August 6th, 4233
Hyperspace – closing on Priorii
Hyperion Sector, Outer Reaches
United Terran Concord
The 181st Battlecruiser Squadron and their escorting vessels – designated TF 111 – rode the hyperspace waves towards Priorii: twenty five ships. Thirty-one had faced seven enemy battleships and their cruiser escorts in Unicorn Set and died for it. If the Lefu came to Priorii in force, Commodore Archer’s command would be swept aside.
Natalya read through the reports for the thousandth time, trying to glean something – anything – new from them, but there was nothing. Just vague sensor readings, dozens of Code Blacks and the contradictory accounts of the few civilians that had managed to get out in time. As ever, she only skimmed the theory section of the text. She didn’t care why the Lefu were doing what they were doing. Their actions spoke quite loud enough, thank you. She leaned forward covering her eyes for a moment. Once again, that same annoying lock of hair slipped forward into her eyes. She was almost grateful for that little irritation; it was some semblance of normality.
It was hard to concentrate on personnel evaluations, department status reports and the minutiae of running a ship when they were two days from a conflict with the Lefu. The last scout from Priorii had indicated that the system was still in Concordat hands, with no incoming hyper wakes. But given how fast the fuckers were in hyperspace, the 181st – No, TF 111, she corrected herself – might find itself jumping into a war zone. Against an enemy of uncertain numbers, alien thought processes and superior technology. Whee.
Each of her battlecruisers had a complement of nearly 15,000; with the escorts, cruisers and the Wallace included, there were almost two hundred thousand people under her command.
Prior had a population of seventeen million. It was the cold equations of space; this many lives in exchange for that many. Colder than anyone knew, though.
She stood and paced, trying to take her mind off the situation, to think of something that would make the last orders she’d received from Admiral Foraker seem easier to accept. He was right, though. The fleet needed, desperately needed, solid information on the Lefu’s capabilities. More than that, they needed to buy time. Time for warships to be reactivated, for the massive tonnage of Reserve Fleet to be upgraded and crewed, time for the Concord’s industry to grind up towards war production.
Time that they wouldn’t have if the Lefu rolled over her squadron at Priorii.
Foraker had made it clear that that was worth a thousand Resolutes… and a hundred Priors. If the situation in Priorii was untenable, if the Lefu were going to achieve victory no matter what, then she was ordered to cut her losses and abandon the planet to them. It was hard to accept; she had sworn an oath as an officer to protect the people of the Concord. All of them, not just those that it was expedient to save. To leave them behind for alien butchers…
She didn’t want to think about this.
The document on her desk seemed so innocuous. Not like a death sentence for millions of people. Not at all.
The Strike Fleet element’s progress through brightspace was hampered by the presence of the Onslaught Fleet element; those vast predatory leviathans were designed to mangle, maul and shred Enemy Fleets. Speed had not been terribly high on the list of vital characteristics in their design, especially not with the restrictions Command had placed on the demonstration of their capabilities.
Analysis did indicate that even at these speeds, Onslaught Fleet would have a significant speed (in both brightspace and darkspace) advantage over comparative Enemy units, but the Commanders of the Strike and Scouting Fleet elements escorting their heavier ship-kin still wished for a bit more speed.It was the way of things; once the Enemy forces were engaged, it would be Onslaught’s firepower that crushed them, not Strike and Scouting Fleets’ speed.
Still. One did wish.
Of course, nothing smaller than an Onslaught Vessel really wanted to catch one of its counterparts in the first space, so it all worked out.
Besides, it wasn’t as if their intended target could escape, now was it?
UTCNS William Wallace
Some people said that space was calm, tranquil. There was nothing there but vast, eternal emptiness, nothing happened in a flash, nothing was ever hurried; even the most catastrophic of events took millions of years to come to pass. The universe had its own timetable which no mortal could hope to see more than the tiniest sliver of; the rest was silence. Perfect, peaceful silence.
Which, as far as Ensign Rebecca Eloi was concerned, was a crock of shit.
“Red squadron, Blue squadron – disperse. You’re too tightly packed.”
“Incoming, eleven o’clock high!”
“Got one on me!”
“Break away! Break away now, goddamnit!”
“Green’s taking heavy losses.”
“I’m hit I’m hit I’m-”
“Mow through, mow through!”
Gold Four, known as Glaive to its four-man (and one woman) crew, was a member of the 211th, the HAVOC carrier squadron assigned to the Willam Wallace and was in the thick of it now. Traditionally, each BCV had 10 squadrons of 16 HAVOCs, two of which were the CHAVOC and its deputy, each flying an 80-ship wing. This meant that a HAVOC strike force could divide its attention to some degree without losing vital command and control functions. Currently, the 211th was putting that theory to the test.
“God damn your motherfucking hide!” Randy Clarkson swore from Rebecca’s left. The gunnery officer’s vocabulary grew progressively more foul based on the length and difficultly of any given mission, a trait that had kept him at his current rank and position. Glaive’s skipper, Lieutenant Albert Waters, had long since given up hope of trying to keep Clarkson’s chatter to a minimum. “Die, you stupid bastard! Die!”
The Lefu cruiser refused to comply and merely rolled to interpose a fresh shield wall between it and the members of Second Wing that were attempting to distract it and its fellows while First Wing engaged the battleships behind the cruiser screen. By The Book, the fighters had no business whatsoever wading into that kind of fire, but Unicorn Set had shown that the Lefu had a vulnerability to small craft, and if the HAVOCs could tie up the aliens’ launchers while the rest of the task force closed… that was filed under ‘acceptable losses’.
In quick succession, five fighters from Second Wing blew apart as the cruiser’s turrets swept through the squadron diving onto it. Six of the alien’s companions were dispersing clouds of gas and burning bulks, but there were eight more.
“Beginning attack run on BBs now,” Blue Leader reported. “Heavy fire coming from lead vess-” A burst of static flared over the comm lines and that was that; Blue Leader was down.
“This is Red Leader; I’m in command now. Point defence fire from Lefu battleships is intensifying. We’re having trouble breaking through. No joy on missiles; they’re spoofing them. Closing to energy range.”
“Negative, negative Red Leader. You can’t absorb that kind of damage. Swing wide and go up their skirts.”
“It’s… chance… switch… jam… …creasing… …eries… ting through… God!”
“Red Leader, report. Red Leader, report. Dix, you there?”
“…is Red Two… …eader took… head-on… …gines hit… no joy… …tell Kimmy I love her….”
Rebecca shook her head. Jamie, you overdramatic fuck. A warning klaxon rang through Glaive’s command deck as a targeting sensor fell on them. The ensign threw the HAVOC into a spinning dive trying to pull out of the enemy’s lock as Albert popped a decoy. No luck on either.
“Incoming, incoming! It’s a ship-killer!” Lieutenant Waters called. “Bekah-”
“I’m on it.” Glaive shuddered and thrashed like bronco as it wove through the internecion around it; Albert at the EW position was trying to spoof the enemy missile’s lock on them; Richard was trying to shoot it down; her job was to make sure that monster didn’t get close enough to Glaive. However, when one dealt with a compressed stream of superheated plasma rather than a comparatively short-ranged explosion, ‘close’ became a relative term, measured in hundreds and even thousands of kilometers.
“Normally I really appreciate your flying, but you think you could hold steady for two seconds, so one of our PD turrets can get a clean shot?” Richard snapped.
“Let me think about it… no.” Rebecca quipped, one eye on the range tracker on her board as it wound down with alarming speed, the enemy warhead drawing nearer. Shit! It’s too-
Imperatives within the missile’s suicidal little AI brain activated and it detonated, funneling gigatons of destructive energy directly upon Glaive, wiping it from the universe.
“I’ve seen better flying the time my neighbour’s idiot dog jumped into an idling skimmer and hit the gas,” Wing-Captain Abigail Drake informed her HAVOC commanders, their pilots and crew assembled in William Wallace’s briefing theater. Born on the light-gravity world of Aerie, the wing captain was a tall, thin woman whose well-defined musculature was the result of decades spent in Earth-normal gravity.
“Unlike most of you, Duke survived his experience,” Drake continued. Anyone who clung to the idea of light-gravity-worlders being ‘frail’ or ‘weak’ would have those notions disabused in short order by any amount of time in the wing captain’s presence. “I’m still puzzled by the fact that a German shepherd was able to outperform an entire carrier squadron, but maybe I shouldn’t be. God knows that most of you can probably trace your ancestry back to the caveman that refused to believe that rocks were not, in fact, a form of food.
“What today’s simulation showed, aside from the fact that Captain Hoover would enjoy more success out of the 211th by sticking chimpanzees in the cockpits and letting them play with the pretty buttons, is that you cannot treat Lefu ships like Empty rustbuckets. We’ve got less than two days before we reach Priorii, people. So far I continue to cling to the vain hope that you’re going to impress me. Wing Commander Shawnesy tells me it’s really gross when I chug antacids straight from the bottle. These facts are not unrelated. Now, as for today’s simulation….”
Rebecca slunk a little lower in her chair. Drake was a hardass, but once you got past her ‘you’re all scum unworthy to fly in my beloved Fighter Corps’, she was something of a mother hen. God help the fools who let that slip around her, though.
As Drake’s ire indicated, the sim had been a wash; the enemy BBs had cut through First Wing too quickly, then started salvo-firing on the capital ships in the HAVOCs’ wake. Second Wing had managed to knock out part of the cruiser screen, but the HAVOCs had taken too many losses to mount an effective sally against the Lefu battleships and they’d been swatted offhandedly before the rest of TF 111 ever got to grips with the enemy ships.
If the battle had been real, Concordat losses would have been… extreme. It was the 211th’s job to put a hole in the enemy’s screen and let the battlecruisers fire through to the Lefu’s thumpers. Which, as the wing captain was pointing out, was something that they’d failed spectacularly at.
Eloi chewed on her lower lip, trying to think of anything she could have done differently, but right now she was coming up up empty.
Captain Donald LeFay sat in his office, looking out the window at the view of hyperspace around him. It wasn’t a real view, but then it wasn’t a real window either. His office was just off the Venerator-class battlecruiser’s command deck, which was itself buried deep inside the two-kilometer long vessel, buried beneath layers of bulkheads and armour plating.
Concordat ships were not lovely to look upon; they were boxy, utilitarian affairs, threatening by virtue of their unapologetic inelegance. Elongated broadswords, with a swollen engine cluster at their rear, flanks lined with missile tubes and energy batteries, spines dotted with heavy weapons turrets and armoured swellings of their ungainly hulls. The exact styles differed slightly from shipyard to shipyard. The most egregious examples of which were Sol and Cenaturi: the vessels built at the Solar Concordat Yards tended to have more rounded prows and elongated bodies, while the Centauri Deep Space Conglomerate’s designs were flatter and wider – more wedge-shaped. Given that Centauri had originally been colonized by a sublight expedition and separated from Earth for a few centuries by a decades-long journey, it was no mystery why they had developed their own unique designs.
Any yard could produce another’s ships, but they all had their specialties, their own personal quirks.
He wondered if that’s all this was; a personal quirk, two different yards. It seemed unlikely. He looked over what few images had been taken of Lefu warships. Pausing at one, his thoughts mirrored those of the late Captain al-Imad though he did not know it. She’s a predator. The image had had to be computer enhanced; even magnified, there was nothing for the human eye to latch onto otherwise: simply blackness against the blackness.
Her turrets were sleek, paradoxically still retaining a bulky, blocky tone; the entire ship was like that, from its bifurcated viper’s head of a prow to the armoured engine core at its stern. Smooth curves and sharp angles that somehow complemented each other. Not like he was used to, not like them at all.
LeFay had always felt vaguely treasonous about this whole affair. Even thirty years and thousands of light-years distance had not been enough to quell that constant little sense of unease whenever something like this came up. Like Commodore Archer, there were orders sitting on his desk. Unlike hers, these were unknown to anyone but himself, personally passed to him from one of Foraker’s aides. The admiral himself knew of course; he was LeFay’s direct contact to the rest of the network and if anyone had thought it odd that a mere captain saw a senior admiral of the fleet as often LeFay did, Foraker’s well-known predilection for his hands-on style of command and his habit of mentoring his subordinates eased that worry.
He felt vaguely sick contemplating the instructions on the formerly sealed orders. There was an authorization code instead of a single officer’s ID. A perfectly valid, if a little unorthodox – and anonymous – way of sending orders. It was a familiar code, but not one that he could personally identify with any single officer – unless you already knew what that sequence meant, there was simply no way to link to any person or agency. It was safer that way.
Like Natalya aboard her own ship, Donald was left in silence to contemplate the cold equations and an order that he really, truly did not want to give.