September 1, 4233
Unknown System: No designation (Enitri)
Milky Way Galaxy
“How bad is it?”
Junior Captain Allston shook her head. “As bad as it could be, sir. We’ve lost almost all of the hyper nodes; there’s no way we can generate a stable hyper field until we get them back. Engineering isn’t optimistic about replacing them, either. Not without access to more complete facilities than we’ve got.”
They were lucky to be alive, Jacob knew. After they’d drifted across Priorii’s hyper limit, they’d managed to jump towards Tebrinnin. Twice, they’d almost been intercepted in hyperspace by what he had to assume were Lefu patrols, but the aliens ran deeper in hyperspace than even the fastest League ships and there’d been no way for them to come about in time to catch Liberty – if they’d even been inclined to do so. The cruiser’s actions at Priorii had made it clear that the Lefu saw the League warship as a morsel to be snapped up at their leisure; certainly not a credible threat.
And with good reason, Goldstein thought angrily. They’d sabotaged his ship. He’d been so damned pleased when he’d thought Major Garcia’s last gambit had worked. When they’d managed to avoid being killed in hyperspace, when they’d even managed to get out of Tebrinnin and into the corridor to head home to the League.
In the days it had taken Liberty to get from Priorii to Tebrinnin, they’d managed to repair much of their power distribution systems and managed to reactivate the port shield wall projectors. It wasn’t much, but it was better than nothing. Point defences and sensors had been brought up to 12 and 42 percent respectively, which meant that they had a chance to down incoming missiles. Weapons were still a non-issue; the battleship didn’t yet have enough power to fight and defend itself simultaneously. Since entering combat was an effective death sentence, there was no point in restoring Liberty’s remaining weapons.
Those defences had come in very handy at Tebrinnin; the Lefu were very good at spotting incoming hyper wakes, even those of individual ships. One of their escort squadrons had almost been on top of Liberty when they’d emerged into Tebrinnin. Luckily, the aliens were used to sniping Concord scouts. League ships had superior hyper systems; their fields recharged faster, were more efficient. Even damaged as Liberty was, the ships intending to intercept it didn’t have the time to batter her into even more of a wreck before her hyper generators came back on-line.
She’d vanished from the aliens’ screens into the depths of the Orion-Perseus hyperspace corridor. Too deep in the system for their own entry, the Lefu had been left sucking thruster wash. Or so he’d thought.
When Liberty had been deep into the Epsilon layer, all hell had broken loose. They’d been sabotaged; the alien bastards had planted bombs on their hyper field generators. Five of the battleship’s eight bulbous projectors had been destroyed outright, two more severely damaged. One was unscathed; either the Lefu had assumed seven would be enough, or the explosive had come loose at some point in their journey. And thank God for that.
That deep in hyperspace, it had very nearly killed them; the tides of otherspace had seized a hold of the thrashing leviathan and pulled at it, trying to drag it down further into the stream, where it would be ripped into pieces. The runt – Midshipman Luke Wikail – at the helm had held the battleship against the current. Twice, she had nearly been pulled under but twice he had fought an entire dimension and won, bringing Liberty into realspace before of her quickly fading hyper field failed altogether.
Jacob shook his head; if the other two generators had been destroyed instead of damaged, not even Wikail’s preternatural piloting would have saved them. Those fucking bastards, he seethed. They knew. They never bought Garcia’s show. That’s why theywere so damned ready to let the radiation dissipate. Why they never bothered hunting us down; floundering around behind their lines, we’re nothing but a bug to be swatted. Couldn’t take the risk of us running home and letting the League know, though? You’re afraid of taking on too many humans, that it?
Out of spite, he was going to find some way to get home. And bring the entire League navy with him.
Until then, he was stuck here – wherever ‘here’ was. The Concord had never bothered to explore very far beyond Tebrinnin; before the League War, they had had all the expansion room they needed in the ‘Empty Worlds’. After the Zion Armistice, exploration had in this region had still remained a low priority; Tebrinnin was on the edge of the Orion arm. As systems were few and far between the spiral arms, it was more economical to expand on the Concord’s other frontiers. Politically, pushing the Concord’s borders towards the League had been the equivalent of a tight knot and a short drop – especially for the megacorporations whose abuse of the ‘Empties’ had started the war in the first place.
As of right now, the League ship found itself almost five hundred light-years away from the nearest beacon of civilization, which just happened to be infested with murderous aliens and over nine thousand light-years from their closest home port.
Jacob had deployed several drones to scout the nearby star system; it was possible that it was host to a long-lost colony or pirate den – anything that could help get Liberty back on her feet. One of the battleship’s fabricator suites was running, if at reduced capacity – even a nice, rich asteroid field would be a godsend.
The captain tapped his fingers on the arm of his chair. “Can we maneuver in hyperspace at all?”
“For no more than twelve hours at a time, with thirty hours of repair time per excursion. And if we go deeper than mid-Gamma, we’re risking losing the field completely.”
“Captains,” one of the trainees – their third Operations officer in as many weeks – called up. “One of our drones is reporting back. It’s receiving radio transmissions. Multiple sources. Triangulation is showing a planet – it’s blocked from our direct view by the system’s fourth gas giant. Analysis is consistent with an industrialized civilization.”
“Put up the feeds, ensign.”
The young woman complied, the battleship’s multiple viewscreens flickering with images, one barely resolving before another took its place. Strange, croaking language crackled over the speakers, as stout-bodied alien beings talked to, shot at, flirted with and advertised to others. Goldstein felt his mouth go dry. Television. We’re watching someone else’s television shows. They’d… they’d discovered another alien species. It was almost beyond belief.
“Do they know we’re here?”
“I… I don’t think so,” Ops replied quietly. She looked up and her expression was drawn. “This image just came in from the probe.”
“Merciful Lord,” Karen whispered as the probe’s data overlaid the cacophonous barrage of another world’s media. The planet, perhaps once a vibrant blue and green, was now a filthy brown, its atmosphere choked with soot and ash. Plains of tundra were now vast, continent-spanning fires. Better resolution images were relayed by the mindless little automaton with all the ceremony of a coroner peforming an autopsy.
Roads laced across the face of the planet and where they intersected, where cities had stood… there were only craters. Coastal lands were swamped, or drowned beneath the tsunamis that had swept across islands and low-lying plains. Whoever had done this had been determined to kill every last person on the planet without ruining it completely. The extermination had been thorough, economical.
“Those bastards,” Karen heard herself say. “Those soulless… animals.”
“We don’t know it was the Lefu,” Jacob said, almost against his will. It was true; the invaders might be a lot of things, but he hadn’t yet seen them commit an atrocity on this scale.
“Who else could it have been? Are there a lot of genocidal species running around out here?”
“Let’s find out. Helm, take us in. We’ll see if there are any survivors and…” he felt like a ghoul. “If there’s anything left that we can put to use.”
This was a waste of time.
The Scouting Fleet element emerged from brightspace;as expected, there was no sign of the Second Enemy Vessel here, either. Despite its advancements in brightspace technology over the Enemy Vessels, it was still far slower than they; the Scouting Vessels would have overtaken it by now, which meant that the sabotage the cruiser in the newly-conquered system had worked. The only question was, had the Second Enemy been cast into the depths of brightspace and rent girder from limb, or had they managed to rescue themselves?
That was what they were here to find out. The overwhelming probability was that the Second Enemy Vessel would only be seen again when it emerged as Mindless. Still,the small possibility that the Enemy survived had to be accounted for, although those commanding the small Scouting Fleet element doubted that they would find anything.
The Scouting Fleet element had already doubled back from the Second Enemy Vessel’s maximum range; there was no way that the Second Enemy Vessel could have slipped by them, so all that was left to investigate were the potential havens that it could be using for shelter. It was not easy; the entire length and breadth of the brightspace corridor could have been used, which spanned thousands of cubic light-years.
But, unless the Second Enemy wanted to die cold and alone, they would gravitate to the nearest star system – the larger the better. Better chance of finding help or simply an abundance of resources. That narrowed the range of possibilities considerably.
This region of space was neither familiar to them nor the Enemy, so they were both at a disadvantage.
The trio of dark-hulled cruisers swept through their target system like wolves, searching for the telltale signs of their prey. So far, not even a stray atom had been detected, which suggested that-
One of the cruisers curled towards an anomalous patch of space; one of its drones had detected something there and the Scouting Vessel moved to confirm it. This was impossible, this wasn’t right. Never, never, never had They come so far from Their territory.
Powerful sensors strobed outwards, licking like a snake’s tongue over the crystallized tufts of atmosphere, icy clumps of frozen liquid and useless debris. The jettisoned detritus of a starship’s waste. Fearful recognition shivered through the cruiser; there could be no doubt. The debris was cold and scattered, all but useless for determining how long ago it had been created, though the Scouting Fleet element had detected the squawking transmissions of another race, distantly remembered in the cruiser’s archives. Not yet an Enemy, not yet worthy of the Fleet’s attention.
But, if They had lingered there, They must have learned of the world as well. Its death would tell them how long ago the Prime Enemy had visited.
The images kept coming; the planet had been bombed ruthlessly. Not with nuclear weapons, but with asteroids. Something had sat above it and hurled rocks – little ones, big ones – at a defenceless world over and over. Analysis put the first strike and the last one 2, maybe 3 days apart.
“They wanted it,” Jacob mused.
Karen looked up from her readouts. “What?”
“They wanted the world. Look at this attack – it was meticulous. Here, this island city – first, all the bridges connecting it to the mainland were taken out with smaller meteors, then the city was blasted with one big one. No one was supposed to get out. But the dams, the nuclear power plants, the oil rigs – they haven’t been touched. There’s been collateral damage from the tsunamis and earthquakes, but whoever did this tried to leave as much of the infrastructure intact as possible.”
“Without those pesky inhabitants,” the younger woman replied bitterly.
Jacob nodded. The asteroid bombardment had been followed up with the atmospheric dispersal of a bio-weapon. One specifically targeted to the dominant species on this planet. It was unlikely that many of the inhabitants had survived the relentless bombing, but those that did wouldn’t even have had a chance to die from starvation. “How much of their industry survived?” he asked. There’d be time to feel like a grave robber later; right now he had a dying ship to fix and not enough resources to do it.
The junior captain shared his distaste, but she checked the telemetry coming from the probes dropped groundside. “Virtually nothing’s left on the smaller of the three continents, but the largest does have several recently-built factories that were located outside of city limits; they’re also cleaner burning then the majority of the surviving plants. Possibly a clean-air initiative, given the level of pollution in the planet’s atmosphere. Our probes are interfacing with their systems now – it will take some time, but Engineering’s optimistic that they can restore two, perhaps three factory complexes with our on-board resources. The… former inhabitants’ materials science is over two thousand years behind ours, but in a crunch – and at the very least – we can still manufacture crude replacements for most of our parts. We’ll need a lot of them – even with simple wear and tear, we’ll run through our stocks fairly quickly.
“At best, we can build the tools to build the tools, to build the tools to build us what we need.” She looked down at the soiled planet. “It’s not really stealing, is it sir?”
“No, it’s not.” Jacob laid a hand on his junior captain’s shoulder. “There’s no one left to steal from.”
“Captain!” Jacob whipped around at the strangled cry from Sensors. There was naked terror in the cadet’s wide eyes. “Lefu cruisers!”
The Scouting Fleet element slid closer towards the Second Enemy Vessel as it lay in orbit about the ruined world. It made no attempt to flee or to fight; there was no indication that it had spotted them at all. Initially, those aboard the sleek dagger-headed warships had been confused; had the Second Enemy cleansed this planet? If so, why? Had the debris they’d encountered been from it’s own pocket rampage? A false positive?
But as augur information trickled back to them, that illusion of hope had dissipated. The cleansing had been too precise, too measured. In its present condition, the Second Enemy Vessel could never have hoped to carry out such a campaign.
The bombardment had been fresh; the sleepers were coming.
No; they were already here.
“What are they doing?” Jacob wondered as the trio of alien warships crept towards the planet.
“Coming to check on their handiwork,” Karen answered sourly.
“It’s possible, but that’s an extremely cautious approach vector. They have to know that we’re in no shape to fight even one of them. We’re also well within their missile envelope, yet they haven’t fired.” Goldstein scratched the stubble on his chin. What are they doing?
“Senior Captain. We’re… we’re receiving a transmission from…” the officer blinked, unable to believe it. “From one of the Lefu ships.”
“What? Put it up on the main speakers.”
The officer swallowed. “Yes, sir.” The bridge’s comm crackled and spat with static for a few seconds before the cadet managed to clear it up. The first transmission from the Lefu, humanity’s perpetually silent, implacable killers was but a single word, delivered in a computer’s artificial monotone. “Run.”