Children of Heaven, Chapter 14

Chapter 14:

March 19, 4201
Unknown System: designated UCS-12811
Uncharted Space
Milky Way Galaxy

BXAS Aurora

“Alex! Alex, come and see this! It’s incredible.”

Alexandra LeFay let herself be led through Aurora’s blue-hued corridors as Renee Zeitmore tugged on her arm. “Okay, okay – what’s so incredible?”

Copernicus just picked it up an hour ago; it’s all over the fleet’s network! Where have you been?”

“I was recording a message to Donald. He was just assigned to the Unrepentant and I wanted to make sure it got to him before they sail for Tebrinnin. I heard that the League’s on the verge of breaking – if they can get through the Empty lines-”

“Then they’ll win a glorious victory for king and country, rah rah, wave the flags. Come on, Alex – I’m talking about something that really matters!”

Alex glared at Renee, but the other woman was so excited that she didn’t notice; she probably hadn’t even realized that she’d put her foot in her mouth. Again. It wasn’t that Renee disliked Donald, or even the military in general; it was just that she saw them as unimportant in the grand scheme of things and all too often underfoot when it came to the advancements of science. To her, the BXA should never have to justify its budget to the Navy, who loaned it and the other exploratory and scientific bodies ships and personnel – the Navy should simply be grateful to bask in the presence of scientists, researchers and the other intellectual elite.

Little things like defence obligations, piracy and even the occasionally full-scale war were simply distractions that bit into the BXA’s pursestrings. It gave Renee tunnel vision, but there was no denying that she was very good at her job. It was often Renee’s work that Alexandra found herself describing to Donald in her letters, since every time she tried it with her field, he got That Look in his eyes, like a drowning man still trying to admit that he could swim. He’d only passed Biology in high school because of her help, though there had been times when they’d both been more interested in each other then the difference between mitosis and meiosis.

“All right,” Alexandra surrendered. “What’s this galaxy-shattering event? Did one of the probes pick up some bacteria on a comet again?”

“Nooo,” Renee replied. “The captain’s been trying to find you for half an hour. You really should leave your comm on. You know how he hates that, especially since it’s giving Copernicus the chance to one-up him. First they found it and now they’ve got all their experts on it, while I’m still dragging you around.”

Shortly, they arrived on Aurora’s command deck. Unlike the highly secure, minimalist affairs of warships, the science vessel’s bridge was much larger, with a conference room found in the back, where the Secondary Plotting Station was located in flag vessels. In the middle of the bridge, and banks of the most capable computers in the Concordat clustered fore and aft, and running along the sides. Bits and pieces of conversation filtered through the hubbub of officers and scientists scurrying to and fro.

“…obviously space capable, but….”

“…still be five hundred years before we picked up their transmissions….”

“…cousin loves cats, he’s going to die if I don’t….”

“…first contact mission, and it’s ours….”

“Ah, Mrs. LeFay. How kind of you to join us,” Captain Lucas Tankersley quipped. He was a decorated Navy officer, who’d been given the job of ‘herding cats’ aboard the Aurora as an easy way to finish up his career – and keep him away from the front lines. At least, that’s what Alex had heard, but she didn’t know why. She guessed that the perpetual cup in his hand had something to do with it.

“Sorry, sir.”

“Well, as long as you’re here, take your station. We could use your expertise.”

“What’s happened, sir?”

Tankersley nodded towards the main viewer. Alexandra followed his gesture and gasped. There, frozen on the screen, was the grainly, black-and-white image of an alien’s face. It looked male, though Alexandra had no way of confirming that without a more extensive examination of its anatomy. It also possessed a sleek pelt and pointed ears on the top of its head. Its features were startlingly similar to human interpretations of anthropomorphic animals. In this case; a cat.

Copernicus detected the first radio transmissions from their world less than a hour ago,” Lucas informed Alexandra. “We have a triangulation on them; only ten light-years away. We’re moving out, immediately.”

~

Five days later, Alexandra was exhausted. She’d gone over every scrap of data that Copernicus had been able to sample; this planet was still in its silent-movie era, only recently mastering television. Which was good for her; it made it harder to understand the species’ biology if they were into CGI. Slapstick was apparently a big hit; the Kitties had a pretty popular show analogous to the Three Stooges.

She’d been working up rough anatomy sketches from the shows; there was sexual dimorphism in this species. The females were smaller and lithe, with multiple breasts. She and her staff made what she thought were good tentative maps of their muscle and bone structure; organ placement was trickier, since there was no way to see through their skin, simply from those old movies. What I’d give for a few hours with a IMSIS and a few subjects, she thought wistfully. Linguistics were still hammering out the fine points of the Kitties – she was really going to have stop calling them that, but the name was running through the entire fleet – speech, but they had a good pidgin vocabulary at the moment.

BXA protocols called for careful first contact; the fleet would remain well away from the planet until they had a definitive grip on language and culture. If it was felt that it could be initiated without cultural contamination, then and only then they would reveal themselves. This was one of the reasons that the Concord had not revealed themselves to the Villipvi nor the other sentient species – catalogued as the Bo’ua after the largest tribe – whom the BXA perpetually watched; neither species was likely to handle such an event well.

There was a good chance that the Kitties – No, the Ashaki, Alexandra corrected herself – might be able to. Alexandra found it hard to sleep; she and the rest of the crew of her expedition were on the verge of what might be the defining moment of their entire generation!

~

+contact: established+

+threat assessment: high/minimal+

+defensive assets: moderate/minimal+

+industrial capacity: unknown/minimal+

+population: unknown/moderate, widespread+

+planetary biosphere: unknown/habitable; gravity higher than nominal+

+final assessment: termination/termination+

+imperatives: summon killships. initiate cleansing. capture highthreat data spools for analysis+

+operation: initiated+

~

“Captain, we’ve got a hyper wake coming in.”

Tankersley blinked. “We do?”

“Yes, sir. It’s over a day out, but it’s coming in hard, if not fast. A big one, too.”

“We shouldn’t have gotten a response from our messages back to the fleet base that quickly.”

“No, sir – maybe it’s a squadron out on deep patrol?”

“They still shouldn’t have gotten word from Command that quickly and they definitely shouldn’t be moving that slowly.” Tankersley frowned. “Bring the ships to yellow alert, just in case.”

“Communication from Apache, sir. Captain Darnier is requesting Copernicus, Aurora and Galileo go to systems cold, in case these newcomers are bandits.” Apache and its sister ship Iroquois were the Navy watchdogs sent along to safeguard the trio of survey cruisers.

“Confirm that,” Tankersley picked up the comm from his chair arm. He’d never wanted a drink more. “All personnel, this is the captain. We have detected a large hyper wake en route to this system and as of this moment, we are running silent until the all clear is given. Shut down all extraneous systems until otherwise notified.”

In her quarters, Alexandra looked up anxiously before saving the still-unsent letter to Donald and switching off her personal computer.

~

+situational assessment: modified+

+highthreat vessels diminished: probability 87% of stealth operations+

+imperative: neutralize highthreat, initiate cleansing+

~

“Those are some very big fucking ships,” Commander Danielle Fargé whispered to her superior. And they were; each of the half-dozen was nearly three times the size of Apache and its sister Iroquois and far more massive. The newcomers were a dull reddish grey and they were ugly things, too – looking head-on at them, they resembled upside-down trapezoids, or very wide-bottomed filled-in Vs. Honeycomb structures of what Fargé knew had to be missile tubes and energy mounts lined their broadsides, with an array of sensors, heavy cannon and shield projectors jutting out from the vessels’ blunt prows like spindly insectoid antennae. With no regard for aesthetics, the ships bulged towards the aft, swelling blockily into a massive armour-laden drive section bracketed by hangars that jutted out from the main hull like nacelles.

Concordat ships were built with more art than those flying slabs.

And with the firepower they were packing, Fargé knew that they hadn’t come to the Kitties’ planet for tea and crumpets. Especially not with two of those monsters breaking off towards one of the system’s larger asteroids. The other four were coming straight for the Concordat cruisers. Or maybe the planet; in fairness, Apache and Iroquois were between the world and the newcomers.

“Texas builds bigger ships,” the captain snorted, then looked towards the comm officer, resting his chin on his hands. “Hail them on every frequency we’ve got,” Darnier ordered.

“Shall we include a copy of our language banks?” Communications asked.

“Not just yet. They may think we’re trying to send them a virus. If they respond and seem friendly, we’ll go from there.”

Fargé raised an eyebrow. “They don’t look like the friendly type, sir.”

Darnier half-shrugged. “Nevertheless.”

~

“We should have heard from them by now,” Danielle noted, an edge of worry in the commander’s voice.

Darnier was trying to seem nonchalant, but Fargé could see the worry in her superior’s eyes as he spoke. “Maybe they’re just formulating a response.”

“Yeah, those two out by the asteroid looked like they’re ‘formulating’ the biggest hello this planet’s ever seen.”

“Nevertheless,” Darnier replied. “Repeat our hail; this time include the language codes. Communications, after you’ve done that, whip me up some pictographs. I don’t want this to get lost in translation, but I think allowing our friends out there to flatten the Ashaki would be a bad thing. Make it clear that we won’t allow that.”

“Sir, this fight is none of our business,” Danielle said carefully.

“This ‘fight’ is as one-sided as a cougar versus a bum-legged frog. It’s not only murder on a global scale, it’s genocide. I refuse to believe tha every single Ashaki deserves to die for whatever grievance our visitors seem to have with them. The Concord does not condone mass murder and neither do we. If this does turn out to be a planet of fuzzy blue Hitlers, we’ll apologize very sweetly to our friends out there – maybe invite them to a barbeque – and help them toss the next big rock. Until then, we shan’t be party to someone pulling the wings off flies.”

“Yes, sir.”

~

+situational assessment: modified+

+information: highthreat known. querying archival spools. data processing+

+imperative: engage. now+

~

“Multiple mission separations! We are counting three, four hundred launches per enemy ship! They’re firing on our surveyors!”

“Point defence to group defence mode! Apache to Aurora; you’ve been detected. Get your systems up and run for the hyper limit; maximum thrust. Iroquois and we shall cover your withdrawal.”

~

Apache’s defences opened fire. At twenty million kilometers, her defensive missiles stabbed out from her broadside tubes, ranging in on the larger shipkillers fired onto the vessels she was supposed to protect.

At a range of five million kilometers, the cruiser’s counter-missile tubes and turrets spat flurries of malevolent little warheads out, matched by her sister ship’s volleys. They were not as powerful as defensive missiles, but they were quicker and ships could carry more of them. At three hundred thousand kilometers, Apache’s point defence lasers began to fire. The alien missiles were big, but they were slow and clumsy and their warheads vanished from the screens in wave after wave and the Concordat officers and crew felt a brief surge of hope only to have it dashed. If their missiles were individually easy to pick off, the newcomers knew how to compensate. They weren’t firing solely from their bow tubes, but from their port and starboard ones as well, the missiles curving around to shriek up towards the Concordat ships.

They were also firing faster than Darnier had anticipated, staggering their salvos so that while his defences were busy with one wave, another would slip through. Apache shuddered as she took a hit through her fluctuating shield wall and a concentrated plume of plasma cored through the cruiser’s armour. “Missile Ten is out, along with Sensor Five and Battery Twelve! Radiation hazard across multiple decks, and we’re reading several hull breaches. Those missiles are damned heavy, sir!”

“Understood,” Darnier replied.

Iroquois reports she has a good lock on the nearest enemy capital – she’s requesting weapons free.”

“Tell Jake he’s clear to take his shot – Guns, once you have a good lock, fire. Time on target, don’t wait for my orders.”

“Too many of their missiles are getting through; the further the surveyors get from us, the more slip past our defences; they’re not cut out to cover themselves from this weight of fire.”

Galileo is streaming air from her aft section – she’s badly hurt, sir. Her acceleration’s dropping.”

“Keep us on pace with the surveyors as best you can,” Darnier snapped. “Guns, do you have a firing solution yet?”

“Yessir; salvo one away.”

“Turn us into the attackers. Let’s give them something new to think about.”

~

There were cheers on Aurora’s bridge as the lead enemy ship vanished in a roiling ball of fire as Apache and Iroquois focused their attack upon it, trying to force to defend itself rather than engage the weaker survery cruisers, but whoever was in command seemed utterly indifferent to the assault, continuing to rail fire at every target it could.

“Target hit!” Sensors exulted as they survey crew watched the monster go up in flames. “By God, target hit!”

“Didn’t like that, did you bastards?” someone else cried.

“Stuff that!” Tankersley snarled at his crew. “She’s still fighting.”

And it was true; the alien monolith slid right through the inferno; though its bow was mangled beyond recognition, it still kept pumping missiles out of its broadside tubes. Iroquois staggered under the relentless barrage, the aliens only now switching their targets to the vessels that could hurt them. For every missile that the cruisers downed, there was another to take its place. And another. Another.

So sudden was Iroquois’s death that there wasn’t even a Code Black; something failed deep inside the ship; one moment it had been there, dying, breaking and the next a star’s fury had been unleashed, shredding the vessel and its crew into stripped atoms.

Apache’s turn came next and the cruiser was battered into rubble, its guns falling silent, the entire hull turning dark as its power failed. The wounded leviathan swung in towards the stricken ship, intending to board it as its fellows shifted their attention back to the surviving science vessels. That flail came crashing down, hundreds of missiles racing towards their own immolation. The damaged Galileo was first; its wounded engine section exploded, the fore third of the science vessel hurled drunkenly across the stars. Then Copernicus, burning and ruined, fell out of formation.

Finally, it was Aurora’s turn.

Alexandra LeFay clutched her wedding photos to her chest as her ship shuddered and broke all around her, the shouts and screams of the crew drowning out the incessant keening of the alarms.

She closed her eyes. Donald.

~

+termination sequence fulfilled+

+planet remains+

+cleansing protocol to be completed in 12.9 intervals+

+imperative: salvage highthreat relics. begin synthesis of neutralization agent. report highthreat presence+

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