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The Armada

Azches considered the enemy with a mixture of interest and boredom.

They were dangerous. Their main weapon was some kind of relativistic particle beam that could very easily pierce a ship's armour. Their passive defences were strong enough to take hits that could have pulverized a human ship by merely grazing its hull. Yet at no point in the already six-hour-long battle had Azches ever felt truly threatened. Mobility was on her side, as the enemy could not perform faster than light travel. After the first exchange of shots, which had revealed the extreme vulnerability of her vessels, Azches had pivoted towards a very careful approach, rotating ships in and out of the killing zones every few minutes. Now she had a rather good idea of their active ranges and could position firebases right at their edge. Entering their firing bubbles was suicidal but Azches didn't need to: her ships just had to drop their faster than light missiles and translate away. The enemy had no way of evading a faster than light translation targeted at one of their ships and mass saturation attacks were almost certain to pierce through their active defences. Apparently the enemy was capable of performing self-repairs on their hulls, probably through some kind of organic process, but saturation was also the answer to this problem. The most pressing issue, really, was that Azches was starting to run out of ammunition. Sure, she could bring in more from Draugr and Algorab was already scrambling to direct supply vessels her way, but still.

This battle would end up costing billions to the commune. 


At the heart of the armada was the one they once called the Strategist. From their great throne of immaterial proportions, they had witnessed countless battles unfold and they had won every single one of them. They were known as the spear of the Empire. Which empire, sometimes asked primitives when they first encountered them. To the Strategist, that question did not matter. There were many empires but there was only one Empire. One power to unite one hundred million stars. The cities were ashes, the planets were old and battered, the eyes floated in the void, hollow and broken, but the Strategist did not mind. All empires had to rise and fall, even the Empire. It would endure. It had always endured. As long as the armada stood, the Empire would live on. And they would guide it. They were the Strategist, after all. They had turned the tides of so many a war. They had helmed the great armada as it plunged through the heart of the Pale Path, slaughtering billions in its wake. They had led the great counter-attack against the Vriij and their slave races, carving a path in their cluster, a path so deep and so dark the Vriij had to do the unthinkable to repel the ever-advancing Empire. They had been at the heart of an untold war against those that dwelt between galaxies. They had even vanquished the Forgotten Travellers and put an end to their terrifying machinations by slaughtering what was left of their cursed species. In the unfathomable depths of the dark age, they had even gazed into the Moth's abyss.

And yet, this time, the Strategist was considering blinking.

The enemy was outnumbered, outgunned and outranged. Their ships were brittle things made out of primitive materials that exploded by merely looking at them. Their weapons were more than puny: weak lasers, barely better than storm lamps and needles that would not have been deemed battle-worthy by even the youngest of generals. They had no valuable defences. Worse even, some of their ships carried fragile biological crews. Sometimes the Strategist could feel their last breath exhaled in the void as their ship ruptured, pierced by a glancing blow. Through the void they watched life leave their fragile frames. Most of the time however the death of enemy ships was quick and merciful, life cauterized by a single relativistic burst. No, really, they were no match for their own ships. The Strategist had faced scouting parties that were better equipped than this.

But the armada was not winning.

The Strategist had deployed their best tactics. Five million years of combat experience forged in the furnaces of galaxy-spanning wars, ranging from daring raids against cursed planets to vast battles searing through systems for decades at a time. The entire military history of the greatest Empire to ever span the stars, combined and refined in a mind more complex than entire continents that could imagine campaigns in seconds, down to individual battle plans. Treasures of skill and imagination serving weapon platforms that carried the most powerful tools of destruction ever imagined by a sapient species. The combined talent and firepower of the armada that had conquered one million worlds. Every single manoeuver of the Strategist should have annihilated that puny fleet a thousand times over.

And yet it was irrelevant. Ship by ship, hull by hull, the enemy was slowly but surely grinding the armada down.

The Strategist had already faced enemies that could overpower their ships in a straight fight. The Strategist had already dealt with military minds that were every bit as sharp and capable as theirs. But it was the very first time they faced an enemy that could simply brute-force their way through their plans. The Strategist did not understand how the enemy managed to bend the very structure of space and time. How their ships could shrug off one of the most fundamental constants of the universe. How they could just...cease to exist in one place and immediately exist again in another. It didn't matter at that point, because the Strategist's mind was entirely focused on how they could counter this ability. And the more time passed the more frantic their attempts became. Brute force didn't work: even targeted by relativistic weapons the enemy could just relocate away milliseconds before impact. Tactics didn't work either. Tactics, in fact, couldn't work because the enemy simply wasn't playing on the same field. They could move entire combat groups across the system in a heartbeat, they could even move ships to and from other systems. What the Strategist would have included in a long-term battle plan spanning centuries they were capable of achieving in a few hours. They simply didn't belong to the same mental space. To the same universe.

There was just no way out.

For the very first time in five million years the Strategist, herald of the Great Sequence, felt something that was a thousand times worse than fear.


Illustration by Internet Archive contributor Ekaterina Valinakova. 

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