August 17, 4233
Twilight Sector, Outer Reaches
United Terran Concord
“Permission to come aboard, Commodore.”
“Permission granted, Admiral.”
Foraker nodded to the young woman, then gestured to the pair of individuals at his right, an officer with a captain’s epaulets and salt-and-pepper hair, and a stately, thirty-ish woman with black hair, dressed in civilian business attire. “This is Captain Samuel Conover, my chief of staff.” The officer nodded curtly. “And this is Diana Pierce, appointed by the President on a fact-finding mission from Parliament. While her staff is setting up on the Hive, I decided to introduce her to the only officer who’s managed to face the Lefu in battle and get away unscathed.”
“I wouldn’t call it ‘unscathed’, sir.”
“Perhaps not. Is there a place we can sit down?”
“Of course, sir. Right this way.”
Shortly after, Natalya found herself in Intolerance’s main briefing room. She was about to ask what precisely the purpose for the visit was – normally, her debriefings took place on the hive – when Admiral Foraker pre-empted her. “I’ve had a chance to look over your report,” he began. “I’m sorry about the loss of your people; I wish we could have sent you in with more, but we’re strapped for effective combat units out here.”
“I know, sir.”
“Hopefully, though that will change upon the completion of Ms. Pierce’s report to Parliament.”
The civilian adjusted her glasses; medicine had long since rendered such things obsolete, but some kept them around as a personal predilection; on some worlds, they even were considered to be quite fashionable. “Hopefully; the President wants the men and women in the field to know that they enjoy his support and the full backing of Parliament, but there are some questions that require answers.”
Natalaya nodded, though she was already getting a bad feeling about this. “Of course, Ms. Pierce.”
Foraker nodded. “I wanted to have this meeting aboard your ship for purposes of security. Not that I don’t trust my staff, but the CB is a big place, with a lot of traffic – military and civilian. I’d prefer to make sure as few people as possible know about this until there’s an official government release. While you were gone, we lost a half-dozen more systems, all in lightning raids. Nothing heavier than their battleships and none of the systems were too valuable, but they did have one thing in common. Sam.”
Captain Pierce drew a datacard out from his tunic and looked over at Natalya before he inserted it into the table’s miniature holo tank. She nodded.
A small 3-D representation of the local part of the galaxy appeared, with the newly-fallen systems a bright orange; those that had fallen in the first wave were blood-red. “As you can see, each of the planets in the second tier lie between our most likely staging points and the territories they’ve already seized. What’s more is that we haven’t been able to detect any build-up in those systems. They came in, kicked the hell out of everything in space and drew back. We have been able to confirm that they’re operating pickets in those systems, though; they’ve already popped two of our scouts.”
“It’s a firebreak,” Natalya observed. “They’re worried about over-extending their forces. They can tighten their hold on the systems they took at the outset of the war,” later, she might have reflected how easily that word came off her tongue, but why shouldn’t it? That’s what this was. “And build up their local defences.”
Foraker smiled, a touch of pride in his expression. “Intelligence came to similar conclusions.”
“Doesn’t this give us an oppurtunity to re-take those planets, or at least to evacuate some of their population?” Diana asked.
Natalya shook her head. “No. Once they’re comfortable with their fortifications, they’ll blitzkrieg over those systems. And since they are picketing them, as soon as we move in, they’ll launch a counter-offensive – probably at the planets we drew the attack force from, since they can do more damage to our industry and morale that way. They probably won’t try to ambush our force since they know that we’re slower in hyperspace, but we can come in closer to the system then they can.”
The civilian looked a little chagrined, but the thought of leaving millions of people swinging clearly didn’t sit well with her. It didn’t sit well with Natalya either, but militarily they didn’t have the numbers – yet – to fight a war of attrition with the Lefu over strategically worthless planets. She shoved the nagging voice of her conscience aside and looked back at Captain Conover as he continued the briefing.
“We’ve also managed to penetrate several of the first-wave systems. Our scout losses are high – the Lefu are very good at locating and intercepting our infiltrators – but we’ve managed to get system scans from Kevin’s Folly and Litwell Dawn. The others we’ve managed to get, at the very least, sensor snapshots. Including this image from Tebrinnin.” Conover adjusted a few controls on the board, a tactical image leaping to the fore.
“I can see why you didn’t want this information to get out,” Natalya said as her stomach churned. She was looking at an armada. The space around Tebri and its outer planets swarmed with dozens of hostile drive signatures. There were fewer ships there than the Concord had at this moment, but the Navy had thousands of light-years to protect; the Lefu could bring everything they had to bear on single points.
“The twelve largest vessels we’ve confirmed to be your superdreadnoughts, though variations in energy signature, mass shadow and hull design indicate that we’re looking at three different classes. The two that showed up in Priorii we’ve designate Abaddon-class. The second are Ahriman and appear to be a heavy variant. Azazel-class are their super-carriers.
“We’ve also been able to differentiate several different classes of their cruisers, though without observing them in combat, its difficult to determine how they vary from one another. Focalor and Forneus appear to be most common; we believe that Focalors are missile-variants. The battleship classes we’ve been able to identify are Gorgon, Cetus and Hydra.”
“What about the fortresses?” Natalya asked.
“Styx, Acheron, Eridanos, Cocytus, Lethe, Pyriphlegethon. Several of those nomenclatures are pending.”
Diana Pierce shot Foraker a sharp glance. “One of the questions that will need to be answered is why the Office of Military Intelligence is so determined to label the alien invaders with the names of demons, monsters and… what was it? The rivers that surround Hell? Even the name that someone gave them means ‘death from sickness’.”
Natalya looked over at the civilian coolly. The Concord had discovered several worlds that had at one time held intelligent life, but no longer. There was some speculation their extinction had not been entirely natural, but ‘plague’ and ‘asteroid impacts’ were nevertheless ruled the causes. There was circumstantial evidence pointing towards another race, but no sign of the ‘Lefu’ had ever been located, though the name had stuck.
“They are monsters, Ms. Pierce,” the redhead commented icily. “They came out of nowhere and started killing our people. They don’t want to speak with us, they don’t want anything from us that doesn’t result in our deaths. They are monsters,” she repeated. “And the Fleet that your political masters have spent so much time bad-mouthing and whittling away at is the only thing that stands between you and the Lefu.”
Pierce’s eyes narrowed behind her glasses. “If they were really the monsters you think they are, commodore, where is the genocide? Aside from Tebri and Unicorn Set – primarily military installations – there have been no confirmed reports of bombarding the planets they’ve taken. The losses you and your people have taken have been horrific, but the civilian death toll has been worse. It could be even worse if the Lefu start Desecrating planets wholesale. They haven’t done this,” she quickly overran the commodore’s response. “Not yet, anyways. But the mere fact that they haven’t done this, no matter what you may think, means there is something in them that isn’t purely monstrous.”
“Their largesse didn’t extend to the civilian orbital and outer-space colonies and habitats,” Archer replied, her tone dropping several more degrees. “Nor to the crew and passengers aboard the refugee ships that they shot down, or the tens of thousands of military personnel that they’ve shown no mercy. Given their demonstrated familiarity with us, I consider them to be holding those populations hostage.”
“That’s enough,” Admiral Foraker snapped, stepping between the women before the Parliamentary envoy could come back with a retort. “Commodore, Ms. Pierce. I understand tempers are running high, but we don’t need to be fighting each other. Ms. Pierce will be here for some time as an observer and will keep us appraised of Parliament’s expectations. Commodore, there’ll be a strategy planning session in the command base tomorrow at 1900, Conference One.”
“Thank you, Admiral. My apologies, Ms. Pierce.”
The other woman brushed the commodore’s comments away. “That’s quite all right, commodore. Sometimes I’m afraid that I lead with my foot firmly entrenched in my mouth at times. I do believe that there is a chance for peace and I don’t wish to denigrate the sacrifices that you or any of the military have made in the prosecution of my duties. But it is my mission to ask questions like this, if only because the people back home will.”
Natalya shook the civilian’s hand. Her estimation of one Diana Pierce had gone up by a small fraction. Of course, it hadn’t been terribly high to begin with. She’d voted Foundationist in the last election.
LeFay stood to welcome Foraker into his office. “Welcome aboard, Admiral. I’m sorry I couldn’t meet your shuttle in person; I was overseeing some repairs. Courageous was the tail on the refugee convoy and some of the Lefu screen took some potshots at us.”
“Thank you Captain LeFay. You did better than Commodore Archer and Intolerance.”
Donald suppressed a wince. “I suppose so, sir.”
“That wasn’t intended to be a criticism. I know officers who wouldn’t have made it out with anything; she completed her mission and got a piece of those bastards besides.”
“Very well, sir.”
“I believe you have something for me, though?”
“Authorization Kappa-Five-Wilhelm-Seven-Seven-Oh-Two, captain.”
“Oh! Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.”
“Not your fault. All this cloak-and-dagger shit wears on my nerves, too. It’s been a few hours since you’ve gotten your drone back. What do you have so far?”
LeFay slid back into his chair. “In accordance with the directive I received from your office, I ordered Major Rondell Lewinsky to plan for the landing and subsequent abandonment of his force on Prior in order to support an insurgency against any occupying force and to learn as much information about the Lefu as possible, especially to see if they have any relation to Case Omega.” Despite himself, Foraker felt a shiver of adrenalin. Case Omega, though only known to a relative handful of people, was an overriding directive that lay dormant in the Concord’s sealed order archives. It was also what the organization of those ‘in the know’ referred to themselves as. The general population and much of the military hierarchy had no idea Case Omega existed and for nearly three hundred years, the officers who knew of it had done their best to keep it that way.
“We designated this mission Operation Roundhammer, to be initiated should Lefu conquest of Priorii seem imminent. Once it was, I authorized its immediate deployment, leaving a stealthed, secure-branded hyper drone behind for up-link from the planet. The Lefu began landing in force less than two days after TF 111 was driven out of the star system after a precision bombardment campaign apparently designed to neutralize Prior’s ability to fight back – industrial, not only defensive sites were targeted.
“It was difficult for Major Lewinsky to get information to our drone; once the Lefu took the planet, they immediately deployed a network of satellites designed to jam all transmissions from the target world, save those reserved for their use. Piggybacking on one of those frequencies, our Marines finally managed to upload a data squeal to the hyper drone.”
Foraker nodded here; despite leaving several days after TF 111, the drone had actually arrived in Hyperion Hive before Archer’s command. “Flight Control was rather miffed to find that it refused to open for them.”
“Yes, sir. I’m sure you’re eager to hear what your own people have discovered from the data, so I’ll be as brief as possible.” The captain called up a holographic image of Prior, clicking on a topographic scan of the planet. “The Lefu seized the capital within hours. They made no efforts to communicate with the remaining local leadership, nor any of the populace. As far as we can tell, there’s been no forced labour, no extermination campaign, no attempts to interact with the people at all. However, on the second incursion… this happened. It’s an encounter between militia forces and a Lefu platoon; our Marines picked up the recording and sent it along.”
He clicked the link again. What showed up was the grainy footage from a helmet cam. Hawthorne wasn’t up on his jarhead, but he knew enough to tell it wasn’t from a modern set of power armour. Not surprising, given Priorii’s isolation and its traditional refusal to accept Concordat military help. The view looked out over a large city courtyard in what the admiral took to be Prior’s capital. The buildings were tall and rectangular; easily-built concrete slabs that adorned hundreds of worlds. Some windows were boarded up, but other than that, it looked like a normal city on any one of those planets.
Voices crackled over the communication link.
“Two ravens banking this way. Looks like they picked up our generators, all right.”
“Quick bastards, aren’t they? Anything else in the sky?”
“Nothing, Cliff. Just those birds.”
“Fire Team Bravo; what’s your status, Lindy?”
“Locked, cocked and ready to rock.”
“Someone needs to buy you a new book of clichés.”
“Fuck you, sir.”
“Only if you wear that outfit I like.”
A low hum began to build, interrupting Bravo’s response. “Here they come; looks like one’s going to the deck, the other’s staying topside.”
“Bravo: Take the glider as soon as the first one hits dirt. Passive targeting only. All other teams; as soon as the topside’s down, pour everything you’ve got onto the lander.”
“Lock and load, sir.”
“I hate you, Fire Team Bravo.”
The first pinnace dipped through the buildings with a gracefulness at odds with its size. Its hull was just as dark as the Lefu’s capital ships, though its streamlined features were more apparent. Makes sense for something that’s got to operate in atmosphere, Foraker mused to himself. The craft had a pair of stubby wings, missile pods affixed to hardpoints beneath them; the ‘raven’ had a rear turret and what looked to be some guns laid in to either side of the cockpit to round out its armament.
Skids extended from the lander’s swollen undercarriage, dust kicking up as its thrusters rotated to face below it. Just before it settled in, four rockets erupted from a nearby building, slashing up towards the hovering pinnace. Whatever its hull was made out of wasn’t enough to withstand the anti-armour missiles and the pinnace was swallowed by a ball of fire, crumbling as it dropped from the sky, falling out of sight behind a high-rise.
The second pinnace reacted with inhuman speed, firing an instant before the rest of the militia team did, its main guns opening up and blasting into the building the missiles had come from; whatever those rounds were, they moved so fast that the air was set on fire from friction. Whoever had been in Fire Team Bravo died without even a scream as their entire floor was gutted by a ripping barrage of hyper-velocity shells. As the building’s upper floors crumbled down, one member of the militia team spoke, their voice high from panic.
“Jesus Christ! That fire… it-it went all the way through the building!”
“Cut the chatter and shoot!” the helmet-wearer snapped, throwing off his camo-blanket and firing at the remaining pinnace, the rest of his squad doing the same.
The craft hopped up from the ground and began rotating in mid-air, lashing the positions around it with fire from its fore and aft gun mounts, forcing the humans to hunker down. The pinnace’s sides opened and armoured figures leapt out, pulling themselves upright as they landed, unfazed by their drops. Hawthorne blinked in surprise; two arms, two legs and a head. He didn’t know why that surprised him so much; the Villipvi, the bronze age species that the Concord had encountered were humanoid as well. On the other hand, there was the stone age race, which was certainly not humanoid in the classical sense and neither were some of the extinct species that the BXA had catalogued.
The familiarity of their morphology was not why he was so surprised, though; he had been expecting, dreading a very different body form. Seeing those giants was almost a relief. But Adam and Eve had paid for it when they’d eaten from the tree of knowledge and Foraker was no less human; this information carried with it the chill of fear. There are two of them.
The Lefu were well over seven feet tall, though Foraker had no idea how much of that was the armour; Concord heavy power armour made its wearers into giants, too. Whatever else they were, the bastards knew how to fight; they began spraying suppressing fire at the heaviest of the militia’s positions from arm-mounted cannons that were bigger than a man’s leg. Some of the aliens had bulky equipment on their other arms, soon revealed to be miniature shield wall projectors. Others appeared to have sensor and communications gear; the rest had rather large, rather unpleasant looking gauntlets that crackled with energy.
One of the Lefu knelt behind a comrade’s shield, taking advantage of the cover to ready his weapon – whatever it was, it was bigger and more unpleasant looking than the tri-barreled monsters his companions carried. Or was it a her? An it? Each helmet was stylized into a skeletal visage, betraying nothing about the species that wore them. The kneeling solider fired and a chunk of the building across the street exploded, along with the soldiers that had been in there, burning rubble and dislodged walls and ceilings cascading down into the rubble-choked roads.
“Keep firing! Aim for the joints in their armour; those bastards have to have weakness someplace!” the camera-wearer shouted to his men. No sooner had he done so then a sniper’s shot took one of their armoured foes in the throat, the troll telescoping down onto its knees. One of the shielding soldiers dropped back to cover its fallen comrade as another – a medic – knelt over the wounded soldier, pulling it towards the pinnace as its rear loading ramp unfurled, the medic dragging the wounded soldier aboard as its squadmates tore through the militia’s carefully-prepared ambush.
The comm was filled with screams and finally the officer shouted. “Fall back! Fall back to the rendezvous point at-” that was as far as he got before something slammed into him, knocking him onto his back. The camera stared at the sky, the gunfire fading away to nothing.
After a few moments, the Lefu pinnace passed by overhead.
Captain LeFay turned off the view at that point, extracting the datachip and handing it to the admiral. “There’s nothing else on that record.”
“Thank you, captain.”
“It’s not them,” LeFay said flatly.
“No. It isn’t. To be honest, the fact that they’ve not wiped the civilian colonies off the face of the universe at the first oppurtunity made me suspect it wasn’t. This confirms it. It’s still valuable data and, I’m sorry to say, worth the price. We will try to get your Marines out as soon as we can, but at the moment… it’s not looking good.”
“No, sir. It doesn’t. But at least we know that this isn’t a Case Omega scenario.”
“Yet, captain. Yet.”