On some level, Nicodemo wished Anton was present on Rutera right now. On another, he was glad Anton and the others had returned to their home planet. Rutera could certainly benefit from the combat prowess of the cultivators from Ceretos, but that was not the best way to maintain a strong, independent Rutera.
Trusting the motives of six individuals he knew for a year was already difficult. A reasonable facade could be maintained for such a time. And even they had admitted that not all of Ceretos would share their same… helpfulness.
But damn if Nicodemo couldn’t use that old archer to shoot down some ships right now. Anton was a thinking, mobile artillery station. Nicodemo didn’t care if he drew power from their star if he could take out a few enemy ships. But General Nicodemo wasn’t the only one making decisions. He had all of the war council to appease, as well as the president and other influential figures.
At least nobody was saying they should try to talk things out. The Azothian invaders hadn’t exchanged a single word, nor remained still long enough for Rutera to make the attempt to communicate. And realistically, they couldn’t afford to not immediately shoot the enemy ships out of the sky.
But here Nicodemo was, grounded. An arrow thunked into a target a hundred meters away. It wasn’t a bullseye, but he was getting more used to archery. He had to admit the strain of drawing an arrow was much more cathartic than shooting a gun. In an actual combat situation he would opt for the latter- he wasn’t skilled enough to use a bow in actual combat. But he was also never supposed to be in actual combat.
If he needed to give commands to the fleet, he could do so from any full communications station. Around the planet there wasn’t even a concern about speed of light delay, and aside from a few scouting ships Rutera hadn’t gotten much further than their immediate surroundings. It was difficult, commanding an army with no first-hand combat experience. Yet he didn’t think anyone else was more qualified either.
After the initial attack training from the cultivators had opened up more options, but the skills were still being explored. They were effective man-to-man, but nobody was strong enough to do anything in ship combat. Though previously the very thought of it was preposterous, so it wasn’t a terrible concern.
Upon exhausting his stores of natural energy, Nicodemo returned to his room to review recordings of battle. Rutera had achieved some success, and while the initial probing attack had taught them something about the invaders from Azoth, the enemy hadn’t probed their defenses from nothing.
Nicodemo watched the video of a station and fighters against a small fleet of enemy ships- most were smaller than the first ones they had seen, but all shared a similar rotationally symmetric multi-sail design. He saw beam weaponry striking the smaller ships and eventually breaking through their defenses- but it took concerted effort. The larger ships, meanwhile, almost seemed to ignore their attacks. After the initial attack he had thought that simply diversifying their weapons would be sufficient, but that wasn’t the case. When the enemy next showed up, their barriers resisted everything Rutera had already thrown at them- and they quickly adapted to anything new.
It wasn’t perfect, though. Nicodemo watched swarming fighters rake a target with beams and pepper it with conventional ammunition. The latter wasn’t something they preferred to use in space, but it was necessary. The enemy quickly adapted to a few different types of attacks at once… but the baseline against their weapons wasn’t as good. Nothing would ever beat the initial volleys, but as far as anyone could tell the more permanent adaptation was a far cry from being invincible. But half invincible was still a problem.
They could of course specifically adapt to even things they’d experience previously, making them nearly ineffective- but that still counted against the small number of things they could attune to at once. If there were more types of consistent attacks they either didn’t adapt or all forms of defense were weaker. Changing up the frequency of their beams and lasers helped very slightly, but Nicodemo was really waiting for the next wave of refitted ships. Even outdated technology that was half effective was still better than the most modern weapons that were completely resisted.
Nicodemo frowned at the recording. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to find. Maybe some type of weaponry that the enemy was more vulnerable to, though he and others had already gone over their recordings dozens of times by now. He knew every kill shot by heart- there were unfortunately few of those, but it seemed the Azoth forces were limited, and incapable of completely overwhelming them. The planetary shields were an important part of that. Damned expensive to run, but they had to be kept semi-active so they could be switched on at a moment’s notice.
Nicodemo really hoped the enemy’s ships were monumentally costly. They had to be… or they were just toying with Rutera. Then Nicodemo saw something. One of their fighters took out an enemy ship, all on its own. Sure, it was one of the enemy’s smallest ships… but why hadn’t it been recorded? Ah, that was it. Technically, it wasn’t an enemy casualty. At least, not a kill. Instead, the ship limped away with three sails, skirting past some of its larger cousins as the fighter focused on other active targets.
He reversed the recording, watching it again. Yes, there it was. Conventional ammunition splattering harmlessly against the ship’s barriers. It adapted, yet the same fighter came back for another round and… neatly sliced off its sail. Okay, maybe that was an exaggeration. It kind of hacked it apart, but it still broke through the barrier. Then he saw that the sail wasn’t completely dislocated until the fighter clipped it with a wing.
… What was this, a freaking rookie? There was no way anyone should get that close to an enemy ship, especially in space. There was plenty of room to maneuver even in the most packed fight.
He took some time to look up who was flying that fighter and found that it was a rookie. One Ty Quigley, fresh out of flight school. If they didn’t need every pilot they could get, a kid like that would never have participated in a combat mission. Nothing stood out about the kid. Good enough to get into flight school, good enough to pass. Not marginal, not exceptional. The only thing on his record that was notable was the ‘special training’ listed.
One of those from Ceretos. Elder Intan. Wasn’t that the guy from, what was it called again? Million Sword Vault, that was it. Nicodemo had seen Anton shoot into space with his bow, and he’d seen some of those individuals with swords chop apart enemy attacks- which was complete nonsense- so he respected their ability for that. But what would training with a sword fanatic do for a fighter pilot shooting conventional ammunition? Maybe it was a coincidence. Either way, he was considering chewing the kid out for nearly taking off his own wing. They might not be necessary in space, but they were required for atmospheric flight and if he impacted something both he and an expensive piece of equipment would be done for.
Curious, Nicodemo sent off a message to Anton. Maybe it was inappropriate to ignore proper communication channels, but hey, he was kind of the guy’s apprentice. Or whatever. Either way, Anton had left a weird communication device with him. “Think any of those sword guys could cut a space ship in half? How practical is that?”
An idle question, one he didn’t expect a response to. And he wouldn’t get one for a while, because even with FTL comms, there was some delay between neighboring systems.
“Ayotunde or Intan? Not sure. But I do know two who definitely could, if they were around. Mostly requires getting to the ship.”
Nicodemo imagined himself standing in space, a sword at his side. A ship would charge towards him, and he would draw it- severing the thing clean in two. Pfft. Ridiculous.
… he needed to train harder.
Wood split evenly from top to bottom and bottom to top. Direction was inconsequential and perhaps not even relevant. The sword swinging in one direction was not limited to cutting in the same. From prow to stern, evenly bisecting the masts, the ship split. Into quarters- for from the side another slash occurred simultaneously.
In what would have been a cosmic coincidence were it not a regular occurrence, Chikere watched the goods in the hold of the ship fall into the atmosphere. They would be fine- it was someone’s job to catch those. Not hers, though. Nor Rahayu. Their job was to deal with the people, all of whom were lucky enough to not have been standing on either of the dividing lines.
Immediately, the guards were rushing into position. Then they let go of their weapons, finding at least one sword prodding their individual vitals, and sometimes more. The captain of the ship called out his surrender- cultivators could speak in the void of space by vibrating their energy properly. “Just don’t hurt us! We’re only traders!”
“And we’re just bandits,” Rahayu shrugged.
They quickly subdued everyone, and of course secured their weapons. “Seriously?” Chikere sighed. “These swords are all garbage!”
“I agree,” Rahayu said. “I can’t believe these are getting delivered to the Sword Saint. Maybe in those crates down there.”
The ship that had moments before been one of the flagship vessels of Enterprise Starfield Shipping was now loosely fluttering towards the atmosphere below. The structure of the ship wasn’t worth much, but some components were. Skyships needed special formations and crystals to fly, and space ships even more so. Traveling between systems wasn’t cheap or easy.
Keeping the vessel intact would have been worth the most… if anyone had been inclined to have more vessels or attempt a sale. Individual parts were easier to transport.
“Please don’t kill us!” the captain repeated. “We can pay you!”
Chikere shoved a gag in his mouth. “You can’t pay us, but someone else can. Don’t worry, you’ll be properly ransomed.” Unless they were used for an ambush, or a reverse ambush or whatever. The Harmonious Citadel was really trying to crack down on them hard. But at the moment, they were hopping between locations with some regularity. None of the actual saints were coming for them, but there were a couple annoyingly strong archers and spearmen and stuff. Nobody worth fighting though. If they sent some swordsmen… well, maybe there was a reason they weren’t doing that.
Looking through the swords down below, there were a few that might be able to replace something. Number fifty, sixty-three, maybe one hundred and seventy-two- but really, the last one was a backup anyway. They were better used as bait or handed to one of the more deserving members of their gang.
“Oh, did you hear?” Chikere said to Rahayu. “Some of my friends took over an entire planet.”
“So?” Rahayu shrugged, gesturing around them. “There are lots of planets.”
“It’s one of the good ones, though,” Chikere said. “Used to be Everheart’s Tomb.”
“That guy? Remind me to go stab him later.”
“Uh, sorry,” Chikere shook her head. “Apparently he was there, recovering from wounds or whatever, but now he’s retreated to the lower realms or something.”
“Ah, whatever,” Rahayu shrugged. “Think they’ll let us use it as a base? Is it safe?”
“Brimming with formations,” Chikere said. “Kind of out of the way for our current work, though. I’ll ask if they need any guests. We could trade with the Dark Ring, maybe.”
“Maybe. Hear anything from Ceretos?”
“Hmm, let’s see. I remember them making contact with another system in the lower realms. Seemed like they were going to war or something?”
“Sounds great,” Rahayu said. “Gotta keep sharp.”