”

-+-

“They used an old technique and a new technique, Tetrarch Thrall.”

Ricci’s hologram stood before Thrall in his conference room on Epsilon. His nostrils flared as he listened to her report on the defeat at Juventas.

“No one expected an anti-teleportation grid to be used on the torpedoes. This was not part of their design specs, although I’m sure shielding will have to be included from now on.”

Driving up their already prohibitive cost, Thrall thought. He said nothing, letting his Admiral continue.

“Also, they have torpedoes now, supplementing the capabilities of their Condors. But StarCen explained they programmed the torpedoes to not explode if she could port away the ships on time. So, they were not a one time use. Well, they were a one time use but they could remain unused if they weren’t going to blow anything up.”

Another “Why didn’t we think of that first?” moment, Thrall thought. He fumed at the memory of all the exploded torpedoes that did nothing, PLAIR pulling her ships away in time and all that money spent on all those weapons burning up in space.

Ricci continued.

She said, “I apologize I was unable to accomplish our objectives, Tetrarch Thrall. If you wish to relieve me of duty, I will board the next zodiac ship we meet and return to Epsilon.”

He waved a hand in a dismissive gesture and said, “That won’t be necessary, Admiral. There is nothing you can do within the few seconds a battle takes place. If StarCen cannot counter their AI, we are virtually helpless in those situations.”

This was true, and Ricci knew it. Everybody knew it. Still, those at the top bore responsibility for failure. “Share your success. Shoulder your mistakes.” It was a key principle taught at the Academy.

Ricci breathed a quiet sigh of relief that Thrall remained reasonable despite the circumstances, at least so far as her command. Because despite her willingness to “shoulder her mistakes,” in reality a different Admiral would have had no greater or lesser chance of success once the AIs began to battle.

“Hold your fleet at your current location, Admiral. I will consult with StarCen and the other Tetrarchs as we mull our next move.”

Ricci saluted and said, “Yes, sir.”

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jaxonreed

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