Children of Heaven, Chapter 1

June, 4233: Outbreak

Chapter 1:

June 9th, 4233
Tebrinnin
Twilight Sector, Outer Reaches
United Terran Concord

UTCNS Narwhale

“Contact. We have an incoming hyper wake.”

Captain Mahfuj al-Imad frowned at the unexpected comment. “Bearing?” he demanded of his sensor operator.

“Coming down the corridor, sir.”

The destroyer’s skipper leaned forward in his chair, momentarily confused. The next dispatch boat from Unicorn Set wasn’t due for another two days, the Hadley-Wright scouting force wasn’t excpected back for another three months and there was nothing on the shipping schedule for the next week. You could say a lot about the Empties, but they kept accurate timetables. Of course, they didn’t have as many ships to keep track of as the Concord did. Still, it wasn’t impossible for something to have slipped through the cracks and arrive unannounced – naturally expecting Mahfuj and his small squadron to run them through customs as quickly as possible.

That was, of course, the only reason for someone to visit Tebrinnin.

Tebri, the third planet of the system, was barely hospitable. The planet was only habitable around its equator and even then, it was like living in the Arctic tundra. There were no major industries and even if there had been, there was no infrastructure to support them. The Tebrinnin system had been settled for less than forty years, with a population of some five thousand souls.

Only three decades ago, the system had been much more important, hosting a Fleet base and small shipyard facility with a proportionally larger population. Since the Zion Armistice of 4204, there had been no reason to maintain either facility; as the years passed, the base had been scaled-down and eventually all but abandoned; the yard had been broken down and transported to another site, the orbital defences vanishing with it. All that remained of the Concordat’s naval presence in Tebrinnin was a handful of customs corvettes and a pair of destroyers, the bare minimum of ships necessary for their thankless job.

The only reason anyone had paid any attention to the system at all was because its realspace location lay at the beginning of the Orion-Perseus hyperspace corridor, which spanned over ten thousand light-years, connecting the Concordat’s territories in the Orion Arm to the Empty Worlds of the Perseus Arm. Tebrinnin, never a focal point of trade, was a long way from ever becoming one either. Save for the mandatory customs inspections, the Empty merchants and convoys preferred to bypass the system entirely as a deliberate snub, explaining its relative poverty. Federal taxes and subsidies from the tariffs kept the system afloat, but not so much that it had any real economic growth.

A few hardy souls were trying to drum up investor support for mining ventures, but without much luck; systems like Priorii, Catamin and Hallow were further from the corridor then Tebri, but they were the ones reaping all the benefits of it, simply because businesses went where the ships went – and the ships went anywhere but Tebrinnin.

Mahfuj grinned mirthlessly at that; the Empties hated Tebrinnin only slightly less than being called that name, considering it little better than a racist slur from their Terran counterparts. They preferred to refer to themselves as the League of Independent Systems, but they had been the Empty Worlds long before they had had colonies of more than a handful of people or any recognizable government and the name had stuck. Besides, in comparison to the more cosmopolitan worlds of the Concord, they were ‘empty’. And if it hadn’t been for their sneak attack, the Terran Navy would have kicked their ass up between their ears thirty years ago.

Pulling himself out of his revere, al-Imad leaned forward in his chair, addressing his sensor tech again. “Well, what do we have, Abby?”

Narwhale’s sensor rating looked up. “Outer system LPs have picking up an incoming hyper wake, skipper. It’s moving like a bat out of hell, too. It’s…” Abigail Decierge frowned. “It’s moving over twenty thousand c.”

“That can’t be right,” Mahfuj protested. “One of the posts is on the fritz again.” Even in the most powerful hyper-corridors, nothing but an Empty had yet broken 10,000 c… and even League ships topped out well below the speed of the incoming contacts.

“I’ve checked the data feed three times already, sir. It’s reading right. We should have emergence in less than an hour.”

“Allah the Merciful,” Mahfuj heard himself say; HTBs had an effective range of almost a light-year. Normally, even a high-speed courier would be picked up almost half a day before it arrived at its destination. In a hyperspace corridor, that degree of warning for the same vessel went down by a factor of ten, making systems that lay within corridors especially prone to unpleasant surprises.

Katya Andryvich, Narwhale’s first officer, looked up at Al-Imad. “Could it be a League ship? They’ve always been faster than us in hyperspace.”

“Not that fast,” Mahfuj replied, confirming his earlier thoughts aloud. But then what was the other explanation? Aliens? In two thousand years of expansion, the Concord had found only a handful of inhabited worlds; seven had once had intelligent life, but through plague, war, or simple bad luck they managed to kill themselves off before humanity ever discovered the secret of fire. Two were still in that era of development – more or less – although the Bureau of Xenobiological Affairs recently reported that one of them had developed a society comparable to the Mycenaean empire.

He doubted that it was them. Though, there were reports of a technologically-advanced species (dubbed the ‘Lefu’ by some BXA wag), but nothing concrete. Except a handful of bountiful, flourishing civilizations that had inexplicably died out overnight. That was enough to make a man paranoid.

“Condition Yellow, Ops. Communications, inform the governor what we’ve detected. Pull Dresden and Nagasaki off customs duty and have them form up on us. along with Moray. We’ll leave Olympus City, Moscow and Koln over the planet, just in case. If this is a first contact scenario, I don’t want anyone thinking we’re a fleet waiting in ambush. If it’s not, there’s no reason to screw with the patrol schedule any more than we have to.”

Went unsaid was that if whatever was coming was hostile, the presence of a few more corvettes would make no difference at all.

~

Closer now.

Closer.

Command had identified this planet as a former Enemy base, lain fallow and left to rot. It was also the sole connection to the Second Enemy’s territory; were it to fall, the Enemy Command might assume that the Second Enemy was responsible. It wasn’t precisely a master stroke of cunning; Command knew that these two Enemy Forces hated each other and had fought each other to a standstill less than a generation ago. Suspicion and confusion were the attacking element’s allies, until the rest of the armada arrived. However, if even one Enemy Vessel escaped, the jig would very much be up.

The solution to that was simple, of course.

Make sure nothing survived.

~

“We’re starting to see shift. They’re definitely preparing to drop to sublight.”

“Not that they have much choice,” Andryvich pointed out redundantly. “Hypering through a system’s gravity well is suicide.” Mahfuj looked at his first officer; it wasn’t like Katya to state the obvious. She was watching the sensor feed, holding onto her pendant of Ascenscion, absently tapping her forefinger against the fire-red gem in the center.

Dresden and Nagasaki report ready status; shield walls are active, point defences are a go, weapons are hot, but tracking systems are negative.”

al-Imad nodded once. Getting showered with targeting sensors the instant you dropped out of hyperspace was not the best way to greet someone. If this was just an Empty game though, he was going to put his boot so far up those yokels’ asses that they’d be coughing leather.

“Best-guess for emergence is in 10 seconds at… these coordinates.”

Despite himself, Mahfuj was holding his breath. The contact was coming in ahead of schedule and further out in the system then Plotting had estimated; al-Imad’s ‘task force’ was still almost six hours out from the projected emergence point. Not that they’d had much chance to get there before Whoever-They-Were came calling, though. Probably better that way; if this was in fact a first contact mission, nothing spelt disaster more than dropping right on top of several warships. This way, they’d have a good long time to take a look at each other.

The counter rolled over and across the distance of a star system, reality bent, buckled and finally sundered.

Whoever they were, they’d arrived.

~

The chatter and snarl of EM signals confirmed the presence of the Enemy here. Their infestation on the planet was small, barely a handful of the creatures centered around one major settlement. There was some disquiet as the already outdated sensor information trickled in, revealing only a quartet of Enemy Vessels coming out to meet them. Command’s analysis had been accurate in that. Still…

This was not going to be so much a battle than the swatting of a few helpless insects, hardly worth the attention of the Strike Fleet element.

They didn’t need to play with their prey, though. Simply killing it would suffice.

~

Minutes passed in agonizing silence as al-Imad waited for the information on the newcomers to reach his ship. Finally: “Multiple contacts; they’ve activated their drives and are coasting in-system, minimal thrust.”

“We’ve got something; an image from the vessel nearest to one of the listening posts.”

The captain almost bolted up out of his chair. “Let me see it.”

Abby hesitated only a second before she nodded. “On the main viewscreen, sir.”

The starfield ‘screen saver’ image winked out, replaced with an image captured from LP 19. al-Imad swallowed, though his mouth was dry. That was not a vessel design that he recognized. So dark that it was almost impossible to pick out against the stars, its hull combined alien grace and blocky armoured threat seamlessly, the elongated ship bristled with what al-Imad recognized as gun ports, a row of turrets adorning the dorsal and ventral axes. “That… would be a predator,” Mahfuj said softly.

“And there’s twenty more just like it,” Katya murmured. “This could be a problem.”

The captain had to agree; unless that ship was monumentally inferior to Concordat technology, it alone could mop the floor with his little squadron. “Are there any signals coming from it?”

“Not a one, sir.”

“Well, maybe they’re waiting for us to make the first move. Send our ID and a copy of our language to them.”

~

The Enemy ships continued to transmit messages to them, asking for their identity, for their business in the system, for a conversation. If they wanted a response… then they would get one.

~

Most modern outer-system listening posts were unmanned; the first designs had been so large and maintenance intensive that a crew of several hundred had been necessary to keep them functioning at peak efficiency. As technology progressed, the number of crew members had dropped steadily – eighty, twenty-five, thirteen, seven… then five, and then two and finally fully automated Hyperspace Tracking Beacons had been developed, requiring only a visitation from a maintenance team once every month or so.

Despite its status as the new Siberia, Tebrinnin boasted almost a dozen listening posts that enveloped the entire star system, each of them of the modern unmanned variety. This was fortunate, as it meant that no one died when the nearest alien vessel opened fire and, with a single, almost negligent salvo, blew LP 19 into a cloud of superheated gas from a range of six and a half light-seconds.

As the information scrolled over the main viewer, al-Imad felt his stomach curl in on itself. Effective Concordat energy range was only 3 light-seconds.

Katya tried to rationalize what she’d just seen. “Maybe… maybe they perceived our scans as a hostile act.”

“Maybe they did,” Mahfuj replied dryly. “But I don’t think so.”

The aliens – the enemy, he corrected himself – were even now dispersing into a globular formation. That was not a peaceful assemblage; it had only one purpose, to envelop a hostile force and engage it from all sides. “Hail them again, Communications. Tell them to cease their advance immediately, or we will assume their actions are hostile and respond accordingly.” A minnow would have better luck threatening a shark. “If they refuse to comply… Guns, be prepared to launch a warning shot once they reach twenty-seven million kilometers.” Narwhale was the largest of al-Imad’s command, a handful of meters larger than her fellow destroyer Moray and neither ship carried capital-scale missiles.

“Their drives are kicking up, sir. They’re accelerating in-system. Target appears to be Tebri.”

Al-Imad nodded, resting his chin on the backs of his clasped hands. The planet. “Then let’s go to meet them. Communications: message to Governor Singer: ‘Have made contact with intruding forces, unknown hull types. Intentions appear hostile; I will attempt to slow their progress as best I am able. Recommend you begin immediate evacuation procedures. Koln, Moscow and Olympus City are at your disposal to provide cover. Message ends, 1911 shipboard time.’”

“Message sent, sir.”

“Good. Prepare our hyper drone for launch.” Neither of the small corvettes riding with Moray and Narwhale had a hyperspace-capable courier drone and the destroyers each only carried one. “Deploy it now and establish a telemetric downlink. Once we… once it is no longer receiving data, have it jump to the Fleet Base at Unicorn Set.”

“Done, sir. Drone deployed and datalink established.”

“Very well.” Mahfuj closed his eyes for a moment. “Maximum thrust, Helm. Take us to them.”

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