September 7, 4233
United Terran Concord
Hyperion Prime Command Base
Natalya strode through the hallways of ‘the hive’, the massive asteroid base that orbited Hyperion Prime and functioned as the military headquarters for three entire sectors. It was actually Hyperion Prime’s second moon, dragged into the planet’s embrace millennia ago. The Concord had converted it to their use, hollowing it out and layering corridors, chambers, silos and weapons emplacements into it.
The dirty brown and bright orange sphere of Hyperion Prime turned beneath the hive, a Tartarus-class planet. It was a picture of Earth four billion years ago, its surface churning with oceans of lava, wracked by comet and asteroid impacts and speckled with super-volcanoes that spewed toxic clouds into the murky atmosphere.
Hyperion Secundus was the only life-giving world in this system; though it lay further out from its primary than Earth was from Sol, it was actually warmer, with milder seasons since Hyperion was a far larger and hotter star than Earth’s own sun. It had a population of three hundred million and drew a perpetual influx of tourists due to its balmy weather, despite the heavy military presence in the system. Of late, there had not been much interest in tourism.
It was a mark of pride for the Concord that Hyperion Hive had never fallen; in fact, it been the place where Vice Admiral Kucinich and her Third Fleet had been smashed; two-thirds of the Empty armada had been annihilated in a running battle between Third Fleet and Battlegroup 17 under Commodore Vater Hoss.
Four hundred years ago, the Resurgency had also met its end here after a brutal twenty-year campaign between those final, desperate madmen and the heroes of the Concord. But the lines had held and the fanatics had been crushed – those had survived had fled into the galaxy, impotently swearing revenge.
Maybe this is their curse, Natalya wondered as she paused, looking out one of the external windows. In the distance, she could see the flashes and bursts of light coming from Hyperion’s fleetyards. Inside lay dozens of vessels, covered in parasitic drones and worker teams as they struggled to bring each ship to readiness. The dreadnoughts Thunderer and Conqueror had finished their upgrades a week ago, just in time to greet Warlord, Invictus and Imperator. As a cadet, Natalya remembered her shuttle taking her past the hulk of the Exactor as it lay in the Solar Concordat Yards. It had seemed invincible, like one of the titans of old – proud and terrifying, something that would never falter, never tire, never fail.
Dreadnoughts were the largest, most powerful vessels known to man. They could liquefy the surface of planets in moments, hurl entire fleets aside. They were deos ex machina – gods in the machine.
Now she looked on five of those giants and they seemed so small. Natalya rested her forehead against the cool, clear metal of the window. Look upon my works and despair. The hive had not been slothful; the system bristled with over seventy warships and its construction crews ran day and night, forging missiles, HAVOCs, SLIPs and every other conceivable weapon of war the Concord had at its disposal.
It didn’t seem like enough.
Hyperion Prime sat within a swarm of missile platforms and OWPs, command links able to control those massive salvos as they hurled their payloads across space, directing firepower capable of shattering worlds. Scouts patrolled aggressively through the outer system; twice now they had found and driven off Lefu scouts, but she knew that there were others.
The crews moved with the precision of machines, waiting for that moment when the word would come, when the hyperspace echo of a Lefu armada would be detected. Would it be a probe? Would they stage diversions? Would they simply arrive in force? No one knew. Had they been human, it might have been possible to predict what would happen. Might; even being of the same species did not grant one some kind of magic intuition about another’s motives.
They were coming; the scouts that had managed to make it back from Priorii confirmed this. In addition to the other ships, four more superdreadnoughts had arrived, including two Ahrimans and an Azazel. Heavy support, which meant they expected stiff resistance. Which meant Hyperion Hive. There was no other reason for them to be massing there. Neither of the last two scouting missions had reported back; either they were running silent, or the Lefu had intercepted them. Which meant that the Concord was blind and deaf in Priorii. They could be on their way now.
But we are going to hold, Natalya vowed, not for the first time. There were three hundred million people on Hyperion Secundus – there was no way to evacuate them all and they would not be cut loose to the whims of an alien force.
Pulling herself away from her dark thoughts, Natalya resumed her stroll through the tunnels of the hive.
“You’ve heard this all before,” Natalya said to her audience, two dozen officers, ship captains all. “But you’re about to hear it again. I’ll try to keep this as painless as possible. Now… the Lefu.”
“The range of their weapons is the main problem; their CASKs have twenty million kilometers on ours.” Natalya reiterated for the benefit of the attending personnel. “It gives them several minutes of risk-free firing on us, which works out to one hell of a lot of missiles, especially when they hit rapid-fire. We haven’t seen them do it with capital missiles yet, but there’s no reason to assume that they can’t. They probably haven’t had any reason to, but that’s going to change once they tangle with us here.
“We have to do everything in our power to keep them from utilizing that advantage. April Fool’s will help, but they’ll figure out what’s going on pretty quickly. Hopefully not before our ships range on theirs, but we can’t count on that. Their ships are a lot tougher than ours, too. Don’t engage one-on-one; coordinate your fire to saturate their defences and inflict as much damage as possible; don’t stop firing until you have a confirmed kill. We know that their EW systems are a lot better than ours too, so it’s not impossible for one of them play dead, then pop back to life once your attention is elsewhere.
“They’ll be bringing boomers and it’s a fair bet to assume that they’re just as nasty as the rest of the ships. We’ll try and neutralize them with the outer-system SLIPs. Failing that, leave them to the fortresses. Even our boomers are going to be following that order. Unless God smiles on us and their superdreadnoughts are incredibly poorly built, of course. We’re going to try and strip their screen away. Even a boomer won’t tangle with a planetary defence grid like the one around Hyperion Prime and without supporting units, odds are they won’t chance it, especially since we know our fortress missiles have the range to duel with them and a thick enough skin to handle whatever they dish out. We’re not fighting ants; don’t expect them to throw themselves mindlessly forwards.
“Their shield walls, like ours, are susceptible to tightly-focused blasts. Lasers, grasers, masers and particle beams. WRDD is working on an attempt to shoehorn a single-use energy mount onto a missile head, but they’re still months away with a working prototype, let alone a combat-ready system. They are rushing the CASKAT into production; the first batch will be arriving at the hive next month. Unless the Lefu feel like holding off that long, we won’t see them until then.
“We do know is that they’re vulnerable to HAVOC swarms, but they’ve got fighters of their own and they’re better at dogfighting than ours; Commander Truman from the hive has come up with missile canisters for our HAVOCs that fire counter-missile swarms, but accuracy’s a problem and they’ll need to re-arm frequently; make sure our retreating birds have adequate covering fire.”
Natalya took a quick drink of water. “Those are the generalities. You’re all here to be assigned to Operation Light Brigade, under my command. Ladies and gentlemen, we’re going to take a page from the Empties.”
[The Scouting Vessel drifted silent and unseen through the Enemy System. In days previously, two of its brothers had been chased into brightspace, but it and its sister had not. It did not know where its sister was, precisely; should one scout be compromised, it would be impossible to locate the other, though it should be on the other side of the system. Many, many noncombatant vessels were fleeing the second world in the Enemy System. They were being watched over, though the bulk of the Enemy Fleet lay close to the third planet and the sprawling defences that surrounded it. They had chosen to stand on the defensive, then.
The energy signatures coming from that swarm of vessels was… peculiar. The Scouting Vessel had tried to breach the Enemy’s defences, but had yet to do so successfully. That they had dreadnoughts of their own was clear, but a multitude of ships there seemed… wrong somehow.
The crew aboard the Scouting Vessel could not quite say what it was, but they knew that something was off. Well, they would continue watching and attempt to learn what, precisely the Enemy were trying to hide.
In the meantime, the Enemy’s refugee convoy offered possibilities.
One moment, Natalya had been rounding a corner on her way to see Admiral Foraker and the next she lay sprawled on the ground, more confused then injured.
“Commodore!” Donald LeFay exclaimed, reaching down to help her back to her feet. “I’m so sorry – I wasn’t watching where I was going.”
Natalya flushed as she took Donald’s hand, straightening her uniform. “It’s all right, Donald. I wasn’t looking where I was headed, either.” She winced; the papers he had been carrying were scattered all over the floor. They weren’t really paper; fiberoptic datasheets capable of displaying multiple files, schematics and documents, but neither was a plasma rifle actually a ‘rifle’ by the strictest definition nor was a shipboard energy mount an actual ‘laser’ despite the name. The tall woman crouched down to help the officer she’d just run down recover his files. “Let me help you with that.”
“It’s quite all right, commodore.”
“Were you speaking with the admiral?” she handed a few sheets off to LeFay, pausing when she noticed an image on one; she recognized it from a textbook at the Academy, it was an image of the Great Temple on Sterility. Twelve thousand years ago, that world had had a thriving civilization on the verge of achieving interstellar spaceflight, then… nothing. Wiped out virtually overnight. Natalya frowned, brushing the ever-annoying forelock of dark red hair out of her face. One of these days, she was just going to cut it off. “About archaelogy?”
“Something like that, ma’am.” When it was apparent that that wasn’t enough of an explanation, LeFay continued, almost reluctantly. “You remember my wife?”
Natalya nodded; for a species that could now live for three hundred years, Donald and Alexandra LeFay had married younger than most; they’d been childhood friends and, their relationship had turned romantic in their teens. Donald had gone into the military, while Alexandra had chosen the civilian arm of the BXA; they’d married upon his graduation from the academy. Six years later, Alexandra’s expedition had gone missing on a deep-range exploration; LeFay had been serving aboard the squadron that had been sent to investigate, but no trace of the BXA ships had ever been found. That had been almost fifteen years ago and there was still a part of LeFay that still hurt, that would always hurt.
“Before… she disappeared, Alex used to share some of her work with me. She was comparative anatomy, but biology was always over my head,” he admitted slowly. “Archaeology was something that we both enjoyed and I’ve followed it a little; Admiral Foraker wanted an informal opinion on the likelihood of the Lefu visiting other civilizations. That’s how the BXA originally pictured them.”
“I remember,” Natalya replied, handing Donald the last few sheets. “These might not be the real ‘Lefu’, but they’re close enough.” Her tone grew colder and her eyes hardened, but LeFay knew Archer’s anger wasn’t directed at him, focused instead on the Lefu.
“Yes, commodore. I should be getting back to Courageous now.”
The younger woman nodded. “Staff meeting tomorrow at 0900, Donald.”
“I remember. Thank you, ma’am.”
Watching the officer beat a hasty retreat, Natalya paused a moment. There had been something odd about his demeanor. She shrugged, passing it off as simple embarrassment from running her down. Despite herself, a smile touched the edges of her lips. It was only luck that she hadn’t landed on LeFay and given him a faceful of – as Tim had called them – her ‘soft front bits’. The bastard had actually introduced himself to her breasts when they’d first met aboard Resolute. He’d thought he was being witty and irreverent. She’d thought he was being an immature, lecherous little prick.
She’d tried so hard to hate him, but he’d had a way about him… even when he’d found out that she was one of those Archers, his demeanor hadn’t changed. He’d still played the jester for her, always finding time to make her laugh, to show her that at least one her fellow middies didn’t care that she was a scion of an Old Family, didn’t expect anything from an Archer except finding himself in the occasional headlock and forced to apologize.
Natalya closed her eyes for a moment, remembering Tim’s smile, the light in his eyes that told he’d just thought of some new prank or joke, the feel of his muscles, taut beneath his skin. The gleam of sweat on their bodies, her hands finding his ‘hard front bit’. And she thought of how he must have died. Her knuckles whitened as she forced the memory down, out of her mind.
It didn’t matter that the Lefu might not have killed other worlds; they’d done it to hers.
She batted aside the attack aimed at her head, curving away from the next one thrusting at her torso. Her limbs ached with exertion, but she was not yet ready to end this. She shunted the pain away, ignoring it in favour of overriding her system with stimulants. She hated relying on the combat drugs. Her taps were dry anyways. She’d get them refilled, but later.
The attacker launched another jab, the blow so fast that it was almost impossible to track. ‘Almost’ was not good enough though and she ducked under it, dropping to the floor and kicking with both feet.
The combat golem shook and staggered back, internal systems processing the force of the kick. It determined that it had not received lethal damage and continued the attack, stabbing down at her viciously. She hissed as one of its claws pierced her tunic, withdrawing with traces of blood upon its edge. The golem was not allowed to inflict lethal wounds, but it could injure an unwary opponent all the same. She was slowing down.
Sensing weakness, the golem pressed its offensive, jabbing at her with its many limbs. She grabbed its forearms tightly, servos hissing as the unit attempted to pull itself out of her grasp. She brought her knee up into its underside and the golem shuddered, but again it determined this not to be a lethal-level attack.
She threw the golem back, buying herself the time to climb to her feet, a single drop of blood slipping down her side from where the unit’s claw had broken her skin. Her arms and legs felt as if they were made of lead and the golem still functioned. Damp with sweat, her outfit clung to her skin. The automaton prepared to a charge, but she held up a hand. The machine froze in its tracks, recognizing the order to abate.
It was only a training match; there was nothing on the line, nothing to prove against a simple automaton. But it kept her fit, kept her toned and ready. Another moment was coming, one in which she wouldn’t be pitted against a simple device, but against flesh-and-blood Enemy. In that fight, there would be no surrender, nor could there be.
It was what she was, what they all were. There was no creation without destruction, no glory without sacrifice.
No survival without murder.
Diana Pierce leaned back in her chair and rubbed her eyes. It was getting close to midnight and she was tempted simply to wrap things up for the night. Rodriguez had her looking for something that wasn’t there and Pierce suspected that the other woman knew that; she was simply placating her base by sending someone out to investigate the military’s ‘failures’ while refusing to assign blame until ‘all the facts were in’. That, coupled with her support to reactivate the Reserve, was preventing the Foundationists and the Conservatives from gaining further ground by emphasizing the PDP’s ‘known anti-military’ stance. That claim had more than a grain of truth in it, but neither Rodriguez nor Pierce were drum-beating zealots and when Rodriguez and her spin machine was finished, the other parties wouldn’t know which way was up.
Diana had found a few areas that could use improvement; sacrifices on the political altar. Firstly was the tradition in the fleet of referring to the League’s citizens as ‘Empties’. The Inner Worlds – from where the Concordat’s officer corps was primarily drawn – did it more than anyone else, but always acted aghast when such racist attitudes in others were brought to light.
‘Concord’ might seem less incendiary, but it had entered League slang for an untrustworthy, domineering person or agency, much as ‘Nazi’ had mutated in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Diana tapped a stylus on a stack of papers; by now, several League convoys should have arrived in Tebrinnin, expecting a customs check and a wave-off to their next destination. With the journey between the Concord and the League taking the better part of a year, the Empties would have no warning about what was waiting for their people. She tried not to think about that.
The League’s ambassadors were already demanding that the Concord Do Something to keep its citizens from emerging into an alien-held system, but there was nothing to do. Tebrinnin was the start of the Orion-Perseus hyperspace corridor; the Concord was trying to get a vessel around the Lefu lines and slip into the corridor elsewhere, but that took time.
There was a knock on her office door and the woman looked up. “Yes, come in.”
Her assistant poked his head in, his face ashen. “Madame Pierce, I… I…”
There was a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. No. “What is it, Adrian?”
The young man swallowed. “I, uh, I just overheard some of the officers talking. One of the scouts has returned from Priorii; they spotted a Lefu armada moving out. They’ll be here in less than five days.”
The blood drained from Diana’s face as she realized that Hyperion Hive’s time had just run out.