Recommended listening: Fourth movement
of Nielsen's Fourth Symphony.Tourian Command Center, Zebes
1550 Hours Coalition Fleet Standard Time
"I give 'em full marks for persistence. I'd expected them to stop when they passed one kiloton per square kilometer, but nooo.
" Dr. Yamada gestured up at the main plot, where lines of yellow and orange had already blossomed along many of the planet's major fault lines- relatively minor earthquakes set off by the endless abuse. The drab greens were everywhere, battleship rounds landing every second.
"How much more can we take?"
"Lots, for the hardpoints. Their aim's still none too good. But that semi-random grid pattern fire isn't doing the troop shelters any good; structural caution alarms are already going off in a lot of places. Your ground forces are really
going to feel it if they don't decide to make landfall in the next twenty minutes or so."
"What do you predict?"
"No way to be sure; they seem to be enjoying this too much. But they can't keep it up forever- those ships only carry so much ammunition. If it comes to it, at this rate, unless my ammunition figures are way
off, they'll run out of bullets before we run out of stuff to prop the roof up with, at least on the Class Three and up shelters."
"...Unless they bring up a fleet resupply train and decide to settle in for the long haul. But if they were going to do that, why bother bringing the troopships along with them?"
"...Is that another barrage along the crest?"
"Oh shit." The renegade's hand slapped another button; alarms blared. Once again, the command center shook to the distant sound of multimegaton blasts, kilometers overhead and kilometers away. Once again, no real damage.
"HA! Told you they weren't going to be able to pinpoint us!"
"Your subspace relays do seem to have them misdirected. I'm glad we aren't in the decoy site."
"What decoy site?" The Umerian chuckled.
"The one you had us dig... oh." It was a feeble jest. That site was hundreds of kilometers from anything of consequence but made to look
like a dug-in command center to orbital sensors, with none of the masking put up over the Tourian facilities. After the last few broadsides to land on it, there probably wasn't much left of the cave-riddled mountain it had been buried under.
As it turned out, the Prussian battleships kept pounding Zebes for another ten minutes before Second Fleet began to move, spiraling inward towards the planet. The human troopships began releasing their swarms of landing craft. The battleship fire continued, yes, but at a greatly reduced rate.
Weavel was relieved- at last his men would be able to come to grips with the invaders.
The moment of truth was fast approaching, when his ground defenses would open fire on the enemy fleet. Like poor Frugus, Weavel had ordered his command to concentrate on the invasion forces: the more they could damage and disrupt the landings, the better his troops' odds of being able to hold out against the humans' great numbers... and to maneuver into positions where the humans' orbital fire support would not avail them.
Approaching Low Zebesian Orbit
There was no surface fire; that made Ensign Anna Schmidt, Imperial Navy Transport Command, nervous. The invasion force had suffered badly on the approach- two transports destroyed and several others badly damaged- and that had rattled her nerves. The Zebesians were unnaturally well prepared in space; what were the odds they weren't prepared on the ground, too?
That was when the radar detection systems started pinging. Oh, shit!
Her dropship was carrying a full Hussar armored company, which made trying to sideslip incoming fire a bit problematic, but she gave it her best shot anyway. Her copilot was quick too, firing up the shuttle's ECM pod.
Prototype Zebesian planetary defense gun; final version uses disappearing turret mount
The radar apparently decided she was an unpalatable target and chose to go pick a fight with the next ship over. She could see a few flashes from the planetary surface just beyond the terminator, much dimmer than the blazing impacts of the battleship rounds...
Her headphones buzzed. "All boats, full defensive protocol!" Well, better the squadron leader react late than never. She was already pulling as much from her shuttle's defenses as they were worth, and she wished once again that her dropship class had shielding...
Her copilot looked around reflexively; more experienced, Anna checked the main plot on her display... then the squadron leader came on the net, to remove any question of what had happened. "We've lost Boat Six!"Oh, shit.
Weren't they the ones carrying the regimental headquarters...?
And then, just to make the day complete, her radar detection module started pinging again. Vigorously.
"Warning. Warning. Missile lock detected. Missile lock detected."
Tourian Command Center, Zebes
The chief commander of defense batteries, a role separate from Yamada's, shouted to Weavel in a state of near panic. "SHIT! I'm not getting launch confirmation from the missile batteries! No, I take that back, some of them are firing, but... just over five percent!"
"Blaspheming kitchen-foulers! What's wrong?" Weavel turned to the weapons officers, snarling and questioning. He received no coherent reply- the commands had been sent, the receipt confirmed... but the missiles had proven inert, sitting in place on their launchers and doing nothing.
Now his ire was aimed at the renegade, Yamada- he was the only being in this room who had any direct association with Boskone. They'd sent him here, they had supplied the missiles; perhaps he knew the reason for this massive failure.
"Tell me quickly, human, what is the meaning of this? I have several thousand missile launches to make, and the batteries aren't answering the firing commands!"
"I don't know, Marshal. We tested those things ourselves, you saw
some test firings. I'd talk to your shipment people if I were you. We've still got target lock from the dud launchers, though- weird. They're pinging targets on radar but... ah boy. Should have seen that
Weavel turned to the main plot, where yellow-orange sparks indicating fire from the Prussians' lighter warships were now appearing all over the planet... in great quantity.
Valkyrie-class Battlecruiser SMS Brunhild
Flagship Sixth Battlecruiser Squadron
shook only slightly as the forward main battery guns fired single shots, trying to take down the Zebesian anti-lander weapons that had revealed themselves. This had not been unexpected, and the mission of taking down the enemy's light defensive weapons had been tasked to the battlecruisers and destroyers of Second Fleet well in advance- but the raiders' defenses were turning out to be very difficult to suppress. They had a nasty habit of not dying when you shot them, even from rounds that had to have landed within a few tens of meters of the firing position. Reinhard had to admit this was rather surprising, given that he was shooting them with hypervelocity impactors from his main battery. He'd already ordered per-shot energy dialed up closer to what he'd use for antiship operations, and it still looked like it was going to take a while to put the things down.
"Sir, new fire plan from the flagship! Missile batteries on the surface, thousands of them!"
Reinhard's main tactical display showed only a modest number of sites around the planet firing- probably dispersed and underground launchers. Fleet point defense was trying to engage them before they reached the dropships. It was more difficult than it should have been with proper fighter support, yes, but hardly the crisis they'd be seeing if there were thousands of launchers.
What was von Mückenberger thinking? Perhaps... Reinhard set his displays to look for emissions rather than confirmed targets. Ah-ha!
While there might only be a few dozen batteries around the planet, there were countless radar transmitters... which the other battlecruiser squadrons were already engaging, at maximum rate of fire in an attempt to suppress the launch sites before the missiles fired.
It made no tactical sense, though. Anything above the surface would be battered now that they'd revealed themselves; if the launchers were there at all they would be firing now...
He looked to Kircheis, still sitting at his right hand. The expression dawning on his face was all the confirmation Reinhard needed.
"Signals, order to all ships, hold fire on enemy missile sites until further orders. Then, put me through to Admiral von Mückenberger at once."
There was only a brief pause before he was answered.
"What do you want? And why aren't your ships firing to the Fleet plan like the rest?"
"Admiral, it's a trick. You're firing at decoys."
"Nonsense, boy! Your ships are the ones with the mountains of EW equipment; you can see those emitters as well as I do!"Patience. I must have patience, or all other virtues are in vain.
"Sir, look at how many of those sites aren't firing. There are dummy launchers scattered all over the planet; it's a waste of time trying to engage them without taking the effort to pick out the ones with functional missiles." That wouldn't be easy- much of Zebes was already shrouded in clouds of dust thrown up by the battleship bombardment; visual confirmation was practically impossible.
"What does it matter? We have the numbers, we have the firepower, to simply drown them in railgun fire. We'll get the real defense sites too, and without
the risk of missing anything!" And at this, von Mückenberger cut the channel.
Reinhard sat frozen for a time. Then he took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. He turned to the signals section once again, slowly and formally.
"Cut the following order to the Sixth, the Eleventh, and the Twenty-Third: All ships, this is Squadron Command. Fire only on positions confirmed to house enemy batteries. Apply maximum possible discrimination to avoid being fooled by decoy missile launchers with targeting radars. Repeat, apply maximum possible discrimination."
Flying At Low Altitude
1637 HoursOh shit!
Ensign Anna Schmidt dipped her dropship into a convenient crater from one of the battleship strikes just in time to fool the incoming missile. This was a lighter one, probably shoulder or light vehicle-fired, and her boat might have been able to tank it without losing anything important... but she was just as happy to have a big pile of hot rock between herself and the launcher. They were close to the landing zone, and it turned out that the bombardment hadn't
managed to suppress the Zebesian ground troops.
As the point formations of air-dropped Panzergrenadier
vehicles made landfall, enemy troops had come swarming up to meet them from underground bunkers scattered all over the landscape. In some places, the nearest bunkers were far enough away from the landing positions that calls for orbital fire had been able to flatten them; in others... not so much. The enemy troops were well equipped, with altogether too many large-caliber energy weapons for comfort; there were a few scars on the outer hull from ground fire already and it was mostly luck nothing had penetrated into the cargo bay.
She flew low across the terrain to avoid coming under fire from those damn coilguns- some of them had survived everything the lighter ships could throw, or held fire until the landings had already begun and only then started shooting at targets within the atmosphere, at ranges too close to dodge. Now that troops were on the surface they couldn't count on battleship support to blast apart the dug-in turret positions- but she was within twenty kilometers of the landing zone secured by the pathfinders already, and if they could just get an armored offensive mobilized...
Having lost the regimental headquarters wasn't going to help with that, she feared.
Tourian Command Center, Zebes
"It's confirmed sir, the humans have made landfall in locations all over the planet. Our forces are moving out to engage them."
"Is their orbital bombardment causing trouble for our troops?"
"Not so much; as you expected, they're reluctant to use heavy railgun or nuclear fire."
"What about their thermobarics?"
"To troops in the open, well away from the surface, might as well be low-end nuclear- we've mostly had armored units engaging in the open, though, and they can survive fairly well outside the immediate blast. And these strange Prussian weaponse have had poor luck with the gun turrets."
Dr. Yamada, who had come to understand the Urtraghan tongue though he lacked the physical features to speak it properly, chuckled. The renegade had done a good job with the heavily protected disappearing turrets, and was obviously enjoying watching them repel fire from the Prussian lighter ships.
The Prussian landing zones were distributed across the planet. With his own troops concentrated around the Tourian range, he hoped he could inflict more heavy losses on them in this area- with luck, make them cautious about routing out his remaining positions, but convince them that this was an area worth fighting over. He wanted a long, slow siege. In theory they might flatten everything from orbit, but his entire campaign was gambling on the theory that the Coalition would insist on trying to recover intelligence and captives from the core of his position, rather than simply obliterating it.
The strategy had been forced on him by a lack of heavy antiship weapons and theater shielding, but he was fairly optimistic that it would work long enough to impose serious delays on the humans' offensive.
He turned once again to Yamada. "Your guns and bunkers are doing well, human. You have my gratitude."
"Thanks. But those damned missiles... still don't know what went wrong..."
"Indeed. I wonder if... No.
Weavel's eyes blazed as he realized what must have happened.
"Doctor Yamada, I think I know something."
Failing to read the Urtraghan's body language, the human seemed unalarmed... stupidly so. "Eh?"
"Remember the traitors assigned to support Frugus's forces? Those are hulls of a Boskone-provided type... with crews that keep to themselves mostly, supplied mostly by Boskonian cargo ships. The missiles, likewise, came from Boskone. And only the Boskonians know
where my deep space hyperwave relays are, the ones that are now cut! I have been BETRAYED!"
With a snarl of rage, he stepped towards the rogue Umerian, supplied to him by Boskonian offices.
The alien stood, seemingly fearless. "Defenses of my design have been fuel-aired, nuked, and railgunned, and we're still shooting back. Go ahead if you must, Marshal. It's a good day to die."
"KRRAAAAA!" Weavel's fist lashed out into the wall. He felt a slight crunch in his hand, and a matching crunch from the wall, but didn't care; he was that angry. "No. You
are not responsible. You
have helped me to the limit of your abilities, and I find it difficult to believe you
capable of keeping any important secret for long, human. Whatever I words and deeds I may have for Boskone, I do not blame you. And I need your skills."
"I'll get back to work then."
"See that you do. I will speak with your master." Yamada, apparently realizing how narrowly he'd been spared death, said nothing in reply.
At first, Weavel feared that the submesonic transponder Helmuth had provided him would not work- that would be of a piece with the rest. But it did, and once again he saw the blurred image of Helmuth's tentacled secretary. "Greetings, Weavel of Urtraghus. Helmuth can be with you shortly, unless this is a routine matter?"
"The enemy has closed on my position, cut me off, and is already beginning landing operations. I must speak with Helmuth; it is urgent!"
"Helmuth is already arranging vital matters related to your situation. He will have made the relevant orders very soon, within a few hectoseconds at most. Until that time, I invite you to partake of a sampling of work by my race's greatest composers."
"This is intolerable! The reinforcements you sent me deserted! The missiles you gave me don't work! I've lost communications with Urtraghus, and my planet is being bombarded by countless megatons of orbital gunfire as we speak! I demand to speak to Helmuth!
All he received for a reply was an endless loop of Boskonian call waiting music.
"Sir, word to all flag officers, Field Marshal Mohlmann is reporting that the landing zones are secure and free from serious enemy fire; offensives to take out enemy fire positions and space-defense weapons nearby are underway!"
Reinhard, watching from orbit, was not so confident. But aside from troubling reports around one of the planets' major mountain ranges, it did seem that the ground troops were making adequate progress. An army of eight million men could not be denied indefinitely, after all. Still, while land warfare wasn't his specialty, but he was worried about that mountain range; the comm chatter his ships had picked up from that region sounded more boastful and empty than the ones from other continents...
"Sir?" That was Kircheis, breaking him out of his contemplation of the situation on the ground.
"You were saying something earlier about our fuel and ammunition reserves being wasted on the bombardment... I've been compiling some data on the other ships' consumption, and it doesn't look good."
The danger of the ships taking significant ground fire largely gone; even those troublesome coilgun turrets, some of which were still
firing, weren't dangerous to capital ships. Kircheis apparently wasn't satisfied with electronic transfer; he actually stood up to pass his admiral the dataslate. Reinhard looked down.
"...an understatement!" Kircheis nodded.
This made it urgent, he had to get this through von Mückenberger's skull...
"Signals, I need a channel to Prinzregent Luitpold
at once!" Despite their unpleasant exchange earlier, the admiral seemed happy enough to see him. Perhaps what he would surely see as a victory had buoyed his temper.Lie to him. Butter him up. He has to hear this, damn him.
The words felt impossibly bitter in his mouth. "I called to congratulate you on a battle... well fought, sir."
"Why thank you, young man! It's good to see you come around at last, and show proper appreciation for a well planned engagement."
"Also, I would like to be sure I understand our situation."
Normally that would have tripped von Mückenberger's suspicions and irritation, but he seemed to have been mollified. Thinking he'd just won a great battle must put him in a good mood indeed.
"The battleships have fired off virtually all their missiles; the heavy cruisers most of theirs, and what remains is largely specialized ground support munitions. Railgun ships are down to an average of 35% ammunition remaining, and that's including my own ships which are at 60%. Due to the energy consumed in the fleet battle and the bombardment, fleet fuel supplies are at 25%, and we will require refueling before we can return to the fleet anchorage."
"Heh, heh, yes. You can't fight a battle without using resources, my boy. But don't worry, there's a resupply convoy coming with plenty of fuel and ammunition for all our ships."
"Yes sir. Which is why I'd been meaning to ask. Looking at our order of battle, all our ships are here. And if we're all here, then who's guarding the convoy?"
Mückenberger blinked. "Look at the size of the fleet we defeated! That's every ship the Zebesians have ever been seen to have, and more! They were all here
defending Zebes like proper Zebesians, not back up the chain. And now we have beaten them; we have them on the run!"
"I see, sir. So we're in hostile territory, pinned into position by landing operations. Our supplies of fuel and ammunition nearly exhausted, and our entire resupply hinges on an undefended convoy. Meanwhile, the majority of the enemy's known ships have escaped to quarters unknown, and we have little or no information on enemy dispositions in the nearby stars."
"Well, you could put it that way, but I don't think there's any cause for alarm. I don't see a problem. We've broken the Zebesians in space, and the splinters will not cause trouble again for some time!" Von Mückenberger's face was split by a mighty grin.WHAT?
Reinhard felt stunned. Even when it was put to him point blank, he didn't see a problem?
Eyes unseeing, he muttered... something
on autopilot, he could never remember what afterward, to von Mückenberger as a farewell. He shut off the viewer and sank his face into his hands. This was beyond a blunder. It was beyond shameful. It was... There is no word for this, this is madness, what has become of the Fleet that this is even possible?
"Sir? Are you all right?"
Reinhard looked up... into worried gray eyes. Thank God.
Reinhard rose to his feet with a convulsive heave, then looked at his aide again. He reached out and squeezed Kircheis's arm.
"Kircheis... sometimes I think that I am the only sane man in the universe. It is not a pleasant thought. And then I see you, and I know that it's not true, and that am not alone."
He nodded. "Thank you. Ah, were you thinking what I'm thinking...?"
"Were you thinking about what our stalwart commander said about the resupply convoy?"
"Then yes, I am. We are about to witness a strategic masterstroke, my friend. I only wish it were going to happen to the enemy, instead of to us."