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Chapter 13: The God of War

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing; a lot of knowledge, likewise. And none, most dangerous of all.

Lucidity Koslova, VASA Special Ops Division.

When the Helios grav-well activated once again, the system's wormhole bursting into life, the reaction of the Joint Expeditionary Fleet was immediate. Hundreds of long-range scanners turned on the area for any sign of whatever might have come through, while automated probes and light scout vessels converged on it for a closer view. Further in-system, fleet command held their collective breath. The discovery that the new arrival had heralded not some mighty fleet, but rather a lone escape pod was, therefore, met with mixed emotions.

Burning through the escape pod's mag-locks with thermite cutters, the boarders discovered half a dozen survivors within, a group of bedraggled and burned Viridian spacers, who claimed to have been part of the crew of the Necrosaur, a dreadnought stationed at the Karnus system. Their leader, a Lieutenant Harwell, insisted that Grand Admiral Cranmer would want to speak to him directly, and the boarding team saw no reason to deny his request.

Soon afterwards, Harwell was standing on Cranmer's bridge, facing the Admiral and a few other high-ranking members of fleet command, including representatives from the Junker and VASA contingents. Cranmer couldn't help but wince when he saw the extent of the man's injuries: the entire left-hand side of his face was marred with mottled red burn marks and charred flesh, and his once-pristine dark green uniform was scorched with electrical fire and blackened with ash. The medics had tried to help him as soon as he'd boarded the Sabretusk, but he'd insisted that it could wait until after he'd delivered his report of what had happened at Karnus.

"They came from the asteroid field. Moved in fast." Harwell began, wild-eyed. "Must have been lying low, using the rocks to mask their signatures. I was on sensors at the time: human vessels, but not of any class we could recognise. Most of the fleet was stationed around the Karnus grav-well at the time, and Admiral Castille brought us about to engage, ordered launch of Wildcat fighters. We closed on them in wall abreast, opening up with turbo-lasers at forty-five thousand klicks, and RMDs shortly afterwards."

Cranmer gave a small nod. Everything that Harwell had described so far constituted sound - if not particularly inspired - Viridian fleet tactics. A dreadnought's strongest shielding and heaviest weapons were arrayed along its prow, which made it only good sense to try to stay nose-on to your opponent.

"We outnumbered them by half again as many vessels, and we had them taking casualties only minutes into the engagement. The Necrosaur itself was able to take out one of their capital ships - I think our turbo-laser barrage must have hit the thing's main generator: the whole vessel seemed to just collapse in on itself. Never seen anything like it. Their return fire was fairly ineffective at first. Some kind of rapid-fire energy weapon - didn't seem to have the same range as the main weapon systems of our dreadnoughts."

Lieutenant Harwell suddenly convulsed in a fit of coughing. He righted himself a few moments later, but Admiral Cranmer could not help but notice the blood on his palm when he brought it away from his lips.

"It was a trap. They had a second battlegroup, hidden within the atmosphere of the Karnus III gas giant. Accelerated out of it, right into our flank. Our picket line tried to stop them, but..." Harwell trailed off for a moment.

"Admiral Castille ordered the Wildcats recalled, tried to bring more than half the formation hard to starboard, trying to present prow guns. It might have worked if the frigates had bought us more time, but dreadnoughts aren't exactly the most agile of ships... They slashed into us, blazing away at close range with those rapid-fire energy weapons I mentioned, going for the weaker shielding on our ships' flanks. A squadron of their escorts hit the Necrosaur amidships. Whatever that weapon was, it must have had good penetrative power - we were swamped with reports of atmospheric failure within seconds of impact."

Harwell shook his head hard, as if trying to dispel unpleasant memories. "We were able to get a better look at the weapon's results from the escape pods: puckered craters, but... reddish, like someone had tried to rust a hole through the ship. I know it doesn't make sense. Last I saw, Admiral Castille had organised a makeshift squadron around his flagship, the Timber Wolf, and was flying them right into the heart of the enemy battlegroup, all guns blazing. Our escape pod was able to reach the grav-well safely, but a lot of the others didn't make it: they had fighters fanning out and targeting the pods, while their capital ships concentrated on finishing off our main battlegroup."

A sombre silence fell across the bridge. As if suddenly remembering protocol, Harwell sprang to attention, clacking his boot heels together and saluting, to indicate the conclusion of his report.

"Thankyou, Lieutenant." murmured Admiral Cranmer with a respectful nod. He turned to the nearest medical officer. "Take this man to the med-bay, and make sure he stays there, understand?"

Cranmer frowned in thought as the medics led Harwell away. He had known Admiral Castille since their days in the academy, and counted the man as a good friend and reliable officer. Just as importantly, though, the destruction of Castille's fleet left the Joint Expeditionary Fleet in the Arcadia-Helios system highly vulnerable, if the survivors of the Koralon Reef-fleet were to return.

He turned towards his comms officer. "Lieutenant, are there any other reports of disturbances? In particular, anything from Madigant, Orchitin, Pommigral or Onu Yesh?"

The Lieutenant keyed something into his control panel, and then shook his head, concern writ across his features. "Nothing, sir, but there seems to be a block on comms. Wait! I'm picking up something from Madigant. It's pretty garbled, but I'll patch it through..."

A static-filled holo-image sprang up, of a young man in a grimy business suit, speaking into a portable comms device. Behind him, a team of corporate guards in field-grey uniforms were visible, manning a barricade which stretched across the street; beyond, burning buildings poured columns of smoke into the sky.

"Zzzzschhhh... repeat, we are under attack! Massive citizen uprising... unverified reports of heavily armoured units, utilising unusual small arms ordnance... request backup! Repeat, we are... schhhhhhh." The image, and anything else the man might have said, were lost in waves of static.

Cranmer's frown deepened as he issued his next order. "Lieutenant, open comms with Neo-Karas, and tell General Vonic Isambard to get the IDF on full lock down, now! Call Turris Obsidio and Greyburn; I want Proconsul Truculla and Marshal Iliya on the holo-view immediately!"

"Put the fleet on high alert - all ships to optimal engagement range and disposition from the Helios grav-well."

"I just hope I'm wrong..." Cranmer murmured to himself.