Children of Heaven, Chapter 2

Chapter 2:

June 13th 4233.
Unicorn Set
Twilight Sector, Outer Reaches
United Terran Concord

Unicorn Set Command Base, Unicorn Alpha

Rear Admiral Lucian Hernandez was not a happy man. To be fair, he was not an officer well-known for his jocularity, but this morning’s news made him more likely than usual to start chewing holes in the base’s walls.

If it wasn’t one thing it was another; Unicorn Set was the largest military base in this Sector of the Outer Reaches; originally, it had been a fallback point should the Empties ever overrun Tebrinnin. Given that Tebrinnin had changed hands seven times during a 12-year war, Unicron Set had proved its value several times over, although since the Zion Armistice it had dwindled in importance and priority. With tensions between the League and Concord at an all-time low, many within Parliament were questioning the need to maintain a Fleet presence in this area of the Outer Reaches. Some feared it was ‘needlessly provocative’ towards the Empties. Some abhorred the expense, some saw the ever-dwindling base on Unicorn Set as superfluous given the much larger facilities on Hyperion Hive. Some hated the very idea of the military on principle and would embrace any excuse at all to cut into it with an axe.

As far as Hernandez was concerned, they could all line up in a row to plant one on his ass. Lieutenant (j.g.) Hernandez had heard the same kind of talk thirty years ago, when no one thought the Empty Worlds were organized enough to resist the Concord’s systematic economic rape of their systems and peoples. Then, after Vice Admiral Kucinich and her damned Third Fleet – a fleet that OMI had never even suspected existed! – had thrown the Concord out of the Empty Worlds and kicked the ass of the Seventh Battlegroup, it had suddenly become a lot more imperative to give the military their funding.

Amazing what having a League armada punching its way through your systems will do to the spines of the politicians, Hernandez mused with more than a little dark humour. Oh, the League had been good – better than anyone had thought they were – but they still hadn’t been able to match the industrial output of the Concord. Towards the end, they’d only been hanging in by the skin of their teeth, but the damage to the Concord’s economy in the Outer Reaches had made it impossible for them to fully get the upper hand, at least in the short term.

In the end, neither side was able to best each other and it come down to a draw. The Concord officially recognized the League of Independent Systems as a political entity unto itself and the League agreed to respect the claims and rights and return the appropriated property (or provide compensation if it was destroyed) of all Terran corporations and persons up to the start of the war. All claims to League territories and resources made after the conflict ended would have to abide by League law, which heavily favoured Empty corporations and entrepreneurs as opposed to the people who had been plundering them for centuries. Neither side was exactly happy with what they’d have to give up, but it had prevented a very bloody business from going on for decades more.

Still, there were factions on both sides who remained convinced that they could have won and there probably would be forever.

However, none of that was Hernandez’s concern at the moment; his Task Force 93 was tasked with protecting this region from pirates and commerce raiders. They loved Twilight and Hyperion Sectors; the systems between the Empty Worlds and the Outer Reaches were largely unexplored, making it the perfect place to put a lair or anchor one’s prize fleet. Especially since the Empties had always had a cozy relationship with that kind of scum; they’d bankrolled pirates to hit Concordat shipping during the war and now the League had a thriving black market for anything they couldn’t build themselves. Which meant that a raider could always make himself a substantial profit by selling his goods to the Empties and would get only a wink and a nudge. Especially since the League as a whole didn’t have an extradition treaty with the Concord, making it a perfect haven for any smuggler or pirate who’d gotten himself into a sticky situation with Terran authorities.

At his disposal, Hernandez had five escort squadrons of destroyers and frigates, two light cruiser divisions, two cruiser squadrons, three battlecruiser squadrons and a pair of battle carriers. The BCs and BCVs had yet to fire a shot, since nothing heavier than a raider battle-wagon had been detected in this sector for coming on five years. They were occasionally sent on patrols to wave the flag, but it was his escorts and cruisers that did the bulk of the work.

The Vice-Admiral tried to keep his men in peak fighting trim, but it was hard to do when they felt that they were no longer fearsome guard dogs, but tired old hounds padding through a familiar garden and back again. And let’s face it, he thought, looking at his slowly expanding paunch. Me too.

~

The Strike Fleet element lay in orbit around the former Enemy Planet, a radioactive scar where the sole source of habitation had lain. An Industrial Fleet element was soon to arrive and begin assembling proper fortifications, with an Onslaught Fleet element shortly behind them. Scouting Fleet was already preparing a list of worlds to infiltrate – single, small vessels were extremely difficult, if not impossible to detect in brightspace – but the second target on the Strike Fleet element’s list was already decided.

They didn’t want to abandon this new territory and leave Industrial Fleet helpless, but they had to. The tricky little drone that one of the larger Enemy Vessels had deployed had very nearly escaped and pursuing it had allowed one of the fleeing Enemy Vessels to put enough distance between themselves and the Strike Fleet element that they had managed to flee.

With Fire Knives, things might have had been different, but the Strike Fleet element had none. Analysis of the Enemy’s damaged computer cores was rather useless, since they had been scrubbed before they had been destroyed. Annoying, but expected.

There was some dispute as to whether the Strike Fleet element should proceed to attack an unquestionably military target whose strength they couldn’t properly gauge, but Command was adamant; the Enemy Base had to be neutralized before the Enemy Command Structure knew what was going on, before they had time to muster any kind of response.

With some unease, the twenty-one ships of the Strike Fleet element departed their first conquered world, heading out towards the system’s hyper limit.

~

“Rear Admiral, sorry to disturb you.”

“Not at all Lenny – what’s eating you?”

Captain Leonard O’Neill, Hernandez’s chief of staff, stepped into his superior’s office. “Outer system tracking just picked up a bogey nine hours out, headed in from Tebrinnin. It’s too small for anything more than a single ship.” Unicorn Set’s exquisitively sensitive listening posts had been originally intended to pick up infiltrating League ships; now they went largely too waste, but were too expensive to break down and re-build elsewhere. Ironically, they had originally been intended for deployment to Tebrinnin, but the constant fighting over the system had made the first two attempts to install similar (and very expensive) HTBs an exercise in futility. The third and final shipment had simply remained in Unicorn Set. Hernandez had no doubt that to do otherwise would have been the same as giving some Empty raider new targets to gun for.

The rear admiral frowned, quickly calling up a shipping schedule. “We’re not supposed to have anything from them due for another week. Maybe it’s the dispatch boat Sector Command sent them.” By all rights, that ship should have checked in – or at least showed up on scanners – by now.

“Then they’d be pulling closer to 1000 c; Tracking puts this definitely in the civilian range and too low for a League ship. There could be trouble with their engines, I suppose. But… ” he shrugged.

“All right. Orca’s in that part of the system right now? Good, whistle them up over there to greet our new friends. In the meantime, bring the fleet to standby. If it’s nothing, we can always scrub it as a drill.”

“Yes, sir.”

~

“Reversion in ten minutes.”

Captain Ullay Sadr rubbed his palms over one another as he watched the forward viewscreen; there was nothing to see, of course. He always got vertigo from the computer extrapolations of hyperspace and, consequently, there was been a ban using the screens when Racking Roll entered FTL. Personally, hyperspace scared the shit out of him. Especially emergences.

The layman’s understanding of hyperspace was pretty far removed from what it actually was – thousands of mathematicians had spent decades and centuries working out the precise relationship that hyperspace and realspace had, but the easiest way to grasp the complexities of it was to visualize hyperspace as being ‘under’ normal space-time. The reality was far more nuanced of course, but a crude understanding was better than none at all.

Gravity wells ‘bent’ normal space towards them like a bowling ball sitting on a mattress and, because hyperspace was ‘under’ realspace, it ‘bent’ as well. Just not to the same degree that normal space did, since it was much less affected by the mass shadow of a stellar body.

As each layer of space ‘bent’ at a different angle, a ship in hyperspace heading into a gravity well would experience increasing turbulence from the distortions in the other dimenion. You could even, somewhat literally, ‘run’ into the real/hyperspace barrier. While traveling at relative speeds several thousand times the speed of light was no problem in hyperspace, in realspace it was quite a large one. Ships that emerged in this abrupt manner had no chance to decelerate by translating upstream and were still moving at a velocity physically impossible in normal space.

There was no single word adequate to describe what happened to any vessel that suffered that kind of fate; the eggheads called it a “tachyonic disassociation event” which was a lot of syllables to say nothing. Laymen only knew that it was very violent and very ugly. No one unlucky enough to experience such a event had ever survived.

“Beginning deceleration now,” Helm called out and Sadr took a deep breath.

It wasn’t an actual deceleration, either. Hyperspace was divided into multiple energy states – layers, each one exponentially deeper and more powerful than the one that had preceded it. The further you descended through them – ‘downstream’ – the higher your relative speed. Alpha, the layer closest to realspace was more or less lightspeed. Closest to the Alpha layer, Beta spanned just above c, with a ship’s speed increasing to 10 times the speed of light at Beta’s deepest point, just above the Gamma layer. Gamma allowed a ship to move from just over ten to a hundred times c and so forth. Delta was, of course one hundred to a thousand times the speed of time. Currently, no ship – no Concord ship – could survive translating into the Epsilon layer, unless they were in a hyperspace corridor. League vessels could pull higher speeds, but even they dared not submerge too deeply into Epsilon.

As a ship neared a gravity well, it ascended upstream from its position in hyperspace, dumping FTL velocity as it did so until it entered normal space with the same momentum that it had left it.

Should a vessel’s hyper field collapse at any point in its travels, it would not be destroyed outright, but it would lose all ability to navigate, running a very real risk of being dragged into the deeper layers of hyperspace and then being destroyed by the tidal forces.

Racking Roll shuddered like a horse, thousands of tons of starship fighting the cataclysmic tides of energy around it as it pulled itself upstream, the hyper field generators deep within the cargo ship’s hull protesting. “Crossing into Beta,” Helm announced as with a final shudder, the forces pulling at the freighter grew weaker.

Moments and then minutes passed. “Crossing into Alpha. Emergence in five… four… three… two… one…”

With a flash of light and burst of radiation, Racking Roll appeared amongst the stars.

~

The Commanders of the Strike Fleet element were not altogether pleased; they would have liked to at least scout the Enemy Base before launching an attack upon it. They had no idea of the forces currently there, their location in-system, state of readiness, amount of non-military shipping or how best to deploy as a result.

However, they did understand the need for urgency, but haste would do them very little good if the Enemy were able to escape and warn their own Command Structure. Well. There was nothing to be done for it. In less than a day, they would be upon the Enemy once more, hopefully before they were prepared. Still, even if they were, they didn’t have anything that could slow down, much less defeat, the Strike Fleet element.

~

Hernandez slapped the report down onto his desk. He couldn’t think of a curse appropriate enough for the situation. The only question now, was what was he going to do about it? The first and most simplest was already being done: a courier was being prepped right now to take copies of Racking Roll’s sensor logs and crew testimonies to Hyperion Hive. Not that that was going to be much good; the freighter had been landed on Tebri and powered down when the attack came. Consequently it hadn’t picked up anything of the enemy’s approach, only the governor’s order to evacuate. What it had gotten on its way out of the system wasn’t much better; it was impossible to tell who had been shooting at them. There was no way of knowing what had happened to the planet, but given that the other vessels had been destroyed and Koln had relayed Narwhale’s Code Black to Racking Roll only seconds before its own, things did not look good.

As if reading his mind, Captain O’Neill spoke up. “We need to confirm Tebri’s destruction.”

“I know. Put out a general recall order for all ships under our command.”

Leonard blinked. “We’re bringing them back here?”

“That’s right. We don’t know who did this or why they did it,” but his money was on the League; the Empties had been making noises for the last decade about ‘unfair Concordat tariffs and inequity of trade’. Of course, things were supposed to be quiet, but the last time someone had thought that about the Empties, they’d ended up staring down Third Fleet’s broadsides.

Besides, when you got right down to it, who else was out here? “We’re only 8 light-years from Tebrinnin,” the admiral noted. “If this is a prelude to a full-scale assault, they’ll have to punch us out first before moving on to any of the other worlds in the sector. Bring the fleet and Orbital Command to combat standby; recall all shore parties. Inform Mahan that I’ll be transferring my flag to them within the day.”

Before his chief of staff could confirm those orders, the rear admiral’s comm began blinking urgently. “Sir,” a young, strained voice began. “This is Lieutenant Ergin from Tracking; we’ve just picked up an incoming hyper wake. A big one, sir. It’ll be here within five hours.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant. Keep an eye on it and inform me the instant anything changes.” Hernandez silenced the channel, then looked up at O’Neill. The man’s thin face had turned pallid and drawn. “I think,” the rear admiral said. “That I will be joining Alfred Mahan within the hour.”

“Yes, sir.”

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