The way the situation had developed in the system made general Gabriela’s interest in finding the Independence again into an obsession. Perhaps they should have given chase the first time… but such was hindsight. It no longer was in orbit around any of the gas giants, cutting it off from the best fuel source. Next was the sun, but it hadn’t been found there either. That left the only option being refueling from ambient natural energy, or juicing it up with condensed energy. By far the most expensive option, but it would keep it out of view while they repaired it.
Ignoring it wasn’t an option, especially with upcoming assaults. It was too powerful to risk it appearing during the middle of a pitched fleet battle. While the Wayfarer could be ready to counter it, it was unclear how many ships they would lose before that point. There was some danger with seeking it out, especially if the spearmaster Aoibhin was with it still. Though that depended on what other ships came along with it. If Gabriela’s fleet could catch just those two, they would have a significant advantage. At the very least, it would not go any worse than the previous time, and the repairs to the Wayfarer were complete.
For the sake of the smaller ships, they already had energy profiles of Aoibhin- so while it might be possible for her to destroy them, it would take her significantly more effort. Reviewing the battle records has also provided them with tactical options for offense against the woman.
The Wayfarer had just passed the primary planet’s moon. That was well under Trifold Alliance control, and with Anton vouching for the lack of anything in sneaky corners, Gabriela was looking elsewhere. If the Independence wasn’t somewhere around this particular planet, then it could only arrive significantly into the duration of a battle. Currently, they were searching the empty space further away than true orbits. It would require fuel to maintain a position or far orbit, but it would also be harder to spot them. But there was a lot of empty space to search in a system.
The next day, the Independence had still not been found. With an assault planned for later, there wasn’t much time to find it. Currently, they were searching off the system plane for any abnormal signs. It was nearly hopeless, if the ship had just flown to a random point and maintained its relative position to the system, but they had some hope. It would be a source of energy, and various technological signs could make it stand out if they imperfectly hid them.
Despite that, Gabriela was surprised when they finally detected it. “We found it, general.”
“What sort of traces?” she asked. “Fuel trails? Energy emissions?”
“Both. But also… it’s just there. No cloaking attempts.”
“Sounds like an ambush. But as far as I know there’s nothing for them to hide behind out here. A free floating formation, perhaps?”
“We’re looking into it,” the bridge crew confirmed. “Nothing yet.”
“What’s the status of the Independence? Back to full capacity?”
There was a moment of silence with the hum of the ship and the tapping of keys and fingers on tactile screens. “It appears to be at eighty percent energy reserves. Hull status is… unchanged.”
“No, general. It is in the same state we left it.”
“But why? It was stocked with materials. It would only take a good crew a few hours, maybe a day to patch what we-” Gabriela stopped herself. “I think we’ve made a simple mistake.”
“Should we call off the approach?”
Gabriela bit her lip. “No. Maintain our course.” She looked around the bridge. “Lieutenant. How long did it take you to get approved for space duty?”
“Five years, general.”
“What is that counting?”
“Everything from fighters to ascension class battleships, general.”
“What experience did you have before that?”
“Standard military experience for ten years.”
“How much flight school do you think the people on the Independence had?”
“I would assume the same.”
“I don’t mean the official crew. I mean the people currently there, right now.”
“A century?” the man tilted his head. “Given our intel that General Nicodemo was a subject of transferral.”
“Maybe,” Gabriela said. “But I don’t know about that. And that’s just one person. The rest of the crew… they’ll only have a few months of experience. Without a living basis of our technology, even.” Gabriela nodded, even more confident in her assertions. “We’re not going up against the Independence. We’re going up against a bunch of novices piloting the Independence. That doesn’t mean it’s not a danger, but it affects our tactics. The most important thing is to maximize attack pattern variability. If I’m right, we’ll mainly be fighting against automatic shield adaptation. And perhaps an Integration cultivator.”
“Scans complete,” reported another bridge member.
“Aoibhin’s signature detected, along with signs indicating smaller ships are docked upon the Independence.”
“Ours or theirs?”
“A mix of both, likely.”
“We’ll have to take them into account, but the priority will be causing any form of damage to the Independence. Hull is secondary compared to technological systems, though if we can destroy it… that’s probably our best option.” Nobody wanted to take down the Independence, but leaving it in enemy hands was worse than destroying a national treasure.
“We’re inside maximum range. Thirty seconds to optimal.”
“Have we been spotted? Once we are, commence immediate bombardment.”
In theory, the Independence’s systems should have picked them up by now. Especially since they were preparing for an attack and amping up their systems. It seemed suspicious still, but perhaps they didn’t know how to interpret the sensor data. Either way, the Wayfarer’s shields were up and attuned to the most likely enemy attack patterns, specifically the Independence’s main cannons and Aoibhin.
“Hangar bays opening,” came the report.
“Fire at will.”
As ordered, the gunners began to fire on designated targets. Some of that were comms and sensor arrays, and the rest found whatever external systems they could. Some of those were the hangars- and the ships coming out of them. Normally the ships would have been out before they got within range for that, but with the delay it was quite effective. They also didn’t seem particularly familiar with the necessary maneuvers.
It still required punching through the shields, but overlapping areas of formations were actually weaker- the small local ships had their own assertion on the energy around them that conflicted with the Independence, though the stolen or ransomed Ruteran ships should automatically adjust.
Watching the beginning of the battle, Gabriela could only determine that the instincts and reflexes of cultivators were doing all of the heavy lifting. The local ships moved just fine- though more ponderously and without adaptive shielding- but the unfamiliarity with the others was clear enough now that she considered it.
The opening volley destroyed at least a dozen ships and damaged others, while also scarring hangars and other systems. They’d had plenty of time to line up their most powerful cannons with critical infrastructure, and though it was well shielded and fortified they caused some damage to the Independence itself. It would be adapted to the Wayfarer’s larger weapons now, but they had incoming fighters that would pepper its shields, causing it to adapt to them or drain its energy stores quickly with inefficient defenses. Either option was sufficient.
Unfortunately, the individual who had stolen Nicodemo’s cultivation was not incapable. At the very least, the counterattacks they controlled were devastating, cutting through space towards their fleet. But while the main cannons could take out a fighter even with adapted shields, they could hardly scratch the Wayfarer with its adaptations already in place. No doubt general Nicodemo would have been ready for that… but there was no immediate change. Just the most powerful weapons used with precision but limited understanding.
Aoibhin was still a threat, however. Her location was quickly revealed as a spear crashed into a fighter. But with shields pre-adapted, it actually withstood the attack. It didn’t help when she appeared next to her spear a moment later and attacked directly, but there was only so much a single pilot could hope for.
And this time, they were ready. The formation was spread out in such a way that they could cover the most area, and the instant Aoibhin arrived dozens of attacks were launched at her. From lasers which singed her personal defenses to high velocity projectiles and a few individualized weapons for energy cultivators, the area was quickly filled with death. Of course, an Integration cultivator would not go down so easily- but instead of immediately repeating her assault like before, Aoibhin flashed away from her position to avoid the fleet’s counterattack. It was unclear if she sustained actual injuries, but a moment more and her energy defenses would have surely crumbled completely.
The smaller enemy ships were a minor complication. The local ships were less maneuverable- most resembling traditional sailing ships, as cultivators tended to do. They had formations and enchantments that made them formidable enough, but they couldn’t build a fleet out of legendary materials. Likewise, the stolen ships were not used to their maximum capabilities, and the experienced Ruteran fighters overwhelmed them.
If Ty had been present, he would have flown circles around them. No, through them probably. But Gabriela was also content with the knowledge that people like him were defending Rutera and their home systems.
The Wayfarer’s shields were holding, and the losses of smaller ships were still less rapid than the enemy, even when Aoibhin rejoined the offense. Energy stores were sufficient, and the Independence’s levels were rapidly dropping. More importantly… the assault caused their automatic adaptation to adjust to the smaller arms. Which meant another bombardment from the Wayfarer’s larger weapons broke through to the hull.
A few moments later, the Independence began to flee. Like many ships, there were compromises that had to be made- so there were only so many engines or thrusters that could go in any given direction. In other words, it was most effective at going where it was pointing, which would bring it past the Wayfarer even if they turned. “Calculate an intercept course, but continue to focus on the lesser fleet.”
Gabriela couldn’t help but smile. The enemy didn’t understand their technology, even when they had it. It was a good thing Ekict had been hasty and hadn’t waited another decade or two. Actually, why hadn’t they? It didn’t make any sense. Did they really see visiting disciples as such a large threat, and if so why did they not refuse? Clearly, she didn’t understand them. Then again, nobody from the Trifold Cluster had, or they would have expected something. Future groups would undergo much more scrutiny before being given significant access.
Seeing the way the battle was going, Aoibhin turned and fled. Some of the smaller and faster vessels could have kept pace with her, but it was better to let her go. Most likely, she’d just string them out and destroy them one by one if they chased. And destroying enemy ships- and catching up to the Independence- was more important.
Actually, with things as they were… did they have to destroy it? Gabriela understood that someone with Nicodemo’s powers was inside, so an assault would be difficult. She certainly couldn’t beat him or some one of similar strength. But… she didn’t have to. All they had to do was follow while they waited for backup. Ascension class battleships were not slow, and were quite capable at faster than light speeds as well… but within a system, they had many things that could catch them. Including a few cultivators. Rutera would gladly sink more manpower into this than have to destroy the Independence, though they were going to have to cripple it.
She would have to make certain they didn’t stumble into a trap, of course. But it was her job to coordinate this fleet, and she was fairly certain Ekict didn’t have instant comms. They had some forms of interplanetary communications, but they might have been restrained to lightspeed. Technically, Rutera’s comms weren’t instant even within a system, but it was close enough. No waiting fifteen minutes to ping the sun, but instead a delay of less than a minute.
Speaking of the sun, the Independence was heading towards it. Gabriela wondered if…