The bridge of the Empress Threedak slipped into tense silence on the viewscreen. The Dhajtel settled into their couches, steeling themselves against the g forces as the fleet increased its burn rate. Next to Threedak, Bekai glanced at her worriedly. Threedak kept her gaze on the monitor. Her daughter’s concern and curiosity could wait for another couple of days. For the moment, she refused to split her attention from the cameras watching her and the viewscreen. Even if each breath felt like she was sucking down hot glass, history demanded that she stand tall in this moment.
Almost as one the invader ships began clustering around the moon’s station, powering up their engines and moving periodically so as to prevent Kahtash’s fleet from hitting them with any kinetic shells at extreme range. Theoretically, in space there was nothing to stop a projectile so long as the pull of the nearby gas giant’s gravity was taken into account. That said, compared to lasers, even the fastest kinetic penetrators moved at an absolute crawl. Past a certain range, even the newest whelp could simply track incoming rounds and drift out of the way with a minimal expenditure of reaction mass.
“It looks like they see us girls,” Kahtash’s voice was slightly off pitch as the inertia compressed her into her command couch. “All torchships, please target the enemy station with your main cannons. Arm penetrators and fire one volley at 907 hours precisely. Fire a second volley at 909 hours. We will assess damage after the kinetics hit. At a very minimum we can keep them on their toes. Force them to deploy screens and fighters to protect the station long before we get into range.”
Kahtash flicked out her tongue instinctively, tasting the stale air inside of her helmet. “So far the invaders have deployed fewer screening vessels per torchship than expected and displayed an unwillingness to fire their full complement of rockets. It’s a guess but our analysts think we have the resource advantage. If they are having trouble rearming or refueling, trading slugs for their screen’s reaction mass at range will only increase our chances when we get closer.”
Threedak’s eyes flicked to the command center’s indicators. The meter marking each torchship’s capacitor banks filled, changing from yellow to green. They fired their volley silently, each torchship rocking as the heavy shells traveled the entire length of the vessel only to be flung at incredible speed into the emptiness of space. Two minutes later, the torchships shook once again as the second volley was dumped into space.
The ships didn’t even retract their radiators, dumping the heat from their constantly accelerating drives and heavy cannons as rapidly as possible into the depths of space. Yellow indicators began to fade toward green as the heat sinks returned to their nominal state.
Threedak flicked her tongue, nodding to herself. That was yet another benefit of firing at great range. Without the credible risk of return fire, Kahtash could maintain a measured rate of fire, allowing each torchship enough time to shed heat without resorting to venting finite coolant. Functionally, all the cannonade cost her fleet was the reaction mass needed to power the cannons and an easily replaceable kinetic penetrator.
Although Dennis Billing hadn’t invented the tactic, he had popularized it, allowing human fleets to destroy fixed invader assets at long range before they were driven off by the enemies much larger fleets. He called the strategy ‘defense in depth,’ and relied upon Partisan class light cruisers to destroy invader fuel dumps and supply depots in systems that they had otherwise taken from humanity. Only through the slow buildup of overwhelming force were the invaders able to push Dennis’ forces back, buying humanity months and years worth of time.
Even if the war ultimately was futile, Dennis’ strategy proved itself once again. The station, knowing its fate, deployed almost one hundred drones and opened fire on the fleet. Three heavy kinetic cannons joined almost forty missile tubes, spitting death at the Dhajtel far outside of their range.
Without pause, the navigator on the Empress Threedak rapped her four fingers across the control panel next to her couch. The fleet shifted course slightly, a fraction of a degree in heading more than enough at their range and speed to divert the ships well away from the oncoming fire. That would be the fate of all attacks at extreme range against a moving target. Rockets and kinetic shells wouldn't have the fuel to track Kahtash’s fleet while it adjusted course, rendering them about as useful as firing a crossbow at a fly.
Still, the station kept firing, the torchships surrounding it burning their engines heavily to move toward the Dhajtel fleet now that Kahtash’s strategy was revealed. Threedak thrummed with approval. If the invaders deployed screening vessels to try and shoot down the incoming rockets it would mean that they had the fuel and supplies for a protracted conflict. By abandoning the station, not only did the invaders consign it to its fate, but they tipped whatever passed for hands to their lack of supply.
Minutes passed in silence as the Dhajtel fleet fell into a repetitive pattern. The station would fire a volley of slugs and rockets. Slight adjustments would be made to ensure the projectiles would go far wide of the fleet. Then the process would repeat itself. Only after a couple minutes of fire did the fleet have to make a more substantial burn once the navigator pointed out that the station’s attacks were attempting to box them in. Even then, the solution was simply a minute of burn on a perpendicular course.
The blips on the plot that represented the two volleys of kinetic shells intersected with the marker representing the station. On screen the blurry flashes of heat and radiation that represented the station’s close in defenses flared as it tried to shoot down the penetrators. Ultimately, the effort was largely futile. Kinetic attacks didn’t carry the sensitive electronics, warheads, and rocket fuel that lasers were designed to detonate or disable. Only lucky shots, delivering enough energy to the spinning sides of a slug to divert its course, actually managed to do anything and those were too few to matter.
Where a moving ship might only be hit by a handful of penetrators or a cluster of flechettes, the station crumpled under the fusilade. In the first volley, all eighteen shells were on target and only four were deflected by the station’s last ditch defensive fire. The remaining fourteen punched through the stations’ lightly armored hull, sending searing lances of flame, debris and plasma out the other end as they pierced it cleanly.
Only ten of the slugs from the second volley were on target as their microcomputers frantically tried to adjust their course to match the station which was now spinning as it vented oxygen and twisted slabs of metal. The station didn’t have any further fight in it. Point defense didn’t even try to defend it, instead letting all of the attacking penetrators through.
In a flash of white light, the station’s fusion reactor lost containment and it erased itself from the plot. Around the command center, Dhajtel began cheering. Even Threedak broke into a grin, slapping her graspers onto Bekai and Dahless’ shoulders.
“Look at your sister,” she thrummed proudly. “Kahtash has wet her fangs first, and all without the loss of a single Dhajtel life.”
“There is more battle yet to be fought,” Bekai replied, sighing. “Plenty of time for the invaders to spend Dhajtel lives in a futile defense. Still-”
Bekai paused, leaning forward to take in the multitude of bars and indicators in the corner of the combat plot. “The fleet appears to be operating without any major problems,” she continued, satisfaction in her voice. “I don’t see any evidence of heat or power spikes that would indicate a malfunction. If there are going to be any problems, they haven’t reared their heads yet.”
“There won’t be Bekai,” Threedak smiled warmly at her daughter. “You always fret over your creations, never content with them as they are. It’s what makes you a great inventor, but this anxiety is a strange fit for you. I’m used to seeing the fire of your forges in your eyes when you argue with me.”
“They’re detaching screens,” Dahlass interjected quietly, ending any further banter as both Threedak and Bekai turned back to the plot.
Thirty four green squares, representing the Kithra class screening vessels detached from the Dhajtel fleet. Four from each torchship and ten from the Empress Threedak herself. They surged forward from the fleet, a brilliant stream of green that was quickly joined by a swarm of drones.
The invaders followed suit, but the second their screens detached, Threedak hissed in triumph. The five enemy torchships only managed to field eleven screening vessels and just over half the projected complement of drones. Their analysts had been right. The invaders were isolated, unable to replenish their losses from the previous engagement.
The two walls of screens took up position in front of their respective fleets as the ships drifted into rocket range. Threedak’s graspers tightened on her daughters’ shoulders. This was it. They were seconds away from avenging Captain Laksheer’s martyrdom and striking the first blow against the invaders. They had always been an implacable foe. Their numbers and technology made them a daunting foe, seemingly beyond reach, but today the Dhajtel would sink their teeth into the invaders’ throats. They would show that their foe could bleed.
“Target the enemy torchships and prepare to fire rockets,” Kahtash spoke on screen, her voice clipped and formal. “Focus all fire on one ship at a time. Two volleys per ship. One of them will get away unscathed, but with any luck we’ll completely overwhelm their point defenses and score a kill or two at range.”
On camera, a Dhajtel in a gunner’s couch nodded before hunching forward, frantically plotting the firing solution for the entire fleet. About five seconds later the larger ships fired, one hundred and sixty rockets. Staggered shortly thereafter the screening forces fired as well, adding another one hundred and thirty six to the volley as the clusters of rockets merged together before screaming toward the invaders.
The invaders fired back, their torchships only managing to field one hundred and forty six rockets in each of their six volleys. Given that each invader torchship traditionally carried thirty rocket tubes, that meant that in all likelihood some of the invader ships were still damaged or suffering from some sort of malfunction. Threedak leaned forward, a predatory grin crossing her muzzle. Yet more evidence that the enemy fleet was out of supply and low on resources.
As the facts mounted, Threedak did her best to keep her relief from her face. The Dhajtel needed to see her proud and assured, a monument to their race’s success and confidence. They couldn’t know how worried she had been since the Battle of Gabriel that the invaders had sent a messenger home. Even if her race scored a victory here, they were far from ready to face the juggernaut that was the full invader fleet. What the Dhajtel needed was time. Time to build and grow. Time. She sighed, a hint of sorrow flashing across her face.
Dahlass placed her grasper over Threedaks’ and looked up at her. Threedak turned her head to say something, but the words caught in her throat. Dahlass’ eyes were fixed on her. Emotions flickered through Threedak. Pride in her daughters. They’d accomplished so much so quickly. Anxiety, even if they won this battle the Dhajtel had centuries of warfare before them.
More than anything, she felt love. An alien emotion, introduced by her human memories, but she didn’t have another word for it. Decades of labor and care connected her to both her daughters and her people. She’d tried to take as much of the struggle upon herself as she could. The worries, the late nights and the burden of making the tough choices their society would need to survive.
She saw it all reflected in Dahlass’ face. Her daughter might not speak up much, but she cared. For Threedak and her sisters. For the Dhajtel race as a whole.
Threedak simply smiled back, the expression bittersweet. For all of her efforts to spare her daughters, the one thing they didn’t have was time.