Threedak gripped the rests on her couch and leaned toward the hologram. A flick of her graspers later and the technical data on the torchship popped up on the display. Inside her head, the hazy figment of Dennis Billings screamed concerns and advice at her, pacing back and forth nervously. His memories detailed the deficiencies of the human ships her navy was based on when compared against the invaders.
Mostly it was a matter of efficiency. The invaders, like the Dhajtel, could survive higher rates of acceleration than the squishy humans making their screening vessels faster and more maneuverable. Her analysts still predicted that the invaders would hold a slight edge over the more agile Dhajtel vessels, but it would be a near thing. Other than that, the invaders just seemed slightly better at everything: their lasers fired a hair quicker at a bit higher of a wattage than the comparable human weapons, their kinetic drivers fired faster and larger shells, and perhaps most disturbingly, their ships dispersed and radiated heat much better than any human vessel.
In a long fight, that ability to disperse heat might be the difference between victory and defeat. Engines and weaponry produced an immense amount of heat, and unfortunately, vacuum was one of the best insulators in existence. Every ship in the navy armored radiators to help prevent heat buildup, but as the ranges between vessels closed, even an armored radiator became an easy target. It was standard practice to make the radiators retractable so that combat vessels could hide them in armored bays in order to prevent them from immediately being melted off the side of a ship via laser fire.
Unfortunately, a retracted radiator didn’t work. Ships could still shunt excess heat into substances like water and eject that water into space. In fact, many military ships used puffs of superheated steam for maneuvering thrusters rather than inert gases for exactly that reason. Still, both Kahtash and Threedak were concerned that their ships had a shorter combat window at full effectiveness than their enemies.
“This is Imperial command to Captain Laksheer of the Ashley Koenig,” Kahtash’s voice spoke again from the intercom. Threedak felt some calm slip over her as she heard her daughter's voice, clipped and professional. “You will order the rest of your convoy to return to Dhaj. Then you will advance to meet the enemy, detaching screening vessels at an appropriate distance. Do not set a course to match, and do not engage in a direct intercept, try to accelerate past them.”
Threedak waited, her tail flicking nervously in the sterile, climate controlled air of her office. After just over a minute of lag, the time it took for Kahtash’s orders to travel to the Ashley Koenig, Captain Laksheer to listen to them and respond back, the response came.
“Acknowledged Admiral Kahtash,” Laksheer was a smaller Dhajtel, almost cobalt in color as Threedak recalled her. Her voice was high pitched and warbled slightly as breath passed her neck pouches when she was agitated. Right now, her voice was almost indecipherable through the high pitched buzz. “Please confirm that you want us to accelerate past the enemy ships. Holding range and maneuvering defensively would let us maintain an optimal engagement envelope.”
“That is confirmed Captain,” Kahtash replied immediately, her voice as calm despite the panic beginning to fill Meridian Station. “You appear to be outnumbered three to one by the invaders. If they truly have three torchships your chances of winning a toe to toe battle are minimal. Your only chance at getting out of here alive is to get enough momentum that they cannot pursue you as you fly past them. At this point your primary objective is drawing the enemy away from the convoy. The Ashley Koenig’s survival is secondary and the survival of your screening vessels is considered unlikely.”
Then came the wait. Threedak coughed into her grasper, each spasm of her lungs causing her neck pouches to flutter weakly. She pulled herself up in the command couch, remembering Dormah’s advice that she fix her posture so that her lungs could operate properly. More than anything, Threedak was glad that she was alone in this moment of weakness. The last thing her daughters needed in the middle of this crisis was to see their mother struggling. They would worry and fret about her, distracting them from the very real existential threat represented by the trio of red triangles on the system map.
Finally, Captain Laksheer acknowledged her orders emotionlessly and the ships began to move. With glacial speed, the transports began to shed their excess velocity, braking as one before reversing course and beginning the fuel heavy journey home. The Ashley Koenig changed course, looking to use Hector and Gabriel’s gravity well to slingshot it at an angle past the oncoming enemy ships.
Threedak sighed. In a way, she missed the old days when she could personally lead the charge, clad in steel and swinging a sword. Both battle groups were almost eight hours outside of their engagement windows, and even then she would be nothing more than a passive observer, receiving footage of the actual warriors fighting almost thirty seconds to a minute after it actually occurred.
She stood up from her command couch and began walking, suppressing as best she could the involuntary winces caused by the litany of aches and pains that afflicted her. Dormah told her that Dhajtel weren’t supposed to age, just get bigger. Unlike humans, their cell replication wasn’t fatally flawed, doomed to create progressively deadlier mistakes as their telomeres failed. Still, many of the-
The doors to Meridian Station’s command center opened before her. The buzz and constant activity quieted at her arrival, the faces of the soldiers staring up at her with reverent awe. Threedak nodded to them as she strolled past, stopping when she was shoulder to shoulder with Kahtash where the younger Dhajtel was frantically paging through reports on the screen in front of her.
“What’s going to happen out there?” Threedak asked her daughter quietly, staring patiently at the huge holographic system map that filled the middle of the command center. Kahtash and her were an island of calm as the storm of activity resumed around them, Dhajtel frantically returning to work searching for an advantage in the current situation.
“Laksheer is probably going to die,” Kahtash responded grimly. “Even if she makes it past the enemy ships, her vessel is going to be crippled and probably irradiated. In better times we could track it down with civilian tugs and retrieve it, but anyone I send out is just one more casualty of the invaders waiting to be counted.”
Kahtash sighed, running a grasper over her dry facial scales. “I think Laksheer knows it too,” she continued, notes of melancholy invading her usually stoic delivery. “The best we can hope for is that she draws the enemy ships away from the civilians. The current plan has the highest probability of her surviving and drawing the invaders away, but it doesn’t look great for her. In all likelihood, the invaders will change their headings to engage her, allowing the civilians to get away but sealing her fate.”
“That’s why her vector brings her past the invaders without plowing through them,” a croon of despair filled Threedak’s voice. “The amount of thrust and time it takes to match course with the Ashley Koenig is designed to buy the colony fleet’s escape.”
She paused, looking up at her daughter. Her tongue tasted the metallic air of the command room. “How do we know that the invaders will pursue?” She asked quietly. “What do we do if they ignore Laksheer and just attack the fleet?”
“If that happens we lose even more daughters and sisters,” Kahtash’s membranes nictated over her eyes, her voice resolute. “It shouldn’t though, the invaders weren’t ones to ignore a challenge to their might. Once the Koenig opens fire on them, they will pursue. They always have before.”
They sat in silence, Threedak suppressing her occasional need to cough, as time ticked down. After an hour or so passed, orderlies came into the command center, passing out meals of freeze dried meat. Technically, the shift changed, but none of the Dhajtel shifted from their couches. On the screen, the green and red dots drifted closer together with an almost glacial inevitability. Even before they closed into weapon range, the invader vessels began adjusting their courses to intercept the Ashley Koenig.
When the ships were almost forty five minutes away from each other, the intercom stirred.
“This is Captain Laksheer,” grim determination had replaced the high pitched anxiety in her voice. “We are detaching screening vessels and preparing to engage now. We will continue to broadcast as long as we can. If anything-”
The gentle hiss imparted to the transmission by background radiation continued, but Laksheer stopped. Silence filled the command center.
“Make sure our daughters know,” Laksheer finished, her voice heavy. “I want you to make sure they know that this was for them.”
Threedak put her grasper on Kahtash’s shoulder, shaking her head briefly. She leaned forward, pressing the transmission button on Kahtash’s command couch.
“This is the Empress,” she spoke, her tail flicking in agitation. “I will make sure that they know what their mothers did.”
The command center waited in silence. Two minutes passed. Much longer than the delay from lightspeed transmission could justify.
“Thank you Empress,” Laksheer replied quietly. “Thank you for everything.”
Around the command center, five screens lit up, each showing the bridge of a Dhajtel vessel. The Ashley Koenig’s was the largest, at approximately five by ten meters, seating seven Dhajtel. Laksheer stood tall in front of her command couch, soft vacuum suit obscuring her brilliant blue scales everywhere but her face. Wordlessly she made a motion with one of her graspers before pulling down the mirrored face guard.
On the holographic map, the four green squares representing the Kithra class screening vessels detached from the Ashley Koenig, racing ahead of it and taking up station between the torchship and her enemies. A cloud of green motes exited the Koenig’s hanger bay as the ship’s drone fighters flew toward the screeners. In all, 34 ships stood between the Ashley Koenig and the invaders.
The plot updated, and the invaders followed suit. Luckily, the invaders weren’t fully provisioned, but they still managed to field seven screening vessels and fifty fighters. Threedak hissed in displeasure. Even with almost half of their support vessels destroyed or lost, the invaders outnumbered her kin almost two to one.
The bridge of the Koenig shook slightly as the vessel fired a salvo of long ranged rockets before changing course. A second later, all of the screening ships shook as well, adding the weight of their rocket tubes to the Koenig’s. Then, Dhajtel of the smaller ships were pressed into their couches as they began accelerating toward the enemy, occasionally jerking to the side as their lateral thrusters kept them moving evasively.
On screen the two waves of rockets merged, matching speeds as they raced toward the Invaders. In all, there were thirty six of the weapons, twenty from the torchship and four from each of the screening vessels, containing a variety of warheads. Some were simple fusion weapons, deadly up close but hard to strike an evading target with in the vastness of space. Others carried nothing but electronic countermeasure suites. Although they were little more than sensitive and expensive projectiles on their own, their presence would shield and protect the rest of the salvo from the enemy’s point defense.
The remaining majority of the rockets carried laser warheads. Technically, they were also nuclear weapons, but they came with aiming mechanisms and control rods that would direct the usually unfocused radiation from a nuclear blast into a coherent and deadly stream of x-rays. The laser warheads weren’t nearly as deadly as a direct fusion blast, but they could strike opponents from much further out at the speed of light, minimizing the defender’s ability to shoot them down with point defense or dodge.
The invaders fired their own wave of rockets. Ninety. Threedak grimaced. The invaders traditionally didn’t put rockets on their screening vessels, instead using that space for closer ranged weapons. They made up for it with thirty tubes per torchship, and by the look of the plot, all of them were in working order.
Both sides continued firing. Three salvos from the invaders and seven more from the Dhajtel. It was possible that the invaders were saving ammunition for future encounters, but the Dhajtel didn’t have that luxury. Each rocket saved was just one more that could blow up in a magazine from an unlucky hit.
Then first stages of both sets of rockets guttered out and the weapons went ballistic. In a couple of seconds both clusters of rockets would enter their final stage, igniting higher performance engines to draw close to their enemies and unleash their deadly payloads.
The Dhajtel vessels took advantage of that lull in the invader’s guidance systems to go full evasive. On the bridge of each ship, all of the Dhajtel were now pressed deep into their command couches as their ships danced and juked, trying to prevent enemy weapons from closing in on them. Threedak knew that even now, the suits were restricting blood flow to their legs and tails, attempting to keep the crew conscious while the cushioned walls of their couches prevented them from being bruised and injured.
In the command center, silence reigned. Threedak held her breath, steeling herself for the chaos when the rockets struck.