Blaring alarms were quickly silenced as they were acknowledged. Gabriela kept a tight fist as the ship maneuvered up and away from the Gates of the Earth. Fortunately Otakar had been drawn away or she doubted they would have even made it to the upper atmosphere.
She could feel the heat of the flames even on the command deck. Her job was to respond to the constant bombardment of reports and to provide guidance. This particular scenario hadn’t been covered, but she would handle it.
“The formations can’t extinguish the flames. Conventional methods also aren’t working.”
“Continue our retreat,” she ordered. “We’ll starve it out.” Cultivators flames didn’t have to follow rules about fuel and the like, but there were limits to everything. And though these had great power, melting through the outer hull as the metal itself caught alight, she knew there had to be some way to stop them. They were self-sustaining now, unless Otakar somehow maintained an untraceable connection from where he was. But they’d checked for that. “All forces, prepare for depressurization. Vent air on the outer decks.”
Crew were distributed throughout the ship. While they could technically perform their duties from the command deck, there were delays when performing certain activities from a central point. The gunners, for example, needed the minimum amount of lag possible between their motions and that of the guns. A tenth of a second or even a hundredth of a second could be too much, so they were generally on a layer underneath the weapons themselves, properly shielded of course.
Venting began, and Gabriela felt the flames. They burned on the hull and spewed out of the ship. In the worst case they’d have to prepare a route out of the ship the crew could escape on- a well trained crew was just as important though technically less expensive than the ship. But only technically less expensive, as all training was designed to produce more value than its cost. She didn’t want to think about that option now, however.
“Status?” she asked.
“Temperatures still rising, flames spreading. The rate… might be slowing.”
“Outer formations severely damaged.”
They continued to pull away from the planet and the traces of atmosphere, and Gabriela kept her face neutral while her heart was hopeful. Then came a report.
“… Flames receding.”
“Fire suppression systems only nominally functional, but effective.”
“Temperatures remain at unacceptable levels.”
General Gabriela opened a link to engineers in the core. “Is it possible to siphon the heat energy from the outer shell to power the batteries?”
There was silence for a few moments. “It won’t be as efficient as material fuel, but I assume that’s not your intention. There will be some risk to the lines, however.”
“Do your best. We’re in for repairs no matter what, and we can’t fight without our hull.” Technically the Wayfarer would remain structurally sound without the outer shell- but it had all of the armor that would protect the actually important parts besides weapons and engines that had to be placed externally.
A minute later it seemed they had managed something as the temperature began to drop rapidly, though they continued to pull away from the battle and it was only half an hour later that temperatures were out of the emergency zone.
“Estimate the damage and give me a report on our losses,” Gabriela said. The people were the most important part. Anyone could build a fancy ship, but as the Independence showed, it required a good crew as well. Even an Assimilation cultivator was not sufficient alone without full understanding. Gabriela wished something worse had happened to Eyvor, the woman who had Nicodemo’s stolen cultivation, but ultimately after the interrogation she had been executed. It wasn’t worth risking her getting out. But death still seemed too easy for what she’d done.
Looking at the damage report, Gabriela had to admit that the ship itself was… rather more important than she’d been giving credit for. Specifically, the amount of damage was so extensive she honestly couldn’t see them fighting. They didn’t have unlimited supplies for repairs- they were only supposed to patch up holes, not replace entire sections.
Then Neven showed up on the deck.
“Why are you walking?”
“Because I can’t fly,” he responded.
Gabriela shook her head at the lead gunner, almost losing her composure once she actually looked at him. He was staggering about, but her vague sweep hadn’t done his injuries justice. Much of his body was blackened, with only uncomfortable patches of bloody red poking through. “You should be in the medbay.”
“It’s full,” he shrugged. “Besides, I wanted to talk to you.”
“Does it have to be now?” she asked. Even as she responded to him, she was answering queries on her computer. At least she didn’t have to repeat herself, as everyone with proper clearance could answer the communications. As long as the internal network didn’t collapse, which was one of the problems they had only barely avoided with damage all throughout the ship.
“Yes,” he said. “It relates to that guy. Otakar.”
“Alright, what of it?”
“I would like permission to attempt to replicate his style.”
She frowned at him. “Why ask for permission? You’re not going to set the ship on fire, are you?”
“Not on purpose,” he said. “But… there is some risk, as I would need to use the cannon to properly practice.”
“Didn’t he use a blade? I don’t see how you could even replicate that.”
“As you may recall, I studied under swordmaster Ty Quigley for a time. Our styles might not have meshed, but the way he adapted archaic weaponry to be useful with modern equipment styles inspired me. Here, I would just be doing the opposite.”
“Weren’t you his disciple for…” she looked it up, “… A month? Did you really learn anything?”
“I learned everything I could from him,” Neven replied. “May I practice now?”
“It is still fresh in my mind,” Neven said.
“We’re still doing barrier calculations. You’ll have to be quarantined, even if I don’t expect you to replicate anything.”
“Fine. Do I have permission?”
“Yes. But-” Gabriela held up a hand to stop him as he began to turn. “Only after you go to the medbay and let someone plaster some skin on you.” Neven just stood there, thinking. “Every second you choose to delay will mean you’re one second later. Weren’t you in a hurry?”
“Can I have permission to go like this?” He held up his hand, flames dancing across his fingertips. “My current bodily state remembers the feeling.”
“Fine. But you need to at least let them scan you to make sure you won’t fall apart.”
“Very well,” he nodded. “If I may be excused?”
The gunner scampered off the bridge. Gabriela shook her head. She couldn’t exactly restrict people attempting to be exceptional, but she didn’t understand what drove people like that. Here she was, just trying to hold things together but not pushing the extra mile. Not like Nicodemo. Then again, she’d never be like him.
“General,” another individual caught her attention. “I do have… one idea for where to get materials for the repairs.”
“Is there some sort of foundry I don’t know of?” Gabriela asked. “I doubt we can make anything to our standards.”
“It is all precisely to our standards. Older standards, at least.” The officer shook her head, “Right now the Independence is just floating there…”
“We can’t afford even a day of delay on repairs,” Gabriela said. “Getting permission for that…”
“Understood, general. I was simply providing the option.”
“Appreciated,” Gabriela nodded.
“There are also many metals near the sun, in an asteroid belt that was presumably once their innermost planet. Their proximity to the sun will allow us to constantly refuel, making use of the ship’s internal production facilities.”
“And those materials would allow us to be functional quickly? Within a week or two?”
“Unlikely. Damage to all ship infrastructure was severe, including freight elevators and fabricators.”
“We’ll consider the options,” Gabriela said.
Dammit. She was going to take apart a national treasure, wasn’t she? Ah well. They couldn’t possibly court-martial her until the war was over, and that Otakar guy proved they needed every little thing they could get. At least the information from the other attacks indicated general success, except for the Augmentation cultivator chasing away the first fleet before they were completely finished with their goal.
“As everyone is well aware, Otakar is a serious problem,” Anton opened the discussion without fanfare. “All of you are here to consult. What are our options?”
“Our barrier calibrations should be sufficient to enhance the fleets’ durability,” Gabriela provided- or at least the image of her. She was not able to be physically present, her excuse being the Wayfarer had to avoid being located. And in truth, it probably wouldn’t be. Except by Anton, since he could feel it next to the sun. And another thing he’d tossed in a temporary orbit there. But he wasn’t going to complain about Rutera doing their best with what they had available. “Unfortunately, the Wayfarer will be out of commission.”
“We’ll have to count that as another loss,” Anton said. “It was only a few Assimilation individuals, but we can’t exactly absorb such losses continuously.” And personally, he didn’t like people he knew dying. That never stopped him from trying to connect with more people, though. “The void ants have prepared a response for us as well, I believe.”
One of the Royal Guard- the one nominally in charge, even with the current status involving at least one mangled leg- gave a short and concise overview. “Our previous formations were developed with the understanding that cultivators could only harm a small portion of them at a time. However, this individual overwhelmed our expectations even with regards to our understanding of other Augmentation cultivators. Should we be called upon to eliminate him, we will be altering our tactics to make use of detached groups of elite individuals in a pattern most stifling to his attacks. Assuming his vulnerability to physical trauma is not out of the expected bounds, we should be able to cause severe injuries or death.”
“I see,” Gabriela replied. “Would this be the most efficient use of your forces?”
“I don’t know,” the Royal Guard admitted. “An alternative method involves getting in contact with one micro-elite individual and attempting an assassination. A Royal Guard sized similar to myself would likely be noticed with the continuing exposure of Ekict’s forces to void ants.”
Anton led the conversation in a different direction. “Perhaps we can find a way to combine void ant and cultivator forces to greater effect. Because as cultivators alone we also face difficulty defeating him on our own. Even if we assumed that he was the only enemy we would have to deal with- obviously untrue- killing him would be near impossible. Gathering all our forces, we could certainly overpower him. But if we truly attacked all at once, he could simply fight his way through our forces and flee. Those who could match his speed would not be able to defeat him alone. Certainly not reliably.”
“Wouldn’t he get tired?” Gabriela asked. “He would have to replenish his energy somehow. Where does it come from?”
“As an Augmentation cultivator…” Anton frowned, “It should be from Ascension energy in the upper realms. But his energy was very clearly natural energy as expected of this place. Dense and powerful, but with the same signatures. He might recover quickly anywhere or… perhaps he might not. That might be influenced by his reasons for concealment up until now.” Anton considered. “We’ll have to watch him from a distance.” Which meant Anton would have to do it, as well as a few special scout ships that could remain hidden in a far orbit. The Wayfarer would also be a good candidate, if it wasn’t out of commission.
“Weos didn’t have a chance to test our spatial distortion against his attacks,” Ingeborg brought up. “It is likely they will prove more effective at avoiding the start of the chain reaction, which might be enough to throw him off and injure him.”
“We’ll have to try it,” Anton admitted. “But first we must monitor the situation on the planet itself, and their response to the damage we caused. Including the general dismantling of the planetary barrier.” Technically, it still held together in some spots- but a good half of the planet was unprotected or only had a very tenuous shell that could be easily shattered. Flying around such spots would be easy enough, allowing them to attack any places of interest. So they had achieved their goals, even if they had another problem they had to deal with before they could move to the next steps.