Chapter 22
Sounding the Trumpet

Location: ESS Ticonderoga, Outside Union Space
Date: Tue 26 Sep 121
Time: UST 1500

Commodore Frazier and Admiral Mfume entered the conference room together. The assembled officers rose as Colonel Grozny shouted, "Attention on deck!"
"As you were," Admiral Mfume said.
They all took their seats, but only a few minutes passed when the Admiral himself shouted "Attention on deck!" the moment Marshal Van Daan appeared onscreen.
"Take seat," the Marshal said. "Let's get started, ladies and gentlemen. ONI's been reviewing the intel leaked by the Empyrean defector and they've determined that it's credible enough to warrant reinforcements. We'll be sending the Eurytus, the Deiphobus and the Anchises your way. We want you to hold position 100 gims from the target until they rendezvous with you."
There was about a twelve-minute delay in the signal because the Ticonderoga was so far outside the network, so everything that he said was actually anticipating the assembly's response. Because of the delay, this briefing was intended to be a largely one-sided affair.
The Marshal continued, "The three battle groups are scheduled to set out from Barton on 01 October and should rendezvous with you in the holding area within seven days. We will have another conference at that time to discuss the finer points of your strategy before you head out to the target.
"The operation has been codenamed 'Heaven's Door' and Admiral Mfume will be the commander of the task force. We are hoping that a show of force on the Empyrean's doorstep will be enough to bring them to the negotiating table. If they insist on fighting, you are authorized to use the necessary force to neutralize the threat.
"Going from the intel we've received, it would appear that the center of the Empyrean is the Selene 03 artificial moon. Some of you may recall that contact was lost in '89 and the colony was never found. Until now, that is. There were around thirty thousand civilians there when it was lost. Now the population is supposedly in excess of 140 thousand. How they were able to manage this kind of population growth is anyone's guess, but our concern is their military capabilities.
"The data we've received from your encounters with them corroborates three of the five classes of warship claimed by the defector. The fleet you have been engaged with accounts for less than ten percent of their alleged naval strength. Hence the reinforcements.
"I will be forwarding the data that's been translated so you can begin work on a strategic and tactical response. Van Daan, out."
Without waiting for a response, the Marshal ended the transmission. Even accounting for the inconvenience of the signal lag, it seemed awfully abrupt.
"While we are all here," Admiral Mfume said, "we may as well review the data being transmitted from SupCom."
Leaning back in his chair with his arms crossed, Colonel Vasquez said, "Permission to speak freely, sir?"
General Pfeiffer glared at him and most everyone there looked similarly critical or at least uneasy in anticipation of whatever the Colonel wanted to say. Apparently deciding that it was better to have it out in the open, especially when the Marshal was no longer on the line, the Admiral replied, "Go ahead, Colonel."
Colonel Vasquez eyed the other officers in the room and said, "Seems to me like SupCom's trying to fuck us."
Humoring the Colonel, Admiral Mfume asked him, "And what makes you say that?"
"I don't claim to be an expert in naval warfare," the Colonel replied, "but we haven't even had a straight-up fight with that one fleet we've been tangling with for the past couple months. And that's just one goddamned tenth of their navy? Even with three more battle groups, what chance do we stand walking right up to their damn front door?" He pounded his fist on the table. "It's suicide and they know it!"
"It's only a tenth of their alleged naval strength, Colonel," General Pfeiffer said sharply.
His voice dripping with sarcasm, Colonel Vasquez replied, "Well then, we ain't got nothin' to worry about, now do we?" Hardening his tone, he then said, "If that intel is bad, then we're going in blind and we really are fucked."
"I appreciate your concern, Colonel," Admiral Mfume said, "but the call is not yours to make. We have been given a lawful order and we must execute. You should not be so quick to cast aspersions on SupCom. Even if you take away all other considerations, at the very least they would not waste valuable resources on a suicide mission, not this battle group and especially not three more.
"The intel is sketchy and you are right to be suspicious of it. Still, next to what we have seen with our own eyes, it is the best insight into what we are up against. Rest assured, I have no intention of needlessly hazarding any of your lives, but I expect all of you to exert every effort to execute our mission as ordered. Is that understood?"
There was a universal "Yes, sir," but it came rather grudgingly out of Colonel Vasquez.
At that time, one of the viewscreens started flashing a flurry of diagrams and data. Admiral Mfume turned to look at the viewscreen and said, "Commander Yu, transfer the diagrams to the main projector. Order them from smallest to largest."
Commander Yu plucked away at the keys on her terminal for a while before the holoprojector in the center of the conference table displayed a familiar sight: the common light drone that SupCom codenamed 'Confessor'. Commodore Liu, the Staff Intelligence Officer, stood up from her seat to address the assembly.
"If you've been following our engagements with the Empyrean forces, you already know that they rely heavily on drones for combat operations, especially these Confessor light drones. They're small, simple, and no doubt cheap to produce. They're easy to destroy, but they can easily overwhelm our forces due to sheer numbers."
The projector then displayed the medium and heavy drones alongside the light drone.
Commodore Liu continued, "We have yet to encounter a manned superlight craft in the Empyrean forces and if the intel from the defector is correct, this would be consistent with their technological development branching off from ours after Selene 03's disappearance.
"They field a lot of these drones during their attacks, but their ECCM capabilities are negligible. By attaching Blackbats to our fighter squadrons, we've been able to disrupt the drones' coordinated attack patterns and greatly limit casualties on our side. Otherwise, we would be losing pilots at a rate we haven't seen in twenty years. We will, of course, make the most of this weakness while it holds, but we have to be prepared for the possibility of them adapting to overcome our ECM."
The projector then displayed what looked like two blocky floor cleaners.
"Besides an extensive network of defensive laser arrays," Commodore Liu said, "the surface of Selene 03 is protected by these tank drones. They have thicker armor and better armaments than aerial drones of the same size. The Punisher light tank sports four light laser arrays and the Cherub heavy tank has six light laser arrays and two medium ones.
"Do not underestimate the medium laser arrays because of the name. It is a relative term. From the combat data we've received thus far, an Empyrean medium laser array has a similar output to our old Mark Threes. Let me remind you, ladies and gentlemen, that the Mark Threes are the most powerful laser arrays we've ever fielded. Somehow the Empyrean has managed to scale them down to less than half the size of a Mark Three and efficient enough that they don't require an entire nuclear reactor for power.
"Anyway, going back to the tank drones and the other defensive emplacements, we can expect a significant volume of fire from the colony itself, so extensive surface bombing by the 222 is advised."
Next up was a light spacecraft about the size of a Starstorm-class patrol escort.
"While Union naval doctrine attaches patrol escorts to all active destroyer squadrons, the Empyrean seems to use them exclusively as a sort of Orbital Guard. The Grigori patrol escort is reportedly the lowest tier of Empyrean spacecraft to be manned. As always, we need to factor in greater unpredictability from manned craft, but going from the brief I've received from the defector's report, Empyrean society is a highly rigid and dogmatic in nature, which could mean that the human crews are little better than machines themselves. I don't recommend we lean too heavily on that assumption, but it may well be that they offer us few surprises."
"How do they compare to our Starstorms, Commodore?" Captain Mercedes of the Laocoon asked.
"Unfavorably, I'm happy to say," the Commodore replied. "What we've observed from our engagements with the drones is apparently true of all Empyrean craft. They are armed exclusively with laser arrays. No particle cannons, no missiles, no torps, et cetera. Supposedly there's a religious reason behind it, striking down their enemies with the light or something to that effect. The lack of diversity in their armaments plays to our advantage. That being said, even the Empyrean light laser arrays beat out our own Mark Sixes and aren't that far behind the Mark Fives. They also seem to be able maintain sustained fire for longer without draining their capacitors.
"As for their defenses, their shields appear to be on par with our Beta Series projectors. I believe a couple of the Starlights may still have Alpha series projectors, but fortunately all our Starstorms have been refitted with the Beta Series, so they're about even there. Armor is light, though, and by a significant degree. As we've observed in our own encounters, their armor plating has a reflective surface that makes it difficult for lasers to penetrate and because of this and perhaps also due to limited resources, all their ships are rather thin-skinned. This of course means that once the shields are down, penetrative weapons like particle cannons and missiles will have an easy time punching through.
"Lastly there's the engines. Again, we can see the effects of Empyrean technological development breaking off from ours back in '89. Their engines have been derived from the SFPS Mark Five-Bravo, although it appears they were able to independently devise a way to scale down the design as we did for the Six-Deltas. Grigoris have a slight edge in speed over the older Starstorms, but our other ships can outrun them if it becomes necessary for a retreat. The exception is the Marathons and the Starlights. I recommend they remain outside the area of operations for this engagement."
"And I'm going to have to object to that, Commodore," interrupted General Wylczyk of the XI MEF. "When we move in to pacify the colony, the 41st and that dinky Army unit aren't going to cut it. You'll need the Winnin' Eleven there."
Colonel Vasquez was glaring mightily at the General's viewscreen, but before an argument could break out, Admiral Mfume said, "Decisions like that will have to wait pending further review of the tactical situation. Commodore Liu, please continue."
"Aye-aye, sir," the Commodore replied. "In summary, not only the Starstorms, but any ship of equivalent class should be able to sink their Empyrean counterpart in a one-on-one fight. However, this is not going to be a one-on-one fight. The Empyrean is supposed to have 144 Grigoris defending Selene 03. Beyond that, there are 72 Dominion-class destroyers, 63 Angel-class light cruisers, seven Archangel-class heavy cruisers, and two of these."
As the Commodore was speaking, each successive class of warship appeared on the projector as the previous one was shrunk down to scale. The final warship class greatly dwarfed all the others.
"This is the Seraph-class super cruiser," the Commodore explained. "It's over three times the size of their Archangel heavy cruisers, which are the flagships of their regular fleets and the biggest Empyrean craft we've encountered thus far. They're bigger than our Imperium-class and the only larger warship on record is the Hades.
"Other than that, big as these super cruisers are, and dangerous as their weapons may be, they still have all the same basic properties of other Empyrean ships: lasers only, thin skin, comparatively slower, and so on. We can take them down if we have to."
"And let me draw you attention to their armaments. 144 light laser arrays, 48 medium laser arrays, and three heavy laser arrays. I hope you remember me saying that their medium laser arrays are on par with our Mark Threes, because according to the defector's information, this is the most powerful military laser there is. Theoretically, one of these laser arrays could down the Ticonderoga at full power in under a minute. And if all three were concentrated on her at once--to say nothing of the fact that we can't expect to be at full power in the thick of combat--, I'm sure you can do the math.
There was silence in the room for a moment, which was broken by Captain Rajamani of the Brasidas.
"If I may be so bold, ladies and gentlemen, I have to concur with Colonel Vasquez's opinion from earlier. If we're going to show up on the Empyrean's doorstep with only five carrier battle group and the Tico and if they have the kind of forces the defector claims, we are--in a word--fucked."
An aghast Admiral Vargin could only sputter, "Captain! You, you--"
"Let me finish, sir," Captain Rajamani insisted. "If we draw out their fleets, stretch their forces thin and pick them off, do hit-and-run attacks and basically take the asymmetrical approach, we have some, some chance of coming out of this more or less intact. If we do what SupCom's told us to do and they pull their forces together, it'll be wholesale slaughter. It may not make any sense for them to sacrifice all such a big chunk of the Space Forces, but I can't see any other way this will pan out."
Admiral Mfume held up his hand before Admiral Vargin could tear into the Captain.
"As with Colonel Vasquez, I appreciate your concern, Captain," the Admiral said. "I am fully aware of the tactical and strategic disadvantages we face and you can rest assured that I will be taking them into account as we develop a plan of action."
Standing up from his chair, he continued, "We are the hope of the Union, ladies and gentlemen, and so long as I am in command, I will not allow that hope to be destroyed. I ask you for you to trust me. By all means, voice your concerns, offer your ideas. You have been placed in positions of command responsibility for a reason and I value the talents and experience each and every one of you brings to the table.
"But I think we have had enough for one day. We will be analyzing the intel from SupCom and meet again in 72 hours. We can be sure to have more encounters while we wait for the rendezvous with the other battle groups. I know everyone's nerves are starting to fray, so do not hesitate to utilize the services of our counselors and chaplains and see that the people under your command are doing the same.
"We have been given a difficult mission, but I have full confidence that we can execute it. We must execute it. We cannot fail. Remember that we are the hope of the Union. Is that understood?"
The universal reply of "Yes, sir!" was more enthusiastic in some corners than others, but the Admiral had no doubt they would do everything in their power to see the mission objectives were accomplished.
"Dismissed."

* * *

Date: Thu 26 Sep 121
Time: UST 1637

Once the assembly was dismissed, Commodore Frazier stopped by the bridge to check up on things and once he was updated on the situation, he decided to pay a visit to Admiral Mfume. His first stop was the Admiral's office, which was where he happened to be at the time.
All the Commodore had to do was nod to the secretary for him to buzz the Admiral.
"Sir," the secretary said, "Commodore Frazier to see you."
"Enter," the Admiral's voice said over the speaker.
The door opened and Commodore Frazier went into the office. The Admiral was waiting for him and greeted him with a weak smile.
"How can I help you, Commodore?" the Admiral asked.
Commodore Frazier leaned back into the bulkhead and crossed his arms.
"That was a good speech, sir," he said. "Did you actually believe any of it?"
The Admiral sighed.
"One of the things you pick up after so many years of command is how to tell people what they need to hear to go forward. After a while, you start to believe it yourself."
The Admiral's face fell further, looking far older than he usually did.
"It really does seem unfair that your generation is being pushed up the ladder so quickly, but this war leaves us with little other option."
"There's a lot about this war that doesn't leave us with too many options, sir."
The Admiral nodded numbly. It was hard to see him like this, but Commodore Frazier knew he couldn't leave it at that. There were issues that had to be addressed before they got into this mess any deeper.
"I can't help but feeling Colonel Vasquez might be on to something," he said. "Even Captain Rajamani felt like he had to speak up during the conference. I'm pretty sure there are plenty of other people who are thinking the same but are keeping quiet. For now, at least."
Admiral Mfume folded his hands and stared down at his desktop.
"I am coming up on forty-three years, Commodore. I know exactly how tenuous our position is, but if we defy our orders, it could spark a chain reaction. The Empyrean may not be an immediate threat to the Union, but the Sheolites are and they will leap on any weakness we show. We are on the precipice, Commodore, and we have to succeed in spite of the odds. If we fail here, we could lose everything."
The Admiral raised his head to look up at Commodore Frazier, showing a vulnerability that took the Commodore aback.
"Can I count on you, Commodore?" Admiral Mfume asked. "Can I rely on the support of a Hero of the Union?"
After the Admiral had just talked about the danger of showing weakness, here he was setting himself up for failure, especially after Commodore Frazier had clashed with Marshal Van Daan when they were first sent outside the network. Even though the Commodore was himself opposed the SupCom's strategy, he couldn't bring himself to turn on the Admiral.
"I'm in your corner, sir," he said.
The Admiral smiled.
"Thank you, Commodore."
Commodore Frazier did his best to shrug off the weight of his decision.
"Well, sir, it's like Ben Franklin said. We hang together or we hang separately."
The only question was how many necks were going to get stuck in a noose because Commodore Frazier chose loyalty to the Admiral over his doubts about SupCom. Time would soon tell.