Trial By Fire – Snippet 30

“And again, I applaud their eagerness, but must deny their request.” The First Delegate gestured to the holographic displays lining the walls. “All available warcraft and ground assets will be needed upon arrival in the Sol system. The humans have developed their home planets extensively, whereas we may carry only limited forces with us. Consequently, we must expect that there will be far more missions to perform than ships to perform them. Drones and several observation craft will be sufficient to leave behind here.”

“And what of their shift-hull, the Prometheus?” First Voice’s tone was far less bellicose than that of his general, First Fist, Darzhee Kut noted.

Hu’urs Khraam’s dental plates clacked once. “Even the drones cannot catch Prometheus. But she needs to achieve twice our preacceleration velocity before she can shift. Therefore, though she started her run before we arrived, we will still be able to shift before her. However, our fleet must immediately accelerate to two point five gee constant to achieve this.”

“We are prepared.”

“Very good. We must do so within the hour. And by that time, all deployed ships and small craft will have returned to their respective carriers, so it will be imprudent to meet again as we do now. So this shall be the last roof-sharing between us before we arrive in the Sol system. Consequently, it is also our last opportunity to share any last thoughts on our plans for that campaign.”

First Voice hunched over the table as well as the immensity of his barrel-shaped ribcage would allow. “I am satisfied with the plans–for now. What I will think once we arrive and assess the human response, I cannot say. But what of the intelligence gleaned from their wreckage and from their base named The Pearl? Does it impel us to change our strategy?”

“We see no reason to think so. And our projection holds that the Prometheus plans to run to Earth or Ross 154.”

“And do we have new intelligence that indicates which warships might be at Ross 154?”

Hu’urs Khraam waved his claws loosely. “Nothing specific, but their signal logs indicate that we have correctly anticipated that their naval dispersal is to our advantage. Most of their other fleet assets are spread throughout the systems that they call the Green Mains, and have only lately been summoned to gather in the systems Ross 154 and Junction. But those assets cannot reach Earth if we hold Ross 154. So it is as we foresaw. By dividing our fleet here, we can send one half to attack the humans’ home system, and the other to take and hold Ross 154. In this way, any of the human warships that are in the Green Mains are cut off and cannot help the home cluster.”

“There is another naval base at Ross 154, is there not?” Graagkhruud sounded eager; the equilateral triangle of his three-nostrilled snout-end widened.

Hu’urs Khraam looked to Urzueth and bobbed. Urzueth explained. “There is a human naval station at Ross 154, and if major fleet elements are present, our forces shall launch a full assault upon them and the base. However, if the human assets have not yet gathered in strength, the fleet we dispatch to that system shall lie quiet and observe, monitoring communications and traffic.”

“We have come on this campaign to fight, not to watch.” Graagkhruud was ready to rise from his seat.

“And so we shall–at the most propitious time,” Hu’urs Khraam replied. “If additional human vessels arrive in Ross 154 and are unaware of our presence, our analysis of their standard operating procedures suggests they will approach their base to replenish their consumables, particularly their antimatter stocks. They are likely to anticipate fighting extended engagements in systems where we have eliminated or commandeered their antimatter production facilities. Consequently, we can intercept such ships after they collect near the base, and perhaps compel their surrender. At least, we could so obstruct their efforts to preaccelerate and shift, that word of Earth’s capitulation will arrive before they can leave.”

Graagkhruud’s reply was so loud that the room’s translator was almost drowned out. “This is cowardice.”

The smallest Hkh’Rkh in First Voice’s retinue leaned forward slowly. “It would allow us to minimize the damage to the humans.”

“You not only speak as the humans’ Advocate, Yaargraukh. You take their side.”

Darzhee Kut noticed the disdain with which First Fist uttered the title “Advocate,” which signified that Yaargraukh was the Hkh’Rkh who had been given the thankless job of not only providing expert assessment of the humans, but of representing their interests to First Voice. A necessity, since creatures which had no place in the Hkh’Rkh honor system had no official standing before any of its authority figures.

In response to First Fist’s almost sneering accusation, Yaargraukh inclined his head slightly. “By showing restraint now, First Fist, we may be made less unhappy should the Dornaani prevail and punish us for invading the human homeworld. Which is a flagrant violation of the Twenty-first Accord.”

“How readily you whine about defeat, Advocate. Our allies the Ktor will dine on the entrails of the increasingly irresolute Dornaani, and we shall rewrite their Accords to our own liking.”

“However,” interjected First Voice, “until that time, there is no harm in Urzueth’s observation that it may be more prudent to immobilize our enemy without loss to ourselves in Ross 154, than it is to destroy him. But”–he turned back to Hu’urs Khraam–“I nurse a concern that our post-battle intelligence has not been able to conclusively dismiss. What if, as we began our attack here, the humans already had ships at full preacceleration, waiting to carry warnings to Earth and its colonies?”

“First Voice of the First Family,” soothed Hu’urs Khraam, “this possibility is profoundly unlikely. What intelligence we were able to gather from the wreckage of the base they called The Pearl, and from those few very wrecks which still had intact mainframes, shows no evidence that there was a preaccelerated ship waiting in this system. And, from the moment our advance shift-cruiser arrived in-system, it was constantly watching for the terawatt-level spike of a shift-drive, which would be plainly detectable even out to the edges of the Kuiper belt.

“So, be calmed. This attack was a complete surprise. Our fleet had completed half its preacceleration before the Convocation concluded. Consequently, the humans had no time, let alone clear provocations, to task any of their shift carriers to be preaccelerated in watchful readiness to alert other systems. And, after having destroyed the majority of their best carriers here, we know just how few of their shift vessels remain unaccounted for.”

Darzhee Kut watched as Yaargraukh looked to First Voice for permission to speak, watched him lay his immense “hands” flat and calm upon the table when First Voice nodded. This one is prudent–even by our standards.

“Hu’urs Khraam, with respect for the excellence of your warships and the valor of ours, did you not find it unusual how quickly and easily the humans were overcome? And how many of them seemed to suffer catastrophic destruction as a result of their fusion reactors losing containment? I suspected, from the advance intelligence, that their ships would be more robust and would give us a sharper fight.”

“I agree,” Hu’urs Khraam answered, “but we cannot pause to question our good fortune overmuch. I am told that it would be most instructive if we had had time to conduct post-action analysis of the wreckage. But, as you say, the destruction was so complete, that it would be a lengthy task to locate and retrieve all the significant pieces, and even so, we might not learn anything of use. But most importantly, your suzerain First Voice and I harmonize fully on this one strategic principle: we must retain the initiative that we have seized with this victory. We will shift to the Sol system before the Prometheus has completed its preacceleration, and will thus arrive before Earth can be warned of our approach. That is the advantage we must not sacrifice. And once there, I predict we will have ample opportunity to survey all the human wreckage we might wish.”

Graagkhruud’s tongue flicked twice; he had noted and enjoyed Hu’urs’ concluding witticism.

Darzhee Kut bobbed for recognition, received it from Hu’urs Khraam. “Could a human fleet be waiting at Ross 154, preaccelerated and ready to shift here–to Barnard’s Star–as soon as our flotilla arrives there? If so, they would ‘get behind’ the force we are sending to wall up those warships that we think are out along their Green Mains.”

Hu’urs Khraam bobbed a slow, profound approval. “This is well-worried, Darzhee Kut. However, if they try such a trick, they will be in dire circumstances. If our flotilla arrives at Ross 154 and finds that a human fleet has just shifted out, our fleet will be able to preaccelerate and give chase in twenty days. However, once arriving here in Barnard’s Star, human ships from Ross 154, constrained to use frontier refueling, would probably require at least forty days–five of fueling and thirty-five of preacceleration–before they can get out-system. In that time, we would assault and seize Ross 154, refuel, preaccelerate and arrive back here almost three weeks before they could leave. Our high-speed drones would be able to pursue, maybe disable, some of them, and delay the rest. And even so, we would be ready to shift again just as soon–or before–they are.”