Threedak’s attention snapped back to the plot as both sets of rockets drifted within range of the other fleet’s screening elements. The holograph flashed as the screening vessels did their best to penetrate the incoming rocket swarms’ electronic countermeasures long enough for their lasers to tag them. The rocket tally quickly ticked down as lasers blinded or outright destroyed them. A breath later, they passed into projectile range and the fleets’ drones swarmed into position, spitting hyper accelerated clouds of dust at the rockets.
Then the first volley passed both screens, screaming electronic defiance at targeting computers as they shifted back and forth, trying to give the defenders’ lasers the most elusive profile possible. Kahtash gritted her teeth on camera as the Empress Threedak jerked back and forth, its heavy thrusters tossing the Dhajtel around in their couches as the pre-programmed evasive maneuvers did their best to avoid the rocket swarm.
The fleet’s icons flickered as their point defenses activated. Lasers blinked to life, invisible except when they struck a rocket, superheating their armor as they attempted to melt through and detonate the weapons before they could rotate or jet away. Counter rockets launched themselves across the fleet, their heavy but inefficient engines letting them sprint across the void to annihilate themselves in flashes of nuclear fury, occasionally taking an enemy rocket with them.
Threedak blinked, barely able to make sense of the tapestry of rockets weaving and dying, fed to the command center by the Empress Threedak’s sensors. The dizzying display ended almost as soon as it began, the incredible relative speed of the enemy rockets plowing through the fleet’s point defense envelope and into range of the last ditch kinetic weapon systems in the blink of an eye.
The rockets exploded, blanketing the William Drisco, a torchship chosen seemingly at random, in flashes of white light, visible even from the Empress Threedak’s bridge. The Drisco managed to shake off almost half of the forty remaining rockets and all of the fusion warheads. Still, twenty warheads exploded near enough to the twisting and weaving ship to into it with x-ray lasers.
Armor and external weapons melted off of the Drisco as it rocked, chunks of the vessel disappearing in rapidly expanding spheres of plasma. Even though the lasers themselves didn’t have any appreciable kinetic force, the explosions caused by their interaction with the ship’s armor was more than enough to throw it at least partially out of formation.
Threedak held her breath, watching the ship’s icons flicker as it labored under the invaders’ body blows. Finally, the storm relented and Drisco accelerated back into formation trailing a thin stream of metal and gas. Next to her, Beckai sighed.
“Both reactors and the main cannon are still intact,” her daughter whispered, almost to herself, as her eyes remained glued to the plot. “It looks like that round was mostly superficial damage.”
“So they’re all right then?” Dahlass asked, wringing her graspers together.
“What,” Bekai glanced back at Dahlass, startled by realizing that others had heard her.
“Not really,” Bekai continued grimly. “The Drisco made it through that volley with minimal damage, but that was at the expense of most of their armor. Both sides fired six waves of rockets. If another one targets the Drisco it’s in trouble. If two target it-”
Bekai shrugged as her tail flicked against the ground. “All it takes is a lucky shot to a coolant regulator on a reactor or engine and the entire ship is gone. If you don’t hit something vital with a laser, torchships can take a lot of beating but with the number of warheads getting thrown around it’s only a matter of time before they do hit something vital. Well, either that or the lasers pick off enough close in weapons systems and maneuvering thrusters to drop a couple fusion warheads on it. That’ll end things real fast.”
On the plot, one of the invader torchships shuddered, slowing noticeably as the icons for Dhajtel rockets flickered around it. A flashing icon appeared next to the ship’s red triangle, indicating both that its heat signature had diminished and that it was streaming oxygen. Threedak hissed. That meant that their armor was breached and at least one reactor was down. It was a harsh calculus, but as badly as the Drisco was damaged, they’d savaged the enemy in exchange.
The battle raged on. Screens built up dangerous levels of heat as they did their best to intercept incoming waves of rockets, firing their lasers with abandon in an attempt to spare the rest of the fleet from the tides of nuclear fire washing toward it. Still, casualties mounted. The Drisco dropped out of formation, accelerating perpendicular to the vectors of the two fleets attacking each other, notifications next to its icon indicating that over one hundred Dhajtel had died when laser pulses superheated the command station on a gunnery deck and a full marine company’s living quarters.
Another torchship, the Wang Xinyue, suffered a similar fate. After two volleys of rockets, including one strike from a fusion warhead, its armor was about as useful as wet paper, forcing it to limp away as well, its acceleration curbed by a laser strike that took out a regulator on one of its two fusion reactors, making it unsafe to operate.
On the invader side, the damage was even worse. The second volley ripped deeply into the first enemy torchship, gutting its sides and dropping its engine output below 10%. The rest of the invader fleet slowed to match, dropping some of their maneuverability in order to keep the wounded vessel within range of their point defense lasers.
The second vessel faired worse. The first volley easily overwhelmed the invaders’ point defenses before it tore into the torchship, melting almost all of its armor off and likely disabling its main cannon. The follow up rockets finished the kill. X-rays from the laser warheads strobed through almost nonexistent armor, disabling systems and ripping through internal structural supports. Then two fusion warheads went off, one after another, mere hundreds of meters from the torchship. Energy and radiation bathed the vessel, and when the flash faded all that remained was a twisted and glowing hulk of metal.
The final two volleys were especially brutal as the screens struggled to get into position, many only firing off a couple of halfhearted laser shots that did little more than heat up a couple armor panels at extreme range. The smaller vessels would need time to run their radiators before they could truly contribute to the battle. Already their coolant reserves had run dry as they used everything on hand to keep up with the frenetic pace of the conflict.
Without the screens’ help, the Franklin Mitchell was pounded by rocket after rocket. In places, space could be seen through the holes bored into it by the invaders’ x-ray lasers. Somehow, despite almost sixty hits, streaming air and floating dead in space, the vessel lived. It subsisted on emergency power, reporting that its main gun and both reactors were disabled. The acting captain, from a bridge open to vacuum, a great hole through the section where the captain should have sat, stated horsley that she had hope that they be able to bring one reactor online and limp home
On the invader side, the third vessel was simply erased from existence. Over a hundred rockets detonated around it in the first wave, riddling it with holes and letting a fusion warhead sneak near enough to melt the front third of the ship. The second volley couldn’t be reprogrammed at range, something proposed by a human admiral that had thought himself clever until the invaders simply turned off all of his rockets and promptly killed him. Instead, it plowed into the shredded mess of the injured vessel uncontested. The invaders didn’t even bother wasting resources and coolant protecting the hulk.
Fifteen fusion warheads detonated at point blank range, rendering the hundred and fifty or so laser pulses moot. The ship disintegrated, its component pieces practically glowing with heat and radiation. Threedak turned her head as Bekai thrummed unhappily.
“We have to do better Mother,” Bekai muttered glumly, her neck pouches filling and emptying as she tried to keep her anger in check. “We fired almost twice as many rockets and had almost twice the weight of defensive fire and we only landed about forty percent more hits. We should have hit them two to three times more often than they hit us. I don’t know if it’s a question of equipment or technical proficiency with the equipment, but those aren’t the numbers of someone who plans on winning a war.”
“At least someone who plans on winning a war without a massive numerical advantage,” Bekai shrugged, her muzzle still set in a pensive grimace.
“Given the invaders’ inability to resupply,” Dahlass interjected quietly, her whisper of a voice carrying across the entirety of the almost silent command center, “they likely don’t breed at the same rate as us. If all else fails, so long as we are given time, we will have the numerical superiority we will need. Burying them in bodies might not be the most glamorous of victories, but if it will keep our daughters safe, we will do what we must.”
“Well said,” Threedak nodded to Dahlass, warmth running through her. “The stars are our birthright, and if we must walk through a sea of flames to claim it, so be it. I would prefer the Dhajtel to lead peaceful lives, like the humans, but that simply isn’t the way of things.”
“Mother,” Bekai motioned with her head toward the plot as the two opposing screens accelerated toward each other
Seconds later the heavy guns on both fleets opened fire. Threedak’s muzzle split into a predatory grin as the four cannons on her namsake supplemented the single weapon on the three active torch ships. That was why Kahtash had held off against the enemy station. To prevent the invaders from seeing the massive close range firepower mounted on the Empress Threedak in the hope that it would be able to avoid enemy fire long enough to close range.
The invaders' return fire only amounted to two cannons, crippled to the point of borderline uselessness. Technically at close range it could still use its minimal lasers and close in weapons systems to harm another ship, but the chances of anything approaching to that range were miniscule. In short, the Empress Threedak mounted twice as many long range cannons as the entirety of the invading fleet.
The shells raced past the respective screens as they pushed their engines to get within knife distance to use their unguided railguns. At the last second, the shells shattered into flechettes, showering the dodging invader ships with slivers of heavy metal. The bridge of the Empress Threedak shuddered slightly as the ship shrugged off a handful of the penetrators, but the invaders weren’t so lucky.
Whatever the Dhajtel’s weakness in rocket combat, it didn’t extend to electromagnetic cannons. One of the two invader vessels erupted in a flash of light as the flechettes peppering its surface shattered the armor and containment housing on its fusion torch. For a brief second, the caged sun that was the ship’s engine was exposed to the void of space, and then the magnetic bottle shielding it evaporated, taking the rest of the ship with it. The other ship weathered the storm of metal, limping out the other side streaming oxygen and debris as its power and heat levels fluctuated noticeably.
The second volley hit, effectively ending the battle. Once again, the Empress Threedak took some glancing blows without any casualties, but the invaders couldn’t say the same. Mixed in with the stream of flechette shells, Kahtash included some penetrators, and at least one hit the invader torchship as it struggled to avoid the Dhajtel fire with its weakened engines. The multiple kilogram shipkiller took it in the upper third of its cylindrical form with the force and subtlety of a freight train. The slug entered through a hole the size of a small sedan, and exited in a plume of plasma that simply ruptured the side of the torchship.
The shot took down the ship’s struggling electrical system, and without thrusters to counter the force of the blow, the ship on its axis like top. Then the flechettes hit, riddling the already disabled hulk of metal. It floated in space, aimless and crippled for a full five seconds before the third volley, four precisely aimed solid penetrators from the Empress Threedak, struck it, shattering its keel and reducing the ship to little more than scrap metal.
Cheering erupted in the command center, eliciting a frown from Threedak. Although the battle was decided, the invaders fought on, their screens and drones struggling at close range against their Dhajtel counterparts. Even as the analysts and warriors of Meridian Station cracked open bottles of fizzy fermented drinks, Dhatjel bled and died futilely against their foes, their ships too close for the torchships to intervene, and their velocities too high to avoid the enemy.
Quietly, Dahlass made to leave. She’d never been one for celebrations and she clearly didn’t want to be caught up in this one. Threedak shook her head and raised a grasper to stop her daughter.
“The battle isn’t over,” she nodded at the plot where both green and red squares flickered and disappeared. “They are still dying for us. The least we can do is stand by and watch their sacrifice.”