Stopping the Invasion
What have I done?! In my attempt to delay an untimely call to the Emperor's court, I ended up inviting an honest-to-God alien invasion to my own system! It's like burning your own house down so your strict parents wouldn’t notice that you broke a vase. Tearing my gaze with great difficulty from the scattering of red markers on the tactical map, I tried to gather myself and spoke into the microphone in the confident voice of a commander:
"Extinguish the beacon! I need information on the enemy!"
"Distance to target: six hundred miles. There are multiple targets! I have nineteen marks on the radar. Identification by radar signature: Five Sledgehammer cruisers. Four Ascetic destroyers. Four Hermit destroyers. Five Meteor frigates. And a big guy..."
I laughed with marked happiness into the microphone:
"That 'big guy' is an alien battleship. Humanity has yet to come across one. I suggest, as its discoverer, that it be called ‘Behemoth.’ It's a big fat mythical creature that supposedly lived on humanity's far-off homeworld."
Admiral Kheraisss Vej intervened in the conversation and clarified:
"My Princcce, the Swarm already see thisss shiip. But not one remainsss who that could inform you of the tactical and technical characterisssticsss of such a big Behemoth."
"So then, the Iseyeks do not object to that name. And as for the battleship's capabilities, we can figure that out during the battle."
I was trying to hide my worry behind stirring speeches and showy enthusiasm. For the first time since I entered the game, I wasn't at all sure I would win. In fact, if I were playing for the alien team, I would say quite the opposite: I'd consider this a done deal. Five Sledgehammers working together could make themselves into a real "ball of death," destroying any ship that gets too close to them. Even my battleship wouldn't survive two of their combined volleys. The many alien destroyers and frigates would make absolutely sure that none of my light ships could get close to the Sledgehammers. It would have looked like a sticky situation, even if the enemy didn't have the Behemoth that we still knew nothing about. But with the enemy having a Behemoth, our chances of winning were so thin they were transparent.
For a second, the cowardly thought to command the fleet to retreat and warp back to Unatari crossed my mind, but I chased it off. First, we haven't been beaten yet! Second, I couldn't throw the eight thousand inhabitants of the Hnelle station to the dogs. As far as I was concerned, their lives were completely dependent on our ability to defend them.
All the same, I couldn't show my apprehension before my subjects. Also, the aliens had never shown any particular tactical skill in previous battles. Instead, they just stupidly crawl forward and put all their hope in the crushing power of their cannons and their instantly regenerating shields. So, I ended up calming myself down. We'll see yet who will take the day!
"Let's end the merrymaking. The mission is quite serious. Let's get to work. Pyro-1: first receiver, Pyro-2: second. A squad of frigates will cover each of you. Be especially cautious – those Meteors are significantly faster than any of our ships. If one of them approaches you, do not engage. Retreat back to our heavies."
"The enemy has begun maneuvers!" reported Nicole. "The destroyers and frigates are approaching quickly. The Sledgehammers and Behemoth are lagging behind."
"All ships, at the ready! For now, we wait and see how they act... The enemy ignored our receivers. That is very good. So, first two frigate squads, your mission is to hold the Behemoth under webs. There's no way in hell we want him getting close to us. Nicole, take care of this. The rest of the frigates, we're gonna need your webs. Work on the drones while you're at it. Anti-support, split up into groups of five. Your first mission is to give the Meteors a haircut. After that, work on the Hermits. Electronic warfare, turn the most dangerous Ascetics off. Attention! They're entering the combat zone! Frigates, advance! Release drones!"
A huge swarm of little green dots roared off toward the red ones on the tactical screen. As our heavies delivered a cloud of combat drones, the battle began.
"Warhawk-4 here, I've got a Meteor under web. I've marked it in the overview!”
Boom! The first alien ship dissolved to atoms after a combined volley from forty destroyers.
"Tusk-1 here, Ascetic under web!”
Boom! Boom! And if the first of the double explosions was the Ascetic getting blown apart, then the second was one of ours.
"Warhawk-1 here, I need help! These drones are eating me alive!!!"
"Warp out!" I screamed, but it was too late. Another flower of flame bloomed in the cosmos.
"Heavies, the marked Ascetic is primary. The secondary is that Hermit there. Fire on the targets under double web at will."
Another two alien ships popped into clouds of tiny fragments after a combined volley from twenty heavy cruisers. After that, another explosion let us know that a Meteor had been shot down by destroyers.
"My Prince! I can die happy!" This parting scream came from Pyro-10, after it was already too late to respond.
"Warhawk-4 here, I'm holding a Meteor with web and disruptor. He's got me too! It looks like this is the end..."
"Anti-support, save Warhawk-4!!!"
An explosion was heard. And another! The tactics officer took two Meteors from the map.
"Warhawk-4 here, we escaped by the skin of our teeth! Thanks for the help! I owe you all a beer!" Came the familiar voice of the female captain.
"Warhawk-4, warp out to the Tria. Your luck's just about run out for the day. So, I need webs on the last Meteor! Pyro-11, don't break off from the others! Safa-4, the same goes for you. Get back into formation. You'll be eaten whole if they catch you alone. Heavies, the primary is that Ascetic that's crawling away from you under two webs."
Boom! Boom! Boom! Hearing the blasts, I took a look at the tactical screen. The enemy's support ships had been totally wiped out, but the group of five Sledgehammers had already come to within one hundred twenty miles of us. The Behemoth was still far behind. I could breathe a bit easier. The enemy had lost all light ships, charitably giving us an advantage in maneuverability on the battlefield. Now, my frigates could get close to the Sledgehammers and split them up, which would greatly simplify the situation.
"Third and fourth Pyro squads, hold the Sledgehammer I've marked on the map! Don't let it get any closer to us! Tusks and Safas, place webs and take point on that Sledgehammer. Let the other three come to us. Bride of Chaos, make a short advance! Heavies, stay twenty miles behind the battleship."
The Sledgehammers shot first, letting fly a combined volley from three ships. Bride of Chaos's energy shield fell by half, but quickly recharged when ten heavy cruisers turned on their remote shield-charging modules.
"Primary is marked. Battleship and all heavies, get ready. Shoot only on my command. On the count of three… One. Two. Three!"
The targeted Sledgehammer went out like a candle in the wind. The combined volley from my battleship and twenty-two heavy cruisers pulverized the alien ship into atoms.
"My good soldiers, you're simply savages! Excellent. I've targeted a new ship."
The return fire came back at Joan the Fatty. The ship shook hard. The light flickered in the room. Some of the devices switched over to emergency power sources.
"Our shield is at just eleven percent. Shall we prepare for evacuation?" asked Captain Oorast Pohl.
"Recharge the Fatty!" I ordered on the fleet channel and, after removing my earphones, I answered the captain that there was no reason whatsoever for evacuation.
In fact, this was a critical moment. The enemy had given up shooting on the impenetrable battleship and focused its fire on the cruiser where the fleet was being commanded from. It wasn't clear if the last volley had been intentional, or whether the choice of precisely Joan the Fatty from among twenty-two cruisers had just been random. But in any case, the ship wouldn't survive another volley from two Sledgehammers.
"Have you reloaded? On the count of three. One, two, three!"
Another Sledgehammer gave way to an orange and white blossom. Only one close enemy remained.
"Let's target the last one. Reload. And another thing: one of the cruisers shot before the command last time. If that happens again, whoever does it will be the fleet's next target. How much shield do we have?"
"Thirty-seven percent. We're recharging slowly!" the captain answered.
"The Sledgehammer will shoot a volley in nine seconds. We need forty-five percent shield to survive the attack..."
The ship shook again, but everyone around me perceived the strike with clear relief. "The shield held out!" The officers already understood that the ship would escape, as it would be able to restore shield before the next strike.
"We've just got four percent shield left!" Oorast Pohl said in a calm tone, before suddenly smiling. "We'll be able to shoot first."
"Fire!" I commanded, and the enemy ship was no more.
The two remaining Sledgehammers we cleaned up using the same tactic. But when it came time to deal with the Behemoth, complications arose immediately. When the fleet was trying to get within two hundred miles of the huge alien ship, Jeanne the Star Traveler suddenly exploded. The heavy assault cruiser of the newest design was destroyed by just one volley directly through its reinforced front shields! I ordered the remaining ships to immediately warp out to the Tria at a safe distance.
"My Prince, two rescue shuttles have been observed from Jeanne."
I sighed bitterly. Two shuttles is at most twenty-four rescued out of four hundred crew members.
Global fame increase. Current value +11
Global standing increase. Current value -20
The message came in totally unexpectedly, and I got slightly upset, not having understood the reason for the positive changes. But I met with the happy eyes of Katerina ton Mesfelle and immediately guessed what was up. My advisor came closer and explained:
"Georg, we've just made the first emergency broadcast about the alien invasion in the Hnelle system. Nineteen ships, a flood of panic and all that. There are scenes with good resolution – a huge battleship, the terrifying Sledgehammers, which already have an uncanny fame among Imperial soldiers, and the destroyers. Well, and, at the end, a word about how the Sector Eight Fleet is prepared to engage in battle with enemies and a request to wish luck to the defenders of humanity. The only thing is, I was planning to draw out the story with five or seven broadcasts, but the enemy fleet is already gone. What am I supposed to talk about in the next one?"
I pointed to the huge red dot on the tactical screen:
"It's still too soon to talk about victory. I think we'll be able to destroy the Behemoth, but only with monstrous losses. That is why we are going to try another way: for the first time in history, we will try to board and capture an alien ship. So, you will have something to tell the viewers about after all."
I called General Savasss Jach, who heard out this bizarre mission with surprising calm. The huge insect wriggled his antennae for some time, then Bionica translated his answer:
"Ten thousand Alpha-Iseyek assault troops should be enough. But first you'll need to secure a path for them by clearing all the Behemoth's drones and collecting information about the enemy ship. And he'll need around two standard hours to wake the soldiers from a state of suspended animation."
Katerina heard out the general's answer with me and said with satisfaction:
"Great! Now I'll have a two-hour gap between my reports. I'll do a series of broadcasts and interviews with various officers and commanders of your fleet. I'll give information in small portions. Let the viewers stay on the edges of their seats and think that the space battle is raging on. Then, I'll give a live broadcast from the landing troops' chambers. But Georg, it would be really great if we could have someone taking part in storming the alien ship other than the praying mantises, like people too. Otherwise, there won't be any viewer involvement, and they won't sympathize with us."
Admiral Kiro Sabuto also supported the idea.
"My Prince, your cousin is right. Today we shall write a new page in the history of human resistance against the aliens. This battle is sure to be included in all tactical textbooks and even school history books, and it is very important that people be the most active participants in the capture of the alien battleship. All of our ships have a boarding team. We can get more than two thousand soldiers from the whole fleet."
Popori de Cacha suddenly forced his way into the conversation and said with a bow:
"My Prince, I ask that you include two chameleons from your bodyguard team in the assault force. For my people, the Ravaash, it is also important to feel that we are taking part in this historic moment."
"Alright. I order human assault troops and chameleons to get prepared as well. You have two hours. These divisions will also be commanded by General Savasss Jach, and Bionica shall provide coordination and translation."
I turned to my assistant Nicole and asked about the Behemoth. The girl, without taking off her headphones, frowned in dissatisfaction:
"The pilots are getting tired from the long battle, and it’s starting to show. They have begun to make errors: Pyro-22 scratched itself at high speed against a turret tower, and Pyro-25 ran into an enemy drone. Both ships left the battle with broken armor and no shields and have left for repair. We’re getting the impression that the Behemoth has an infinite supply of drones. We've already taken down a hundred thirty-two, but new flocks of them just keep wriggling out. Are they making them in there or something?"
"Nicole, don't worry. I'll send the pilots out a fresh team. Pick someone to change them out. Your mission is to hold the Behemoth another two hours while the praying mantis assault troops unfreeze. If you get tired, I can take your place."
"I appreciate your concern, Prince, but I do not need any help. It's the first time I've been entrusted with such an important mission, and that is its own reward."
"The flamethrowers are lighting the way. We have cleared a corridor to the cannon tower, and group Blue-Three is moving out to capture it. There are two hundred Swarm assault troops."
"White-Eight here. We have cleared another path into the third section! We'll take the winding corridor toward the tactical marker. Serious resistance. A vacuum does nothing to stop these shrubs. They still fight, even without atmosphere."
"Thick fire! We have to get back to the spiral staircase. Only four soldiers remaining of thirty in Yellow-Four. The praying mantises that were covering our exit have already all gone down. We need support immediately. Aaaaaa!"
Katerina pointed at the screen and shook her head:
"We'll have to cut that part out."
"You will do no such thing! The viewers have to see that this isn’t child’s play. Everything is serious. There's a war on, and the soldiers are paying with their blood so the rest of humanity may live.”
Despite the fierce resistance, the assault divisions systematically cleared the huge ship. More and more groups of soldiers snuck inside the Behemoth through the holes we were cutting into the chassis. The assault troops' losses turned out to be significant. The aliens forced us to pay a heavy price for every foot of the winding corridors we took. Bionica, wearing a pair of huge headphones, was frantically picking division markers on the screen and nonstop translating messages and commands from human to Swarm language and back. Katerina even shot a separate report on the android girl so viewers from the whole Empire could watch my wonderful translator work in real life.
"White-Three here. We have met up with Yellow-Five. Enemy resistance has been suppressed. We have captured what looks like a reactor installation. Let the experts figure it out.”
"Green-Ten here. Mission accomplished. The superstructure has been captured."
"White-Six here. We have cleared the hall with automatic defense systems. Less than a third of our praying mantises survived. We're finding intensive radio signals and long-distance communication systems further down this hallway. It seems we've found the enemy headquarters."
I asked the opinion of General Savasss Jach, who was leading the assault. The Gamma-Iseyek agreed that we had finally uncovered the true source of the enemy teams that had been coming up against our divisions. The previous two centers, which we had taken as command points, turned out to be nothing more than signal retransmitters. The general said that over eighty percent of all internal spaces on the starship had already been captured, the resistance was noticeably weakening, and it would all be over in ten or fifteen minutes.
After hanging up with the general, I turned to the officers and asked them to bring the paralyzed Truth Seeker to me immediately. And then, when two men had gone to fetch her, I demanded that the communications officer put me directly through to the Emperor as soon as he's received a confirmation that the capture of the battleship is finally complete. For the first time in my memory, I had to repeat an order two times.
"Do you think August will want to talk?" asked Katerina with a large degree of doubt in her voice.
"I think he will. Thanks to your reports, the whole Empire has been following the events in the Hnelle system for three hours now. The viewers' interest is simply rabid. I have already grown tired of closing messages about personal and faction relations improving, and there are over seven hundred people waiting on hold to talk to me right now. You hit all the right notes – worry, fear, then a timid hope, compassion, and finally pride for the brave Fleet Eight soldiers, who saved a star system from invasion. I have no doubt that the Emperor was told about the alien invasion immediately. If I were in August's place, I'd want to talk to the heroes."
The long-awaited confirmation came in from the general, and I ordered to be put through to the Throne World. More than a minute went by before the screen lit up. I bent down on one knee and said:
"My Emperor, this is a report from Sector Eight Fleet Commander Crown Prince Georg royl Inoky. The battle in the Hnelle system has just finished. The enemy fleet has been completely defeated. For the first time in history, we have captured an alien ship, and what's more, it's a battleship. Many valuable specimens have been collected for study, both biological and technological."
"Georg royl Inoky, order your people out of the room. I need to speak with you privately," August grumbled, slightly upset. "No, they can stay. Just make sure they don't talk much about this conversation afterwards. So, I thought you were supposed to be on your way to the Throne World... It's strange to see you in the Hnelle system."
"My Emperor, there was a serious risk that the aliens would try to attack the Hnelle system again, as the aliens never give up attacking a system until they’ve captured it. I would be overjoyed to see your Imperial Highness personally in the Throne World three weeks from the time of the previous meeting, but my first mission is still to defend Sector Eight, and that is precisely what I intend to do."
The Emperor furrowed his brow:
"Or maybe the Green House's accusations were more serious this time and really did have a basis to them? What do you say, grandson?"
I waved it off with ostentatious carelessness.
"My Emperor, what kind of seriousness could these accusations possibly have, if even the main accuser, Katerina ton Mesfelle, recognized that they were absolutely hopeless and came over to the side of the accused?! If Duke Paolo's son refused his right to my system, and the Duke's nephew defected as soon as given the chance?! The only thing the accusers were counting on was that the head of the Orange House would not support me, and instead go over to their side. I have evidence of a shameful agreement between Duke Paolo royl Anjer and the Green House to that effect. It is more than enough to raise the issue of non-confidence in the head of the Orange House. The rest of the accusations are utterly foolish, like the last time. What is it on the list? The tragic death of two members of the Green House? This issue has already been looked over in great detail, and all investigators admitted that the deceased alone were at fault. The peace treaty with the Gamma-Iseyeks? What can I say? First, in that I did not have the authority for such a decision, the head of the Orange House himself confirmed this peace, so all questions are to Duke Paolo royl Anjer. Second, it is only thanks to the leader of the Gamma-Iseyeks, General Savasss Jach, that today's victory was possible. My android? You could see her working as a translator with your own eyes. And again, my opponents have nothing but spy logs. And as far as I’m concerned, using an android translator’s confidential logs to spy on a crown prince is nothing but another shameful episode in the Duke’s already fairly disgrace-laden biography. There are no more accusations against me, as far as I know."
The Emperor did not agree with that:
"There's also turning off the warp beacons. Interfering with the functioning of the transportation network is a very serious crime, Georg."
"I didn’t turn them off. I put them into 'by request' mode. Imperial ships are free to pass, but alien ships find it a bit harder to make their way through. And that measure has completely justified itself!"
"We'll allow it," agreed August after some time in thought. "Though I am interested in the technical side of the issue. How did you do it, Georg?"
"It couldn't have been easier: I sent mixed teams of people and androids to uninhabitable automatic beacons. It's still more androids – they can work for a long time on nothing but electricity until the cosmic greenhouses are up and running. Because this isn't an invasion. I intend to develop and support these distant settlements to the best of my ability. Freight starships have been sent to all of them with materials for building docks, residential spaces, greenhouses, repair shops, moorings and defensive structures. I have financed the development of these remote Sector Eight systems on my personal money for humanity's sake, so real stations and new populations could grow there. Humanity needs to expand further in space, and I was helping our race make the next step into the cosmos.”
"Good on you, Georg, really. I wasn't expecting it. On the whole, I have nothing left to say, and I really do not see a reason for us to meet so frequently, tearing you away from important matters. My only condition is that you must solve all issues and come to an agreement with the head of the Orange House. Your conflict is completely unacceptable to me. I give you one hundred days. Do it however you like, grandson, but the conflict must be resolved. And now give an order to your people to turn on the recording, and let's start our conversation over from the beginning, but for the whole Empire to see."
I watched carefully as the recording of my conversation with Emperor August made for the wider public played. The commander, kneeling humbly, made a report about an unprecedented victory over a large alien fleet, and the haughty Emperor, majestic in the extreme, graciously accepted the report from his loyal servant. Then came a short eloquent speech on this battle’s significance as a turning point in the history of humanity’s struggle against the aliens, followed by the unexpected awarding of medals. Though soldiers from Great House divisions were normally not given orders and medals, August decided to make an exception and gave out five Emerald Stars for service to the Empire. The fortunate recipients of Imperial orders were the Admirals Kiro Sabuto and Kheraisss Vej, General Savasss Jach, the captain of the heavy cruiser Emperor August, Bayazid Krom, and Bionica, the android translator.
There were no medals given to me, but I didn't get worked up over it. My reward was something else entirely: giving medals to Bionica and General Savasss Jach spoke to everyone about the fact that the Emperor was putting an end these issues once and for all and was not interested in hearing any more accusations. One hundred days to make peace with the Duke... Not an especially short time frame, but I still wasn't even close to imagining how I could carry out the Emperor's order.
"Almost eight hundred people are waiting to speak with you long distance," an officer reminded me delicately.
"First put through my daughter, Likanna, then the monarch of the Kingdom of Veyerde, if they are still in the list. The rest you should reject, or at least let them wait until tomorrow. I just don't have the energy to talk any more today."
"Dad!" My daughter's joyful scream forced me to smile. "We were watching every broadcast in the palace! I was so worried for you! You're like super cool. I'm so proud of you."
Tears of joy welled up in my eyes. These are truly the moments you live for! Whether I was in a game or not no longer made any difference. I had accepted this world and considered it real. I would defend my daughter from danger and was prepared to give my life for her, if it was required. I promised Lika I would fly to her in Unatari in a day and quickly hung up as not to cry in front of her.
The incoming call signal interrupted my thinking. I was expecting it to be Astra's father, so I could fulfill my promise, but it turned out to be someone else on the line. The Dark Mother! I could not have been more surprised. The old woman, clothed head to toe in a black robe, was smiling from ear to ear and said:
"Your servant tried to reject my call. Let him know the muteness will pass in two days. That ought to calm him down. As a matter of fact, August asked me to remind you that he expects his experts to have unrestricted access to the Hnelle system and the captured alien ship. Captain Mwaur Zen-Bey is coming. You should remember him. He inspected the battle site at the Vorta beacon. I, though, wanted to talk about something else entirely. How is the paralyzed girl doing?"
With difficulty, I picked my jaw up off the floor. We basically hadn't told anyone about the tragic event yet. How could the Dark Mother know anything about the incident? The old lady laughed:
"I could say a great many words about my infinite power, and you would believe me. But the truth is much more banal. Your doctor was wondering about unusual symptoms, making a bunch of requests, including to various archives. I was told about his interest in a strange injury, and putting two and two together from there was quite simple. Was it Miya?"
Lying to such a powerful Truth Seeker would be useless and dangerous to boot, so I confirmed the Dark Mother’s suspicions, telling her the slightly compressed version I had earlier told Katerina ton Mesfelle.
"That means Miya is pregnant... That's what I thought, to be honest. A daughter? Well, let it be a daughter... An interesting picture is forming. I don't envy your wife, Marta, right now. Do you understand what I'm talking about?"
I nodded and answered:
"If Miya's child is born and we are legally married, she will become a crown princess with full rights to the thrones of both the Orange House and the Empire. If Miya is not my legal wife before the birth, my daughter will just be a 'ton' without rights to thrones, or she could even end up a complete bastard, not belonging to the aristocracy at all."
"That's right. Knowing Miya's character, I can say confidently that she will only except the first of those two options, which is what puts Marta in such an unenviable position. It wouldn't be good for Miya to kill her, given that that would seriously complicate her own life. But she could mess up her nerves. Alright, I'll try to protect Marta..."
Having unexpectedly made up my mind, I asked a question I had long ago wondered about, secretly hoping that by doing so I wasn't revealing my complete ignorance:
"Dark Mother, I recently realized that I know almost nothing about Miya. She's been my Truth Seeker for quite a long time, but before she left, it never occurred to me that she could be hiding something. The fact that Miya was there was all that mattered. But now, with Miya gone, I look back and realize that I know very little about my companion. What can you tell me about Miya?"
The Dark Mother cackled back her reply:
"Oh, Georg, Georg... What do you want to know from me? You lived side by side with Miya for fifteen years, and you think I have anything to tell you about her? Well, OK. I'll tell you what I know. She first caught my attention as a talented Truth Seeker sometime around the end of the war with the Iseyeks. At that time, Miya was in the retinue of Admiral Mayf ton Mesfelle, and his fleet finally began to push back against the Swarm. Perhaps you'd be interested to know that it was Miya and several other Truth Seekers that served as the reason for the Iseyeks to begin their research in the field of psionic defense.
After that, Miya fell out of my field of view for a long time, then suddenly, seventy years later, she appeared with your father, Inoky. For a mediocre man who was in no way remarkable, Count Inoky’s rise was sharp and sudden. He received the Tesse star system and the very rich ice system Damir for his service, becoming one of the most influential aristocrats in the Empire and a clear candidate for the head of the Orange House at the same time. Miya progressed together with her master; they understood one another perfectly. The only thing that could bring an end to your father’s blistering ascent was his untimely death. The downing of the shuttle was investigated thoroughly. I also looked into the crash site, but it really did appear to be an accident.
You know what comes next: Tesse was given to Roben, Damir to your twin sister, and you were given Miya. All the aristocrats were waiting with bated breath for the day the unusually skilled Truth Seeker’s power would be revealed, and your rise would begin, but instead you fell in love with your Miya... And only now, a decade and a half later, has your rise begun. Clearly, Miya spent a long time planning and arranging the current circumstances, and her pregnancy was part of that. Only when with child can a Truth Seeker truly make the most of her powers... Anyway, enough about Miya. Together with Captain Mwaur Zen-Bey there will be medics coming to take the wounded girl from you. I'll see if it's possible to help her in any way."
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