"Almost there," Alyssa said, glancing up at the Sector Map.

She leaned forward to tap an icon on John's console and switched the holographic display to the local System Map for a clearer view. The Invictus raced towards the gravity well of a red dwarf star, where the Brimorians had deployed a temporary comms beacon. It was the last link in a communications chain that snaked across the Kintark Empire to the Enclave border, allowing the armada to keep in contact with Deep Lord Athgiloi.

John watched as the Invictus roared across the smaller focused map, travelling at twenty-four times the hyper-warp speed his old freighter could achieve. He still remembered what it was like to plod up to a star in the Fool's Gold, then drop out at the edge of the gravity well and slowly trudge his way in-system. Operating as a solitary merchant had suited him at the time, giving him plenty of opportunity for quiet introspection away from the ravages of war.

When the girls had joined him, they'd all gone through the Change... but as Alyssa had pointed out, each of them had changed him too. They'd unlocked his psychic legacy and massively increased the eldritch power he had at his disposal, but the changes to his personality were far deeper and more profound than that. Before he met Alyssa, John had been shut off from the galaxy, withdrawn from the few remaining people in his life and living like a recluse. He couldn't imagine going back to that lonely existence now, not after being surrounded by all these wonderful women that he cared about so deeply.

He gave the blonde and brunette sitting on his lap an affectionate squeeze and received a distracted smile from each of them for his efforts. They turned back to watch the holo-map and he joined them in staring at the Brimorian comms beacon. It was protected by blue and purple armour plating, the communications device only slightly larger than the Raptor gunship.

The Invictus roared past, moving at incredible speed, and the effect on the comms beacon was catastrophic. It was smashed aside by an invisible titanic force, shattering the armoured satellite into a million pieces. The hyper-warp bow wave tossed the debris around like a cork in a storm, scattering fragments of the device in a wide arc when the wake subsided.

"Now that was impressive..." John murmured, shaking his head in awe. "But I can't helping feel like an obnoxious jackass in a speedboat."

Alyssa turned around and kissed him. "Next time, we'll wear bikinis to really look the part."

Calara didn't join in the banter, as she was too busy studying the obliterated wreckage in fascination. "I know you said the bow wave was destructive, but that was far more powerful than I thought..."

"I wasn't avoiding all those freighters back at Olympus just for fun," the blonde replied with a wry smile.

There was a flash of red on the much smaller Sector Map that floated above the Command Console. Alyssa leaned across to expand the holographic image so that it replaced the System Map in the centre of the Bridge. They were now close enough to detect sensor contacts located in the Kintark Homeworld and the Scan Array was picking up what had to be the Brimorian fleet.

"Thar she blows..." John said quietly, staring at the alien armada.

"We're approaching the Kinta system, Shoal Master," the helmsman announced, his call echoing around the Bridge of the Retribution from the Depths.

Kaelotegh watched as his last three intact fleets dropped out of hyper-warp on the outskirts of the Imperial homeworld. It might have been his imagination playing tricks on him, but the Enclave warships seemed to huddle together for protection after being cruelly abused for hours. With a worried frown, he turned his attention to the Kintark defences, searching for any sign of more traps.

The birthplace of the Kintark species was a lush green world on the second orbital track around a golden yellow star. It was the only inhabited planet in the system, with one large volcanic world and seven multi-coloured gas giants to keep it company. While the lack of colonisable planets had hurt the Kintark Empire's expansion during its fledgling years, having so many sources for helium fuel had subsequently allowed them to spread throughout the galaxy at an impressive rate.

There were scores of gas mining stations in the system, but not much in the way of defensive platforms, the Kintark homeworld never having come under threat before. The one exception to this was Mar'Trinark Shipyard on the third orbital path around the star, which loomed over the strip-mined volcanic world that had provided materials for the Kintark fleets for centuries. Arrayed before the enormous space station were a broad mass of sensor contacts, which had been expertly deployed in defensive formations.

The leader of the Brimorian invasion force stared in silence at the Kintark defences, his clawed fingers drumming on his console. The rapid clicks of his claws striking the surface had picked up an extra tap at the end, a nervous twitch in his index finger causing it to click twice. He flinched reflexively when he spotted a broad swathe of asteroids on the fourth orbital track around the star, their proximity dangerously close to the Brimorian's invasion route to the heart of the system.

Like the rest of the officers on the bridge, Shoal-Commander Libtegh waited patiently for the Shoal Master to begin deploying the armada into combat formations. He glanced at his commanding officer with concern, hoping that the legendary Brimorian leader had something innovative planned to deal with the Kintark final stand... but Kaelotegh stayed worryingly silent.

Libtegh stepped closer and whispered, "Shoal Master, what are your orders?"

Kaelotegh ignored him, his claws tapping out that maddening beat.

Clearing his throat, the Shoal-Commander tried again. "Perhaps we should sent scouts into the asteroid field? It would be the ideal location for an ambush. The Kintark could have concealed more warships inside the cover of the belt."

"That's just what he wants us to think!" Kaelotegh suddenly blurted out, a disconcerting gleam in his eyes. "As soon as we hold position to investigate, there'll be some kind of trap... or an ambush! No, I'm not falling for his clever tricks this time! I'm going to do something he'd never anticipate in a hundred lifetimes!"

Feeling a sense of dread, Libtegh had to ask, "What are you orders?"

"We'll stop at nothing until we slaughter the mastermind behind all our misfortunes!" the Shoal Master declared, his command reverberating around the unsettled silence on the Bridge. Opening the fleet command interface he sent an order to the entire armada. "Set course for the enemy and increase engines to full thrust!"

"Shoal Master..." Libtegh said cautiously. "What about our carrier groups? They won't be able to match our speed."

"They won't need to," he replied with a confidant smile. Issuing more orders, he commanded the carrier groups to launch all their fighters. "The strike craft will still be able to join our charge!"

Libtegh darted a doubtful glance back at the hulking heavy carriers at the rear of the formation. "But they'll be left undefended..."

Kaelotegh leapt up from his command chair and pointed a clawed finger at the Kintark forces deployed protectively in front of Kinta. "That won't matter when we smash their fleets and kill my nemesis! He'll never expect such a bold strike!"

All around his flagship, the Brimorian forces powered up their engines and began their advance. The Shoal Master wasn't alone in wanting revenge and the Enclave battle groups surged towards the Kintark, eager to have their vengeance against their tormentors.

From where High Prelate Zorlin stood on the raised Command Platform, he had an impressive view over the Bridge Pit of the Breklan'tohok. Two-dozen Kintark officers sat at their stations without saying so much as a word, each and every one of them watching and waiting in the gloom. He could feel the tension in his comrades and knew exactly how they felt. With the massive battlecarrier operating on minimum power, he felt incredibly vulnerable hiding from the Brimorian invaders, expecting them to launch an attack towards his position at any moment.

The sensor grid surrounding the home system had picked up the Enclave armada as they approached and Zorlin had been astonished at the reduced size of the force. Based on preliminary reports from the border, the Brimorians had invaded Imperial territory with at least six reinforced battle groups. Given the perilous state of the Kintark defence fleets after the disastrous war with the Terran Federation, the Enclave had sent more than enough forces to wipe out the Empire... but now they'd been reduced to half that number.

Zorlin marvelled at the effectiveness of the Lion's defensive plans, which had done an incredible job of delaying or destroying a huge proportion of the enemy forces. He'd faced Admiral John Blake once before on the opposing side of a battlefield... and he almost pitied the Brimorian commander at being in that position now. After the disaster at the Battle of Regulus, fighting the Terran Federation's champion was an experience that Zorlin never wished to repeat again.

"A thousand blesssingsss to you, Tamalaz the Fortunate... for our alliance with the Lion... and I bessseech you to ensssure it continuesss in perpetuity," he murmured under his breath.

He was not a pious soul, but Zorlin didn't believe in taking any chances.

Movement on the glowing System Map drew his attention and the High Prelate stared intently at the enemy forces. He watched the Brimorian destroyers, cruisers, and battleships accelerate to attack speed, and was startled to see them pull away from their carriers. Those hulking vessels at the rear of the group were launching squadrons of fighters, which proceeded to join the Enclave capital ships in their headlong assault on Mar'Trinark Shipyard.

"Why would you leave your carriersss undefended?" he mused aloud, shaking his head in bewilderment.

With no answer forthcoming from his Brimorian counterpart, he turned to address the Bridge Pit. The well-trained crew saw him move into position and they all turned to listen, intrigued and excited to find out what their leader had planned for the invaders.

"Hold thisss posssition until their vanguard are well passst usss," Zorlin ordered, holding onto the railing that surrounded the platform. "We ssshall ssstrike where they are mossst vulnerable and crusssh the morale of the enemy before the true battle commencesss. Wait for my sssignal..."

He turned to study the map again and watched as the lead Brimorian elements drew level with his position. Zorlin could feel his heart pounding in his chest, a host of factors praying on his mind. Was this some kind of Brimorian trickery to draw him out of hiding? Would the new missiles work as promised? Was the Lion still rushing to aid their defence? The High Prelate tamped down his nerves, knowing that he would soon have the answers to all his questions.

Seeing the Brimorian big guns move past the asteroid field, he allowed himself a toothy grin. "Divert power to the enginesss... 20% thrussst... and bring usss to the edge of the belt. We ssshall punisssh the Brimoriansss for their treachery!"

Kaelotegh looked on eagerly as his battle-ready fleets bore down on the Kintark forces arrayed before Mar'Trinark Shipyard. Huge numbers of Brimorian fighter squadrons swirled around the destroyer screen at the front of his formation, eager to get to grips with the enemy and establish strike craft supremacy. The Enclave cruisers and battleships were in battle-line formations, set up in massed ranks to exchange devastating broadsides with the enemy.

Even after several fleets had been crippled by running that nightmarish gauntlet to the homeworld, the Brimorians still outnumbered the Kintark nearly two to one. The Shoal Master had brought the carrier assets with him from the last ambushed fleet, the drone mines having targeted line ships rather than the heavy carriers that had been located at the rear of the formation. They were following the same protocol now, the eight enormous capital ships pouring out waves of fighters as they lagged behind the assault warships.

With the significant tech advantage his forces possessed, Kaelotegh was feeling quietly confident about the upcoming battle. Or at least he would be, if not for the niggling doubts left behind after spending hours being tormented by his sadistic nemesis. His black-eyed gaze swept over the Kintark fleets, looking for any sign that something was amiss.

The enemy forces were still too far away from the Brimorian sensor arrays to display them as three dimensional models, but everything about the deployment rang true. Transponder codes identified a Kintark destroyer screen at the front to intercept fighters and missiles. Cruisers and battleships held the centre ground, lined up in vertical stacks to present as many guns to the enemy as possible. At the rear were Kintark light carriers, heavy carriers, and the mighty battlecarrier Breklan'tohok... the flagship of his cunning adversary.

Kaelotegh had seen the Kintark use the infuriating transponder trick all too often, but two things convinced him this was the real enemy he was finally facing. The first was that the Kintark fleet assets exactly matched those that Deep Lord Athgiloi's spy had reported, even down to the name of the Imperial flagship. The second was that as soon as the Brimorians had entered the system, fighters had been pouring from Mar'Trinark Shipyard... and more importantly... from the Kintark carrier groups within the fleet formations.

No, he was quite certain that this was their elusive foe, cornered and forced to fight a last stand.

"It's time to end this!" Kaelotegh snarled, his voice carrying over the fleet interface to his battle group commanders. "All ships move to maximum range and fire at will!"

Shoal-Commander Libtegh glanced at his leader and frowned. Kaelotegh's fierce declaration would have been inspiring, if not for the discordant drumming of his claws that had continued without pause for the last ten minutes. Despite the Shoal Master showing worrying signs of instability, Libtegh knew that the nightmarish campaign would soon be concluded. He glanced up at the System Map and saw that they were now close enough for their sensors to start displaying the forward elements of the Kintark forces.

Expecting to see the green iridescent armour plating that was distinctive to Kintark warships, Libtegh was surprised to see a row of squat brown vessels. He frowned in confusion and leaned closer to stare at the ugly ships, then his eyes widened in alarm.

"Shoal Master... they're tugs!" he blurted out, gripping his leader's arm.

Kaelotegh had been staring with feral intensity at the Breklan'tohok and his brow furrowed in confusion. "What?"

"That destroyer screen... they're just a bunch of tugboats!" Libtegh exclaimed, watching in shock as more Kintark ships were revealed as holographic images.

Just like the tugs, the next set of warships were not what they appeared to be either... showing scores of freighters masquerading as Imperial cruisers. The Brimorian officers gaped at the holographic images in horror as the Kintark battleships turned out to be blocky fuel haulers.

"No, that's impossible!" Kaelotegh gasped, his voice riven with fear. "What about all the fighters?! There must be carriers in that group!"

It turned out that all the heavy carriers were merely passenger liners, their broad hulls covered in mag-clamped strike craft. Every so often, a squadron would detach and peel away, fooling anyone watching them on sensors that they were being launched from a carrier.

"Where in the depths is he?!" the Shoal Master raged, grinding in his teeth in fury as the battlecruiser Breklan'tohok turned out to be a huge garbage scow.

"Behind us, Shoal Master!" Libtegh managed to gasp in warning, fear constricting his throat.

Kaelotegh's head snapped around to stare at the edge of the asteroid belt, where an endless sea of red sensor contacts had emerged. Brimorian vessels were close enough to those contacts to identify them without relying on transponders and the real enemy defence fleet materialised amongst the chunks of rock. Unfortunately, the vessels close enough to identify them were the eight heavy carriers he'd left behind... those hulking capital ships now horribly exposed to the marauding Kintark.

Massive thrusters blazed brightly at the stern of the Breklan'tohok, the Imperial flagship at the forefront of the Kintark forces as they sprung their ambush. The hidden fleets ramped up their engines to full power and emerged from the gloom of the asteroid belt, their green armour shimmering as it was bathed in sunlight.

High Prelate Zorlin was transfixed by the holographic map, watching as his ships moved to intercept the heavy carrier group at the rear. The Brimorian capital ships were huge, each of their broad-beamed hulls the home for hundreds of strike craft. They were currently deploying squadrons of fighters, the blue and purple plated interceptors racing ahead to join the rest of the armada in the assault against Mar'Trinark Shipyard.

"Prepare to fire EMP misssilesss at your desssignated targetsss," Zorlin called out in warning, his clawed fingers tapping icons to allocate enemy carriers to the Kintark cruiser groups.

He kept a careful eye on the ponderous Brimorian vessels, waiting until he was certain that they wouldn't be able to avoid a missile salvo with evasive manoeuvres. Rather than fleeing directly away from his forces, which would give them the best opportunity to avoid a missile barrage, they were travelling perpendicular to him as they attempted to catch up to the rest of the invaders.

"Launch misssiles!" he called out, his command broadcast over the fleet interface to scores of Kintark cruisers.

The green missiles streaked away, leaving billowing trails behind that rapidly dissipated into the void of space. They raced across the kilometres separating the opposing forces, neatly divided into clusters aimed at each individual capital ship. It was easy to tell the moment the Brimorian carriers realised they were under attack, because they attempted emergency turns to evade the incoming swarm.

Denuded of destroyer escorts that were designed to shoot down exactly these types of weapons, the lumbering heavy carriers were critically vulnerable to missile and torpedo attack. Unfortunately for them, the 1500m-long capital ships were also far too sluggish to dodge out of the path of the incoming missiles. The salvo pierced through sturdy shields that were incapable of holding them at bay, which was followed a second later by sharp detonations against the carriers' hulls.

If the missiles had been carrying regular payloads, the Brimorian ships would have been showered in green explosions and doused in burning plasma. Against vessels of that vast size, the damage would have been significant, but far from crippling. However, the EMP warheads had a far more sinister purpose, the electro-magnetic blasts shorting out electrical systems and plunging the craft into darkness.

Zorlin watched as lights guttered out near each of the impact sites, the heavy carriers shutting down as power modulators and a host of other subsystems were deactivated. Among them were the Brimorians' highly-advanced shield generators, stripping the heavy carriers of their formidable protective fields.

"All ssshipsss... open fire!"

Plasma Cannon batteries across the battlecarrier's topdeck unleashed a terrifying broadside of volatile energy at the enemy. The Breklan'tohok's fusillade added to the blistering storm of plasma blasts aimed at the Brimorians, the roiling green balls streaking towards the stricken carrier group.