Avalon:Volume 0 Chapter 13

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Chapter 13 - Interlude - The Day of Reckoning

In times past, the people of each generation would always remember the day on which the greatest war in their lives began. In that one moment when fresh news shook the entire world, when memories would record a moment of their lives in perfect clarity -- what, where, and when. Years and decades later, as they reminisced their past, contemporaries would always return to the same questions and answers: What were you doing... when emissaries of Pope Urban II called upon the faithful to 'take the cross' and launch the Crusades? When Nazi Germany invaded Poland, triggering the Second World War and all of its horrors? When the Twin Towers of New York fell, forcing the conflict between sovereign states and paramilitary extremists onto the stage of global awareness? When Convoy 524 of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, en-route to beleaguered Iran, burned in the Persian Gulf under the fury of American missiles, sparking the near-apocalyptic Third World War?

For the last generation of the Avalonian Republic, a snapshot of their lives would forever burn itself into their memories the moment they saw the mushroom clouds in the emergency news broadcast, scorching red with fury against the pitch darkness. They were the telltale signs of multiple strategic nuclear warheads that ravaged Rennes, shining metropolis of the planet Brocéliande and capital of the Avalonian 2nd District.

Total calamity ensued.

Even the night skies could not keep their peace. Incandescent flares of power soon erupted over the low orbit of Brocéliande. Two flagships and their escorts, meeting in what was originally a strained but peaceful, almost routine diplomatic exchange, now engaged one another in a sudden duel to the death.

The visiting team was a mere five starships: the colossal 1st District Flagship, Fleet Carrier (CV) Excaliber, plus four Bucellarii-class Armored Cruisers (CAs).

The home team was the proud Republican Guard Flotilla, with a total of twenty capital ships: five Foederati-class Battlecruisers (BCs), ten Comitatensis-class Battlecarriers (CVBs), and four Bucellarii-class Armored Cruisers, led by the equally enormous 2nd District Flagship, Fleet Carrier Oriflamme.

There was originally a third team, for the balance of power within the Avalonian Republic was carefully orchestrated between three different Military Districts. But the 3rd District was running late due to an engineering failure -- later found to be sabotage; after news of the disaster spread, they never arrived at all.

With a four-to-one advantage in hulls, three-to-one advantage in tonnage, and equivalent technology on both sides, the result of any combat would be a foregone conclusion even without considering the planetary defenses. Nobody from the 1st District should be stupid or crazy enough to gamble against such odds.

Not that any fighting was expected. Decades of cold war between the three Military Districts of Avalon has allowed each faction's intelligence to thoroughly infiltrate the others' military rank and file. There were no orders and no unusual preparations. This was purely a diplomatic visit, beginning with a mutual display of power through a joint military parade with a live missile fire salute.

It was a yearly, almost ritualistic tradition passed down from the first victory parade one-hundred-seven Terra-years ago, after the successful overthrowing of the Avalonian Dominion. It heralded the beginning of an annual, week-long conference between top political and military brass from the three Districts of the Avalonian Republic -- although this was the first time in which special circumstances had advanced the conference date.

Even as late as five minutes prior, only three people knew exactly what to expect, their surnames one and same. But with a single confirmation through Marshal Comorus Kernow's neural-implants, a seemingly harmless codeword flooded its way through the entire fleet network, unraveling sealed orders hidden aboard the internal networks of every warship.

Speculation of system error escalated, then immediately pacified as Marshal Comorus stood up over the secured fleet broadcast channel and spoke only two words, his voice colder than the darkest depth of space:

"To war."

They went through a full simulated wargame of this under a similar, hypothetical scenario once -- two Terra-years ago. It had raised all kinds of alarms and tensions back then, which took weeks of diplomacy to resolve. Yet looking back now, that entire incident had been worth it ten times over.

But this was no wargame. Everyone knew the situational data was 100% real.

Some lingering doubts remained. But within seconds, the detectors aboard every ship rang out with news of thermonuclear detonations: not one, not two, but seven. Not merely over the 2nd District Capital, but originating from the depth of their heavily-fortified headquarters, shield generator complexes, and planetary defense centers.

Operation Crecy had taken more than ten years to prepare, an effort performed under deep cover by the 'Black Prince' Arkadi Kernow himself. Its agents, cloistered from each other and every other aspect of the plan, were a mix of willing infiltrators and unwilling collaborators. All of them worked within those high-security military installations, with not a single clue toward their true mission until deeply-implanted Geas pre-programming activated -- an ancient enchantment curse, kept modernized over many centuries for its potency in overcoming a host's will and assuming dominance.

Ward-breaker rods and teleportation beacons were soon deployed in key positions within those complexes, painting bullseye markers for a trusted three-man team to deliver the presents.

All the other faithful and double-agents thought they were working under another operational name, collecting intelligence for a third codeword only the most senior of them recognized. Both were pointless terms, yet more layers of deception, which fooled 2nd District intelligence into believing that it would take years still before the 1st District was truly ready to turn this cold war into a hot one.

But now, as the truth revealed itself, there was no time left for spies to send the information back up their networks. Even 1st District fleet officers didn't have time to regain their composure before their training and discipline kicked them into action.

Scores of unmanned REDEIN (REmote Drone Escort INterceptor) fighters launched in massive waves from both cruisers and carriers at intervals of seventeen seconds. They were unprepared for an offensive battle, but their hard-points were loaded with defensive weapons -- counter-missiles and point-defense laser modules -- per standing protocol as demanded by Avalonian military doctrine. Four initial waves catapulted every REDEIN kept on standby, two for every control terminal aboard their motherships, out into space. The intervals then dropped down to over a minute as launch bays' automated machinery began unpacking additional REDEINs from storage before arming, supplying, and hurling them out.

By the fourth wave, dozens of METAACs (MEchanized Tactical Adaptive Armament Chassis) also sortied with their pilots. They had been unprepared, but the absolute modular design of these mechs -- giant, humanoid machines with fingered hands -- made them extremely easy to arm and supply. Built as transformative dual-mode, multi-purpose tactical superiority weapons, METAACs carried a hefty price tag of half a star cruiser. Offered only to proven aces and configured based on their individual prowess, the METAAC mechs were few in numbers but highly valued by fleet command, for they were the only strike craft capable of bringing a full magical arsenal to the front lines.

Last but not least, drone escort frigates slid out of their docking stations and sped away from their motherships. These remote-controlled ships brought REDEIN service pads and point-defense laser batteries closer to the front. They served as fire support and resupply stations for the REDEINS while protecting their host ships as screening vessels and cannon fodder.

Fleet engagements normally began with long-range Anti-Capital Cruise Missile (ACCM) exchanges that sought to break past the REDEIN front lines. But both sides began this unexpected battle already within each others' energy weapon envelopes, and 1st District skippers wasted no time slamming in an initial salvo from their gamma-ray laser turrets even as their broadside missile launchers went into sprint-fire.

The 2nd District Republican Guard were proud elites, and proved their reputation as they went into battle-stations immediately. Panic failed to seize their senses despite total surprise and an incoming avalanche of destructive fire. Even aboard the leading battlecruiser Orleans, where multiple layers of shields failed almost instantaneously under concentrated fire, where lightspeed grasers gouged deep into its armor, shattering bulwarks and killing men, its crew still fought back valiantly. Counter-missiles raced out to meet the first incoming wave of shipkillers even as their own faltering batteries returned fire.

But under Avalonian naval doctrine, battlecruisers were glass-cannon raiders and skirmishers. Their role was to deploy into their X-shaped firing mode, flush out racks of Anti-Capital Cruise Missiles from rapid-fire launchers at long range, then withdraw behind the main wall-of-battle. Their thin armor and meager defenses were completely outmatched in any close-combat, especially against Armored Cruisers which were built for it.

The Orleans did not survive a second salvo. The blinding fury of its destruction was the first of many that night.

Yet the opening volleys hardly evened out the skewed force balance. Despite the overwhelming surprise, the Republic Guard soon recovered. Its own strike craft hurled into space like a swarm of angry locusts -- terrifying clouds of red blips on sensors, awesome not only in numbers but also their organization and discipline. Thousands of REDEIN fighters formed rows of assault wedges, soaring toward their foes like jagged saws. One-hundred-twenty METAAC mechs distributed themselves into the now-merged third and fourth waves, each squad leading a sawtooth by the edge. They included six fearsome names renowned throughout the new world as the ace killers of the 2nd District, half of the 'Twelve Peers'.

Vice-Admiral Geoffroi, Commanding-Officer (CO) of the Republican Guard, ordered his troops with insurmountable confidence that a victory was in the making. Surely, the 1st District had underestimated the integrity of his command, and overestimated the morale impact of their surprise attack and nuclear strike. The 1st did destroy 2nd District Headquarters and would have crippled fleet command -- if not for his presence.

Now, they would have their vengeance. With a little luck, Geoffroi would not only cripple the despicable 1st District by destroying their command ship, but also earn himself the seat of the 2nd Marshal -- as the current one was likely dead.

It would have been true, had the Black Prince not sprang a second surprise on them with his chain strategem.

Over a century of internal turmoil within the Avalonian Republic had spawned a number of paramilitary organizations, each deriving its power from a unique mastery of magic that gave them some degree of advantage over military and enforcement mages. Some of these organizations were officially sanctioned as knightly orders, serving as special arbiters of the law. Many more were proxies, paid by one District to terrorize the others while publicly claiming their righteously independent actions. A last few were true rebels who sought only to topple the corrupt, existing system.

One of these rebel groups, the Nisshoku Getsumei or Moonlit Eclipse, was known for their derived East-Asian magic that allowed a physical entity to cross over into the spiritual.

A daring raid by the Black Prince and his elite black ops team nearly a year ago had captured two dozens of these mages, soon enslaved by binding them within magic-extraction crystals. These crystals powered countless ether-tech equipment and weapon platforms, including the powerful Cataphract-class METAAC mech, designed from the ground-up with special magic-conductive circuitry that could channel spells through its entire body.

Two dozen of the sixty 1st District elite METAAC pilots knew they had recently received a special upgrade to their machines' crystal core. Although security surrounding it had been airtight; not even the specialists who did the installation had any clue what the new function was.

After all, there was a way to defeat this magic, but only if the enemy knew what to prepare for.

Now, as those METAAC mechs spearheaded the 1st District charge into masses of hostile markers that hopelessly outnumbered them, a command signal came down for an an obvious, almost obtrusively-placed trigger to reveal itself on the pilots' Augmented Reality control interfaces. Excaliber CO Commodore Marcus Kernow then gave them the order with bared teeth, a sadistic and predatory grin lighting up his eager face:

"Gentlemen, this offer comes once-in-a-lifetime: push, the button, and inscribe your names into history with the annihilation of our foes."

Six of the twenty-four were entitled 'Knights of the Round Table', the ace of aces, pride of the 1st District. Those glory-seekers needed no encouragement. The others soon followed, accepting any unknown protection they can get in this chaotic and utterly-insane engagement.

With a click from each METAAC control interface that linked directly to their neural-implants, twenty-four machines vanished from every sensor display their opponents had except one. But Aurasense magic sensors were inherently prone to overload, and their field of detection was oversaturated with targets this day.

The two opposing fronts opened fire upon one another and at the Anti-Capital Cruise Missiles (ACCMs) attempting to breach through to the capital ships. Explosions rolled across the entire frontline as two massed formations of fighters interpenetrated. Warheads detonated by the dozens as interceptors tore into their flanks, triggering bursts of gamma-ray lasers that ripped through anything it touched. REDEINs slaughtered each other by the hundreds, while survivors broke formation to engage one another in chaotic, tumbling dogfights in search of local space superiority.

Unlike most historical carrier strike craft, the REDEIN fighters' primary role was not to attack, but to serve as an outer interdiction screen against missiles as well as escorting friendly ACCMs. Their weaponry generally lacked the power to breach METAAC shields, for which they often resorted to kamikazes. After all, a downed pilot can just switch their control terminal's uplink to a new REDEIN in the next wave and rejoin the fray. Meanwhile the carriers would continuously launch REDEIN fighters throughout the battle to keep their front lines adequately 'supplied'.

Group-Captain Alexis Skye, pilot of the 1st District METAAC mech Gawain, was the first to realize that the maneuvers of his machine's auto-evasion protocols were completely pointless and only reducing his aim. Not only were the incoming energy fire not focusing on their mechs, those that should have struck shields went through them as if they didn't exist. The same could be said for his defensive-fire, which passed through missiles as though they were illusions.

Alexis had no idea why he could detect his foes but not vice versa, but he wasn't about to complain. The greater problem was that he seemed to be on a separate plane of existence from his foes and unable to affect one another.

With the left mech-arm already gripping a Firelance Close-Assault Warhead, he conjured a preloaded Black Blade spell with his mech's right hand and focused all attention on offense. A quick scan of his sensors found an enemy worthy of his attention, and he charged into the maelstrom on an uncertain bet. It paid off seconds later. His anti-capital Black Blade, a seventeen-meter-long gash of disintegrating void power, a magical tear upon the very fabric of the universe, completely ignored the dimensional difference between material and ethereal and cut its unfortunate, unaware foe -- the METAAC mech Roland -- in two.

It took but a second long before his teammates began copying him, charging through tides of oncoming foes while tearing apart targets of value on their way to their true goal, the flagship Oriflamme.

Seven officers within the Republican Guard actually realized what was happening in time. But even for those who knew what spells to use, casting any advanced spell without special preparation easily took a dozen seconds, seconds that they did not have.

Only one 2nd District METAAC pilot finished his Ethereal Sight spell, only to see the oncoming blade that ended his life.

Then, just over one minute after engaging their Spiritshift magic, twenty-four METAAC mechs began to reappear in reality in twos and threes, still within the horde of enemy strike craft that comprised their second unified wave. The pilots had not understood the lone warning and paid it no heed in the heat of battle. Nine of them exploded before they could break free of the hostile swarm, their powerful shields collapsing too quickly under the stupendous weight of hostile fire and REDEIN kamikazes as their auto-evasion protocols and point-defenses reestablished themselves.

But the damage had been done.

Over seventy 2nd District METAAC mechs destroyed. Five 'Peers' killed in action. Flight leaders thoroughly confused and demoralized by the wave of destruction that swept through their formation like an unseen scythe of death.

In a deep space battle, that may not mean as much, for it was the exchange of long-range missiles and warheads teleported by Starwarp 'Cannons' that determined the fight. But in a close-quarters ambush like this one, where METAAC mechs could easily breach multiple layers of defensive missile fire and reach point-blank range where their maneuverability and melee-tactics dominated with impunity, the battle had just taken a decisive turn.

The surviving fifteen of the 1st District vanguard dove past the defensive fire of the frigate screen, as well as the fifth wave of REDEIN launches before most pilots could take control. Now twelve remaining, the METAAC mechs headed straight into the Republican Guard's capital ships to ignite their Firelances. Close-Assault Warheads were seemingly-smaller versions of the Anti-Capital Cruise Missile that traded range for a much larger payload. But Firelances were actually magically shrunken, the spell then dismissed after launching. Like the ACCM, they carried both on-board shield penetrators and frontal shields to shrug off point-defense fire. Launched from close range, these 'lances' soared straight in, crashing into hostile hulls before their bomb-pumped gamma-ray laser warheads exploded, flooding their targets with both a thermonuclear blast and a hailstorm of destructive high-energy radiation.

Already damaged by grasers and proximity-hit ACCMs, six battlecarriers (CVBs) vanished as their hulls violently bloomed into balls of incandescent fury, indications of reactors gone critical. Three other CVBs and two armored cruisers were left as drifting wrecks, while the last remaining CVB was crippled beyond repair. Masses of REDEIN fighters, their remote-control pilots dying aboard their carriers, turned autonomous -- still capable of basic formations and tactics, but a far cry from the coordination and ability once displayed by their human controllers.

The rest of the battle went downhill from there. Within the hour, an overwhelming force was decisively defeated by their lack of informational intelligence as a single strikegroup penetrated their defenses and dealt the fatal blow.

It was like the surprise of Pearl Harbor combined with the tactical execution, intensity, and strategic impact of the Battle of France.

The 1st District had gotten off with comparatively light casualties: one armored cruiser (CA) destroyed as the skipper did her best to protect the flagship, two more CAs gutted. Not to mention REDEIN fighters lost in the triple digits and most of the screening frigates, but unmanned craft were disposable.

It would have been easily tolerable had METAAC mechs and marines not landed aboard the CV Oriflamme in an attempt to seize the mighty Fleet Carrier, which took years to build and each District had only one of. Unfortunately, the boarders failed to hack the central system fast enough. Vice-Admiral Geoffroi's dying words then took all of them with him to the grave as he scuttled the massive ship:

"The guard dies, it does not surrender."

A total of forty-two METAACs and their aces, including four Knight-of-Rounds, was a steep price to pay for the battle.

But it was still worth it.

The 1st Battle of Brocéliande Orbit both began and ended the first stage of the war.

Combined with the ground-side Operation Crecy which laid waste to 2nd District Headquarters, the loss of their flagship was devastating. 2nd District Command had not merely been crushed, it had been obliterated. No one left was more senior than individual squadron commanders, none of whom had both the charisma and the prestige to rally the fleet's remnants under unified command. Most of them surrendered; some of them fought to their dying breath; a final few of them pledged to continue the war as subordinates of the 3rd District.

The 2nd District and the Republic's most populous planet, Brocéliande, fell within a single day.

Yet what of the man who planned it all? The man who initially proposed the entire 'First Strike' plan, who infiltrated the 2nd District and installed the pieces required for ground operations to paralyze the planetary defenses, who mislead the enemy with layers of false operational codewords and objectives, and who delivered the method that would allow a single strike group to pierce the heart of the Republican Guard Flotilla in the orbital battle?

Arkadi Kernow was officially marked as killed-in-action; his life lost to a last-minute raid that was supposed to claim the life of the 3rd District Marshal as she visited Brocéliande for diplomatic talks. Only the officers aboard the CV Excaliber's bridge knew that Commodore Marcus Kernow had sent down a few nukes, courtesy of the Starwarp Cannon, straight into his adoptive brother's operational area.

No one knew if Marshal Comorus Kernow would have approved. He was a cold-blooded bastard himself, but he was also too busy coordinating forces in other areas, despite his presence aboard the Excaliber during the entire battle.

The 'Black Prince' would never be heard from again. To all but a very few, it was Marcus Kernow -- the real, biological son of the 1st District Marshal who would receive credit for this 'heroic' victory.

Which was... actually a surprisingly lucky turn for Arkadi.



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