November 476 I.C., Odin
It could not be said that things returned to normal, but despite the delicate shifting of tensions and the new ground that Reuenthal, Mittermeyer, and Yang stood on, life still went on, and routine slipped back over them like a blanket. In public, the three of them tried to keep things as they had been, or at least to keep things discrete. Reuenthal kept his hands off of Mittermeyer (a difficult proposition); Mittermeyer tried not to get flushed and embarrassed when Reuenthal met his eyes; and Yang was clearly guarding any jealousy and tender feelings closely, not letting them out onto his face. Reuenthal caught him looking, though, once or twice, at dinner as he sat next to Mittermeyer. Their eyes would meet, and Yang would look away, back down at his plate.
Although the state that Yang was in was bitter for both of them, it was a delicious bitterness, hot and tangible, for Reuenthal to think that, in some way, he possessed a part of Yang.
On the next Saturday, when the whole group of friends met back up for their weekly gameplay session, Reuenthal brought the group to order. Bittenfeld, who wanted to get started playing a match against Eisenach, protested, but Wahlen shushed him.
“The other day, Leigh had an idea that I believe is worth serious consideration,” Reuenthal said. “I’d like him to explain it.”
“Er, thanks,” Yang said. He stood at the front of the room, tousling his hair and looking out over the tops of everyone’s heads. “I was thinking, if you’re all willing to try this, that we should change the way that we’re playing.”
“What do you mean?” Wahlen asked.
“We’re not playing for rank,” Yang said. “Just for fun, right? That’s good. That’s fine. I just imagined that, since we’re not constrained by needing to match up with different people every week, and we’re not fighting over rankings, we could try to make our games more realistic.”
Bittenfeld leaned forward in his seat, elbows on his knees. “Realistic to what?” Reuenthal could tell from his expression that he was remembering the heft of the GM rulebook, and hoping that Yang was not about to suggest expanding it.
“Life,” Yang said, gesturing a little absently. “Reuenthal suggested that we play a long term campaign, so that wins and losses mean something. That way we’ll have to take into account the whole scope of the battle: choosing a time and place for the engagement, how many troops and ships we’re going to commit, acceptable losses and acceptable retreats, how we’ll be able to meet back up with a main force… That kind of thing.”
Eisenach was nodding, and Wahlen looked contemplative.
“What kind of long term campaign are we talking about?” Wahlen asked, a bit of a suspicious glance at Yang. During their Saturday games, the group had taken trips into historical settings far more often than they did during SW class itself, since Yang was enamored with history. He could understand Wahlen’s hesitation— it would have grated to run an entire campaign of the Punic wars.
“We’re training to fight only one kind of war, aren’t we?” Reuenthal asked. “We should simulate that one.”
Bittenfeld was grinning. “You know, I like the sound of that. No more playing around with Ancient Earth.”
Yang frowned a little, offended that no one liked history as much as he did, but then said, “So, I think we should split up into teams, and those can be permanent. At least until we decide to change things. And then we’ll be able to do long term strategy.”
“All in favor?” Reuenthal asked. He raised his hand, and then everyone else did as well, looking at Yang, who smiled nervously.
“I want to be on Reuenthal’s team,” Bittenfeld said immediately.
“I’ll GM,” Yang offered. “The whole campaign.”
“You can’t,” Wahlen said.
“What? Why not?”
“Think about it: if Reuenthal heads one team, unless you’re on the other, the opposite side won’t have a chance.”
“The whole point is to improve. You can’t just give up immediately.”
“You know it’s true, though,” Wahlen said.
Reuenthal smirked at Yang, who scowled. “I like to GM.”
Mittermeyer tried to salvage the situation by changing the topic. “We’re going to need more people. I don’t know how effective this will be if we don’t. I mean, we only have six right now. If we have two GMs, that’s just teams of two.”
“You’re not wrong,” Yang said. “Can we find more people we trust? I mean trust, trust.”
Wahlen shrugged. “If we bring in someone we don’t like, we can always just kick them out. I think there’s a few people we can invite, at least.” Reuenthal was mentally running down the list of sophomores and deciding which ones would be too annoying or dangerous to invite, which was most of them.
“There’s a couple freshmen that I know who might enjoy this,” Mittermeyer said.
“Freshmen,” Bittenfeld said with a disgusted tone. Yang rolled his eyes.
“Eisenach, are there any upperclassmen you would want in?” Yang asked.
Eisenach thought for a moment, then nodded.
“I really would prefer to GM,” Yang said.
“I don’t know if we’ll find anybody else who will be willing to GM every match and never play,” Mittermeyer pointed out. “Aside from Leigh, anyway. Maybe when matches happen, we should have one representative from each team GM the engagement.”
“Then we have the problem of information leakage,” Reuenthal said. “Each side will have classified info they won’t want the other to access. We still need an impartial moderator in charge of the whole game, and resolving disputes.”
Eisenach raised his hand, then pointed at himself.
“You’ll do it?” Yang asked.
“That’s probably the best result we’re going to get,” Reuenthal said. “Wahlen’s right that you shouldn’t do it, and if we’re bringing in other students, it’ll look best for our most senior person to run the game. Just to make sure things run smoothly.”
“At least we won’t have to worry about him saying anything secret,” Bittenfeld said with a laugh, which only made Eisenach smile placidly.
“Fine,” Yang muttered. “If there are no objections?” He poured himself some tea from his thermos while he waited to see if anyone would speak up, which no one did. “Then we should probably hash out teams and starting conditions now, before we bring other people in.”
Reuenthal turned on the projector at the front of the room. “Empire versus the rebel fleet, right?” he asked.
“Yes,” Yang said. “We might as well.” His voice was slightly strained, though.
“Does anyone object to me appointing myself supreme commander of the Imperial fleet?” Reuenthal asked.
“That would make Leigh…” Wahlen began.
Mittermeyer glanced over at Yang. “It’s not a great look,” Mittermeyer said.
“It’s fine.” Yang waved his hand to dismiss the objection. “Staden puts me in the rebel fleet role every time it comes up. This is hardly any different. Besides, Reuenthal has his pride to worry about.” Yang smiled, joking.
“So, no objections?” Reuenthal asked.
“Go ahead,” Yang said.
Reuenthal typed this into his computer, and the words displayed on the projector, two neat columns of imperial fleet versus rebel fleet, with his name on one side and Yang’s on the other. Space Fleet Commander, Hank von Leigh. It sent a little shiver down Reuenthal’s spine.
“Wahlen, want to be on my team?” Yang asked.
Wahlen thought for a second, then nodded. “Sure.”
“What rank are you giving him?” Reuenthal asked.
Reuenthal wrote ‘Admiral August Samuel Wahlen’ on the board beneath Yang’s name.
“I’ll take Mittermeyer,” Reuenthal said. “If there are no objections.”
“Go ahead,” Yang said again. Reuenthal wished the three of them could have been on the same team, against some powerful enemy, but that didn’t seem fated to be.
“Welcome to the team, High Admiral Mittermeyer.”
“You won’t let me be a Fleet Admiral?” Mittermeyer asked.
“You’ll have to earn your promotion,” Reuenthal said, which caused Mittermeyer to roll his eyes, though he was smiling.
“I said I wanted to be on Reuenthal’s team,” Bittenfeld said.
“I can survive without you, Bittenfeld,” Yang said, which meant that Reuenthal wrote ‘High Admiral Bittenfeld’ on the board beneath Mittermeyer’s name.
“You’ll have first pick from anyone we bring in, then,” Reuenthal said to Yang. “I’m sure you’ll exercise good judgement.”
March 477 I.C., Odin
The informal club that they had founded expanded in number to about fifteen people, encompassing a few of the top students from each of the four years. It was entertaining, Reuenthal supposed, to enlarge his social circle somewhat, though he doubted that he would ever get as close with some of the new members like Bayerlein or Fahrenheit as he was with the original group, and even moreso, Yang and Mittermeyer.
It was an exciting undercurrent to the school year, their false war. The friendly rivalry that sprung up between all the people they had invited in to join them was obvious to even people who weren’t in on the secret. The fast friendship between Bittenfeld and Wahlen, for example, became slightly strained now that they were on opposite teams, and this was never more obvious than during the Saturday morning physicals, when Bittenfeld didn’t hesitate to yell out some taunts that were incomprehensible to bystanders at Yang and Wahlen as they did their five mile run, and only served to make Whalen laugh and Yang wheeze.
The game started out simple enough, with both fleets contesting each other in the Iserlohn corridor. One of Reuenthal’s favorite parts of playing in the early days was sitting down with Mittermeyer and trying to figure out what a realistic supply chain would be, from the interior of the Empire out to the Iserlohn stationed fleet. Even though they were military students, they didn’t have access to much real information about how fleets truly were supplied, the exact number of ships and people, and what their patrol schedules looked like. They didn’t even have accurate maps of the Iserlohn corridor-- detailed navigational information was one of the most important military secrets-- so they had to do their best to make educated guesses about the material that they were working with. Reuenthal enjoyed coming back through Odin’s newspapers, trying to get estimates of how many ships he would have on hand by figuring out which shipbuilding companies were being awarded contracts, how much titanium was being mined to supply the hulls of the destroyers, and other minutiae.
This was plenty of excitement at the beginning of the game, especially when Reuenthal tried to counter-analyze what Yang had to work with on his end. Every class where they learned more about some real battle that had happened somewhere, they updated their models of what each side had at their disposal. But once they had settled into what felt like a real configuration of their imaginary fleets, the game ground to a near halt. There was one reason for this: Yang had absolutely no desire to go on the offensive.
“It’s just not realistic,” Yang said one day at dinner. They were eating alone, for once, since Yang had slept through their normal dinner time, and Reuenthal had been studying. The dining hall only had the barest leftovers remaining, but that didn’t bother Yang, who was mindlessly eating his potatoes and chicken, gesturing with his fork in order to make a point. “If it was, we’d be having a new battle of Iserlohn every year, instead of…” He counted. “Four? In all the time that Iserlohn’s existed?”
Reuenthal frowned. “You’d think it would be a nice and tempting target.”
Yang just smiled placidly. “I am capable of self restraint.” He leaned back in his chair. “But it’s not as though you’re invading my side of the corridor.”
“It’s for financial reasons,” Reuenthal said shortly. He wasn’t about to tell Yang if he was going to invade, anyway.
Yang just laughed. “I’ll tell Eisenach to give you permission to ignore any of Kaiser Friedrich’s actual policy positions on how the fleet spends its money. Pretend he’s died and his son takes over tomorrow. Ludwig.”
“You think Prince Ludwig will invade when he takes the throne?” Reuenthal asked, leaning forward.
Yang’s placid expression collapsed, brow furrowing. “Maybe.”
“What makes you say that?”
“He’s young,” Yang pointed out. “He might try to make his mark on history. That’s all I mean.”
“Hm.” Reuenthal “But there’s no one on your side who might try to make their own mark?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Yang said. He ate some of his mashed potatoes to avoid talking for a second.
“Come up with someone,” Reuenthal said. “Say there’s a hot blooded and ambitious rebel fleet admiral… ” He pretended to think for a second. “I’m picturing someone who looks just like you, but under a different name. What might he be called?”
Yang immediately flushed and shook his head. “Reuenthal--”
Reuenthal smiled. “Leigh.” He dropped the joke, though.
“I’ll think about it,” Yang said. “I make no promises. But you have me at a disadvantage. Iserlohn is a hard stop.”
“And your fleets stationed just outside the corridor to bat me down as soon as I poke my head through there aren’t?”
“You at least have the luxury of free positioning,” Yang said. His expression changed to something funny and contemplative. “How mad do you think Eisenach would be at me if I requested starting construction on my own fortress?”
“I thought your opinion was that fortresses are bad policy?”
“They are,” Yang said. He was smiling. “But you couldn’t allow me to start building one at the end of the corridor, could you?”
“Perhaps,” Reuenthal said. “But now you’re divulging all your strategy to the enemy.”
Yang just laughed. “I can keep things closer to my chest than Bittenfeld can.”
“I don’t doubt it,” Reuenthal said.
“You keep asking me to make the game more exciting, but I don’t know if you actually want that.”
“Oh, I think I would like to see what you’re truly capable of,” Reuenthal said, which made Yang flush and look away.
And so, for a while, the game proceeded on its normal course, with both sides sizing each other up in the Iserlohn corridor. But then, one Saturday morning during a match where Yang had sent Wahlen into the Iserlohn corridor with a medium sized fleet, facing off against Bayerlein, a freshman who Mittermeyer had invited onto their team, Eisenach paused the game. Everyone in the room, who was watching the match play out and taking notes, received a message on their screens.
GM: At this time, you receive word that Fleet Admiral Leigh has led a force of approximately 40,000 ships into the Phezzan corridor.
Immediately, the room full of bystanders erupted into chaos, with Yang’s team whooping and laughing and Reuenthal’s team standing from their seats.
“Is that even, like, allowed?” Bittenfeld asked.
“It’s not like there’s anything physically preventing it,” Wahlen pointed out, looking rather smug.
Mittermeyer looked at Reuenthal. “I’m the only fleet close enough to respond,” Mittermeyer said. But even then, Mittermeyer’s fleet was nowhere near the Phezzan corridor, and might not be able to make it before Yang’s fleets got all the way through into Imperial territory. “Hey, Eisenach, how long will it take for these ships to actually get to Phezzan?”
Eisenach, who never spoke aloud, responded on the computer system.
GM: It will take approximately one week for the force to arrive at Phezzan.
“Oh, you’re just doing that so we don’t have to play on a school day,” Yang said, annoyed. “I told you it actually is only a four day trip from Phezzan to the outside of the corridor.”
GM: you must be out of your mind if you think i’m going to mod a game on a thursday night after i’ve spent all day with staden
GM: The clock advances in the Wahlen-Bayerlein match.
“Fuck,” Bayerlein swore, and ducked back down to his computer terminal, even as everyone else in the room continued to discuss the impending invasion of Phezzan.
Reuenthal looked across the room at Yang, who was smiling placidly, his hands behind his head. When he caught Reuenthal looking, the corners of his eyes crinkled with amusement. Reuenthal just smiled and shook his head.
After the match was over (Bayerlein lost, mostly due to being very distracted, though both Fleets ended up retreating-- Wahlen’s advance had been a distraction only), Reuenthal cornered Eisenach on the way out of the building.
“Phezzan would put up a defense,” he said.
Eisenach looked at him, then shrugged.
“It has a merchant fleet.”
“I have some sort of embassy on Phezzan. Can I organize their merchant fleet into a defense from there?”
Eisenach thought for a second, then nodded, slowly.
Reuenthal smiled a cold smile. “I’ll get you the numbers you need to run the game.”
Getting a list of all the ships operating off of Phezzan was not particularly difficult. All it involved was combing through the past couple years of newspapers and publicly-available port call information, to see what the usual traffic on and off the planet was.
For just being one planet, out of the hundreds that the Empire and Free Planets’ Alliance both had as part of their territories, Phezzan saw a shocking amount of ship traffic. Perhaps that shouldn’t have been surprising, since it was the only route between the two main areas of the galaxy, but Reuenthal had never come up with exact numbers like this before, so he had not quite grasped the scale.
He became sure of one thing: by invading Phezzan, Yang was gambling on winning this war quickly. The entire economy of the FPA was tied inextricably to Phezzani commerce, and if Yang could not stabilize that situation, he was risking sending the entire FPA economy into a tailspin. All Reuenthal had to do was stall for time, and make this war as costly as physically possible, and Yang would be forced to withdraw. He was sure that Yang knew this, which was why Yang had waited until nearly the end of the school year to put this into action. He was playing the game as a game.
Reuenthal couldn’t entirely fault him for that. Yang wouldn’t ever do something like this in the real world, even if (when, Reuenthal thought) he became a fleet admiral for real. But he had asked Yang to make the game more exciting, and Yang had obliged.
As Reuenthal looked through the manifests of ships on and off Phezzan over the past couple of years, he couldn’t help but remember that Yang had mentioned his father had been a merchant. Reuenthal idly searched the records for “Yang.” There were plenty of Yangs, of course-- it was a common enough name on the other side of the galaxy-- but only a few of them had died in April of a few years past, so Reuenthal was able to narrow down his search quickly.
The newspaper story that came up was short, and delivered in such an acerbic style as to prevent it from being sad. It described an accident that took place in the Phezzan corridor, where a ship with a poorly maintained engine had exploded, causing irreparable damage to the ship itself and killing a good portion of the crew. The survivors included the son of the ship’s captain, Yang Wen-li.
None of this was truly surprising to Reuenthal. But what was surprising was something else. At the bottom of the informational article, there was a large red banner and a photograph of Yang. It was a ‘Wanted’ ad, with a bounty on Yang’s head. The sum made Reuenthal raise his eyebrows, but he supposed it was only the fraction of a cost of a merchant freighter.
Reuenthal had never had much need to look into Phezzani property law before. He knew that it was different than what it was in the Empire proper (and for all that Phezzan paid lip service to being “part” of the Empire, in order to allow its existence continue, it was a culturally and legally distinct entity), but he hadn’t been aware of just how different. On Odin, if, for example you owed a large sum of money, you would be required to pay it back in various ways: through seizure of property, garnishing of wages, and-- if the debt could be proven in court to have been created through malfeasance rather than bad luck-- the debtor could be sent to prison. This sort of thing rarely happened, Reuenthal understood. If someone wanted satisfaction on an unpayable debt in the Empire, the fastest way to solve it was through a duel. And the only time when debts were transferred between father and son was when the debt was attached to the family name, something that only ever happened with nobility.
But, on Phezzan, there was no such thing as a debt that was considered “unpayable.” There was always someone who could be held responsible for it, and always some way to get that money back. The laws on Phezzan said that anyone who had benefited from a loan (and benefited was used in a strictly defined legal sense) would need to pay it back, and they could be made to pay it back in a number of unpleasant ways, including a kind of indentured servitude.
Because the ship was part-owned by the Phezzani Mercantile Corporation, and Yang had benefited from that as his father’s son, Yang was responsible for paying back the debt. The wanted ad said that he was required for twenty years of service, in order to pay back the remaining value of the ship, plus interest. But, instead, Yang had vanished without a trace.
It made perfect sense why Yang would change his name and abandon his identity, coming to hide in the Empire. Being hated as a foreigner was better than being a slave.
It was interesting to have this power of knowledge over Yang. It didn’t really change much; Reuenthal could have looked this up any time since learning his real name, which Yang had given to him freely, but it still sat heavily on his mind, the knowledge of the true consequences that would await Yang if Reuenthal ever decided to turn him in. He tucked the information away, savoring the strange feeling.
What was more pressing was the need to organize a defense of Phezzan. He texted Mittermeyer.
Reuenthal: Do you have time to talk about our plans for the game next weekend? I’ve come up with some preliminary thoughts.
Mittermeyer: you can come over. I’m just at the commissary
Reuenthal gathered his research, and made his way across the quad to the freshman dorms. He knocked on Mittermeyer’s door, and received no answer. Not wanting to stand around and wait for him to return, Reuenthal glanced up and down the hallway, then pulled a paperclip from his bag, and picked open the simple lock on Mittermeyer’s door. He let himself in, then sat down at Mittermeyer’s desk.
He rifled through the neat stack of half-completed engineering homework that Mittermeyer had left out, more out of idle curiosity than anything.
He heard Mittermeyer’s footsteps in the hall a minute or so later, and then the key turning in the lock. The door swung open, and Mittermeyer jumped, surprised to see Reuenthal there. The surprise melted away into a pleased smile after a fraction of an instant, though.
“Did I leave it unlocked?” he asked as he closed the door behind himself.
Reuenthal held up his bent paperclip.
“I keep forgetting you can do that,” Mittermeyer said. He dropped his bag on the floor and went to lay on his bed, propping his head up on his elbow so that he could look at Reuenthal. “It’s almost not fair, you know.”
“What do you mean?”
“You can come in here any time you like, but I couldn’t do the same to you.”
“It’s not particularly difficult. You could learn.”
Mittermeyer held out his hand, but when Reuenthal went to drop the paperclip into it, Mittermeyer grabbed his wrist. “I think you have a more careful touch than I do,” he said.
“Yeah,” Mittermeyer said. He hooked his fingers in Reuenthal’s. Mittermeyer’s hands were stout and heavy, Reuenthal’s were long. “My mother is a music teacher,” Mittermeyer said. “She had me try to learn about ten different instruments, and it turned out I wasn’t any good at any of them.”
“I find it hard to picture you playing the flute.”
Mittermeyer grinned and dropped Reuenthal’s hand. “The number of hours I put into piano, and got nowhere with it…” He shook his head. “Anyway, I don’t think I would be able to do it.”
Reuenthal pulled his keychain out from his pocket and began pulling his room key off its ring. Mittermeyer watched him curiously. He held the key out to him.
“What?” Mittermeyer asked.
“Now we’ll be even,” Reuenthal said. “Take it.”
Mittermeyer did, though his expression was strange. “How will you get into your room?”
“The same way I get into yours.” Reuenthal said.
Mittermeyer laughed. “Do you really want me to have this?”
“Then I’ll make you a copy. You shouldn’t have to break open the locks in the places where you live.”
He was tempted to tell Mittermeyer that that was where he had learned it in the first place, but he just smiled. “As you say.”
Mittermeyer looked at him with a warm expression, and hooked the key onto his own keyring. “So,” he said. “What did you want to do about Leigh?”
“We need to make his fight in the corridor as miserable as possible,” Reuenthal said. “Eiesenach told me that I could organize some kind of Phezzani merchant fleet defense, but that will only be able to hold out for so long. After that, you’ll be in position to at least block the corridor. You might have time to set up a minefield.”
“I like that thought.”
The next Saturday rolled around. The tension of their game had felt like a low pressure front rolling through the sophomore class, making even friendly conversations between Yang and Reuenthal charged with an undercurrent of excitement. This competition was something new, for the both of them. Yang was stepping out of his comfort zone, and Reuenthal wondered if that would be the thing that finally allowed him to take victory over Yang.
Yang clearly didn’t think this was a winnable war, or he would have put this plan into action immediately, but it would be interesting to see just how he played it out.
The whole group trooped in to the practice room. On normal Saturdays, there would usually be some joviality-- people joking about placing bets on whatever the upcoming matches were, but this time, everyone was nearly dead silent, eyes flicking between Yang, Reuenthal, and Mittermeyer. They had all come prepared.
“How does it feel to lead an invasion?” Reuenthal asked Yang.
“I don’t know,” Yang said. “Eisenach tells me you’re playing as the Phezzani merchant fleet today.”
“How does it feel for you to get to play the ragtag straggler band, for once?”
“I look forward to the challenge,” Reuenthal said with a smile.
“Gonna shake hands and get started?” Bittenfeld asked. “I want to see this happen.”
They shook. Yang’s hand was soft, but he smiled at Reuenthal. “Let’s go.”
“Good luck,” Reuenthal said.
Yang just shook his head and went to sit down at his computer.
GM: Are you ready to begin the game?
Eisenach began the game, giving Reuenthal access to all the resources he could muster for Phezzan’s defense. It wasn’t much. He knew exactly where Yang was in the corridor, at least, because he was receiving reports from the merchant ships that saw them coming, a dire warning about this force rushing through the corridor.
Reuenthal knew that Yang would want to actually take Phezzan. He needed the planet to be fully under his control, or he risked having his escape route back home cut off. Additionally, there were resources on the planet, such as the navigational information that was tightly held by the Phezzani government, that was very valuable and would make his trip through the corridor much easier.
So, the first thing Reuenthal did was order all of the navigational information held on Phezzan to be completely wiped. He sent enough of it up to his small fleet of merchant ships that they would be able to move through the corridor, but the rest of it he destroyed. This would pose more and more of a problem for Yang as the length of the battle wore on, because the routes shifted subtly over time. He certainly had enough navigational information to get all his ships to Phezzan, but getting from Phezzan to the Empire would be much, much more difficult. Especially if Mittermeyer, driving his fleet as fast as he physically could, was laying minefields out at the other end of the corridor. Reuenthal’s duty was to slow Yang’s approach as much as he could, so that Mittermeyer would have time for this task, and so that Yang’s approach would lead him directly into these mines.
The second thing that Reuenthal did was weaponize his merchant navy as much as he could. The merchant ships all had minor defensive capabilities, mostly to fend off any pirates that might try to attack them, but nothing that would stand up to a rebel fleet battleship. The main value of many of the merchant ships was in their sheer tonnage. Some of the largest freighters absolutely dwarfed military ships. They were not particularly maneuverable, and they were slow, but their engines were protected from damage by the great bulk of cargo holds that engulfed them completely, and so the slashes of laser fire had no chance of penetrating to the engine and disabling the ship. These would be his battering rams.
He had nowhere near enough of them to cause damage to the full fleet-- he was against forty thousand ships and he had perhaps five thousand at his disposal, but he hoped that they would be enough for him to create some chaos, enough to enact his more destructive plans.
Reuenthal had to wonder what Yang would do, if their positions were reversed. Probably not what he was intending.
Yang’s ships crept closer and closer through the Phezzan corridor. Reuenthal wanted to have the battle as close to the planet as he could. In close quarters, with a smaller area to defend, his ships would be more effective than they would be spread out across a far larger battlefield. Although he hated the sensation of giving up ground, letting Yang waltz through the corridor unopposed, it gave him more time to prepare.
The Phezzan space elevator was one of the few in the galaxy. Fiendishly expensive and difficult to construct, it was Phezzan’s crown jewel, a glittering spire that lofted out from the equator to an anchor in the sky. That anchor was a captive moon, small as far as moons went, but far larger than any ship, and it was tied to Phezzan itself by long, frighteningly thin lengths of cable, each one capable of carrying cargo and passengers up and down from orbit. Long ago, ancient engines had been used to painstakingly push this moon into position. Those engines remained on the moon, occasionally needed to maintain its position in orbit, especially in the event of meteor strikes.
Yang’s fleet crept closer and closer.
Reuenthal’s duty here was not to win, he tried to remind himself. His real commander token was elsewhere, rushing to reinforce Mittermeyer at the exit to the corridor, though he wouldn’t get there anywhere in time for the start of the battle. All Reuenthal had to do here was not allow Yang to make it through unscathed.
“What was it you said, Leigh?” Reuenthal asked aloud as he typed his last few commands before Yang’s ships came in range. “No invading army should have the right to kill and plunder?”
Yang didn’t respond, but Wahlen said, “No talking.”
Reuenthal just shook his head.
Yang’s ships swept in towards the planet. Only a small portion of his force, some ten-thousand odd ships, was intending to come close to Phezzan. The rest wanted to move through the corridor as quickly as possible. It made strategic sense; Yang must have known that Reuenthal couldn’t put up too much of a fight. Reuenthal wanted to let him continue to have that impression.
He focused on the ships that were coming down, throwing his merchant fleet battering rams at them, trying to scare them into dead angles so that they ended up not sticking their landings, scraping their bellies on Phezzan’s thick atmosphere, their unshielded sides scorching, some of them tumbling down into Phezzan’s oceans. He tried to break up their formations, tried to steer them away from the major population centers.
Reuenthal’s attacks were fairly successful, but they were just intended to buy time. He knew it was futile to hold the planet, and further resistance would be in ground level skirmishes that probably wouldn’t be worth simulating. But all he wanted to do was hold out just enough that--
And there, the huge remainder of Yang’s fleet had finally crossed into the perfect position, moving between Phezzan and its star. Reuenthal gave the one command that he had been saving, holding in check, telling the engines on Phezzan’s tethered moon to engage at their full power, cutting the cables of the space elevator.
The huge moon flew out, its heavy engine able to push it faster than light for just a brief distance-- but that was enough. Usually, faster than light navigation was discouraged this close to a star because the navigational pathways became confused, the entrances and exits not always clear, the math difficult, and their sensing of acceptable routes muddled. But with such a large object, Reuenthal didn’t need precision.
The moon was probably sixty kilometers in diameter, and with Yang’s fleet all headed in the same direction, it was impossible for them to get out of its way fast enough. But even still, it wasn’t the moon itself that did the most damage; it was the long cables, impossibly thin, impossibly strong, impossibly long, whipping out like knife blades through space, cleaving ships in twain as they swirled around the bulk of the moon.
The rear line of Yang’s fleet was thrown into complete chaos. It was a devastating blow.
But it had cost Reuenthal, and Phezzan, dearly. Even as he watched Yang tuck tail and run through the corridor towards the Empire, the rest of his merchant navy was being stomped into nothing by Yang’s detached force. He even bothered to capture a few ships without completely destroying them, so that he could harvest their navigational information and pass it along to his main fleet, and Reuenthal cursed himself for forgetting to order all his ships to self-destruct in case of such an event. It was too late now.
Phezzan had fallen, and Yang was pushing on through the corridor.
Eisenach called for a break, at that point. This part of the match had taken several hours, and Reuenthal stood from his chair with a stiffness in his limbs that came from holding the tension of the fake battle in his body. He made a deliberate effort to relax as he caught Mittermeyer’s eye.
“You ready to take your turn?” he asked.
“Of course,” Mittermeyer said. “The question is, if Leigh is ready for me?”
Yang, who was rubbing his eyes and fishing around in his bag for something-- a bottle of aspirin was what he pulled out-- blinked. “Hm? Oh. Yeah.”
“If you’re tired from just Phezzan, I’m not sure how you’re going to survive a whole campaign.” Reuenthal nodded to the door, and Yang followed him. “You coming?” Reuenthal asked Mittermeyer.
“I want to get set up,” Mittermeyer replied. Reuenthal nodded, and so he and Yang headed outside together. They stood and stretched in the warm spring afternoon, birds chirping overhead. It was a relief to get out of the practice room and away from the glare of the computer screens. He was glad that he didn’t have to spend another few hours simulating whatever battle Yang was about to have with Mittermeyer.
Yang complained, “I hate that you’ve pushed me to be less lazy.” There wasn’t any malice in his tone, and he was just staring up at the bright blue sky, running his hand through his messed up hair.
“I thought you would be more creative,” Reuenthal said.
“Are you disappointed in me?”
“No,” Reuenthal said. “You won.”
Yang made a dismissive sound, half a laugh. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” he said. “When the tool that I have at my disposal is forty thousand ships, the strategy I’m going to use has to be one that forty thousand ships can execute. Sometimes that just means flying in a straight line.” He smiled. “If you have less to work with, you have a lot more freedom.”
“I tried to think about what you would do, if you were in my place,” Reuenthal said. “But I was sure that would mean you would be able to counter anything I pulled out.”
“I liked your idea with the elevator,” Yang said. “I didn’t know if you would be willing to mess with it, because I decided that I would want it to remain functional-- annoying that it isn’t-- and I thought the risk of causing huge destruction to the planet with those cables was too much.”
“I did some damage, though.”
Yang smiled. “You did. I did figure you would try to attack my rear-- I just wasn’t sure how you would go about doing that. Maybe have a reserve force of ships hiding somewhere. I didn’t know what number you had at your disposal.”
“I figured you, of all people, would be familiar with how many ships Phezzan has.”
Yang looked away and changed the subject. “I hope you’re not disappointed that you couldn’t hold the planet.”
“We’re not simulating an insurgent war on the surface of Phezzan. But you should go ahead and assume that one is happening. I wouldn’t give up, if that was my actual goal. But I just needed to slow you down, and I did.”
Yang smiled. “You’ll probably win the war.”
“No, the school year will end before things come to a conclusive head.”
Yang laughed. “Caught me.”
“I’ll try to beat you before then,” Reuenthal said. “For both our satisfactions.”
“I hope you do.” Yang let out a heavy rush of breath. “I’m not actually looking forward to dealing with Mittermeyer in there.”
“No? You don’t think it will be entertaining?”
Yang gave him a sideways glance. “Let’s not discuss it.”
They stood out on the grass for a few minutes more, just enjoying the break, but then Wahlen came out and told Yang that Eisenach was waiting on him to start the next round of the game, so they trooped back inside.
“Good luck,” Reuenthal said to Mittermeyer as they all sat back down.
“Thanks,” Mittermeyer said. “It’s only going to be, what, a ten thousand to forty thousand battle?”
“Thirty something. He left a force at Phezzan, and I took out some.”
“I know,” Mittermeyer said. “I was exaggerating.”
Reuenthal smiled. “There have been worse battles.”
But it was clear as soon as the battle began that Mittermeyer was not going to win.
Against someone other than Yang, Mittermeyer’s feints in positioning, designed to lead Yang’s ships into his minefields, might have caused enough confusion to deal real damage, but Yang decided that he had enough of a force to only send out small, maneuverable groups at a time, poking at Mittermeyer, wearing him down, all the while mapping out the areas that Mittermeyer was carefully avoiding with his own ships. As Mittermeyer grew more desperate, and Yang grew surer of the territory, he began pushing in with more and more of his ships, using minesweeping drones to clear paths, and forcing Mitttermeyer back and back and back.
Yang’s fleet could swarm Mittermeyer’s ships, and because of the necessities of navigating the battlefield carefully, could easily pinch off sections of Mittermeyer’s main fleet, envelop them, and destroy them, sometimes even by forcing them back onto their own laid minefields.
Reuenthal watched Mittermeyer’s face. He was sweating and grim, his hands dancing over the keyboard as he delivered orders as quickly as he could type them out. There was a glint in his eye, one of the few times that he looked up at Reuenthal, that communicated that he knew he was going to lose, but he was doing his damndest to make it count.
The longer the battle stretched on, the more worn down Yang seemed. He wasn’t taking any joy in delivering his commands, and every time he pinched off and destroyed another one of Mittermeyer’s major fleet sections, he winced while delivering his commands. It was funny-- despite how much it was unfair for Staden to constantly put Yang in the position of the underdog, Reuenthal thought it was a position that Yang enjoyed occupying, on some fundamental level. Being the aggressor, even if he was willing to do it in the game, didn’t seem to suit him. It didn’t suit Mittermeyer and Reuenthal to be on the defensive, but next week when Reuenthal’s main fleet arrived to put a stop to this, it would be more even, and more fun for them all.
As Mittermeyer’s fleet was whittled away to almost nothing, maybe a few hundred ships remaining in total, Reuenthal knew he had one final trick up his sleeve, the one thing they had discussed. He had managed to draw Yang’s fleet deep, deep into his minefield. Yang probably saw the path to the exit, and the one thing that was in the way was Mittermeyer himself. But his fleet was large, pressed up close to these mine-lined corridors of safety, carved out either by Mittermeyer intentionally, or by the odd careening ship that had accidentally cleared a path through its own destruction.
Mittermeyer gave one final command, broadcasting it out to all the positioning engines on the mines themselves. They began moving in, not exactly targeting anything, but moving. Visible, now that they had engaged their engines, they were easy to shoot down, but there were so many of them that a good chunk made it through, further fraying the edges of Yang’s fleet, but obliterating Mittermeyer’s from the map completely.
Mittermeyer sighed and leaned back in his seat. “I’m dead,” he said. “There goes my command token.” He pointed at his screen, flicking it as Eisenach removed his little picture from the map. “You got me, Leigh.”
“Sorry,” Yang said. “I tried to let you retreat.”
“You knew I wouldn’t,” Mittermeyer said. “It’s life and death for me to stop you here as much as possible.” Mittermeyer’s voice was rough with something. Annoyance at himself for losing an unwinnable fight, maybe.
Yang shook his head, then looked at Eisenach. “Is he out of the game?” he asked. “Or can he just be given a new commander token.”
“His whole fleet was destroyed,” Wahlen pointed out. “Not sure what ships he’d be given to command.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Mittermeyer said, though it clearly did. He stood and stretched. “Good game, Leigh.”
“Yeah,” Yang said. He offered his hand to Mittermeyer. “Good game. You made me pay for every inch.”
That did make Mittermeyer smile a little, and he took Yang’s offered hand. “Yeah, I did.”
April 477 I.C., Odin
After the initial excitement of Yang’s invasion through Phezzan, things calmed down a little bit. Localized, smaller conflicts as Yang sought to seize planets en route to Odin and protect his own supply line were more interesting and easier to handle, because as Yang delegated these tasks to his subordinates, there was an opportunity for him to actually lose. Bit by bit, Yang’s invading fleet was being knocked down, and he was having trouble getting enough ships through the Phezzan corridor to reinforce himself.
Reuenthal was half tempted to take this as an opportunity to invade through Iserlohn, but he thought that would just lead to Yang rushing Odin and possibly winning the game, so he refrained.
All of this made the real SW class pale in comparison, even when Reuenthal did get to go up against one of the other members of their little club. It always felt hollow, the falseness and cracks of the tiny SW engagements showing far more, now that he had something more involved to compare it to.
One day after SW class, Reuenthal found Yang laying outside on the grass, both of them having finished their respective games early. Reuenthal sat down next to him. Without cracking open his eyes, Yang asked, “Did Staden ask to see you?”
Without saying anything, Yang passed Reuenthal his phone, on which was a string of text messages from a concerned Eisenach, reporting that Staden had been asking about their games.
“And Staden wants to see me at four,” Yang said.
“That’s in ten minutes. Do you want me to go with you?”
“Thanks for the offer, but if there’s some sort of fall to be taken, I think that it’s less injurious for us all if I simply take it.”
Reuenthal frowned. “You don’t need to be the martyr of the sophomore class.”
Yang didn’t sound very concerned. “I’m not trying to be. I’m just saying that it’s probably the cleanest thing to do. Staden already doesn’t like me.”
“Good luck, then.”
“I think the worst I’ll get is yelled at. Dinner later?”
“I’ll let you know how this goes. Don’t bother waiting for me, since I have no idea how long this will take.” With a yawn, Yang sat up. He gathered his belongings, gave Reuenthal a tight smile, and headed back into the building.
Reuenthal watched him go, then headed back to his dorm.
He found Yang at dinner, as usual, though since it was a Friday night, most of the rest of their group had skived off to Joseph’s bar. It was only Yang, Mittermeyer, and Reuenthal who were actually sitting down to eat. Mittermeyer had suggested heading to the bar also, but Yang had declined, saying that they needed to talk, and Joseph’s wasn’t the best setting. This was alarming, but when they met up at dinner, Yang didn’t look too distressed.
“How was your meeting with Staden?” Reuenthal asked as he sparingly buttered a dinner roll.
“Oh, yeah, Eisenach told me that Staden was getting curious about us,” Mittermeyer said. “I didn’t know you had talked to him.”
Yang looked around the room, and judged that they were far enough away from everyone else that he could speak quietly without being overheard. “It basically came down to him thinking we’re all too smart for our own good.”
“I believe I was already aware that he thought that of you,” Reuenthal said, voice dry. “He’s only been trying to knock you down a peg once a week for the past two years.”
Yang let out a dry laugh. “Yeah. Maybe.” He shook his head, seemingly at a loss for words. “He told me that our logs about Iserlohn are too realistic. It looks like we somehow have access to actual classified military information.”
“Since all we’re doing is extrapolating from publicly available information, that just means that everyone in the fleet has a terrible information leak on their hands,” Reuenthal said.
“I basically told him that.”
“So, what, are we in trouble?” Mittermeyer asked. His face twitched as he remembered something. “My dad will kill me if I get any demerits from this.”
“Why would your father even know how many demerits you get?” Reuenthal asked.
“He makes me show him-- nevermind, it’s not important.”
“I don’t think we’re in trouble, anyway,” Yang said. “He just wants to monitor us.”
Reuenthal scowled. “The whole idea was that we would be able to play without Staden breathing down our necks.”
“He said he didn’t want to try to influence the direction of the game-- he just wanted to see what kind of data we were using, and what strategies we were coming up with.”
“Why?” Mitttermeyer asked. “Didn’t you tell him it really was just a game?”
“Yeah, and I told him that it was to help you study.” He pointed his fork at Mittermeyer. “But he didn’t really believe that at all.”
“He said you didn’t need the practice.”
“He’s not wrong,” Reuenthal said. “But I don’t think that we’re really doing anything that innovative. If anything, Eisenach lets us get away with things that wouldn’t be possible in real life. I’ve been half thinking over the physics of my elevator trick-- I think Eiesenach should have double checked my math more closely.”
“I don’t know,” Yang said. “He asked me my opinion on Phezzan, in the real world.”
“And what did you tell him?” Mittermeyer asked.
“That it’s only slightly less stupid to invade through there than it is to throw yourself at Iserlohn over and over,” Yang said. “Basically.” He shrugged.
“Why was he asking your opinion?”
“Maybe he likes me now?” Yang said. “He at least didn’t seem like he was going to punish us at all for this, or report it to anyone. Maybe he likes a secret as much as we do.”
“Yeah.” Yang poked around with his fork. “I don’t know. He seemed weirdly okay with it, once I explained what was actually going on.” He rubbed the back of his head. “I don’t like the feeling of Staden being okay with me. It’s not natural.”
Mittermeyer laughed. “You should take the wins you can get,” he said. “Maybe you can be number one, if Staden isn’t constantly trying to tear you down.”
Yang glanced at Reuenthal. “No, I doubt it,” Yang said. “Besides, I don’t care about being number one.”
“You’ve gotten too used to playing the underdog,” Reunthal said. “I think if Staden stops putting you at a disadvantage all the time, you won’t actually know what to do with yourself.”
“Oh, maybe. That’s probably why my campaign is going so badly right now.”
“No,” Mittermeyer said. “That’s going badly because your supply line is too long.”
“It’s an unwinnable position you’re in,” Reuenthal said. “All you’re trying to do is run down the clock until the end of the year, so that it can end before we fully repel you.”
“And so what if I am?”
“I’ll tell Eisenach that we want to pick up this campaign where we left off, next school year.”
Yang scowled. “Oh, come on. I want it to end so that I can GM. Eisenach deserves a chance to play himself.”
“It wouldn’t be nearly as fun without you,” Mittermeyer said.
“I can’t believe you said that after what happened in the corridor.”
“The corridor notwithstanding,” Mittermeyer said. “It’s true that things are much less fun, now that I’m dead.”
“Eisenach says that I can assign you a new fleet after a couple weeks,” Reuenthal said.
“I can’t believe I’m the first real casualty,” Mittermeyer said.
“I should have given you the opportunity to surrender,” Yang said. “I probably would have if I had been able to get you surrounded. I would have given you the chance to join my side.”
“Oh, that would be cruel,” Reunthal said. He looked over at Mittermeyer. “Would you have taken him up on that offer? Become a rebel fleet admiral?”
Mittermeyer looked between Yang and Reuenthal, obvious conflict on his face, then just laughed. “I don’t think Eisenach would have let me switch sides like that.”