Admiral Tarsias Fallik attempted to work the muscles in his neck without tangling the command connections. Even after promotion to command it all it was still a case of hurry up and wait he mused wryly. Giving up the unequal effort against fatigue he studied the holotank again. The enemy were still just grey-green spots representing probable positions and vectors. Pulling the image back he checked the fleet disposition again and confirmed again that they were deployed in a bowl facing away from Kriuper. Ready to react to the enemy, once someone could discover exactly what sort of enemy they were.
* * *
"Admiral, long range scans place the enemy fleet at fifteen ships. We have resolved a scan-capture of the lead ship."
Tarsias summoned the image to his holotank, relieved to finally see his enemy. The ship was like an ugly arrow. Although it was angular and covered in what could be spikes it lacked the disturbing grace of Chain Wraith craft, so appeared to be something new. Maximising resolution the grey-green blur revealed a structure toward the rear that could be shaped like one of the occult totems his briefing had mentioned.
"Mr Semid. See if you can get me an image of the sides."
"The angle is acute," replied the sensor technician, "I am trying to unify our readings with the fleet to create a workable image."
"Get me what you can. Mr Derns signal the fleet to advance Pattern Epsil."
"Commencing Deployment Pattern Epsil."
Tarsias watched as Captain Aurin took the Croestus surging forward alone to communicate the offer of truce. Meanwhile elements of the fleet swung away from the orbital plane while the remainder advanced in a crescent to take advantage of the enemy's tight deployment. If all went to plan the enemy would identify themselves and depart peaceably; if not they would soon see that they could not bear on all elements simultaneously and be forced to surrender.
* * *
"Captain Aurin reports he is in range Admiral. Initial communiqué transmitted."
Tarsias leant forward. Would they agree to terms immediately, or would there be a show of bravado? Hopefully the pre-recorded messages and basic dictionary would cover enough situations to start a dialogue.
"Sir, Captain Aurin reports he is under fire. Some sort of prow-mounted weapon... Sir sensors have detected a surge consistent with a reactor overload. We have lost the Croestus"
Tarsias racked his brains for anything he might have missed from the initial contact that could help now. He remembered the excitement when the colony on Agrendon released its report stating the Barnhof Belt had ceased to exist and the parties when the Navy deployed a group to investigate. The concern when communications became patchy followed by silence. Weeks turned to months without word. He lobbied for a rescue mission but was told the fleet was needed in-system.
Maybe if they had listened this could have been avoided. Maybe if they had listened Agrendon would still be alive.
The first sign had been anomalies in communications, then reports of unexplained astronomical events. The group deployed at Agrendon managed to get off a message confirming attack before going silent. Then a final garbled message from the planet containing images of dropships and copies of harsh sounding broadcasts.
Analysis of the transmissions had revealed them to be a very degraded but recognisably human language. Translation combined with study of the images had shown the invaders to be as degraded as their tongue. A warrior culture following a bloody god. He had expected bravado, but attacking without even trying to talk?
* * *
For a moment the wings of the fleet paused in honour of their comrades before moving to combat speed, surrounding the oncoming ships in overlapping fields of fire.
"Confirm that fleet to Engage Mr Derns. Target their engines."
Tarsias watched the holotank gain definition as data from the vanguard fed back to his station. The enemy started to spread to face his vanguard; however, their ships seems slow even by the standards of void craft and were still covering each others flanks preventing most broadsides from coming to bear. His second wave approached on a lazier curve, overshooting the engagement before firing thrusters hard to swing back.
With Kriupan ships now on all sides, using the vicious prow batteries would require the enemy to turn their engines toward the enemy and soon more than one began to drift. However, as the fleet came to close quarters the enemy revealed an almost suicidal disregard for their own men, firing across the decks of their own ships to rake the vanguard with punishing broadsides. Even the increased manoeuvrability of Kriupan ships could not avoid it all and several ships suffered system failures.
"Mr Derns order the fleet to pull back and deploy medical ships to evacuate damaged ships. Broadcast the prepared message offering a ceasefire."
Watching the holotank Tarsias was stunned to see signals fading out.
"Admiral, they appear to be targeting the medical ships!"
Tarsias bowed his head, unable to watch the fragments of the support ships go dark.
"They were trying to save them! Why did they attack?" Ensign Semid tailed off.
Pirates would always honour a temporary ceasefire while a disabled ship was rescued, and even Chain Wraiths did not target the non-combatants. How degraded did you have to be to attack medics? Tarsias gripped the arms of his chair as he tried to wrestle the facts into even partial sense. Would a people that violent even accept that they had lost? In the end protecting the lives of his own people must come before saving the lives of aggressors.
"Mr Derns, I feel this is an appropriate moment to remind you that any bridge officer is obliged to place his commanding officer under arrest and assume command if that commanding officer displays conduct unbecoming." Tarsias watched his second turn from his station with a puzzled expression. Forestalling the inevitable question he continued, "Order the fleet to re-engage. Target priority bridge and life support."
Silence fell across the bridge before each officer stood and saluted.
* * *
The rest of the fleet had returned to dock but the Agamemnon had remained, Tarsias forcing himself to watch until the last hulk guttered into darkness. He knew he would never fully reconcile the order with his conscience; however with the annihilation of so many ships even if this Imperium did not see Kriuper vastly outmatched them they would not have the resources to attack again.