August 18, 4233
Twilight Sector, Outer Reaches
United Terran Concord
“Tell me some good news today, Karen.”
Junior Captain Karen Allston looked at Jacob Goldstein with an apologetic expression. She was filthy – they both were; water reclamation was sputtering along and its use was restricted. That meant no showers and no laundry. “Engines are still fluctuating; we can go to one-tenth thrust safely, but anything higher than that and we’ll have conduit breaches throughout the grid. Sensors are completely gone; we’re still at the Mark One Eyeball. No joy on weapons or any other main systems yet.”
Goldstein nodded, waving a cluster of smoke out of his face. “And Environmental’s still going through fits and starts.”
Liberty had taken massive damage during their attack on the Lefu’s position and for all intents and purposes, she had been destroyed by it. Her point defences were all but gone, main boat bay smashed. Her outer hull was bent and mangled – she’d been hit so hard in places that her composite armour there had actually melted and then re-frozen as the vessel had drifted. Weapons were the good news; a third of her batteries remained, but only because she’d suffered a catastrophic loss of power. Evidently considering her dead at that point, the aliens had ceased fire. It galled Goldstein to admit it, but they weren’t wrong in their assessment.
If it was an act of fortune, it was neither good nor ill; it had saved Liberty from complete annihilation, but if they so much as brought up a single laser bank, the Lefu would detect it and blow the helpless ship out of the stars. The shield wall generators were still functioning, though the starboard primary had suffered an overload during the battle and the wall was now running off its secondary generator. Or it would be, if they had either the suicidal urge or the capacity to bring it up. The projectors had been destroyed. All of them. Which meant they had the power for their walls, just no way to create them.
Engineering was trying to reproduce new towers, but they used a lot of specialized parts; even a ship expecting heavy combat wouldn’t have a lot of them and Liberty had been on a training cruise.
A training cruise that had just killed almost half of the cadets on-board, and only that few because of their ‘lucky’ power loss.
The dorsal superstructure was completely torn away – Astrogation had been there, meaning that the battleship’s navigational telescopes were gone along with it. The outer decks were flooded with radiation both from the Lefu’s godawful missiles and from space, but the inner bulkheads were keeping the remaining crew safe from roasting inside their uniforms.
The one spot of good luck was that the hyper field generators were mostly intact; they’d been so deep in the system that the Lefu hadn’t considered those to be priority targets. So after Liberty drifted for a few days and her crew managed to avoid suffocation, radiation poisoning or any other thousand other unpleasant fates aboard the crippled battleship, they could conceivably escape into hyperspace.
Well. There was a second spot of good fortune – the Lefu hadn’t boarded them yet. They’d been focusing their attention on the Concordat hulks. Maybe Liberty was coming up on their ‘to do’ list, or maybe she looked too badly damaged to be worth the effort. Whatever the reason, the bastards didn’t seem to care about her one way or the other. Which suited Jacob just fine; the longer they ignored him, the longer his crew had to fix the ship.
“Shift crew in the machine shops from the projectors to sensors. I want to be able to see what’s going on.”
Karen pinched the bridge of her nose, remembering something. “Sorry, sir. Damage Control managed to fix one of the launch tubes; they put a recon drone out an hour ago. I meant to tell you, but I forgot. I’m sorry.”
They’d been running twenty-hour days for almost a week. Even humans in this day and age couldn’t do that without some trade-offs. “That’s all right, Karen. Do we at least have a monitor working?”
“Yes, right here. It looks like we’ve… oh, no.”
Senior Captain Jacob Goldstein stood behind his flag officer and looked down at the relayed data from Liberty’s drone and felt his heart sink. A Lefu cruiser was moving in on their position.
The Second Enemy ship had lain quiet for several days, leaving behind a thin contrail of debris and atmosphere as it drifted aimlessly. The Command Structure had been of two minds about it; the Fleet elements present had enough Sectators to deal with the Enemy relics and this vessel simultaneously and it had been proposed to do just that. Given the damage to the vessel, others believed that there could be little of value left aboard and accordingly had allowed it to drop in priority. The Enemy had already proved that they were not above booby-trapping their own ships and there was no reason to suspect that the Second Enemy would do any less. Given the damage that the Second Enemy Vessel had already sustained, it would not take much to breach its core.
Even without the bilious cloud of radiation about it, the Second Enemy’s hull was thick enough to prevent active scans of the interior. Most warships were that way – it did no good to allow your foe to map your most vulnerable areas.
The Second Enemy Vessel’s main hangar was a wreck and its secondary bay was little better. There were easily identifiable airlocks, though several had been warped to uselessness. That was an option, but Sectator Command had selected a more direct approach.
The ship shook. Three – four – times in rapid succession.
“What happened?” a junior officer asked, his dirt-streaked face drawn, eyes wide. “Are they firing on us?”
Goldstein laid a hand on the cadet’s shoulder. “Steady, lad. And no, they haven’t. Unless I miss my guess, they hit us with breaching pods. We’ve been boarded.”
The Sectator unit moved through the outer levels of the Second Enemy Vessel. Their armour was enough to hold off the worst of the radiation; their physiology would do the rest. They had no need for search beams; their visors included night-vision as well as several alternative passive scan modes and the sputtering overhead lights and computer panels were all the illumination they needed.
If the Second Enemy were still present, shouldn’t they have cut power to this section? Perhaps their control systems were damaged. Given the state of this vessel, it was not unlikely. Bodies littered the passageways; some were burned beyond recognition, others had skin that had suppurated and blistered from lethal doses of radiation. Others were maimed, mutilated, frozen and desiccated in the vacuum.
One of the Sectators paused by a pair of Enemy; male and female, they held each other closely. Their eyes were shut, expressions desperate as they clutched to one another, seeking solace as the end came. Brother and sister? Lovers? Or simply neither wishing to die alone? It didn’t matter.
The armoured soldier moved back to the group. It had to be this way. There was too much at stake to do otherwise.
“Do we have a fix on them?”
“I’m sorry, sir,” an ensign apologized, brushing a greasy strand of hair out of her eyes. “Internal sensors are one of the few systems we’ve still got, but in the outer decks, it’s like trying to hunt geese in the fog. I think I’ve located two of their boarding craft with a possible contact on the third, but as for the units themselves… I’ve got nothing.”
“Stay on it. Keep a channel to Senior Major Garcia handy; as soon as you spot them, you let him know.”
This was the fifth sealed blast door they’d come across. They were thick affairs, forged from the same composites of the ship’s outer hull to provide as much protection as possible while still not being utterly impossible for the crew to open manually. The other Sectator units had reported similar occurrences; every access route leading deeper into the ship was sealed. The outer decks would have been depressurized before combat and these doors would have been the obvious solution to prevent the inner hull from following suit, but there were… inconsistencies.
Several blast doors had been destroyed and new ones sealed beyond them, which could be an autonomic protocol. Less so the lift cars that had all been brought to the innermost parts of their shafts and locked in place there. Either the Second Enemy were incredibly callous towards the crew stationed in the outer decks, or someone had recalled the cars and sealed them in place after the battle.
There were still Second Enemy aboard.
A human in power armour was over seven feet tall; the latest heavy weapons suits were closer to eight. This meant that warship design had to give thought to how one’s own Marines were supposed to get from place to place in the event of a boarding action or simply responding to their duty stations. Let alone moving other large-scale items as medical stretchers, cargo pallets and often pieces of the ship itself. When one had vessels that were regularly over a kilometer long, space was not as much at a premium as it had been during the earliest days of human sail and starflight. However, the trade-off was that this consideration to one’s own armoured troops also made it easier for a foe’s Marines to maneuver with the same ease. There were portions of ships that were designed to stymie such bulky opponents, but on the off chance that allied Marines had to hold or re-take these sections, they could not be impossible to ford.
The outer decks of a starship were not one of these areas.
The runt on Sensors had managed to tap into the holier-than-the-virgin-Mary security grid and was feeding Senior Major Jayne Garcia and his squad images from the sections with working cameras. At last, best count, there were twelve squads of Lefu marching through Garcia’s ship. Three per pod.
The bastards were thorough, poring through every nook and cranny that they could. A couple of them tried to patch into the ship’s computer through the terminals, but they’d need more than good luck to do that and after a few attempts, they appeared to give up on remote access.
Garcia tried to get a better view; he thought he saw a few of their marines holding cutting torches and he didn’t care for that at all. Plasma torches ignited and then, just as quickly, shut down. He cycled through the feeds, trying to quash the sudden burst of fear in his guts. The other boarding teams were withdrawing. There was only one reason for that; they knew Liberty’s crew was alive, but weren’t going to risk a direct assault. They’d either hole the ship and then re-board her to mop up the survivors, or destroy it outright.
Thinking furiously, Garcia looked over at the personnel in his compartment; seven marines and three runts, and Senior Petty Officer (Engineering) Herman Mordechai. What could he do with them? Take hostages? Or… he looked over at the cadets. They were techs, too. And there was an engineering substation just a few decks down in the depressurized section.
The comms were unreliable here; he had no chance of getting anything cleared with the captain before the Lefu pulled back and by then, it would be too late.
Garcia knelt, taking a moment to cross himself, thinking of the locket of the Virgin Mary he’d left in his quarters. He looked back over, accepting a helmet from his second – Lieutenant Kelter. She always knew what he needed. “We have enough suits for them,” she said quietly.
He nodded. “Thank you, lieutenant.”
The order was given to abandon the hulk.
The Sectator Commander protested this; there were still Second Enemy aboard, with the possibility undamaged records and recoverable data, but the cruiser’s Commander was adamant; there was no point in continuing the operation. The battleship’s systems were likely too badly damaged to provide any useful information and prisoners were more trouble than they were worth. What they had uncovered from other sources indicated that this was a crèche-vessel on a tour of their former enemy’s domain. It would possess no sensitive information from either faction.
There would be no throwing of lives away in an attempt to retrieve worthless flotsam and jetsam whilst engaging an entrenched Enemy force that was in a position to destroy their own Vessel. Command reiterated this: the rewards were not equal to the risk.
But what would be done with the hulk? So thoroughly damaged, it would a simple matter for the cruiser to complete its destruction. However, the ship presented no threat. Were the crew still aboard to return functionality to their vessel, it would remain barely able to fight and little more than target practice. The idea of killing helpless foes was distasteful, but was it any better to leave them to starve or to suffocate? More practically, if the Second Enemy Vessel somehow did manage to escape, it could not be allowed to warn its nation.
The cruiser exchanged a quick communion with a sigil vessel. The easy path and the wisest one: to turn their weapons onto the hulk and fire until there was nothing left of it. If it had secrets, they would be picked from its lifeless bones.
The Sectators continued their withdrawal, returning to their landing craft. As it turned out, their progress was not uneventual.
“Get the comms back up!” Goldstein shouted desperately as he stared helplessly at what the internal monitors were showing him. “For God’s sake, tell Garcia to get out of there!”
Kelter died first.
She barely had time to squawk a warning before three hyper-velocity slugs punched through her breastplate, rupturing out the back of her suit. Despite himself, Garcia gaped as the fire lanced out of the darkness. “Get into cover!” he shouted as another of his men went down. There was nothing on his HUD but the muzzle flash of alien weapons. One of the cadets died next, her thin skinsuit offering as much protection as Kelter’s armour plating had. Less; there was something left of Kelter. The runt simply vanished from the waist up, the thick red spray or her torso spattering against the bulkhead.
Garcia scythed his weapon back and forth, watching for the telltale signs of weapons impacts. There! He roared as he focused his fire. A giant in a death-mask staggered onto its knees, its armour shimmering and indistinct, whatever system had kept it hidden damaged by the League soldier’s fire. A second ghosted out of the darkness like a shadow taking form, sweeping one arm in front of its injured comrade, a fresh layer of haze obscuring both monsters.
The marine’s fire crashed into the murky field, harsh energy crackling to life. A shield wall! It was a portable shield wall! Another Lefu fired from the safety of its cloak as Garcia tried to find a scan setting that would detect them.
He never got the opportunity.
The exactor pulled the remains of the Second Enemy crewer off the console it had been working at. Mangled by his ennead’s weaponry, it was impossible to tell if had been male or female. The Sectator looked over the glowing script on the sputtering computer screen. It was gibberish to him. The ennead’s technical specialist hooked her system into the Enemy’s computer. Under her helmet, her eyes flickered in REM as her Link allowed her to process the data at a rate beyond the capacity of an organic mind.
The Second Enemy system was she expected: badly damaged, barely functional. All gestalt functions had been re-routed to the ship’s core, but this terminal had been re-activated and hooked to the drive systems. What were they…?
“Enemy light cruiser is breaking off,” Allston informed Goldstein, her voice restrained. “Garcia convinced them.”
“It seems he did. Thank you, Karen,” Jacob replied, but his hands refused to unball, his fingernails digging into his palms. Goldstein gritted his teeth painfully as he watched the radiation counters rise; they were already in the lethal range and they were still climbing, contaminating Liberty’s outer decks and wreathing the ship in poison that radiated out into space through the gaps in the broken battleship’s hull. Within minutes, nothing could possibly survive aboard Liberty… except the crew sealed tightly inside the battleship’s armoured core.
Garcia had re-routed Liberty’s waste systems and shut down parts of its damage control processes. The crippled battleship was cycling its own contaminants through the outer decks, forcing the boarding teams to withdraw faster than they had expected to. To the aliens, it probably seemed as if a last stand of survivors had been booby-trapping the ship, perhaps even intending to seize one of the docked assault boats. There was no way for them to know that the pollution did not reach into the ship’s core or that Garcia’s team had ensured that Liberty’s central decks were safe. As far as the Lefu knew, that had been Liberty’s last, pitiful stand.
Goldstein pursed his lips; Garcia’s plan had worked, but it had cost him twelve more of the men and women under his command… twelve, not counting any other luckless souls that had been trapped in the battleship’s outer levels. More names to be added to a list. That they’d succeeded only softened the impact of those deaths, it didn’t abate it. The worst part was knowing that the major had been right to do what he’d done; in his place, Jacob would have done the same thing.
As long as it was contaminated, Liberty was no longer worth exploring, not if the aliens valued the lives of their own people. Even drones would be hard-pressed to operate for long in the toxic environment aboard the ship. No one would be insane enough to irradiate their own crewmates – and if there had been any survivors outside Liberty’s core, that’s exactly what Garcia had just done – so to the Lefu, this had to appear as the last spiteful gasp of a defeated enemy.
There was still the chance that the cruiser would turn its guns onto the helpless battleship, but Goldstein knew as the Lefu – and Petty Officer Mordecai – did, that the lethal levels of radiation would dissipate. In several days Liberty would again be boarded, with the intent of wresting secrets from a hulk that no longer had a crew to contest its capture.
But… by the time Liberty was safe to bnoard, the battleship would drift across the system’s hyper limit. Provided that Mordecai and Garcia’s sabotage was as clean as it appeared and none of the damaged ship’s systems did allow the drive waste to reach Liberty’s core and its few thousand survivors, they might just be able to escape
The Sectator units had returned to their host vessel, a little worse for the wear but otherwise in good condition. Which was more than could be said of the Second Enemy Vessel, certainly. The Scouting Vessel prowled around the hulk for several minutes, as if seeking some form of egress, something that would allow it to sense if the Second Enemy’s actions were as truly as they appeared, or if this was some sort of insane hoax.
While the radiation coming from the Second Enemy Vessel was enough to kill Sectators and most automata, it was a trifle to the light cruiser. Finally accepting the situation, the Scouting Vessel reported the outcome to the Fleet element’s sigil. Once the Second Enemy Vessel cooled sufficiently, it would again be safe to board. It wasn’t as if the hulk was going anywhere, after all.
And if this was some gambit to baffle the Fleet into letting that stricken ship drift to safety… well, the bombs the additional Sectator teams had planted to their field generators would make certain that they would not survive the attempt.