A Wheel Inside a Wheel

by

javert

SotP - Chapter Two - The Hero of El Facil

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The Hero of El Facil

October 479 I.C., Iserlohn Corridor

“Our orders have come in,” Merkatz said, walking onto the bridge of the Tuttlingen Krieger. Yang, who had been hovering next to Commander Warrensburg and half taking notes on something he was saying about their fleet’s upcoming maintenance, looked up sharply and saluted. Warrensburg got out of Merkatz’s chair. “We’re going to go through the corridor first, because that’s our normal patrol behavior. Everyone else might have a trick of a time getting through, so we have the dubious honor of being the initial strike.”

“You don’t sound enthusiastic, sir,” Yang said.

“It’s not my place to be enthusiastic or not,” Merkatz said. “What’s our status?”

“We’re ready to go,” Yang said. “As soon as we have a destination.”

“El Facil,” Merkatz said. “Heard of it?”

“No, sir,” Yang said. He wracked his brain, trying to picture the relevant starmap, but there were more inhabited planets in the FPA than he cared to remember, and this one was not sticking out in his mind for any reason.

“The system has a permanent garrison of about a thousand ships to defend its one planet. Population of about three million people.”

“Not very big,” Yang said.

“It’s no Heinessen, that’s for sure,” Merkatz said. “We’re not aiming to take the planet, unless the situation looks like that’s required, though. Just scare their fleet.” Yang nodded as Merkatz sat down. “Admiral Whithorse has told me that I am retroactively earning my promotion with this.”

“Admiral Whithorse doesn’t understand tact, sir,” Commander Warrensburg said.

“Neither do you,” Merkatz replied dryly. “But he’s right, in that generally I should not have gotten promoted until we get back to Odin. He just needed the official authority to give me a larger detachment.”

“It seems surprising you weren’t promoted earlier,” Yang said.

“You’ve been writing to Staden too much,” Merkatz said.

“Perhaps I have been.”

“There was nothing wrong with being a commodore,” Merkatz said. “And there is nothing wrong with being a rear admiral, either. Promotions happen when they happen, and it’s not my place to worry myself unduly about them.”

Yang and Warrensburg shared a look over the top of Merkatz’s head. “Of course not, sir,” Yang said.

“You’re both due for promotions when we get back to Odin, though. That’s not a secret.”

“I look forward to it,” Warrensburg said.

“Will you be asking for a transfer?”

“No, I don’t think so, sir,” Warrensburg replied.

“You could have a ship of your own,” Merkatz said. “I enjoyed my stint as a captain.”

“Maybe some other time, sir.”

“Suit yourself.”

The whole small fleet made preparations to get moving. They were already deep into the Iserlohn corridor, and the journey all the way to the exit would take several days. Merkatz was somewhat annoyed with the fleet. His promotion to rear admiral meant that the number of ships under his command had also more than doubled, going from four hundred to one thousand. The new additions were not as practiced with the way Merkatz liked to perform fleet maneuvers, so some of the positioning was sloppy. Although they had been spending almost every spare second since the new ships had arrived on drilling positioning, it was a bandaid on a sponge.

They crept out of the corridor along one of their usual routes, not encountering any Alliance patrols, then deviated from their normal course to head towards their target. They were discouraged from communicating with central command, in case their ansible messages were intercepted, so they had no idea if the other fleets following them out had made it through the corridor exit unscathed. It left a weird feeling of anticipation hanging over the crew, including all of the officers. This was almost certainly going to be the biggest action they had seen in a while, and so everyone was on edge.

They slipped down to sublight speeds just outside the edge of the El Facil starzone, activating their anti-radar protections and sending out reconnaissance drones to determine the position and strength of the enemy forces in the system. As expected, there were about a thousand ships, most of them grouped up in a space-based port in orbit around the planet.

Merkatz began their assault in the standard way: by jamming communications, which served the dual purpose of announcing their presence to the enemy. They weren’t going for stealth; really, they wanted the opposite. This whole plan, as much as Merkatz clearly disagreed with it (despite not saying anything officially against it), was to deliberately engage the enemy, just to show that they could.

The Alliance fleet responded exactly as Yang would have expected. As soon as they realized that Merkatz’s fleet was in the starsystem, they deployed their fleet en masse, coming out to meet the invaders. Merkatz brought their fleet in towards the inhabited planet very slowly. Since his orders were not to take the planet unless the opportunity presented itself, all Merkatz had to do was bait the Alliance fleet into moving further away from the planet. No one, on either side, wanted to fight close to the planet. Merkatz would prefer to stay further out because it would allow them an easier retreat, and the Alliance had vested interest in not allowing the imperial fleet to approach the planet, not to mention the civilian infrastructure of communications satellites and other orbiting instruments that would be likely damaged if a fleet battle took place directly above the atmosphere.

At first, the battle was a pretty standard affair. Both sides had their own problems. The Alliance had started the battle at a disadvantage, their faster ships arriving to meet the imperial fleet first, leaving them a rather vulnerable and soft target. It was poor positioning; it would have been better for the fleet to come out slowly as a group, so as not to have their vanguard be easy pickings. After all, Merkatz was heading towards the planet very, very slowly.

That state of advantage didn’t last very long, however, because as the remainder of the Alliance force caught up, the weaknesses of Merkatz’s new ships began to show. They had pressed forward towards the first wave of Alliance ships, which left their own forward lines slightly ragged. They were slow to regroup their front lines, and the Alliance was able to press into them, then.

Merkatz backed off slightly in order to truly reorganize, and there was a brief pause in the fighting as the Alliance did the same. And then they were at it again.

Yang watched Merkatz through the fight. Although the rear admiral was performing his assigned duty with all his normal skill, Yang could tell that the whole situation was distasteful to him. This was a battle without a strategic objective other than to have a battle, which felt as much like throwing away soldiers’ lives as it possibly could. And he was trying hard to keep his patience with his own fleet’s challenges. He was forced to use only the most basic of positionings in order to not open up holes in his own defense because of ill-coordinated movement, and this meant that he was having difficulty truly capitalizing on his opponent’s moments of weakness. Although Yang had no real desire to see either side “win” this battle, he also hated watching moments of opportunity slip by, ones where they could have dealt a decisive blow, proved their point, and retreated without further loss of life on either side.

The fight dragged on. Both sides had started out with about a thousand ships, but after about twelve hours, the Alliance had lost about two hundred ships, while Merkatz’s fleet had lost only about one hundred twenty five, with the disparity mainly due to their early success against the Alliance fleet’s vanguard units.

“We’re going to pull back and regroup,” Merkatz said once again, looking at the situational display, which clearly showed the ragged front of their center, and the disorganized chaos of their right flank, which had been slowly sliding out of position for the past several hours. It had now gotten to the point where the Alliance was trying to turn and capitalize on that disorganization, so Merkatz had to order another momentary retreat. “Keep firing, but bring us back a third of a light second. I want our flanks moving with the rest of us, not falling behind.”

Agonizingly slowly, the fleet began its retreat backwards. The center had to move slowly to account for the stumbling of the flanks, which slowly began to pull themselves back in. Yang was tense during this whole process, knowing that this would be an ideal time for the Alliance fleet to charge them and possibly strike a decisive blow, but they didn’t, instead pulled themselves back a little, as they had done before, and tried to reorganize their own front.

Merkatz turned in his seat towards Commander Warrensburg, who was trying to coordinate this retreat and reorganization. “Warrensburg, I need you to do me a favor,” Merkatz said.

“What do you need, sir?”

“Put yourself on a shuttle, get onboard the Prinz der Wale, and take command of the C and D sections. Deal with their reorganization from there, while I take A and B to finish this.” The C and D groups were the new additions to Merkatz’s fleet, while the A and B groups were his more experienced ships.

“Is it really a good idea to split our forces, sir?” Yang asked. He could see the benefit of it, having a more nimble force would be an advantage, and Warrensburg could always catch up to them should they need him, but still, it was always risky to split.

Merkatz waved his hand. “If we move now, while they’re still reorganizing, yes. We can strike decisively and then get out quickly. The longer this drags on, the more ships I’m going to lose. Do you have any questions, Warrensburg?”

“No, sir,” Warrensburg said. “I’m on my way.” He saluted, then ran out of the bridge. Within three minutes, his shuttle was sailing away towards the Prinz der Wale.

“Good luck to him,” Merkatz muttered under his breath. Yang winced a little at that-- it was rare for Merkatz to be this visibly frustrated. “A and B, take a spearhead formation.”

The captain of the Tuttlingen Krieger came over to Merkatz. “Sir, without the C and D groups, this formation puts your flag directly at the front.”

“That’s fine,” Merkatz said. “I would rather be at the front than cause everyone to fall out of position by moving. We’ve had enough trouble with that as it is.”

“Yes, sir,” the captain said, and returned to his position with a slightly concerned glance backwards.

“If I may say something, sir,” Yang began.

“No, you may not,” Merkatz said. “I want this over with, and I want us out of here.”

Yang ran his hand uncomfortably through his hair, shoulders slightly slumped. He empathized with Merkatz here, but the tension on the bridge was running high. Their half of the fleet began moving, accelerating towards the Alliance forces that had backed off and were still trying to reorganize.

“As soon as we’re done with this, drop the communications jamming and report to command that we’ve accomplished our objective and we’re heading back,” Merkatz said.

Their smaller and far more nimble group rocketed forward through space, towards the retreating and re-organizing Alliance fleet. Merkatz’s plan looked like it was a stunning success, at first, because the Alliance had no idea what was happening, and with Merkatz pushing right through their center, fell into complete chaos, firing on the incoming ships randomly. About half of the Alliance fleet turned around completely and started heading back towards the planet itself. Merkatz let them go and concentrated his fire on those ships that remained.

It was going well, until the disorganized Alliance ships managed to strike a few extremely lucky blows directly onto the Tuttlingen Krieger. The whole ship was thrown sideways with the force of the final blow, directly to the stardrive, causing the artificial gravity to go haywire for a second. Everyone was thrown to the floor with twenty Gs of acceleration. Yang, who had been standing, was relatively lucky, because his knees simply crumpled beneath him. His face hit the metal floor with a sickening slap, leaving an imprint of the anti-slip texture on his face, but as he had already lost consciousness for a second before he hit the floor (from all of the blood abruptly leaving his head), he didn’t feel the impact.

He got up dizzily and looked around, feeling his bruised face to make sure he hadn’t broken his jaw or cheekbone. He hadn’t, though he suspected that the whole left side of his face would be a horrible looking lump for a while. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the new emergency lighting on the bridge. All of the displays had gone out and only the eerie red battery powered lights remained. Most people on the bridge were stumbling around, trying to get up, and alarms were blaring. Yang’s hearing still hadn’t quite returned to normal, so they sounded odd and watery in his ears. He could feel that, although they had gravity at this moment, it was slowly weakening, which meant that the stardrive was shutting down.

His eyes roved to where Merkatz had been sitting, found the chair empty, then his view continued downwards. Merkatz was on the floor, having somehow fallen off the raised platform where his chair was. He was face down and not moving. Yang stumbled over to him, crouching down next to him and gently trying to flip him over onto his back. Yang’s fingers felt wet, though in the red emergency lighting, red blood looked as black as Merkatz’s uniform.

Merkatz was alive, though, and stirred at Yang’s poking.

“Are you alright, sir?” Yang asked. Merkatz sat up. His face was covered in blood, from a nasty gash on his head. It might have been Yang’s imagination in the dim light, but he thought he saw the white of bone in the cut. He must have hit the sharp edge of the platform on the way down, and hit it hard. He blinked at Yang, clearly very disoriented, and tried to get up, but stumbled. Yang supported him for a moment.

The captain of the Tuttlingen Krieger approached again, looking the worse for wear himself. He was holding his arm to his face, bleeding from either his nose or his mouth, Yang couldn’t quite tell.

“Sir, the stardrive is inoperable. I recommend you abandon ship and transfer your flag elsewhere,” the captain said.

Merkatz nodded after a second, taking an abnormally long time to process the statement and think about a response. “What about you?”

“I will give the order for all hands to abandon,” the captain said. “Our shuttles should be able to make it back to the C and D group.”

“Right,” Merkatz said.

“Are you alright, sir?” the captain asked.

“I believe I have a concussion,” Merkatz said, the words coming slowly and sounding slurred. “Leigh should take command.”

The captain glanced at Yang, who was still supporting Merkatz. “I--” Yang said, but was cut off by the captain.

“Get to a shuttle,” the captain said. “I advise you head to the Prinz der Luther. They’re in good shape in the rear.”

“Yes, sir,” Yang said.

“I’ll have a doctor meet you at the shuttle,” the captain said. “Go!”

Yang went, helping Merkatz down the hall. He agreed with Merkatz’s own assessment that he was concussed. His steps were clumsy, and he was not coping with the subtle shifting and lessening of gravity at all.

They made it onto a shuttle, along with several other enlisted crew members and the doctor, and they launched, heading toward the ship Prinz der Luther. The shuttle was dead quiet as the doctor examined Merkatz, shining a little penlight into his eyes and looking at the severity of the wound.

“Definitely a concussion,” the doctor said. “But I think we can be lucky that it’s not worse. We’ll get you a brain scan to make sure there’s nothing else going on when we get to the Prinz der Luther. You’ll need stitches, but nothing’s broken.”

As the doctor cleaned the wound and put a gauze patch over it, Merkatz leaned back in his shuttle seat with his eyes closed, speaking slowly and quietly. “Leigh, take command of A and B, finish this. Get in contact with Iserlohn command and let them know the situation.”

“Yes, sir.”

When their shuttle made it to the Prinz der Luther, which was only a short distance away, Yang jogged to the bridge, while Merkatz was sent to the infirmary. The situation on the bridge was fine. Yang was offered and took the captain’s seat at the front of the bridge. No one in the A and B groups had much of a problem with Yang taking command; his prior few “tests” with Merkatz had proven to them that he was reliable and not flashy, at the very least.

Things were actually going extremely well, aside from having had to abandon the Tuttlingen Krieger. The Alliance fleet was in total disarray, and those few ships that had not yet fled back to the planet were either surrendering, beginning to run, or were being picked off. Yang was tempted to ask for the ability to broadcast to the remaining ships, to either tell them to surrender or retreat, but he decided that might be putting his neck too much on the line.

“This is almost over,” Yang said to whoever was listening, which appeared to be the command staff of the Prinz der Luther, mostly. “Lift the communications jamming and patch me through to central command, if we can.”

Someone did so, and the grainy, distorted image of someone who Yang didn’t recognize from the Iserlohn fleet control popped up on the screen. Yang saluted.

“Where is Rear Admiral Merkatz?” the man on the screen demanded immediately.

“His flagship, the Tuttlingen Krieger, was hit, and he sustained a concussion. He’s currently in the infirmary of the Prinz der Luther,” Yang said. “He gave me, his adjutant, er, Sub-lieutenant von Leigh, command of part of the fleet.”

The man on the screen twitched in what was clearly a stifled cringe. “And what is your situation?”

“We engaged the enemy in the El Facil starzone about ten hours ago, and have successfully destroyed about half of the rebel fleet, while the remainder has retreated to the planet. Our losses are about twenty percent of our fleet. Rear Admiral Merkatz’s final order was for us to report to you and withdraw to Iserlohn.”

“Belay that order, Sub-lieutenant,” the man on the screen said. “Admiral Whithorse was waiting for you to report in. Your new objective is to seize the planet. Reinforcements are on their way.”

Yang jerked back a little, startled. “May I ask why, sir?”

“Due to unforeseen events elsewhere in the corridor--” Yang interpreted this to mean someone, somewhere had lost spectacularly-- “our strategic objectives have changed, and we are focusing on holding El Facil.”

“Understood,” Yang said, though it was with reluctance. “When can we expect reinforcements?”

“Within the next three days.” That was about what Yang had expected. El Facil wasn’t exactly close to anything else, and if all the other forces had been diverted from elsewhere, it was surprising that they wouldn’t need more time.

Yang wanted to clarify something. “Is the expectation that we wait in-system for reinforcements, or is the order for us to take the planet?” They didn’t have a lot of ships and no specialized ground units, but a population of three million was not very large, and they could probably… Yang sighed, thinking over what they were actually being asked to do.

“You said that the remainder of the rebel fleet’s units retreated to the planet, correct?”

“Yes, sir.”

“The reinforcements en route are intended to counter the rebel fleet’s own reinforcements. You have a numerical advantage and should take the planet without much difficulty. Understood?”

“Er, yes, sir,” Yang said, feeling very uncomfortable. For one thing, their numerical advantage was not that great, especially considering that much of the fleet that was still operational had taken some damage, and Merkatz himself wasn’t able to be in command, at least at the moment. And, aside from that, Yang had absolutely zero interest in capturing a civilian planet. The whole thing left a bad taste in his mouth, even if he swore to make this as peaceful as he could. He didn’t know how much he could salvage this situation, but it felt like it was all coming down on his head.

Still, no matter how bad he was feeling, he thought as he gazed at the screen at the distant planet, his problems were certainly nothing compared to the troubles of everyone on El Facil itself.

Yang finished speaking to central command, then called up Warrensburg at the head of the C and D groups.

“Where’s Rear Admiral Merkatz?” Warrensburg asked, as soon as he appeared on the screen. “For that matter, where are you?” He could see that Yang was not on board the Tuttlingen Krieger.

Yang saluted. “The Tuttlingen Krieger was hit, and we had to move to the Prinz der Luther. Rear Admiral Merkatz has a concussion, and he gave me command of the A and B groups.”

Warrensburg sighed but didn’t argue. “What’s your status?”

Yang explained their new orders. Warrensburg was pensive the whole time, and ran his hand over his chin, stroking his short black beard. “C and D are in better shape than you are. I suggest that I head to the planet and urge them to surrender, while you stay out here and deal with any stragglers.”

“I still don’t love the thought of staying split up.”

“The force on the planet is minimal, at this point. I expect they’ll surrender in short order. And even if they don’t, they will as soon as our reinforcements get to the starzone.”

Yang nodded. “I suppose we do have some cleanup to do out here,” he said, referring to the few ships who were still fighting. “What are you going to do about the civilians?”

“Do about them?” Warrensburg asked. “If the planet surrenders, that’s when I’ll figure out what to ‘do about’ civilians.” He was being tetchy. “I don’t want to deal with them.”

“Do you want me to take the planet instead?” Yang asked.

Warrensburg laughed. “No. I’m sure command will give us some instructions on how to deal with civilians when they get here. Probably they’ll have us round them up and ship them off to some frontier planet for hard labor.”

Yang winced a little, a motion that Warrensburg saw. “Well, it’s better than just killing them,” Warrensburg said. “I think this will be an effective lesson about not settling too close to the corridor.”

“That was the goal,” Yang said with a deep frown.

“We clear on the plan?” Warrensburg asked.

“Yes, sir. I expect Rear Admiral Merkatz will be back soon. I don’t think his injury is that serious.”

“Well, I’ll hope it’s nothing that a little time in a tank bed can’t cure.” Yang had no idea if going into a tank bed would cure a concussion faster, but he didn’t have any reason to think it would hurt.

“Yes, I hope so as well.”

Warrensburg ended the call, leaving Yang alone once again in charge of his section of the fleet. Luckily, most of the excitement had passed. He watched as Warrensburg’s C and D groups began to reorganize themselves again and start a slow trek inward towards the planet, while Yang focused on taking stock of his own two groups and sorting out what needed to be done to get them back in fighting shape. There was a lot of organizational work, especially when it came to dealing with those Alliance ships that had surrendered already.

A weird peace had descended on the system, with the fighting over with for now. Yang didn’t honestly expect it to break out again, though he had no desire to find out what landing on the planet would be like. Yang was even able to snatch an hour of sleep in a tank bed, which felt almost like a full night’s sleep, but less satisfying. He didn’t see Merkatz, and when he inquired about his status, the doctor told him that he shouldn’t be bothered, and that he was resting and recuperating well.

When Warrensburg got about halfway towards El Facil (making the journey at sub-light speeds, because there really wasn’t a rush, and going above lightspeed while in-system had proven to be a coordination challenge for his C and D groups) the situation changed. All of a sudden, the remainder of the Alliance fleet ships came rising up from the planet. They were on the opposite side of the planet from Warrensburg’s group, and they were accelerating away from him, clearly trying to flee.

Yang got Warrensburg on the line immediately. “Did the planet surrender?” he asked.

“I think their fleet is just running,” Warrensburg said, scratching his head. “Never seen this before.”

“Could it be a trap?” Yang asked. Perhaps they had some sort of automated defense on the planet, and when Warrensburg’s fleet came close enough, they would turn around and attack from both sides. That was the first thing his mind jumped to.

“No, I think they’re just being cowards.”

“What should we do, sir?”

“Give me your opinion. Merkatz would want me to ask you, so I will.”

Yang considered for a second. “You should keep going towards the planet. That’s our goal, anyway. Makes it easier if you don’t have to fight anyone on your way down.”

“True.”

“I can chase those ships down,” Yang said. “Stop them from leaving the system and meeting up with reinforcements of their own, at least. A and B are probably better suited to that task than C and D are.”

“I agree. Let’s do that. Good luck to you, Leigh.”

“Thank you. And good luck to you as well, Commander.” Yang saluted and ended the call, then addressed his sections of the fleet. “Let’s go above lightspeed. Prepare to intercept that group. I don’t think they’ll put up much of a fight, but we should be prepared anyway.” He felt the stardrive engage at its maximum power beneath him, and they were off again.

While they were on their way, chasing the Alliance fleet down, more ships launched from El Facil, scattering in all directions. When Yang had them looked at with their highest powered scopes, he saw that they were what looked like all of the merchant vessels that the planet had. For a small planet, it had a surprisingly large number, but perhaps that wasn’t an accident: after all, a planet with a population of only a few million simply didn’t have the manpower to have a fully self sufficient economy, so much of their goods would need to be imported, far more than a planet like Heinessen would.

It was actually a relief to see all the merchant ships leaving. Yang hoped that they had as much of the planet’s population on them as they could. He addressed his ships. “Ignore the merchant ships,” Yang said. “Our first and only priority are the rebel fleet ships.”

“We have the ability to split up and chase all of them down,” the captain of the Prinz der Luther said.

“We’re already thin on the ground as it is,” Yang said. “I don’t want to risk losing more ships by splitting up. Let’s stick together and stay focused.” There was a general assent at that, even though it was a flimsy excuse.

He didn’t think that any of the fleeing Alliance fleet ships presented any real danger to his battlegroup, but he had been searching for an excuse to let the merchant ships escape, and this was as good as any. He watched the civilians go, trying not to smile about it. Yang wasn’t sure if he had done “good” here precisely, but he had used his position to at least save these people. That, he had to suppose, was better than nothing.

By the time that they managed to round up all the Alliance fleet ships, the civilians had disappeared. They managed to capture a rear admiral for their trouble, which seemed to Yang to be a fair trade, since Merkatz was still concussed. While this was happening, Warrensburg was bringing his ships ever closer to El Facil itself.

Warrensburg had a bad time landing his ships on the planet. He hadn’t encountered air defense, but the airports had been overrun with civilians trying to escape the planet, so he was forced to descend onto the grassy plains outside the city limits. He encountered some resistance from the civilian population when he attempted to move by land vehicle and on foot into the city proper. Apparently, about half the population had managed to escape on the merchant ships, leaving the city strangely empty. When Warrensburg reported this to Yang, Yang had to keep himself from appearing too happy about it.

Yang was glad he didn’t have to deal with it. Warrensburg told him to stay in space and wait for their reinforcements, which Yang was all too happy to do. There was a lot of work to be done, even while not dealing with the planet, and Yang was exhausted after just a short time. He hated being overwhelmed with nitpicky logistical details, but he didn’t have anyone else to pass them off to.

Before the reinforcements arrived, Yang was finally allowed to speak to Merkatz. He found him in the cabin that he was using aboard the Prinz der Luther, having ordered the doctor to release him from the infirmary, at the very least. When Yang knocked on the door, Merkatz sounded happy for the company, calling out, “Come in.”

The room was almost pitch black, except for the red glow of the exit light above the door. “Do you want me to turn on the light, sir?” Yang asked.

“Oh, Leigh, I’m glad you’re here,” Merkatz said. He was sitting at his desk, drinking a glass of water. He was dressed, but not in his full uniform. “And, sorry, no about the light. It gives me a splitting headache. I’ve been told to spend my time sitting in the dark doing nothing.”

“Should I not bother you?” Yang asked.

“There’s only so much sitting in the dark and doing nothing that I can bear,” Merkatz said. “Take a seat, if you like.” He motioned to the other chair, and Yang sat down across from him.

“How are you feeling, sir?”

“I’ve had worse injuries, but they were all far less annoying. The doctor wouldn’t let me hear about what’s going on outside. I assume that everything is going well?”

Yang gave him the two minute summary of most things that had happened since Merkatz had given him command. It was hard to tell what Merkatz was thinking, because it was hard to see his face in the darkness of the room, but Yang thought he saw him frown when he told him about the changed orders to capture the planet.

“It’s mostly been going well, though, sir.”

“I’m glad to hear it. No one’s given you any trouble?”

“No, sir. Aside from rounding up the stragglers and catching the rebel fleet ships that tried to escape, it’s mostly been quiet.”

“That’s good, that’s good.”

“Command says they’re going to send us back, once the reinforcements arrive.”

“I figured they would,” Merkatz said. “We’re not equipped to be an occupying force, and we’re due back on Odin.”

“I promise on the return trip I’ll get Warrensburg to run positioning drills for you.”

Merkatz chuckled a little. “I’m sure everyone will appreciate that. How is Warrensburg holding up?”

“Fine, I think,” Yang said.

“Is something the matter, Leigh?”

“That’s a difficult question to answer, sir.”

“Although you’re the first person I’ve had a real conversation with in days, I still don’t have the strength to pry your secrets out of you,” Merkatz said. “Either tell me, or don’t.”

“Over a million civilians escaped the planet,” Yang said, scratching his head.

Merkatz raised an eyebrow. “And how did that happen?”

Yang wasn’t entirely sure what tack he should take. He respected Merkatz, and wanted him to be prepared in case this all came down on his head. “I let them go,” Yang said, coming off as rather defensive, even though he hadn’t intended it.

Merkatz was silent for a long, long second. “You let them go,” he said.

“Yes, sir.”

“I’m not sure I’m understanding this correctly,” Merkatz said. “I would love for you to enlighten me, Sub-lieutenant.” His voice was cold.

“Before Warrensburg landed on the planet, all of the remaining rebel fleet ships, and a huge number of merchant ships launched. I ordered the A and B groups to stay together and to only concentrate on capturing the rebel fleet ships. During that time, all of the merchant ships made it out of the starzone.”

“I see.” Merkatz was still cold. “And why did you do that?”

“I’m sorry, sir, but I didn’t like the thought of condemning all those people to a life of hard labor in a frontier camp,” Yang said. “I didn’t think it hurt anything to let them go.”

Merkatz pinched the bridge of his nose, then winced. “And did you make it look like you were intentionally sending rebels on their merry way out of the starzone?” Merkatz asked. “Did you announce that you were giving them safe passage out?”

“Sir, I may have done something against official policy, but I’m not trying to get executed as a traitor,” Yang said, his voice dry. “I ordered everyone to prioritize military targets, and stay as a group for safety.”

“If you didn’t want this to be known, you shouldn’t have told me,” Merkatz said. “I don’t understand the game you’re playing.”

“I’m not playing a game, sir,” Yang said. “I’m telling you this because I respect you, and I want you to be prepared in case this comes down on your head.”

“You respect me, but not enough to follow the policy that I have sworn to uphold, while I trusted you with command of my men.” Merkatz was angry, but Yang didn’t flinch back.

“This cost no one’s life, sir.”

“Damn you, Leigh,” Merkatz said. “What the hell am I supposed to do with this? Send you for a court martial?”

“I would prefer if you didn’t,” Yang said. “But I obviously can’t stop you.”

“You can’t?” Merkatz asked. “I assume you still have your sidearm on you.”

“I’m sorry that you now trust me so little as to imagine that I’d shoot you,” Yang said.

Merkatz deflated a little at that. “Why are you telling me this, Leigh?”

“Neither of us are stupid men, sir,” Yang said. “Eventually, you would leave this room and look back over the logs, and you would see what happened. It’s better if I tell you the truth now, rather than have you put the pieces together on your own. You would trust me even less, then.”

“And what do you expect me to do?” Merkatz said.

“I’m at your mercy,” Yang replied. “It’s an uncomfortable position for me to be in, but there are worse ones.”

“And if I do report you?”

“Then I suppose I’ll have to go to the firing squad or the labor camp satisfied that I exchanged my life for over a million people. That’s more than a fair trade. I’d make it again.” He lifted his chin slightly. It was slightly ironic. He had come to the Empire seeking to escape a life of forced labor, and here he was possibly throwing his life away again.

Merkatz was silent for a long second. “How can I trust you as a soldier under my command, if you’re going to go around and do this the moment my back is turned?”

“I suppose you can’t, sir.”

“If someone had ordered you directly to capture those merchant ships, what would you have done?”

“I don’t know,” Yang said. “I like to imagine that I would have thought of something.”

“You like to imagine. You spend all day imagining treason?”

“I think you’re being unfair, sir.”

“Am I?” Merkatz sighed. “And you think less of me because I would have done my duty.”

“I respect you very highly, sir,” Yang said. “That hasn’t changed.”

“What are you doing here, Leigh? You also swore an oath when you received your commission.” Some of the anger had gone out of him, and now he was merely disappointed.

“It’s a long and stupid story,” Yang said. “I would have preferred to be a historian, rather than a soldier.”

Merkatz shook his head. “What am I supposed to do with you, Leigh?”

“I don’t know, sir.”

“I hate that you are a brilliant young man, one who I personally like and want to trust, but now know that I absolutely cannot trust.”

“I’m sorry, sir.”

“No, you’re not.”

“That’s true.” Yang scratched his head. “You can trust me,” he said. “You just have to understand--”

“I understand that we are not playing the same rules, von Leigh. By definition, that means we are not playing on the same team, even if I can see perfectly well what moves you’d make.”

Yang silently nodded.

“Get out, Leigh. I need some time to think about this.”

“Are you relieving me of command, sir?”

“No. Just get out.”

“Yes, sir,” Yang said. He stood, saluted sharply, and left, leaving Merkatz alone in the dark.

 


 

November 479 I.C., Iserlohn Fortress

The return to Iserlohn was anticlimactic. Even after recovering enough from his concussion to return to active duty, Merkatz didn’t speak much to Yang. He let Warrensburg drill the remaining ships on positioning as soon as they were back in the relative safety of the corridor, having left El Facil, now occupied by a true ground force, far behind. Yang couldn’t say he was sad to see it go.

Yang tried to relax during the journey. He felt relatively sure that Merkatz was not going to have him court martialed, but Merkatz also didn’t speak to him about his intentions, so Yang was forced to wonder. He didn’t like the state of uncertainty, but he also couldn’t do anything about it, so he tried to act as nonchalant as he could, while just wiping his sweaty palms on his uniform more often than was really reasonable.

At Iserlohn, their whole fleet essentially disbanded. A huge number of the ships would need to head to drydock for repair, some because of damage sustained, some simply coming due for routine maintenance. During this time of stasis, the soldiers who were not due for leave would be stationed either in a starship repair facility elsewhere or on Iserlohn, while soldiers who were due for leave would head first to Odin, then to wherever their ultimate destination was. Yang was headed to Odin with that group, but there were a few days of waiting on Iserlohn before the transport back to the capital.

He desperately wanted to talk to Reuenthal, but all communication, especially calls over the ansible, were monitored. He knew his letters were read by censors, so he kept them free of incriminating information. Just as he had said to Merkatz, he hoped that Reuenthal would figure out the subtext of what had happened from Yang’s actual text describing the official orders he had given. But no matter what he wrote down, that was no substitute for talking to Reuenthal face to face. He wanted to do that regardless of anything that had happened.

All the free time that he had on Iserlohn meant that Yang ended up back in the same bar he had lurked in on his first visit to the fortress. This time, he was even more distracted, and wasn’t even pretending to read. He had his notebook open in front of him, but the page was mostly blank. He had written a couple of words, then violently scribbled them out as he decided that he changed his mind about what he wanted to say. He was drumming his pen against the paper when a vaguely familiar shadow approached him.

“Sub-lieutenant von Leigh?” Oberstein asked, getting his attention.

“Oh, Commander Oberstein! I didn’t see you come in.” Yang stood and saluted, smiling. “It’s nice to see a friendly face around here, sir.”

Oberstein seemed nonplussed by that. “May I sit?”

“Of course.” They both sat down. Yang had specifically picked a booth far in the back of the bar, so they were out of sight and hearing of the few other patrons. “Did Eisenach send you to check up on me again?”

“No,” Oberstein said. “I heard several pieces of news concerning you.”

“I’m almost afraid to ask.”

Oberstein pulled out a folded piece of paper from his pocket and slid it across the table to Yang, who opened it up, squinting to read it in the dim light of the bar. It was a printout of a page of transfer orders, the type of thing that was sent through the Iserlohn central computer to ensure that every soldier coming and going through the fortress ended up in the right place, at the right time. This one had Yang’s picture on it, smiling uncomfortably in his official ID photo. Oberstein had circled the relevant information: down in the bottom corner, Yang’s transfer was listed. From Rear Admiral Merkatz’s fleet to Ministry of War, Strategic Planning Division, Odin. The tickbox for “promotion” was checked.

“Congratulations, Lieutenant,” Oberstein said, voice very dry.

Yang put the paper down on the table. “Thank you for the congratulations, though I’m sure I wasn’t supposed to see this information until my actual CO told me.”

“Am I wrong in thinking that you and Rear Admiral Merkatz are not on speaking terms at the moment?”

“I wasn’t aware that my relationship with Rear Admiral Merkatz was subject to public attention.”

“I am capable of reading the encounter report and making my own assumptions,” Oberstein said.

“And what assumptions would those be?”

“You performed far above your station, and yet Merkatz has requested a transfer for you. If he were pleased with your performance, as most others would be, he would keep you. Therefore, there must be a conflict there.”

“You think that I performed well, at El Facil? I suppose I should be gratified that you think so.”

“I did not say that,” Oberstein replied.

Yang rubbed the back of his head. “Oh.” It was clear that Oberstein saw through Yang just as Merkatz would have.

“From everything that I have seen, you are too intelligent to make mistakes like the one you made at El Facil. You embarrassed the imperial fleet.”

“Perhaps there is a reason why sub-lieutenants are not often given command of four hundred ships,” Yang said mildly. “Mistakes are made.”

“It’s quite lucky that your inexperience provides a convenient excuse,” Oberstein said. “Further along in your career, and this would have cost you.”

“I think it a small price to pay.”

Oberstein stared at him, and in the darkness of the bar, Yang thought he saw his left eye flash red for a second, though perhaps it was just an odd trick of the light. “No,” Oberstein said. “If you were asked to pay a price, it would be too high.”

“I’m not sure what you mean,” Yang said. He took a sip of his beer.

“You may wish to be the humblest servant of the Kaiser,” Oberstein said, “but you are also a servant of all twenty five billion people the Kaiser rules. If they were to lose a talented and faithful servant such as you to a mistake , the universe would be far worse off.”

Yang looked at Oberstein steadily. “If you say that the balance of potential future actions for many always outweighs immediate action for a few, what reason does anyone have to do anything?”

Oberstein didn’t flinch from Yang’s gaze. “There are many sacrifices that are worth making, but they should rarely be made on a whim. The universe can rejoice that things turned out well now, but you should avoid making such mistakes in the future.”

“I will keep that in mind, sir,” Yang said.

“Your new posting should suit you well,” Oberstein said, switching gears, though his tone remained flat. “It’s a coveted one.”

“I will try to make the best of it,” Yang said. “Do you ever come to Odin?”

“On occasion.”

“I hope you’ll come see me, then,” Yang said. “It’s good to have someone to talk to.”

“I am glad we seem to understand each other.”

“Yes, I think we do,” Yang said.

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A note from javert

I'm sorry to everyone who last chapter was like "aw I'm glad Merkatz is Yang's mentor, that's really fun". I wanted to say lol that's not going to last very long. But that would have been spoilers :p

Anyway congratulations to Yang for making it one whole chapter before doing a treason. Good job. Merkatz doesn't want to completely destroy Yang b/c he personally likes him but he's also like "oh my god this man cannot be trusted on the front lines, he needs to go somewhere else until he can learn how to behave". yang wen-li timeout.

Yang thinks he and Oberstein are operating on the same wavelength, but they absolutely are not lmao. Yang is capable of making friends with like, anybody, but you have to think. has anyone ever actually considered oberstein their friend? lmao. "nice to see a friendly face" yang your standards are on the FLOOR.

none of the numbers on this show make any sense whatsoever. in the gaiden ep abt el facil (spiral labyrinth #1) it looks like there's like 15 ships that evacuate all 3 million people. lol. it don't make no cents luv. anyway, I also moved the date of the el facil incident to be more convenient to me. don't worry about the dates of anything too much >.>

I tried to hint in part 2 that things on el facil did not go nearly as well for the citizens of the planet in this timeline. sucks to suck if you ended up stuck on the planet, which way more people did here b/c yang wasn't there on the ground to help organize everyone and escape, so it probably ended up turning into riots w/ everyone trying to get onto any ship that would take them. and then people who got left behind... well... not an ideal time, we can say, I suppose

Merkatz ends up with the bleeding head wound b/c it's plot convenient lmao. had to use that excuse up real quick

the names of the ships that Warrensburg and Yang/Merkatz end up transferring to are Prinz der Luther and Prinz der Wale. In the song 'the coast of high barbaree'-- there were two lovely ships / from old england came / blow high, blow low, and so sail we / one was the prince of luther / the other prince of wales / cruising down the coast of the high barbaree

Thank you to the wonderful helpful Lydia for beta reading + idea bouncing. 


About the author

javert

Bio: hi I'm noodle, I studied aeronautical engineering in college, then I taught high school math. now I'm [redacted] and [remainder of message lost].

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