Children of Heaven, Chapter 7

Chapter 7:

August 9th, 4233
Priorii
Twilight Sector, Outer Reaches
United Terran Concord

Concordat House, Prior

“Thank God you’re here,” Councilman Hikaru Takatoa repeated as he hurried along besides Captain Li Fung. Like many of the Priorii, Takatoa was rather short. A common virus on Priorii was the Earth-type Intestinal Flora Virus; EIFV loved to infect the bacteria in mammalian guts, leading to inefficient nutrient absorption, constipation, increased appetite and malnutrition. Several decades ago, the bacteriophage had recombinated into a far more virulent strain and swept through the population. Over a period of several months, the virus wiped out all the native bacteria in an infected host’s intestinal tracts, eventually rendering them unable to break down food. No matter how much they ate, they starved to death. Before an effective countermeasure could be disseminated, all of the imported livestock and over a third of the population had died. As a result, the children that survived such prolonged malnourishment had grown into adults of unimpressive stature.

In comparison, Li had been born on New Beijing, the largest Eridani Orbital and stood over two feet taller then Takatoa. Though the captain tried to temper his strides, his civilian overseer still needed to take two steps for every one of Li’s, scurrying after the naval officer, his face flushed from exertion.

“I doubt that God had anything to do with it,” Li replied diplomatically. His preference was for atheism, but there was no need to rub Takatoa’s face in it, whether he was devout or simply making a figure of speech.

“Yes, of course. It’s just that we’re very pleased to know that the Concord hasn’t forgotten about us. Our defence forces have been on standby ever since the first refugees arrived.”

“Hmm. Yes.” Priorii’s mobile defences came to three dozen escorts of various classes, ages and states of repair, five cruisers and the obsolete battleship Omaha Beach which functioned as a command ship. More than enough to handle any smugglers and even the largest raiding clans that parasitized Hyperion Sector. Priorii’s stationary forces consisted of 4 OWPs of dubious age and a single armed space station, though the latter was a strictly civilian affair. It wasn’t a lot to work with, but it was better than nothing.

And, there was the Liberty.

Li had not been exceptionally pleased to see a League battleship here, even if it was a training vessel. Part of an exchange program the League and the Concord had hammered out, agreeing to two-year training cruises for young cadets through each others’ territory. It was intended to give future officers a chance to familiarize themselves with their onetime foes, to put a face to the names of ‘Empty’ and ‘Con’ and promote understanding. Li’s opinion was that the Empties had no business traipsing through Concordat space like they owned it. A small, petty part of him had hoped that the Lefu had caught Liberty and destroyed it before it could reach Priorii. That was subordinate to the part of him that was grateful for it and its many CASK launchers.

Empty ships were, class for class and pound for pound, faster and more maneuverable both in hyperspace and sublight than Concord vessels, but they traded durability and firepower for this advantage. Still, a battleship was a battleship. Even it was an Empty one.

Fung reached the governor’s office at last, nodding in greeting to Governor Liam O’Conner. Like Takatoa, O’Conner was a small man. Standing to his left and likewise towering over the native politicians was Senior Captain Jacob Goldstein, dressed in the immaculate gold-trimmed white uniform of the League of Independent Systems. The epaulets on his shoulder bespoke his planet of origin: Palshife. One of the driving forces behind the creation of the League, Palshife had offered the Empty Worlds a lot more than promises. With the vast shipyards hidden under its endless seas, Palshife had been largely responsible for the creation of Third Fleet and today remained the hub of the League’s military and governmental bodies.

Goldstein nodded respectfully towards his Concordat counterpart, although neither man offered his hand to the other. Their meeting yesterday had been diplomatic; that was about all you could say for it. “Captain.”

“Captain.”

O’Conner gestured towards the leather chairs set out before his desk. “Please, Captain Fung, Senior Captain Goldstein; seat yourselves. You too, Hikaru.”

“Thank you, governor,” Fung replied, crossing his legs. The chairs were, of course, scaled to the height of the planet’s inhabitants and he was prone to cramping. Hopefully this meeting wouldn’t take too long. “You’re aware of the situation?”

“Yes, your second in command forwarded the information to us, only moments before our Space Command passed the word to Mr. Takatoa. A hyper wake.”

“Yes, sir. As near as we can figure it’s coming in from Tebrinnin, which doesn’t leave us with a lot of questions about who it could be. They’ll be here within twelve hours.”

“Isn’t that speed drastically slower than what these – Lefu, is it? – have demonstrated so far?” Goldstein queried.

Li did not – quite – grind his teeth. “Yes, Senior Captain. That’s what worries me. Their battleships have been observed pulling speeds up to 2000 c in hyperspace. That they’re this slow means that something large is coming with them, something that can’t match that kind of velocity in hyperspace.”

“I wonder,” Takatoa mused. “I wonder if that is the case.” He looked over at the two military mens’ confused expressions. “I am not dismissing your theories, but our ships are often capable of moving faster in hyperspace than is good for them.”

“That’s correct, sir. Tinkering with a vessel’s hyper field can allow a vessel to move deeper into a stream than it normally would be able to, but at the cost of excessive wear and tear on its systems. I would note that there is a very real risk of blowing out one’s hyper field generators doing precisely that, even with the smallest adjustments.”

“Precisely. And these Lefu attacked in a blitzkrieg; perhaps they were willing to accept some systems degradation in order to secure a beachhead as quickly as possible.”

Liberty’s intel officers have speculated something similar,” Goldstein offered.

“As have ours,” Li replied tersely. “As have the Admiralty’s. It is a possibility, but given the capabilities that the invaders have shown already, it’s one that neither I nor Commodore Archer are prepared to entertain. If this is indeed a lighter force traveling at a slower speed, we will be as pleased about it as anyone else. However, we are operating under the assumption that this is not a probe, but a full-on attack incorporating heavy capital ships. Given that we’ve already seen their battleships, that means dreadnoughts or something heavier.”

“God help us,” O’Conner murmured at the thought of something bigger than a dreadnought.

“Unlikely. The evacuation is proceeding as planned?”

“Yes, yes. We’ve commandeered all private vessels for the duration of the crisis. The next convoy will be ready in two hours and the next, three hours after that.”

“I suggest you do whatever is necessary to speed things along, governor. Time is a factor here.”

“We’re doing everything humanly possible, but things would be much faster if we had additional help.”

“Commodore Archer has made it clear to me, and I have made it clear to you already that that is impossible. If the enemy are coming here in force, then it is very likely that one or more of their scouts has already infiltrated this system. If the commodore dispatches more ships to Prior, those scouts will know about our additional forces and that, sir, is what we are trying desperately to avoid.”

“If they know that the forces defending this system are higher then they anticipated, they may break off their attack,” Takatoa pointed out. He was not wrong, but neither was he completely correct.

“They may. They may decide to blockade the system instead until their reinforcements arrive, possibly before ours. They may opt to sit out at the edge of Priorii and hurl chunks of rock and ice at the planet instead, forcing us to expend our ammunition and divert our forces. In fact, they may press their attack all the harder – at Unicorn Set, they accepted their losses for the oppurtunity to crush Rear Admiral Hernandez’s forces. There are many things that could happen, Councilor. I only know my orders and that I am expected to carry them out. I know that the Lefu are coming and that we will be ready for them.”

~

Darkspace emergence would occur in less than three hours. They would hold in brightspace for a last-minute update from one of their scouts, in case the situation in the target system had changed. If additional vessels were required, they would dispatch a courier to Fleet Command, whilst the ships they had would attempt to whittle down the Enemy forces. If the system was as they believed it to be, they would continue the advance. But not without some insurance. Scouting Fleet had reported a major Enemy Base less than fourteen light-years from this one. It was not inconceivable that some of them had rallied to this world’s defence.

In vain.

~

Natalya rested her chin on the backs of her hands and stared at the main viewscreen; the entire forward half of Intolerance’s command deck was taken up by majestic windows, fed by sensor data. They could be used for communication, displaying various data of value, play real-time images of the current view around the battlecruiser or simply call up archive footage for a screen saver. There was also a holo tank on the upper level, just behind the captain’s chair, capable of forming a meters-wide 3D image from the galactic plane down to close-ups of Intolerance’s schematics.

There wasn’t much to see out of either of those systems, not in hyperspace. The last courier from Implacable had popped in thirty minutes ago with an updated ETA on the hostiles’ arrival and sitrep; Valiant and a handful of militia escorts were taking the latest convoy out to the hyper limit; the Priors were rushing to get a final lift off the ground before the enemy’s emergence, but even then they’d have a few hours before the aliens got into firing range.

Despite the occasional courier drop, Natalya was out of communication with Li; she trusted him, but it was frustrating to sit here and not be able to respond. But there was a very good reason for that; while a defender sending reports to his superiors in the chain of command would be expected, if her couriers started popping in-system, any lurking surveillance units wouldn’t need an Enigma Box to figure out what that meant. Her leg wanted to twitch, but she managed to hold herself still.

Come on, she silently urged the Lefu. Come on now; just a little further. I’m waiting for you.

~

The Scouting Vessel prowled the edges of the Enemy system, listening to the trickle of data coming from the recon drones it had seeded throughout the orbitals. It had watched the Enemy fleet’s arrival two days ago, watched them cluster about the target planet and ferry thousands of the groundside Enemy to what they doubtless perceived to be safety.

The Scouting Vessel could have wreaked severe damage on those transports, particularly the last groups where the Enemy had been calling their warships back together. There was no temptation to do so, however. It was not their function and despite however many casualties they could inflict, they would themselves be hunted down and destroyed.

It would not be a military victory so much as pointless butchery, anyways.

Delicate sensor vanes almost seemed to quiver in anticipation as the brightspace wave of the approaching Fleet elements drew closer.

Wait… what was that?

~

“Shit! She made us, skipper.”

“Clever girl. What’s she doing?”

“She’s bugging.”

“Stay on her; this bitch is ours.”

The light cruiser Ghostly Hallows had been running recon sweeps through Prior since the first refugee ships from Hallow had arrived. They’d been on recon duty there, too when the hammer came down and managed to avoid getting hunted down and destroyed by blending in with the refugee ships, swatting a couple of the missiles the Lefu had thrown at the evac transports. As soon as they’d hit Prior, they’d gone doggo, pretending to be another freighter in case something was on their tails.

On the trek in-system, they’d seen something that the other ships in the convoy hadn’t. Of course, Ghostly Hallows had military-grade sensors and recon drones; the civvies had neither. But what they’d seen almost made Captain Harvey Rollins wish they had missed it: the brief flash of a ship jumping into hyperspace. Not a Concordat ship and definitely not one of the civvies; they were all accounted for and no civilian hyper field generator on the market recharged that quickly.

One thing that Rollins had learned, if nothing else, during his years at the Academy was that scout ships always, always always worked in pairs. Between them, they had only a finite number of drones or couriers and if something big went down, you sent one out to inform the higher-ups and kept the other on station as a back-up.

The Lefu were good, Rollins gave them that. Ghostly Hallows had been losing their scouts and picking them up again for over a week and the bastards weren’t even trying to shake them; it was like trying to chase a cat through thick fog. No wonder the BCs that had popped in hadn’t been able to get even a whiff of them while the alien pricks danced in and out through the heavies’ sensor cordons.

Luck was on Rollins’ side, though. Only a few hours ago, one of Ghostly Hallows’s drones had picked up the scent; the spatial distortion caused by a ship’s drive. The scout must have just undergone a course correction and Rollins and his ship had been tracking them ever since.

…at least until his ship had inadvertently slipped between a Lefu drone and its datalink to the scout. There were a thousand innocent things that could have caused that (and that a sufficiently stupid captain would have readily accepted), but the fuckers weren’t being that accomodating. They must have ordered another drone to sweep through the area and that one had seen Ghostly Hallows’ wake.

Which only proved to Rollins that there was a God and His sense of humour left a lot to be desired.

The Lefu scout was bugging out in a big way; with the acceleration she was pulling it was the Devil’s Own just to keep in her wake. It wouldn’t be long before she pulled ahead of what Rollins could manage, even with his drives red-lined.

“Guns.”

“We’ve got tentative missile locks, but she’s jamming the hell right out of us. At this range we’re pretty much swinging blind.”

“Hold fire as long as you can, then. But if she launches…”

“Got it, skip.”

~

Minutes passed in tense silence as Ghostly Hallow attempted to overhaul the Lefu scout, but the enemy ship was declining to participate; it was bigger than the Concordat light cruiser and, in theory, could not accelerate as quickly. In theory; in practice, that thing’s drive was ramming Gs over one another impossibly fast; it had started at a much lower thrust than Rollins and was already moving at a good enough clip to make bringing it into the kill zone difficult, but it hadn’t quite yet managed to break contact.

As he thought about it, Rollins realized that he didn’t like the way it looked – it was accelerating just enough to let his ship slowly make up ground on it, but not enough to give them a decisive firing solution. It could be that the mass of the scout really was working against it in just that manner, a simple coincidence.

He hated those.

Finally, Guns shook her head. “It’s as good as it’s ever going to get, skipper. And she’s coming up fast on the hyper limit.”

Rollins shoved his worry aside; they had to take the scout and before it alerted its bigger brothers. “Fire bow tubes with what you’ve got, then. Make it count.”

Six heavy missiles slashed out from Ghostly Hallows’s prow; at a range of fifteen million kilometers, it would take them two, perhaps three minutes to reach their target. Standard Concordat missiles had an effective range of 25 million klicks. Rollins didn’t bother ordering a second salvo; either they got a kill on their first one, or the bogey made it into hyperspace. He damned himself for waiting too long, but the target lock had been spotty enough that multiple salvos might not have made any difference.

The data was nearly a minute old, but the scout reacted quickly. Of course, by the time it saw Ghostly Hallows firing on them, the missiles were a third of the way there. Bastards must have had someone watching pretty damn close. “She’s dropping decoys; I’m updating our birds’ telemetry, but I don’t know how much good it’ll do… dammit, we just lost one. No, two.”

The missiles were shooting straight up the Lefu’s skirt, where every ship was the most vulnerable; the armour was weakest, the defences were thinnest, and sensors were blinded by its own wake. If they could knock out the engines, they’d trap the scout and take her at leisure. Maybe even intact. That would be a-

“What’s she doing?” Sensors whispered to himself and Rollins jerked his head over to the holo tank. The enemy scout… had stopped accelerating. Just like that.

What was it… “Oh, no fucking way,” he heard someone say, abruptly realizing that it was him. In a matter of seconds, the alien ship had flipped end-for-end, still coasting towards the hyper limit, but now it was pointing its bow straight at Ghostly Hallows. If a Concordat ship had attempted to roll that fast, its crew would be smears on the bulkhead, but the damn Lefu was clearly not put out even the slightest.

That’s cheating, was the only thing that ran through the captain’s mind as the alien completed the impossible maneuver.

“Missile launch! We are tracking five, repeat five birds on an intercept!”

“Launch our next salvo on them now! Engines, give me everything you have. Helm, pull us towards them; high to port. As we pass, we’ll put our broadsides to them. Damage control to all decks; this’ll be ugly, but it’s our best chance to kill them before they hyper out.”

“Enemy hit! Her bow shield took it, skipper.”

“Next salvo out the doors. Time on target: 2.2 minutes.”

The two vessels spat at each other, missiles drives burning hot and bright as they crisscrossed the space between the duelists. Counter-missiles darted out, point defences snapped and flared. A hit here, a wound there.

“It’s no good, skipper! We’re not getting enough through to really hurt them. They’ve lost a tube and they’re venting atmo, but we can’t crack their EW fast enough.”

“Missile Twelve is gone; so is Sensor Three. We’re down to 50% visibility on our port side.”

“Keep closing,” Rollins ordered. The enemy scout was cutting him to ribbons, its prow tubes causing more damage than Ghostly Hallows’ broadsides. “As soon as we reach their energy range, they’re going to hit us with everything they can. Be ready for multiple impacts.”

“Captain!” his second officer shouted for his attention over the whine of alarms. “There’s something not right about this.”

“What?”

“They passed the hyper limit half a minute ago; why didn’t they jump?”

“Maybe we got a piece of their engines.”

“No, sir. From what we’ve got, they’re still revving up their hyper field; they’re prepping to jump, but they haven’t.”

“Well, why the Hell not?”

“I don’t know, but we’ve got to break off. The enemy task force is going to come in right on top of us.”

“ETA?”

“Don’t know; one of the last hits knocked out Communications, so we can’t query an LP for a definitive answer. Best guess from Tracking is a few minutes, tops.”

“We’re not letting these bastards get away with whatever information they’ve got! Stay the course.”

“Yes, sir.”

~

They’d taken moderate damage, but it was not irreparable. The Enemy Vessel pursuing them was not out of the fight, either. Unfortunately. The Scouting Vessel was larger than the Enemy, but it was not as well-armed and despite the advantages their technology gave them, they were not invulnerable. Sooner or later, the Enemy would breach their defences.

Luckily, the solution to that was almost here.

Right… about… now.

~

No!”

Bereft of their target, the missiles launched from Ghostly Hallows wavered back and forth in simple-minded target-reacquisition protocols, until the suicide order from their mothership reached them and they detonated harmlessly.

Rollins slumped back in his chair, defeated. “Why? Why’d they wait so long before hypering out?”

“I don’t know, sir. Maybe we should….”

“Yes, yes take us back in-system to Prior. Stand down to Yellow Alert.” The captain swore, thumping he had on the arm of his chair. “We had her! We were this close.”

“Yes, sir.”

I blew it. Rollins slumped down in his chair, just in time to be jerked out of it by a fresh alarm.

“Proximity alert! Hyperspace emergence detected! It’s… it’s, oh God…”

~

The cruiser fired, blowing the insignificant scrap of an Enemy Vessel into sparkling motes of metal and molecular gas. Its brethren slid into darkspace with svelte ease, followed closely by the larger battlecruisers and the Onslaught Fleet element.

The Scouting Vessel had done well, even if it had been detected, tracked and attacked. There would be time for an investigation into that matter later, though. Right now a world lay before them, singing and whispering and cajoling them towards it and the beings they had come to kill.

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