August, 4233: Inequity of Forces
August 2nd, 4233
United Terran Concord
Hyperion Prime Command Base
“Sir, reporting for duty.” Commodore Natalya Archer saluted crisply.
Admiral Hawthorne Foraker returned the gesture. “Glad you could make it on such short notice, Nat.”
“Thank you, sir. Intolerance and the 181st are at your disposal.”
The admiral nodded, gesturing for the commodore to have a seat. “I expected no less.” She was a tall woman, with the mocha skin of an Inner Worlder. Like him, she had been born on Earth, but unlike his own heritage, growing up as a scrawny little EuroCon boy living on the edges of the massive London City Arcology, it was doubtful that Archer’s blood could have come any bluer. She belonged to one of the Old Families of Earth, bloodlines with as much power and wealth as some inhabited systems. Scientific. Political. Military. The Archer line was one of the latter, with a tradition of military service that went back over two thousand years. Off and on, of course.
Natalya was the Archer name’s latest offering to the service. Her parents had tried to encourage her to break with tradition, but the commodore had followed the example of her grandfather Adrian ‘Sawbones’ Archer and enlisted in the Navy.
The young woman – at thirty-eight, in a population that could expect to live up to three centuries, she certainly was young – gazed back at him levelly, waiting for her superior to speak. Some days Foraker felt every one of his two hundred and eleven years and, as he met her stare, Foraker knew that this was one of them. Archer’s eyes were a deep blue-green; a genetic quirk rather than an engineered trait that she shared with her grandfather. Choosing to spend his final years attempting to pound doctrine and strategy into the mushy heads of cadets at the Concordat Naval Academy in Moscow, the elder Archer had taken a struggling young Londonite midshipman named Hawthorne Foraker under his wing. Two centuries later, Admiral Foraker had met Sawbones’ grand-daughter and had been pleased to discover that she was a chip off the old man’s block.
Foraker restrained a rueful smile. But not quite cut from the same cloth. No spoiled socialite, this one. Any thoughts that he’d harboured about Sawbones’ grand-daughter being a dilettante playing dress-up had vanished when he’d read the after-action reports of the battle that destroyed her first command, the light cruiser Pegasus. Following that incident, she’d been recommended for a promotion. She’d never asked for it, but her family’s connections had accelerated that process – now she commended the UTCNS Intolerance and the 181st, eight of Earth’s finest captains and battlecruisers.
Her family’s name might have gotten her a battlecruiser squadron, but it was her own skill that allowed her to keep it. Foraker shook off his woolgathering, returning to the task at hand. “Have you heard anything about what’s happening further into the Reaches?”
Natalya frowned, the gesture causing an ever-impudent lock of deep red hair to slip out from under her beret. “I’ve heard rumours about losing contact with several star systems, but nothing outside of your original missive, sir.”
Her patron nodded. “Ah. It’s a bit more complex than that, actually.” He nodded towards an aide. “Play the Resolute footage, please.”
A sudden brittleness touched Archer’s expression as something cold sunk its way into her gut. Resolute was one of the battlecruisers assigned to TF 93. Timothy Malfinch was her captain; they’d served their midshipman tours together. One of the wall-screens shifted from a 2D display of the space around Hyperion Prime to grainy footage from a battlecruiser’s recon drone. Telemetry scrolled past the right side of the screen in ghostly red letters.
“This clip is from the data Resolute uplinked to her hyper drone before she went Code Black,” Foraker commented, confirming Natalya’s worst fears. Code Black was a warship’s death knell, a failsafe transmission that indicated its complete destruction. “Included in the data recovered were the Code Blacks of the entirety of the forces available to Rear Admiral Hernandez at Unicorn Set.”
Natalya watched the dry, clinical information shift over the data screen, data maps and plotting charts flickering to life as Resolute’s final message displayed every erg of information that Tim had sent to the hyper drone. It shouldn’t be like this, the young woman thought with a sense of sickness as she watched friends and comrades die in an impossible hail of fire. It was too neat, too precise. Numbers and charts, ignorant of the men and women that had died. How they had died. Her fingers tightened on the arms of her chair, but she didn’t look away. Tim.
When it was over, the admiral allowed her a moment to blink back her grief. “Who…” she forced the quaver out of her voice. “Who did it, sir?”
“We don’t know. The League’s ambassadors are swearing up and down that they don’t have anything to do with this and we’re inclined to believe them. Relations might still be a bit touchy at the moment, but they’re nowhere near the level that the Empties might pull something like this.” He nodded over at his aide and the screen that had played the last moments of Resolute and her comrades now switched to a map of the Abyssal sector; seven solar systems, including Tebrinnin and Unicorn Set, glowed an ugly red. “What we do know is that we’ve lost all contact with each of those systems and every planetary and orbital site within them. A few military and civilian assets managed to escape from Unicorn Set and the other worlds, but they’ve reported widescale destruction and orbital strikes on planetary targets. Whoever these bastards are and whatever game they’re playing, they’re playing it for keeps.”
Natalya was in her office on Intolerance, flitting through the dossiers OMI had made available to her. Not much was known about the invaders, except that they were ruthless fucking bastards; the scouts that had managed to get into Unicorn Set reported that the planet’s cities were completely gone. The few reports that had made it out of the conquered systems were contradictory at best, leaving vast gaps in the Concord’s intelligence.
Even worse was the situation in Tebrinnin: so far, no scout had returned from that system, which meant that the enemy had to be there in force.
Beachhead, Natalya thought. They came down the Orion-Perseus corridor and ran right over Tebrinnin. But if they’d done that, then why didn’t the Empties know about them? Why didn’t they warn us? Were they hitting the League at the same time? Or had they come up on Tebri from another vector?
Natalya slumped forward in her chair, clutching her temples and sinking her fingers into her blood-red hair. No response to any communication had been returned, whether it was a hail, a demand to halt or an entreaty offering surrender. Attached to the information was supposition from the on-site BXA team supposing that these… aliens might not even recognize the humans’ efforts to communicate as such, but without further evidence there was nothing but guesses. The commodore flipped through the pages of comments about ‘immune systems’ and ‘Type III entities’, before tossing the entire dossier off her desk in disgust.
She stood and paced; a bad habit for a starship commander to have. She managed to keep from fidgeting in front of the crew, but she had never been able to suppress it in the privacy of her own office or quarters. Tim had been the first to tag her with the nickname ‘Twitchy’, a moniker that had stuck with her through their entire middie cruise. The height of her humiliation had occurred when a distracted lieutenant had accidentally referred to her as ‘Midshipwoman Twitchy’… although it was possible that Lieutenant Andover had been slightly more embarrassed than she.
She smiled, picking up a photograph of her and the five other middies that had sailed on the Incontrovertible. Tim had been their… ringleader, if you could call him that, and referred to them all as the ‘Sinister Six’, but the NCOs had preferred a less-flattering variation of it; the Snotty Six. He’d pissed her off so many times during that voyage, but by the time Incontrovertible had returned to Earth, they’d been nearly inseparable.
Natalya touched a finger to Tim’s frozen, smiling face. Yes, he’d been an annoying little prig and at times she’d wanted to stuff him down a garbage chute… but he’d never been like that out of malice. Never tried to cozy up to her on account of her family, never rubbed her grandfather’s reputation in her face, expecting her to live up to it. He’d just been himself. And though the occasional impulse to fold him into a cupboard had remained, she’d found herself actually enjoying the annoying little prig’s company.
And now he was dead, murdered by some… some things that looked like God only knew what, that had gone on a rampage, killing her friends. The hate bubbled up inside her, echoes of another place and time, when she’d given vent to a feeling not unlike this.
Open the gun ports. Lock target.
Captain, they’re attempting to withdraw-
She didn’t care what the xenologists said, all this equivocation and theories, as if they were trying to make excuses for those bastards. Those monsters had to pay. All of them.
Her hands shook and, carefully, she set the framed photograph back down on the shelf.
The Strike Fleet element had been restored to its former strength. Reinforced, actually. Onslaught Fleet had finally arrived, as had Aggressor Fleet and many, many more ships of Strike Fleet. Industrial Fleet had not been lazy and the space around the first captured Enemy world bristled with a half-dozen fortresses. More were being built, even now.
Currently, there was some debate as to what to do with the four populated worlds under their control. Some in the Command Structure recommended cleansing them and simply being done with them, but others eschewed that option as unnecessarily brutal. It was, of course, pointed out to those dissenters what this war was about, but their resolve did not waver. Still, those planets boasted a great deal of untapped resources and harvesting them would expose those under their protection to the Enemy upon the worlds.
It was an issue, to be sure. Well. There was no need to wantonly slaughter the trapped Enemy until they posed a problem. Not yet, anyways.
The Strike Fleet element dipped their angled bows away from their larger kin and headed towards the shift threshold. They had been assigned a new mission. Another Enemy world lay nearby. Two vessels of Scouting Fleet were already there. It was defenceless. They were to secure it.
Captain James Prevarian saluted as he stepped into Commodore Archer’s office. Natalya was one of the youngest officers to hold her rank; her family’s connections back on Earth had had a lot to do with that, but there were few officers who wouldn’t say that she shouldn’t have had that extra gold pip on her shoulder anyways. Not once the after-action report from UTCNS Pegasus had made its rounds.
Prevarian remained at attention for a moment; Natalya seemed not to have noticed his entrance. “You wanted to see me, Commodore?”
She looked up, startled by his presence. There was a redness around her eyes; Prevarian understood that she’d been close to Resolute’s CO. “Yes, thank you for coming, James. Please, have a seat.”
The captain nodded, sitting down in the offered chair. Natalya leaned forward over her desk, her hands clasped. “What have you heard?”
“There’s a lot of rumours running through the hive, commodore.”
“Lot of the civilians are terrified. The rumours say that these… these ‘Lefu’ that the BXA’s been yapping about for years are real. Others say it’s the League with another Third Fleet.”
“It’s not.” Her right leg was twitching. She wanted to stand and pace.
“I was afraid you were going to say that.”
Natalya handed Prevarian the datascroll that she’d been reading. “Take a look for yourself.”
The captain quickly skimmed it. His jaw clenched slightly. “I think I’d prefer the Empties, ma’am. But… there’s not much here, is there?”
“No. These bas- the Lefu don’t seem to leave many witnesses behind and they’re very good at catching our scouts. It doesn’t leave a lot of room for intelligence. What we do have, what Admiral Foraker’s team has passed on to me is that their technology outstrips our own by a significant margin. By how much, we don’t know. How many ships they have, we don’t know. What their plan of attack is, we don’t know.”
“I’m fairly certain I don’t like where this is headed, ma’am.”
Natalya smiled weakly. “Good instincts.”
“This, ladies and gentlemen, is Prior. The single habitable world in the Priorii system, just over thirteen light-years away. It’s got a population of seventeen million and a burgeoning economy based mostly in manufacturing; their biggest trading partner is the Empties. They also operate a civilian shipyard and outfitting complex; it’s one of the most common stops for League ships after clearing customs at Tebrinnin and the largest population in that corner of the galaxy. The local defence force is a militia; the Prior government has always tried to keep our noses out of the system. Ostensibly to make the Empties feel safer, but more likely because Prior has a healthy black market and they don’t need us tramping all over them spouting silly little claims like ‘racketeering’, ‘smuggling’ and ‘piracy’. Until now, we’ve been prepared to let things slide, if only to keep the League happy. However, that’s coming back to bite us and them in the ass.
“According to the analyses done by OMI, the Lefu will hit it within days. I know the experts are cautioning us not to ascribe human motivations and goals to an alien species, but from the data OMI has been able to piece together, their attack pattern has been consistent. First Tebrinnin, to cut us off from the League; then Unicorn to knock out the largest military forces in the region. The other systems they’ve taken have been in order of proximity and value. This isn’t random flailing; they know enough to make informed choices on which planets to sack next.
“Because of that, Prior is the next logical choice.
“We’ll be going in with two waves; Donald, Kate, Frida, Li – you’ll be Blue Team. Your objective is to provide cover for the planetary evacuation. Straight in and making a fighting retreat to the hyper limit. Abby, Fajr, Bill – you’ll stay with Intolerance; we’re Red Team. We’ll hold position in hyperspace as a mousetrap. If the enemy come in with a light attack, we’ll drop in behind them, catch them between the planet’s batteries and ours. If they’re in force, we’ll be a reserve to cover Blue Team’s withdrawal.
Li Fung, Implacable’s captain, raised his hand. “Reinforcements?”
Natalya paused, feeling something distasteful in her mouth. “Admiral Foraker is pulling in every ship under his disposal and dragging more than a few out of mothballs, but we’re the fastest, strongest unit in the region for the next two months. We’re taking two squadrons of escorts – they’ll be in Blue Team under you, Henry – and the Willam Wallace, which will be going with Red Team. Hawthorne’s also managed to pry loose half a dozen cruisers for us; they’ll be split between the teams. I know it’s not a lot, but it’s all we’ve got. Our objective is not to stop these bastards dead in their tracks, but if we give them a bloody nose, they may slow down – and that will buy us the time we need to mobilize.
“I know this isn’t ideal; we’re going in blind, but as much as we need to protect Prior and the people on it, we need to know what we’re facing. This might be the only chance we get before they come calling here. Full tactical downloads will be waiting for you back aboard your ships. Unless there are any questions – dismissed.”
A report from a Scouting Vessel had arrived; the target system’s defences were higher than anticipated. That could be a problem.
Fortunately, Command had a solution.
In the blackness surrounding what had once been Tebrinnin, a pair of monoliths shifted position, their drives flaring bright and angry as they moved out of position, running lights and a distant star’s gleam catching every jagged barb, every smooth flow to their forms. Row upon row of sealed weapon bays shone briefly before they were cast into shadow.
Onslaught Fleet had decided to join this expedition.