Nalia stared at the numerous reports on her datapad. One set, translated from the original Kenzenken, spoke of numerous rebel fleet movements in a vague poetic manner. Republic sensors reported sightings of Kenzenken Thunderbirds all across their shared borders. She attempted to make sense of the jumble of information on that small screen.
“Why do people have to make this so difficult? Don’t they know that the war is over? Now is the time for building bridges, not firing missiles!” she said. So engrossed was she in her thoughts, she didn’t notice the concerned look from the young man sitting across from her.
“We wouldn’t be in this mess if you didn’t have pilots with itchy trigger fingers patrolling your borders!” The Takawan representative slammed his hands down on the conference table. There was a slight rumble in the Kenzenken bulkhead.
Captain Atranas held her head in her hands. “Mr. Zhang. We are getting nowhere with this conversation. We need to focus on the problem at hand, not snipe at each other about past mistakes. You misdirect your anger; this rebellion was brewing long before the incident.”
Nalia felt a pang of regret for Alan. She had wanted to see him after the inquest. But duty to the Republic and to lasting peace required her to see this mission through. By the time she was able to get a message back to Republic space, he had long disappeared. Well, he probably wouldn’t have answered anyway. The last time they saw each other, he left shattered plates and overturned tables all over the restaurant while storming off, all because she had wanted him to let go of the missing Mihaela. She had tried to help him, but he refused.
Mr. Zhang’s wild and perhaps exaggerated gesticulations interrupted her thought proceses. “Problem? Not from our end. It’s your side that’s responsible. ‘We need an investigation.’ ‘Proper procedures must be followed.’ Did you know how that made the Prime Minister look? We looked like emasculated poodles, all because you wouldn’t extradite that murderer. And look at us now, we have to crawl on our knees and beg while you dither!”
The captain sighed. “You can’t conjure up a fleet out of thin air. It takes time to gather our strength. May I remind you that the last battle between us severely depleted both our forces? We need more time.”
“Ah yes. You need time to build a fleet. Yet that sort of fleet appeared quite quickly when you decided to violate the neutrality of Yukaze!”
“Do we really need to bring up the war right now?” Atranas’s eyes blazed. “Fine. Let’s play your game. You people already had your hands all over that colony. Advisors. Corporate takeovers. A new and suspiciously receptive government. We came to free them from your interference.”
The old man opened and closed his eyes again with exaggerate slowness, as if he was speaking to a stubborn child. “We were not interfering with them. We were doing business with them. You may dislike us because of our corporate origins, but at least we don’t plant a flag in the dirt and declare something ours! Nor do we send warships everywhere on a whim. You forced them to come to us for protection.”
Atranas swept her arm in front of her. “And now they’re part of the Coalition. How convenient. You bleat about the costliness of this war, but neglect to mention its profitability.” She stopped, appearing as if she had more to say but thought better of it. “Regardless, fighting an interstellar war over a single colony was a grave mistake for both sides. We need to put aside the past. It would be an even greater mistake to bring up old wounds while in the midst of a crisis. You…we… need to cooperate to resolve this.”
Nalia felt the tension in the room and for good reason. Three months since that first operation, the dreaded Kenzenken Civil War had begun. Six worlds had declared independence from the Coalition and twelve more were threatening to do so. The military’s loyalties split almost down the middle. Countless outposts, starbases, and weapons caches were raided or seized by rebel forces. The situation grew out of control faster than they could read the daily reports. Compounding the problem was that most of the rebel leadership consisted of senior military personnel, particularly Warlord Batu, the butcher of New Atlanta. Too many fires to put out and not enough experienced commanders to fight back added to their troubles. In view of this situation, the Prime Minister had taken the unprecedented step of requesting Republic aid and proposing a joint task force.
At this moment, the Yasothon and her escorts flew alongside the Kenzenken Coalition fleet, a force hundreds of ships strong. It gave a measure of small comfort to her, as potential hostiles could pop out of anywhere, deep in Zenk space. They headed towards one the rebellion worlds, to retake it and score an early victory that would restore the confidence of the people.
“She’s right, Zhang. Maybe we win this one alone, but there are potentially hundreds of more places we need to be and we don’t have the manpower.” The voice came from Fleet Colonel Miyashiro, the man sitting across from her, the commander who destroyed the asteroid base earlier. He was a trim young man with a thick mane of hair, lean in his yellow and black uniform, with the darkest eyes she had ever seen. He stroked his close-shaved beard. “There’s something not right about this rebellion either. You’d think the rebels would be on the offensive. But aside from the first moves, they haven’t done anything at all. What are they planning?”
“They’re clearly in a position of weakness. We have the superior numbers and the superior industry, plus our erstwhile allies.” Mr. Zhang gave a sidelong glance to Atranas. She stared at him without expression. “They are clearly on the defensive.”
Nalia cleared her throat. “If I may interject, we have received reports of movement and probing actions near the Neutral Zone. What if they’re not on the offensive or the defensive, but planning something else? Perhaps a move out of Kenzenken space into Republic territory?”
Colonel Miyashiro gave her a look. She could not read his expression.
“You mean an invasion of the Republic? That would be suicide!” Atranas spoke with a sharp intake of breath. “They’re already outgunned by this fleet!”
“Nothing else makes sense. The more they wait, the harder it will get for them achieve anything.”
The colonel raised his hand. “Whatever we speculate, it can wait. We’re about to arrive.”
“Agreed,” Atranas replied, “Let’s head back, Officer Sargire.”
They picked up their things. Nalia looked at Miyashiro again. He nodded. Mr. Zhang closed his eyes and pinched his nose. “In want of a silken thread does the whole tapestry fall,” he murmured.
On the shuttle leaving the command and control ship, Nalia mulled over the previous discussion. “I’m still puzzled about the rebels’ strategy. What are they hoping to accomplish?”
Captain Atranas gripped a nearby railing. “I just want to get back to the ship. The war’s just restarted and we’re running around in the dark.”
Nalia had no reply. She lied back in her chair, thinking of the bloodshed to come.
The fleet emerged from the gridspace tesseract into a red dwarf star system, a hundred points of light winking into existence. Dark reddish grey energy expanded in their wake and quickly dissipated back into the grid. Giant columns of blue flames burst from each fusion engine as the fleet speeded towards a distant planet with brown continents and dark water.
In response, the rebel fleet emerged from the other side of the planet. They too arrived in large numbers, shapes of boxes and thrusters cobbled together into the objects of the Republic’s worst nightmares. Cruisers, corvettes, and destroyers to cover for the big guns. Dreadnaughts to bring the firepower. Two large ships in the back opened their hangars like butterflies opening their wings. Hundreds of one-man vessels, the famed Kenzenken Thunderbirds, launched from the numerous tube bays. Thousands of unmanned drones supported them. All turned towards the opposing fleet.
An equal reaction occurred in the loyalist fleet. Hundreds of their own Thunderbirds and drones flew out like bats out of hell. The Yasothon extended its shield coverage to its escorts and several other ships.
A broadcast on all channels came out. “This is Fleet Colonel Miyashiro Kenichi of the Tiger Fleet. Honor to all warriors in this arena. Our lives are but drops of dew in the streams of morning. The people of the Coalition call for our brothers and sisters to return together. You will be welcome at our tables.”
No reply came from the rebel fleet. Thousands of torpedoes launched. Thousands of torpedoes replied. The space in front of the planet soon erupted in light as railguns and point defense cannons burned into the gravity shields and finally, the hulls of ships. The Yasothon itself seemed an ill-fit member of the pack, a seemingly frail flower of cylinders, but nonetheless one with plenty of thorns. Its shields shrugged off the weapon impacts with ease. It created blossoms of almost invisible light from its laser arrays and particle cannons. Its own drones launched from its specialized hangar bays, assisting in intercepting torpedoes and escorting the Thunderbirds.
The Thunderbirds met each other. While their weapons were shorter range than the capital ships, they still fought at ranges in the thousands of kilometers. Their railgun cannons sheared and ripped their opponents’ hulls. They maneuvered vertically and laterally, dancing with partners far off beyond visual range. In a way, dogfighting still existed, since measures and countermeasures of AI predictive models went back and forth so much that only humans could break the tie. When they got close enough, they shot missiles that followed their targets through the depths of space, their own fusion trails following like roaring ghosts. A number of loyalist Thunderbirds and accompanying drones disengaged and burned straight toward the enemy fleet. The drones took point to defend against the retaliatory capital ship fire. Most were destroyed. However, a few broke through the defensive screen and the Thunderbirds followed. They proceeded to cause havoc, dodging point defense cannons as they destroyed subsystems and weapons ports.
A railgun slug pierced part of the Yasothon’s shield and broke outwards in an aft section. Inside, it shook with tremendous force as crewmen grabbed onto safety railings or fell towards the expanding shrapnel and fire engulfing the hull. Specialized repair drones rushed to seal the breach. Several levels collapsed under the stress. As if in anger, the laser and particle turrets of the Yasothon turned towards its attacker, a drifting cruiser, and launched a full barrage. A wall of phantom light swept from it, enough to lull anyone into a false sense of security. They obliterated the cruiser into a ball of electrons.
On the planet below, a flash of light appeared. A large ship emerged from the atmosphere. It was shaped like a bowl dotted with pylons and measured at least six kilometers in diameter. The rebel fleet started retreating towards it, firing railguns and torpedoes behind them. While armed with some weaponry, this special ship was not meant for war. For within its bowels, hundreds of thousands of colonists slept in stasis. As the fleet maneuvered around it into a sphere formation, the loyalists paused, as if confused. Missing no chance, the rebel fleet turned toward the system’s star and accelerated to maximum speed. The loyalists followed, discharging some weaponry, but taking care to avoid hitting the colony ship. As they continued their chase, the enemy Thunderbirds broke off, returning to their motherships.
As the pursuit continued, all the rebel ships diverted full power to engines, a fatal move for some as torpedoes ripped them apart. However, the loyalists stopped firing. They continued on, but their late acceleration hampered them from reaching their foes. Finally, a light flashed on the colony ship. The activation of its gridspace drive created a large ripple of reddish-grey energy. Simultaneously, the rest of the rebel fleet engaged their own drives, leaving trails of particles. Their brief exit into the grid left a final flash.
Fleet Colonel Miyashiro’s fleet regrouped around the rebel planet. The losses had been horrendous. Dozens of ships lost. Thousands of people. A few spewed gouts of flame and gas from their wounds. Some had wholly disabled engines and required towing. They were victorious.