Authors: Michael G. Thomas
“Strategos. Scans indicate the enemy forces are divided. One third is stationed around Cunaxa Secundus. The rest is blocking our route along a line of defence posts and stations.”
Clearchus spotted the defensive formation of small stations that littered the main approach.
We can bypass those defences easily. What else do they have?
In front of him was a holographic model of the System, along with every ship and station shown by icons. He reached out and touched one of the stations, and data appeared alongside the image to outline all the information obtained so far. The Cunaxa Nebula was named for clouds of inert gas that gave it an odd hue when viewed from other stars. The reality was that it was a triple star system with scores of planets and hundreds of moons. Clearchus had never seen such a richly populated system before, but his research material showed that even this place paled compared to the Imperial Capital at Babylon Prime. Most of the planets were stationed around the smaller of the stars, and he counted over a hundred orbital star fortresses at key positions around the System. Green shapes indicated his forces, and all had reported in as effective and ready for battle.
What is that?
He spotted one of the formations in his forces had started to move further from the fleet. He tapped the icon and up popped the image of Rashnu, the flagship of the Medes forces. He called over to the Auletes.
“Get me Cyrus, now!”
The image of the Median commander quickly appeared.
“My Lord, what are you doing?”
Cyrus looked back impatiently.
“I have been contacted directly by Tissaphernes, and he has offered to discuss terms if we stand down. My scans show he is commanding the forces at the outer defences. There are already murmurs on my ships that we should take this offer.”
Clearchus almost smashed his fist into the display.
“What? Are they insane? Any sign of weakness now, and his fleet will fall on us and destroy us piece by piece. I always knew we couldn’t trust that bastard. He was with Artaxerxes all the time.”
“Perhaps,” replied Cyrus. “That is why I have ordered all my forces to commence the attack on the outer defences. There are five starforts in my path, and I want every one of them under my control! Once we open fire, there will be no chance of negotiation. I will find out where his loyalties really lie. Either he joins me or he will face my fleet.”
Clearchus rubbed his forehead, doing his best to hide his frustration and anger.
“We should send in skirmishers to deal with the forts and Tissaphernes. They are distractions, no more than that. When they are occupied, our main forces can bypass them for a direct strike on the Emperor’s own fleet. That is what I planned, and it will work. We are here for the Emperor, not to fight every ship we can find. When Tissaphernes can see us pushing past, he will either runaway or join us. I doubt he would stand and fight if he has any doubts of Artaxerxes’ chances.”
Cyrus pointed off to his left, but it meant nothing to Clearchus, being as he was not on the same ship.
“My brother’s ship is sat right there, in the middle of his fleet. They are waiting in orbit around Cunaxa Secundus, along with most of his heavy warships.
He cannot escape, and yet he hides behind his ships like a coward. He will try and avoid facing me if he can, especially after our last encounter at Khorram. Have you seen the allies he has brought with him? We must destroy his ability to fight before taking him on.”
? Clearchus wondered.
“Tactical, who are these allies, and where are they?”
Kybernetes Ditha Artell
spotted the first though and pointed to a number of strange ships in the middle of the Median fleet, waiting at the rear.
“Strategos, there is another fleet. It has just arrived. They look like
“Terran ships?” asked Clearchus in surprise.
The three-dimensional model of the System was now becoming more complicated. Most of the Median ships were stationed around the main planet with another large group around the defences between the two fleets. The arrival of this new force meant that Cyrus’ force was outnumbered by at least two to one.
? Surely it can’t be.
, it must be. That bastard
! He must be advising Artaxerxes for this battle.”
“You see, old friend, things are not as they seem. It would appear that your people are all too keen to fight for whoever offers the most money.”
spoke to you?”
“Some time ago, yes. He offered a small number of forces, but his main offer was his skills as a commander. I had already chosen you, though.”
Clearchus nodded politely.
“A wise decision, my Lord. With this new arrival, it would be dangerous for us to attack the rearguard too quickly. We need to maintain control of this situation from the opening volleys till the end.”
“I take it this
will not be a problem?” asked Cyrus with a concerned tone.
Clearchus snorted in derision.
can only frighten old women and children! He has a few Terran ships and more Median vessels. The Legion will destroy him easily. I suggest you continue with your plan to deal with the starforts. I will take the Legion, destroy these new forces, and then fall back to hit their defences from the rear. After we have reduced them to rubble, we will regroup and combine our forces for a final assault on the Emperor’s rearguard.”
Clearchus smiled to himself, pleased that he had managed to change the plan to almost match his original intentions. It was imperative for the Terrans to provide the backbone for the final battle, and this way Cyrus could get his glory in the opening of the battle without taking dangerous risks.
“Very well, to battle, Strategos.”
The image vanished.
* * *
The walls rumbled from within as Rashnu led the assault against the Cunaxa defences. They’d been in action for more than thirty minutes now, and still the gunfire hammered into the armour and shielding of the powerful Median vessel. Much to the irritation of Xenophon, the only way he could see what was happening was by watching external feeds directly from the bridge. Roxana had helped him to jury-rig the system to one of the many maintenance consoles in the disembarkation deck. Every few minutes, it would need to be recalibrated to match the new coding, but at least they could watch as Cyrus’ primary fleet circled over and around the defences. Glaucon, Roxana and Xenophon were all fully armoured in the spatharii uniforms and carrying a mixture of Laconian and Arcadian weaponry. The two hundred picked automatons of the 2nd Cilician waited patiently, each standing to attention like robots. Glaucon walked up to one and tapped it on the shoulder. There was no response.
“Nothing, not even a flinch, why not?” he asked.
Artemas looked at them and then to Glaucon.
“They are trained to follow and obey my orders only. They hear you but choose to ignore you.”
Xenophon glanced away from the screen and looked at them. They were smart and well equipped, but he doubted their ability when facing violence and adversity. He’d read that they were deliberately kept low on both the physical and intelligence scales in case of revolt. That might be true, he hoped they wouldn’t have to find out. The real problem he was now having was how far he could put his trust in them? Could they turn on them and if so, how many could he fight off?
“Look,” suggested Roxana.
A group of automaton warriors ran past, but not one paid them any attention.
They moved with speed, but it was clear that a number of them were talking and muttering as they did so. Xenophon instantly sensed their nervousness. They went past a partially disassembled transport and disappeared into one of the many corridors.
“They might be artificial in birth, but they have a pulse like us. I guarantee they can they feel just like any one of us, and that means they have all the same frailties as any Terran or Medes.”
He turned to Glaucon.
“You remember that group we found back on the Tartarus Trading Post? They had rebelled and escaped. They didn’t like what was happening, so they ignored their indoctrination and ran. Apart from their origins, I don’t think they’re so different to anybody else. Just look at them; can’t you smell the fear on them? They’ll run, trust me.”
He looked back and at the screen. It showed the battle around the starports, as well as a large number of small vessels heading for the starforts. They looked like Median transports, and each one probably filled with automaton foot soldiers. He didn’t envy them the landing they would be involved with very soon. A landing under fire was always a bloody affair, and they lacked strong armour or body shields. The losses would be horrendous.
A loud, almost booming voice echoed through the inside of the ship. None of Xenophon’s group, with the exception of Artemas, could understand the words, but it instantly galvanised the automatons into running to find cover.
“What’s going on?” asked Glaucon.
Artemas pulled out her pistol and nodded towards the heavily shielded landing area. It was designed so that all manner of craft could land and unload goods and people.
assault dromons have launched from two of the starforts. They waited until we launched our own transports and then broke through the open shields. Two made it through the perimeter and are landing troops at the shield doors. They’ll be in soon.”
Xenophon thought. It was such a rookie mistake to make, and he could not believe that Cyrus had allowed the enemy a chance like this.
“How did they get so close?” Roxana asked with a mixture of surprise and anger.
“Yeah, I thought this was the flagship?” asked Glaucon.
Xenophon grabbed him, pulled him into cover and waved for the others to do the same. Lady Artemas stood out in the open for a second, shouting orders to her borrowed unit of two hundred automatons. With Glaucon now in cover, Xenophon explained as quickly as he could.
“This is the ship of Cyrus. Take him out, and the battle is over before it starts. If they are
dromons, then we can probably expect Terran soldiers. They’ll make mincemeat of these automatons.”
The voice started again, but this time with even greater urgency. A group of a dozen soldiers ran to Artemas and positioned themselves in cover near her. Every one of them trained their rifles in the expected direction of the enemy. Xenophon surveyed the ground around their position with great speed. There were many pieces of equipment, cases and parts of ships scattered about. There was a long expanse of open space running along the outer doors so that craft could take off and land. Many small rooms were around the perimeter, but from what he had seen, they led nowhere and were simply storage spaces or workshops.
“There!” cried Roxana.
A flicker of lights at the far end of the open space was all that Xenophon needed to get him to hit the ground. He lurched forward and towards a fighter’s damaged engine assembly. Just before he landed, a fusillade of bullets slammed into the metal structure behind him. Glaucon and Roxana moved with Artemas so they could dig in around a stack of spare parts. They were all large metal pieces, each at least the weight of an adult Terran, perhaps even heavier. Xenophon lifted his head slightly over the cover to scan his surroundings. The enemy had broken through the shield doors and had spread out into a front of about thirty fighters. They all wore dark armour, and from the weight of fire they were putting down, they must have been professionals. He lifted his right hand and took aim with his Asgeirr-Carbine. Though its range was limited, he was still able to hit them. Just three short bursts and he watched two of the enemy fall down, both hit in the torso by the powerful pulse rounds. Glaucon grabbed his shoulder and laughed, firing a burst from his heavy-duty pulse cannon. The noise and firepower was impressive. The rounds sent shards of debris around the attackers.
“What would you give for a good, old-fashioned Laconian body shield, right now?”
Roxana took careful shots with her Doru Mk II Rifle. Every one of the high-velocity rounds struck home with unnerving accuracy. This was in stark contrast to the gunfire now being unleashed by the large numbers of automaton soldiers. Their rate of fire was substantial, but few seemed to be taking much care with their shots. Xenophon watched as a blast from a Terran pulse cannon hit an automaton in the head. The round tore out a great chunk of flesh, scattering the rest of the shattered corpse onto the three hiding in cover. One screamed and in panic jumped out into the open.