Running Up That Road, Running Up That Hill
June 479 I.C., Iserlohn Fortress
Yang Wen-li arrived at Iserlohn fortress, the outermost and strongest defensive garrison of the Empire, feeling more out of his depth than he had in years. After graduating from the Imperial Officers’ Academy, he had been immediately and unceremoniously placed onto a crew transport taking him all the way to Iserlohn. He was assigned to one of the front line fleets, ones who patrolled and occasionally exited the corridor into the Alliance territory, in a battlegroup headed by Commodore Willibald Merkatz. The battlegroup was out on patrol at this current moment, and wouldn’t be back at Iserlohn for resupply for almost a week, which left Yang in the very awkward position of being in the fortress with nothing to do but wait.
Under normal circumstances, Yang enjoyed being lazy and not having any assignment. Under this circumstance, in a new location, feeling very strange in his stiff new sub-lieutenant’s uniform, Yang felt wretchedly listless. It wasn’t the listlessness that he knew some of the other new recruits who had made the trip with him were feeling-- the sudden change from living on a planet to being in space. After all, Yang had spent most of his childhood on a ship orders of magnitude smaller than the sixty-five kilometer wide Iserlohn, which had plenty of green spaces. And it wasn’t even the listlessness that came from anticipating some change in life, as he tended to take things like this in stride.
He knew what the cause was. While he had spent four years getting acclimated to life at the Officers’ Academy, this was an unfamiliar place, full of unfamiliar people. Really, more importantly, he was unfamiliar to them. He had forgotten how much hostile and confused stares, double-takes when he walked down the hallway, strange looks from strangers, could all get to him after a while. Yang looked like he didn’t belong, and he hated the kind of attention that it brought.
At first, he had stayed in his tiny assigned bunk, but there was only so much he could do there before the need to move took over. There was really no point in writing to any of his friends (since nothing had happened to him yet since he had last seen them, and he was sure the same thing could be said of them), though he wrote to them all anyway. He tried to read, but found himself for once unable to focus. So Yang took to wandering various parts of the fortress.
He tried to stay in areas that were both technically public and relatively obscure seeming, since he had no desire to invite unwanted scrutiny by being surrounded by tons of people, or unwanted suspicion by wandering into key military areas that were not his business. Unfortunately for him, the number of these areas in practice was few and far between. Iserlohn was a densely populated place, and the parts that weren’t densely populated were military areas. So, Yang ended up spending quite a lot of time in a rather run-down looking bar that he had passed on his first day in the fortress, one where nobody minded if he sat at a table in the corner and nursed one beer for an inappropriately long time, a book open in front of him while he jotted down the occasional unrelated note into a notebook.
Though he avoided wandering into the military areas of the fortress, Yang couldn’t help but be observant and curious about its true power. After all, he had spent three years playing a war game in which this fortress had been one of the biggest thorns in the game-Alliance’s side (as it was in real life). So even if the book in front of him was about the Napoleonic wars, the thoughts he wrote down were more vague ponderings about the fortress itself.
It was while Yang was sitting in the dark bar, drinking his equally dark beer, that someone he didn’t know or recognize came up and stood at the end of his table. The newcomer was a tall man, with a pale, drawn face, and long brown hair that was already streaked with grey in places, even though he didn’t seem particularly old.
“Sub-lieutenant von Leigh?” the man asked. His voice was nasally and rather flat.
Yang looked up at him, saw that the man outranked him-- he was wearing a commander’s uniform-- and stood to salute. “Yes, sir,” he said. He wondered if he was being summoned for something. Maybe the battlegroup had returned to Iserlohn early.
“May I join you?” the man asked.
“Er, yes,” Yang said, though he was very confused. He scrambled to shove his notebook inside his book so that he was taking up less space at the table. The commander sat down across from him, pointedly looking at the notes sticking out of Yang’s book.
“We don’t know each other,” the commander said, “but we share several mutual acquaintances. My name is Paul von Oberstein.”
This clarified nothing for Yang. “Pleasure to meet you,” he said. “May I ask who we both know?”
“For the past several years, I was working as a staff officer under Fleet Admiral Muckenburger,” Oberstein said. “In that position, I briefly encountered Sub-lieutenant Ernst von Eisenach, who noticed that we had something in common.”
“You spoke with Eisenach?”
“No. He wrote to me.”
“Oh, that makes more sense,” Yang said, smiling. “If he had spoken to you in person, I would have thought the whole galactic plane had turned on its head.”
“We keep up a written correspondence only.”
“Then I’m happy to speak with someone Eisenach knows. He thinks himself to be a good judge of character.”
“Indeed,” Oberstein said. “He mentioned to me that one of his friends would be graduating and making a stop here, and wondered if I might be able to ensure that no trouble came to you while on Iserlohn. I apologize that it has taken me several days to track you down. I hope that you have not had any trouble during this time.”
Yang laughed a little. “I can believe that Eisenach still feels responsible for me as my mentor. But neither you nor he need to worry on my behalf. I think I know how to stay out of trouble.”
“He had mentioned that trouble might find you regardless of your looking for it,” Oberstein said in his monotone voice. “I can see why he said so. But I am glad that his fears were, at this moment, unsubstantiated.”
“This is perhaps a personal question, but do you mind if I ask what Eisenach thought he has in common with you?”
Surprisingly, Oberstein reached up towards his own face, and Yang watched, fascinated, as he dug his fingernails into the corners of his own open left eye. His whole eyeball came out, revealing a dark hole in his face, and a computerized, mechanical eye left in his hand, which he held out towards Yang. “Both of my eyes are artificial,” he said.
“A war wound?” Yang asked.
“No. I was born blind.” Oberstein put his eye back in, then continued talking. “Had we been born in Kaiser Rudolph’s time, Eisenach and I would have been killed as babies, under the inferior genes exclusion law.”
“What?” Yang asked. “Eisenach?”
Oberstein looked at him strangely. “He’s deaf. The law covered all such birth defects.”
“Oh, I had no idea. I guess that makes sense.” He shook his head a little. “He mentioned to me once that both he and I were people who Kaiser Rudolph would have disliked, but I assumed he was referring to something else.”
“What did you think he was referring to?”
“Er, it would be indiscreet to say,” Yang said, scratching the back of his head, suddenly embarrassed. He hadn’t really thought of it, but he had been operating under the assumption that Eisenach was also a homosexual, since he had put the pieces together about the way Eisenach talked about having something in common with Reuenthal. Apparently, he had put those pieces together in completely the wrong order.
“There are many types of people that Kaiser Rudolph disliked,” Oberstein said. “It’s a weakness of the Goldenbaum dynasty.”
Yang couldn’t help but be curious about Oberstein, then, and he leaned forward a little. “What do you mean by that?”
“I believe you understand very well what I mean.”
“I’m afraid I don’t.”
“Eisenach tells me that you organized people who all might have been disliked by Rudolph von Goldenbaum, and you all spent several years as the top of your class at the IOA. In different times, all of that talent would have been at best unrecognized, or, at worst, destroyed.”
“I wouldn’t say all of them would have been disliked,” Yang said, thinking of Bittenfeld and Wahlen, who, as far as he knew, were both extremely normal. “But I see your point.”
“Indeed. It’s a shame that all that talent has been dispersed across the Empire.”
Yang looked across at Oberstein, his odd, expressionless face. “Why is that a shame?”
“Because that talent might again go to waste under incompetent commanders.”
“Did you attend the Academy, Commander?”
“Did you know Captain Staden while you were there?”
“He makes an effort to ensure that doesn’t happen.”
“That effort works out in some cases, and not in others,” Oberstein said. “And Staden tends to be unaware of his own weaknesses.”
“You speak very bluntly about things.”
“I fail to see a reason why I shouldn’t.”
“Certain talk is dangerous.”
“Are we having a dangerous talk, Sub-lieutenant?”
“No, sir,” Yang said.
“Then I shall continue to speak as plainly as I can. I’m glad to have made your acquaintance, von Leigh.”
“Er, I’m glad as well.” He was quite confused by Oberstein, and didn’t understand exactly what he wanted. “I’ll have to thank Eisenach for having you check up on me, though it’s hardly necessary.”
“I would have come to find you regardless of his request. He merely provided an excuse.”
“From what I’ve heard of you, you are a man blessed with both talent and the ability to befriend others with talent, regardless of their station in life. It’s a rare thing, and it would be a mistake for me to not extend a hand in your direction.”
“Should it worry me that my name is being passed around?” Yang asked. “I haven’t done anything to merit it.”
“It would not surprise me if you did, soon.”
“Unfortunately, Commander, on that point you might be wrong,” Yang said, smiling a little. “I’m unfortunately a very lazy man, and I have no great desire to provide distinguished services to the Goldenbaum dynasty.”
“And yet you are one of the Goldenbaum dynasty’s servants.”
“I shall strive to be a humble one.”
“Why is that?”
“It seems strange that I would need to explain why I dislike the idea of being an effective weapon of war.”
“Sub-lieutenant,” Oberstein said, “you stand out by virtue of your being. It might be to your benefit to be above reproach in your actions, which by necessity means being successful.”
Yang scratched his head. “Maybe.”
“But perhaps all of this is dangerous talk,” Oberstein said.
“Yes.” Yang relaxed a little, glad to be relieved of Oberstein’s direct scrutiny. “I haven’t even gotten to my post yet. Eisenach would be unhappy if I were engaging in activities that would get me in trouble.”
“And do you follow Eisenach’s instructions?”
Yang laughed. “Are you asking if I consider him my leader?”
“I consider him a friend, one whose opinions I respect. Him being a year older than I am does not mean that he has either the ability or desire to give me orders.”
Oberstein nodded. “I see.”
“I’m not sure what orders you think Eisenach would have to give me.”
“I wouldn’t presume to say.” Oberstein stood. “It has been interesting speaking with you, von Leigh. I’m sure we will see each other again when you next return to Iserlohn.”
This was a very abrupt end to the conversation, which left Yang feeling somewhat unbalanced. He also stood and held out his hand for Oberstein to shake, which he did. Oberstein’s hand was cold and dry. “I look forward to it, sir,” he said.
Oberstein nodded curtly, then walked off, leaving Yang to sit back down and ponder the strangeness of the conversation.
Yang stepped onto the bridge of the ship Tuttlingen Krieger, which he was sure he would have to get familiar with quickly. He was led there by an enlisted man, who had been sent to the docks to pick him up and bring him to Commodore Merkatz. Yang was looking forward to meeting the commodore, though he was apprehensive about memorizing the twists and turns of the interior of the ship. The way it was laid out seemed unintuitive, though perhaps that was due more to his lack of intuition for engineering matters than it was the fault of the ship’s design. On the long walk from the dock to the bridge, they seemed to encounter what felt like to Yang like every member of the crew, all rushing about their business, and all glancing at Yang as they passed, mentally interrogating both his sub-lieutenant uniform and his stranger’s face.
The bridge was a similar hive of activity, and Yang stepped onto it and saluted, finding himself right in the path of the commodore, who was speaking with the ship’s captain over at one of the consoles near the entrance to the bridge. Yang didn’t want to interrupt their conversation, but Merkatz saw him, did one of the double takes that Yang was rather familiar with, at this point, and left the conversation to come over to him. Merkatz was an older man, probably in his late fifties, of average height, with grey hair and a thin mustache.
“Sub-lieutenant Hank von Leigh reporting, sir,” Yang said.
“Hm.” Merkatz looked him over. “Staden did warn me that I’d find you unusual.”
“I hope that’s not a problem, sir.”
“No, it’s fine. And even if it weren’t, there’s nothing that can be done about it.”
“I’m glad that it won’t be an issue.”
“Staden said you were first in your class?”
“Second, sir,” Yang said.
“I distinctly recall him saying first.”
“I am gratified that he would say that,” Yang said. “But it is not what is on the class record.”
“It was perhaps a more political decision than an academic one,” Yang said tactfully.
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“It doesn’t bother me, sir,” Yang said.
“I suppose I benefit, in the long run, if I have managed to acquire the top student.”
“I hope I live up to those expectations.”
“Yes. I’m sure I’ll put you to work quite quickly.”
“I look forward to being useful,” Yang lied.
“Are you generally familiar with the tasks that my battlegroup is responsible for?”
“Patrolling the exit to the Iserlohn corridor, right?”
“Yes. Though in the near future, we may be diverted,” Merkatz said, a strange tone in his gruff voice.
“Fleet Admiral Muckenburger feels that the rebels have been settling planets a little too close to the corridor exit for comfort, either ours or theirs. There’s been talk of making a point to them not to do that.”
“Are you saying we would attack a civilian target, sir?” Yang asked, trying to keep the discomfort out of his voice.
“No, all those planets are very well defended. All we would be doing would be nipping at the heels of one of their fleets in one of the more established starzones, just to show them that we absolutely can. With any luck, it would dissuade them from inching any closer.”
“Well, that probably won’t be for at least a few months. Things move slowly around here. But unless we encounter a rebel fleet inside the corridor mouth in between now and then, that will probably be the first action that you see.”
Yang wasn’t sure how to respond to that-- it seemed silly to say that he was looking forward to it, since he certainly was not, so instead he asked, “Do you often have encounters while on patrol?”
“Often enough that it’s worth having a patrol,” Merkatz said. “Maybe once or twice a month, but usually it’s more of a game of uncle than it is a battle.”
“That makes sense.”
“Why do you say that?” Merkatz asked. Yang suddenly felt like this was a quiz.
Yang scratched his head. “Well, neither you nor the rebel fleet want to waste the resources on sending huge groups of ships to patrol the corridor, so any encounter is going to be between one of two configurations.” Yang illustrated with his hands. “Two approximately even patrol groups, or one patrol group and one full invasion force. In the second case, there’s far more value in the patrol group running back to report what they’ve seen, since, if they remain, they’ll be crushed, so any fighting there will be minimal. In the former category, when approximately even patrols run into each other, well…” He shrugged. “There’s no strategic value in wiping out the other side, and since both groups are evenly matched, any victory would also probably mean heavy losses. So I’d guess that everyone takes a few shots to satisfy their pride, probably you take the more aggressive stance to ward the rebel fleet off, and then they run back to safety.”
Merkatz chuckled a little. “That is how it tends to go, yes.”
“I assume there’s a lot of negotiating that happens between wanting to take a slightly larger force than whatever you think the enemy will send out, versus not wanting to be wasting resources by having an ever-expanding battlegroup.”
“My battlegroup has been expanding,” Merkatz said. “I have about four hundred ships, but the average patrol only has somewhere between seventy and two hundred.”
“Do you patrol the furthest?”
“Correct. We often exit the corridor and head slightly into the rebel territory, which is how we discovered that they’re building far closer to the corridor than we would like.”
“May I ask a question?” Yang asked.
“Do you like this posting?”
“It’s well suited to me,” he said. “The task is straightforward, worthwhile, and the encounters are, as you said, often evenly matched, which prevents it from being dishonorable. Why do you ask?”
“Just curiosity,” Yang said.
“Did Staden imply that I didn’t like it?”
“Not precisely that,” Yang said.
Merkatz smiled slightly. “I’m sure that you will have plenty of time with me to figure out exactly what he meant.”
“I’m sure, sir,” Yang said.
“Do you think you will like this posting?”
“I’m glad to be back on a ship,” Yang said. “I was raised on a merchant freighter operating off Phezzan.”
“I thought I heard an accent in your voice. There are plenty of postings on ships that aren’t on the very front lines, though.”
“As you said, this work is honorable and worthwhile,” Yang said. “Having advance warning that the rebel fleet is coming through the corridor is something that will save lives, in the end. There are far worse tasks that I could be assigned. And I look forward to serving under someone whom Captain Staden holds in high regard.”
“So, you don’t mind the danger?”
“No, though I’m certain you would think less of me if I said that I did, sir,” Yang said. That got a bit of a wry chuckle out of Merkatz.
“I see that you’re perhaps a bit too honest, von Leigh. But I won’t hold it against you.”
“I appreciate it, sir.”
August 479 I.C., Iserlohn Corridor
Yang settled into his new position as Merkatz’s aide as best he could. He admitted to himself, and it was obvious to everyone else around him, that he was particularly ill-suited to the kind of administrative work that being an aide required. He made a valiant effort, but his natural propensity towards disorganization meant that he found himself scrambling to coordinate everything, often frantically shuffling papers around to find the one that he needed to give to the commodore, barely remembering messages, and running about forty-five seconds late to every meeting. He didn’t do a bad job, per se, and usually everything worked out in the end, but he was in a state of constant low-level distress, feeling like he had forgotten some task that was vital for the functioning of the battlegroup.
The saving grace of the assignment was that he got along quite well with Merkatz, regardless of his chronic almost-fumbling of his aide tasks. Merkatz seemed to realize quickly that while Yang was abysmal at filling out paperwork and sending out inter-battlegroup memos, he had an excellent ability to take a look at any battle situation they stumbled into and immediately provide valuable suggestions for their battlegroup’s positioning and tactics. It was undiscussed but mutually understood that Merkatz considered this posting to be temporary at best. Merkatz knew that Yang, if he survived and did not make people hate him, would be better as a leader than he would be as any kind of administrative assistant. Although Yang privately considered that he would be better off staying as a glorified secretary, since it would not involve him actually doing anything consequential, he found he liked Merkatz treating him as a kind of apprentice alongside his actual assigned duties.
Although at first the other officers (and some enlisted men) on board the flagship and within the battlegroup were cool to him, Yang remained both professional and affable, and gradually some of them warmed to him, at least enough to make meals in the officers’ mess a less awkward experience. Apparently, Merkatz had treated his adjutants more like apprentices before, so there was less resentment than there could have been from the senior officers that Yang was allowed to give real strategic input. Yang asked about these predecessors of his, to find out where they had ended up. A few had gotten good starts in promising careers, while a few others had washed out of the invisible “leadership track” that Yang had somehow ended up on. He was wary of this concept for a variety of reasons.
Although he did not like the idea of being responsible, someday, for larger and larger parts of the imperial fleet, he also didn’t want to disappoint Merkatz, or, for that matter, his friends. When he thought about or wrote to Reuenthal, he always ended up picturing a future in which they were both rising on this path together. It was a steep and narrow road, very easy to fall off of, and Yang also worried that should he fall, his fall would be rather spectacular. Perhaps it was premature for him to think about things like this, as he had only been in his position for about two months.
One day, while Yang was eating dinner with Merkatz and several other senior officers in the officers’ mess, the ship PA sounded. “Commodore Merkatz to the bridge.”
There were generally only a few reasons why that message would be sent out, and the most likely one was that the battlegroup had encountered enemy units. Everyone around the table collectively began to put their forks and napkins down, ready to go to their stations, annoyed that their dinner had been interrupted but used to this kind of interruption. Merkatz was the only one who did not move, and he continued to sedately eat his brussel sprouts.
“Leigh, could you go find out what the problem is and deal with it?” Merkatz asked, glancing first at Yang, then the other senior officers to ensure that they knew what was going on. Yang caught the ship’s executive officer, Berringer, roll his eyes ever so slightly, though he didn’t think that Merkatz saw. “If it is something that urgently requires my attention, call me, of course, but I would like to finish my dinner. The rest of you, listen to Leigh.”
This would be a test for Yang, then. “Of course, sir,” Yang said. “I’m sure I can take care of it.”
“I’m sure,” Merkatz said. “Well, go.”
Yang scrambled to obey, abandoning his own dinner and speed-walking to the bridge. Lieutenant Commander Berringer walked beside him for a moment. “Leigh, keep in mind that he’s just made you responsible for real lives. Including both mine and yours.”
“I know, sir,” Yang said. He liked Berringer, but he definitely didn’t need the reminder. He was fully aware of the responsibility that he had been given.
They arrived on the bridge. Yang felt far too awkward to sit down in the chair that was usually reserved for Merkatz, so instead he stood in his usual place next to the chair, looking around at what was going on.
“What’s the situation?” he asked. “The commodore said that unless it requires his immediate attention, I am responsible here.” Though there were a few concerned glances shared between the members of the bridge crew, but most of them were used to Merkatz putting other people through this kind of test, so there was no argument, as there hadn’t been any from the other senior officers in the mess.
“Ansible communications are being jammed,” the communications officer reported. “We have inter-ship coms only.”
“Any chance it’s natural?” Yang asked.
“Have we seen any sign of enemy units?”
“Drop us to sublight speeds,” Yang said. “They might pop out at us then.”
The order was relayed across the battlegroup, and Yang felt the odd lurch of the stardrive’s posture transition beneath them. They were outside the Iserlohn corridor currently, deeper into Alliance territory than Yang preferred to be, but that was what their patrol route was, working their way between various starzones close to the corridor exit to ensure that the Alliance fleet wasn’t massing ships anywhere in preparation for a corridor breakthrough.
Yang took a look at their battlegroup’s positioning on the board. Their drop to sublight hadn’t been clean, and he didn’t like the way the edges of the group were looking rather ragged. “Reorganize us into a sphere formation,” Yang said. “I don’t want straggling edges right now.”
Again, the command was relayed, and slowly their formation cleaned up.
They were on the outskirts of a place called Averno Starzone, which would have barely been worth mentioning on any map of the area. The star was a red dwarf, orbited by one solitary gas giant. Although communications interference could have been caused by stellar flares on the surface of the star, the whole system appeared as peaceful as could be, so there were definitely enemy units lurking around somewhere. Not only that, but they were enemy units who had both seen them, and wanted their battlegroup to know that they had been seen. Merkatz’s ships could have skated right through this area completely unaware, if the enemy had not decided to jam communications.
It was a highly unusual situation, and, to Yang, it felt like a trap. Perhaps he was being paranoid, though. He scratched at the back of his head as he considered the map on the large screen at the front of the bridge. In order to jam communications, the enemy ships must have been close by, enough that Yang would have been able to see them if they weren’t hiding. That left two locations where the enemy units could be: hiding near the gas giant, or hiding near the star itself. Of the two, Yang considered the gas giant a more likely hiding place than near the star. Red dwarfs could be temperamental things, and getting too close to a star was never a comfortable proposition at the best of times. A sudden stellar flare could be disastrous for any ships that were out of line, and it would wreak havoc even with regular EM communications.
He had a bad feeling about the whole situation, but it would have been a ridiculous move to order a retreat without even seeing the enemy. Although Merkatz liked him, that would have been enough of a dereliction of duty to send Yang completely out of his good graces.
“Bring us closer to the planet, but keep us sublight for now,” Yang said. “I want reconnaissance drones out front-- make sure we have line of sight all around it. Prepare depth charges to drop into the planet’s atmosphere, in case they’re hiding in the gas.”
He was tempted to send drones out towards the star, as well, but it seemed like too much of a waste of equipment. This was more than just him being given a chance to lead; this was Merkatz testing him. If he ended up looking like someone who wasted resources on paranoia, that wouldn’t reflect well on him.
Instead, he said, “Make sure we’re keeping eyes on the star, as well. I don’t think they’re hiding behind it, but it’s a possibility, and I’d rather not be caught by surprise.”
The unfortunate thing about this star system was that the orbital distance was very short. Coming closer to the planet brought them within light-minutes of the star, which was uncomfortably close. If the enemy was hiding close to the star, they would probably avoid going above lightspeed, but that only gave Yang a bit of extra time. He was worrying about odd eventualities, and he wished he wasn’t. He felt paranoid, even to himself. Perhaps it was just the tension of being put in charge for the first time.
Yang tried to keep the discomfort out of his voice when he said, “Keep the planet between us and the star.”
“May I ask why?” Berringer said, coming up beside him.
“I want us to stay out of its gravity well, if at all possible,” Yang said, which wasn’t the entire truth. He didn’t want to try to explain his odd paranoia to Berringer. “It wouldn’t provide any tactical advantage for us to sit in the Lagrange point.”
Berringer seemed to accept this and nodded.
The report came back from their reconnaissance drones: no sign of ships behind the planet. Yang was tense. “I think they’re in the atmosphere.”
It was clear that the enemy was trying to draw them in, get them closer to the planet. Yang had no desire to do that, but he wouldn’t be able to get them out of their little hiding hole if he didn’t move closer. To drop their depth charges, they would have to come into a low orbit above the gas giant. Yang reluctantly gave the order to move closer, keeping them all in a sphere formation. “Let’s see if we can’t get them to come out.” He was falsely cheerful.
They came in closer, the planet looming large on the screen. “Drop the depth charges as soon as we’re in range, then back out to a quarter light second orbit.” Maybe it was wasteful to move the whole battlegroup as a unit like this, but he didn’t want to send a couple ships out front as sacrificial lambs, unprotected by the bulk of the rest of the group.
While they were in the process of dropping the depth charges, the enemy fleet revealed itself, rising up out of the atmosphere of the planet and firing at the foremost ships in the battlegroup.
“Pull back, but keep returning fire. I want to get them all out of the atmosphere. How many are there?”
“About two hundred fifty,” the radar operator said.
The enemy ships were taking a spearhead formation, charging towards Merkatz’s battlegroup, clearly intending to split it down the middle. Yang didn’t like the number that he had been given. A group of two hundred fifty ships against a group of four hundred ships was almost certain to be a loss for the smaller group, but they had practically invited Yang in, despite knowing their size difference. The smell of a trap grew stronger, but still, Yang didn’t want to act paranoid.
“Move us counterclockwise around the planet and raise our orbit; get out of their way. If they want to retreat, let them. Keep firing on them. Don’t leave our side vulnerable.”
If, if , the other commander left right now, Yang could relax. Letting an enemy patrol group go after firing a few shots at them was the way these encounters normally went, and he hoped that this one would be no different. But his hopes were dashed when, instead of heading for the wide open escapes that Yang was providing, the enemy group turned and continued to pursue Yang.
Yang sighed a little, wiped his sweaty palms on the side of his uniform, then gave his next order. “Put us in a cone formation, fire at them as much as we can while they’re turning. I also want the rear of our group to be ready to turn and fire, in case this group has reinforcements on the way.”
“We’re in the middle of nowhere,” Berringer said. “You think there’s reinforcements?”
“I think that this is a setup.” He pointed at the board. “They’ve gotten us stuck in combat with a smaller force-- they drew us in on purpose-- I suspect that they have a much larger force hiding behind the star, probably en route now. This group is a distraction.”
Berringer frowned. “I hope you’re wrong.”
“If I were a rebel admiral,” Yang said, “I’d probably want to teach a lesson to the imperial battlegroup that’s been patrolling this far outside the corridor. They knew we were going to pass through here, and they were waiting for us. I think this is a trap intended for us. My guess is that there’s another three hundred, three-fifty, ships on their way.”
Berringer nodded. “So, what’s the plan?”
“This group won’t let us run, I’m sure, not unless we strike them decisively. They’ll keep us here until their friends can arrive, and then that’ll be… messy. It would be worse if we did run, and then they joined up with their friends, because then they’d chase us and we’d be outnumbered.” He anxiously rubbed his hands together. “Our best hope is to deal with these here, and hope that their larger force is still approximately equal to us when they arrive. Then we can probably force a draw. Or a mutual retreat. You know. We just can’t let this,” he gestured at the board, “go on for very long.”
Yang watched the battle situation progress. They had the upper hand, for the moment, and they were chipping away at the enemy while taking only minimal damage themselves. Still, it was taking a long time, and the longer it took, the more anxious Yang became. The enemy had taken a flat, rectangular formation. It may have been an attempt at a sphere, but they lacked enough ships to really make it clear.
Yang gave another order. “Concentrate fire on their right flank. Try to force them back down towards the planet.”
Merkatz’s group was in a higher orbit than the enemy, so they were able to do this, forcing them slowly down towards the planet. Once again, the enemy tried a charge to break through their center, but now they were worn down enough that it didn’t make much of a difference.
Yang felt safe enough against at least this small enemy to say, “Spread out and circle them, force them down into the atmosphere.”
He tried not to think about the fact that he was killing people with these orders.
“As soon as they’re deep enough, drop the rest of our depth charges.”
It was at this point that Commodore Merkatz returned to the bridge. Yang didn’t notice him at first, and continued to give orders. “I want us to back away from the planet, take us into a sphere formation again, get us back out towards the edge of the system. There’s not enough left of this group to be worth worrying about.”
Merkatz contemplated the board for a moment. “What’s the situation, Sub-lieutenant?” he asked finally.
Yang practically jumped out of his skin. “Oh! Commodore, sorry, I didn’t see you come in.” He quickly explained the situation as the battlegroup reorganized and backed away from the planet.
Merkatz ran his hand down his chin. “It seems as though you have everything under control, Leigh. Carry on.”
“Er, thank you, sir.” Yang said. Merkatz took a seat back in his chair, leaving Yang still somewhat in command, but now supervised.
As the planet grew smaller in the viewscreen and their situational awareness of the whole starsystem improved, Yang saw, unpleasantly, that he had been right. Coming towards the planet, moving at a decent fraction of the speed of light, was the other portion of the battlegroup. They were practically on top of them by the time that Merkatz’s group had moved far enough back that they could even see them. It was a group of about five hundred ships, which made Yang flinch. He had severely underestimated the number that would be en route.
Still, five hundred versus four hundred ships, while uneven, was still a survivable battle for their side. It was good that they were already organized into a defensive formation, so when the first shots were exchanged, it didn’t cause their side to fall into complete disarray.
The other side didn’t seem like it wanted to let them retreat, though their plan to surprise Merkatz’s group while they had been engaged with the smaller force had fallen through thanks to Yang’s foresight.
The battle became fiercer, with Yang feeling like he was on the back foot. He wanted desperately to retreat, but he knew that the other side would chase them unless he made that an undesirable option for them. The longer the fight went on, the more both sides suffered. Merkatz watched Yang silently, though Yang had to assume that he approved of the orders that Yang was giving, since he was not the type not to step in when his men’s lives were on the line. If Yang had been doing a poor job, he would have been relieved of command immediately.
Merkatz’s battlegroup had one major advantage over the other side: their positioning and ship movement was far better and more responsive than the enemy. This was because Merkatz was a stickler for clean fleet movement, and they often drilled switching between positions and formations when they were in the safer parts of the Iserlohn corridor. The enemy group seemed to be either inexperienced or unpracticed, and their clumsy movements left space for Yang to press them.
After about two hours of fighting, Merkatz’s fleet had lost about seventy-five ships, but the enemy fleet had lost about two hundred, in addition to the almost complete loss of the smaller group Yang had fought before. It wasn’t an overwhelming victory by any means, but Yang thought that they had pressed the other side enough that they wouldn’t pursue and risk further losses. He leaned towards Merkatz. “Should we retreat, sir?” he asked. “I don’t think they’ll chase us.”
Merkatz nodded. “Give the order, Leigh.”
So Yang told them to pull back and reorganize, then turn and go to lightspeed as quickly as possible. The other group fired a few parting shots in their direction, but, as Yang had suspected, didn’t chase.
When they were far enough away that the battlegroup could stand down from its fighting status, Yang felt like the puppet strings that had been holding him up and stiff had been cut. He wanted to flop down to the ground, or at least into a chair, but there wasn’t anywhere for him to sit, so he remained standing, feeling deeply uncomfortable in his own skin now as Merkatz took over the normal running of the battlegroup.
“Plot our course back to Iserlohn. Take us on route C-3, if possible. Transmit our status report to command over the ansible as soon as it’s ready.” Merkatz glanced at his watch and told the captain that he should order the shift change. Then he stood up. “Sub-lieutenant, join me in my office.” He turned over command to his actual second in command, Commander Warrensburg, who had just walked in for the upcoming shift change, then headed out.
Yang followed Merkatz out and to his office. The room was dark and well furnished, reflecting Merkatz’s taste. He had been using this ship as his flagship for a long time-- too long, probably, Yang thought, since he really should have been promoted a while ago-- so it was filled with personal touches, including a framed photo of his family. Yang stood stiffly in the middle of the room, waiting for Merkatz to address him. Merkatz had his back turned and was fiddling with something in the cabinets behind his desk. He turned around, revealing that he was holding two glasses of brandy.
“Take a seat, Leigh,” Merkatz said. Yang did so, and Merkatz sat as well, sliding one of the glasses across the desk towards him. “You’re pale as a ghost.”
“Sorry, sir-- I didn’t get to finish my dinner. I think I have low blood sugar.” This was a pathetic excuse, and Merkatz knew it.
Merkatz smiled, slightly grimly. “I should probably apologize for putting you on the spot like that. I did not expect this to be anything other than the usual potshots we take at whatever rebels we encounter.”
“I don’t think it’s right to expect anything in a war,” Yang said, though he regretted it as soon as he did.
“You’re correct, of course,” Merkatz said. He noticed Yang was fiddling with his glass but not drinking any of it. “Drink up.”
Yang did. He took too big of a sip, and the alcohol burned on the way down, but the feeling of it brought him back to his body for a moment, and he straightened in his chair, looking down into his glass.
“You did well,” Merkatz said, finally. “I think you handled the situation far better than most would have.”
“Thank you, sir.” He shook his head a little. “I know I’m going to keep thinking about what I could have done better, though.” He had just been directly responsible for the deaths of-- he did the rough mental math-- thousands of people, both those who had been in the enemy group, and the ships that had been destroyed in Merkatz’s fleet. It hadn’t quite sunk in yet. He twisted his glass around in his hands. Perhaps he had been wrong about his opinions on playing games back in school; it was perhaps the cool, detached unreality of the game state that he had been so used to slipping into that made him able to stay calm and give commands, even though there were real lives on the line here. He wasn’t sure if he liked that. He wasn’t sure if it was right.
“There’s rarely such a thing as a perfect battle,” Merkatz said, “and even a perfect battle is almost certainly going to incur losses. If you had been doing badly, I would have taken back command. You made the best choices available.”
“Thank you, sir,” Yang said again, not really sure what else there was to say.
“I will have to write to Captain Staden to thank him for sending you to me.”
“He’ll be glad to hear that his efforts on my account paid off,” Yang said, though he couldn’t quite keep the grim tone out of his voice.
“It’s clear to me that you have a brilliant mind,” Merkatz said. “Along with a natural ability to give clear, calm, and reasonable instructions. That is not something that’s easy to teach, especially when coming out of the Academy. Some of the people I’ve had in your position in the past have had unrealistic expectations about what they can physically order ships to do.”
“I try, sir,” Yang said. He wasn’t sure where this conversation was going. Merkatz kept speaking and looking at Yang as though to gauge something about him, though Yang couldn’t figure it out.
“You’re going to go far,” Merkatz said. “I already thought that, but you did more today than I had any right to expect of you. I keep forgetting that you only graduated from the Academy this year.”
Yang shrugged, feeling very uncomfortable. “I am glad that you trusted me to do right by the men under your command.”
Merkatz nodded, looking thoughtful. “I do trust you,” he said. “And I think this will go a long way in raising you in their eyes, as well. But I probably shouldn’t have this happen again.” He looked at Yang, who was still looking down into his glass, swirling his drink around. “Are you disappointed by that?”
“No, sir,” Yang said honestly. “I don’t deserve responsibilities above my station, and I don’t want to step on the senior officers’ toes.”
“Good. I’m glad you understand. These tests-- they’re fine occasionally, but I can’t justify them very often. This one got out of hand, and I apologize.”
“You don’t need to apologize, sir.”
“Perhaps.” Merkatz was thoughtful sounding. “How do you feel, von Leigh?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
“I understand,” Merkatz said. “I’ve been in a lot of battles, and there’s never an easy or right feeling on the other end of them.”
Yang nodded. “I’m just tired, I think.”
Merkatz chuckled a little. “Of course. I’m just trying to make sure you don’t go to bed feeling like you did a poor job, because that will make you less effective in the morning.”
“I appreciate the effort, sir.”
“Finish your drink and go to bed,” Merkatz said. “You’ll be able to see the situation more clearly tomorrow morning.”