September 12, 4233
United Terran Concord
“Don’t. You. Fucking. Dare!” Natalya swore unprofessionally as she watched hundreds of the enemy fighters break towards the helpless resort world further in-system. If they get through… she ran through quick mental calculations. …it’s going to be bad. We could be looking at a Desecration-level event. If the enemy fighters were rigged for dogfighting, the damage would be minimal, though still easily in the millions. If they carried antiship weapons, they could depopulate Hyperion Secundus utterly. More than that, even.
She had seen what using gigaton-level warheads did to an unprotected planet; the war with the Resurgency had been the one time that the Concord had authorized such attacks under Special Directive Seventeen, an order that had been on the books since the Concord’s founding and never used until then. From its earliest inception, the Concord had never changed that order’s name. When a ‘Desecration’ was ordered, there could be no mistake, no misunderstanding.
Admiral Foraker had drawn most of Hyperion Secundus’s defences away on the belief that the Lefu never went after civilian targets until the military threat was dealt with. Aside from their first attacks, they hadn’t even nuked planetary sites. Were they bluffing, trying to draw out the HAVOCs and pounce on them? It didn’t matter. With BG 97’s forces already committed to engaging the enemy fleet, there was nothing in the universe could intercept the Lefu fighters before they reached the planet. But there was still a chance in the three BCVs that flew with Natalya and Light Brigade.
“Emergency override to William Wallace’s carrier squadron,” Natalya rasped. “They will now move to intercept and engage the Lefu fighters heading towards the planet. Julius Caesar and Winston Churchill’s squadrons will continue the assault on their cruiser screen.”
The order was relayed and she felt her crew’s eyes on her. Wallace’s HAVOCs were the ones modified for dogfighting. Without them, the Azazel’s fighters would rip the Concordat squadrons to pieces. No matter what she did, she was abandoning someone. But there were eight hundred million people on Hyperion Secundus that had no other hope. The cold equations.
“All other ships, disengage stealth operations; assault plan Lance-Four. Close and engage.”
SLIPs, also known as Ship-Launched Instrument Platforms, were corvette-sized automata carried by battleships, dreadnaughts and fortresses in both internal hangars and clamped onto their hulls, released once combat was joined. They were designed to supplement their host vessel’s capabilities; SLIP(S) were sensor platforms. PD-variants were point-defence clusters, SLIP(M)s were missile platforms, tied into their host’s command systems. SLIP(E)s carried heavy, though slow-firing, energy mounts.
The drones were defenceless; they possessed no shield walls and as such, were extremely vulnerable to damage, but they were intended to be sacrificed. Each missile pod carried 8-14 tubes, which did not sound impressive until one took into account that a dreadnaught could deploy and control up to 30 SLIPs at once. Fortresses, particularly those with extensive command links, could handle many more; currently, Hyperion Prime Command Base was operating over a hundred of the weapons pods simultaneously, with each of a dozen orbital fortresses responsible for dozens more. The Concord’s confidence in the Lefu’s inability to take on their orbital grid was justified: the weight of fire that they possessed here could stall entire battlegroups. If BG 97 could break the aliens’ advance, they would not – could not – tangle with the fortresses without catastrophic losses.
That had been the theory.
“Get on them! Get on them now!”
Point defences spat like angry cats, filling space with a crisscrossed network of fire, but they had been designed to intercept missiles on undeviating final attack vectors and larger, less agile HAVOCs. The Lefu fighters jinked and spun like dervishes as they threaded their way through the hellish fire of Hyperion Prime’s defences. But if those guardians had never been designed for this kind of assault, neither were they useless: there were simply too many defences for the aliens not to suffer losses and the Lefus’ were terrible, fighter after fighter ripped to shreds, but there were hundreds more and they swept through the field, blasting the helpless SLIPs to pieces in their wake, missiles and cannon cracking the weapons pods like eggs.
They paid no attention to the SLIP(PD)s; they sought out the missile platforms and the sensor eyes that guided them, scything through their ranks, leaving broken and burning husks in their wake.
Alarms whined aboard the hive’s CiC and Admiral Foraker gripped the upper mezzanine’s railing so tightly that his fingers ached, watching helplessly as holes were ripped in his defensive formation, more and more Lefu HAVOCs spiraling through those dead zones, towards the shipyards. Their savagery was almost inconceivable; those defences could have stopped dreadnaught squadrons in their tracks, but they might have been made of tissue paper for all the good they did against the alien fighters.
The aliens struck like the wrath of a god, missiles poured into the shipwombs, lasers of all stripes, particle beams and railguns lacerated the unprotected latticework and the helpless vessels that lay within. Some were down for minor repairs or overhaul, others were still in construction – everything from HAVOCs all the way up to dreadnaughts. The Hyperion Yards were over sixty kilometers across and every inch of them was a crucible of creation.
And they were all burning, the infant vessels that they sheltered and tended treated to abortions of fire, metal and flesh writhing and shrieking as the apocalypse reached out for them both.
Missiles screamed out from the Lefu formation into the two Concordat forces assaulting them; the aliens were forced to divide their attention, whereas each of the human flotillas was focused on but a single aspect of their targets. But it was costing them. Admiral Hunt’s formation bled ships like the entrails of some great beast. Her cruiser and escort screens had been wiped from the face of the universe to the last and her battlecruisers and dreadnaughts thundered their hate into the face of the aliens, defiant and proud.
The missiles that the Lefu superdreadnaughts carried were worse than the Terrans imagined. With their shield walls down, cruisers could survive no more than 2 of those unspeakable warheads. Escorts were lucky to endure but one of them and neither had survived for long. But still they had fought, screening the larger ships of BG 97 until their last breath, refusing to give a meter of ground to the species that had already butchered millions of mothers, fathers, sons and daughters. This was where it ended, where it had to end.
They had gotten into their own range behind their final gambit, pushing their April Fools’ ships into the first swarms, setting their reactors into the largest, messiest explosions that they could, blinding the Lefu’s fire control, degrading their control over their missiles and ruining many of those same warheads’ sensors eyes, leaving them blind and no longer capable of seeing their targets, let alone killing them. But the storm kept lashing them, long tendrils of metal and flame reaching out from the heart of their formation to flay and tear at the Terran defenders.
The Lefu were not invulnerable and their own ships, pock-marked and ruined, dropped from their ranks. A destroyer here, a cruiser there. Even their battleships were not immune to the massed fire of the Concordat forces. But their EW was adapting faster, their weapons were more damaging, their ships were far tougher. It took the fire of entire Terran squadrons to break a single Lefu ship in a most unequal rate of exchange. The Lefu were Leviathan reborn, returned from the abyss and raging at all creation.
Their superdreadnaughts’ fire ripped through TF 111 with terrifying accuracy, unspeakable warheads driven by tracking systems of unheard of power and malevolence. Charity was the first to die, its bow shield wall collapsing under the bombardment and a rogue missile slashed up along its port side, the wake of its drive tearing a gouge the length of the ship. Venerable failed a moment later, broken in half by three missiles directly to its midsection. Valiant’s prow third burst open like a rotted melon, hurling what was left of the broken ship through its own lines.
HAVOCs and Lefu fighters tore into one another in a furball millions of kilometers across, the Concordat attackers stalled in their attempts to break through and engage the remaining escorts and cruisers of the Lefu’s screen, the Terran fighter wings savaged by their smaller enemies, unable to fend off the flickering, Protean formation that enveloped them.
The weight of fire coming from the Ahrimans and Abaddons was almost unbelievable; the heavier SDs carried missile tubes larger than some starships and when they fired, virtually nothing could survive that kind of damage. The only hope the nimbler battlecruisers of TF 111 had was the fact that the Lefu’s own screening units prevented their superdreadnaughts from rapid-firing into them; Admiral Hunt and the rest BG 97 were not as fortunate.
Natalya rode her ship into that cone of destruction, tears of grief and hate in her eyes as her crews gave everything they had and more, but as Inexorable, Captain Frida Gutenberg and fifteen thousand men and women vanished in a rippling garland of detonations, she knew it wasn’t enough.
The Scouting Vessel flashed into darkspace at the outer orbitals of the major Enemy Base. A cursory scan confirmed the presence of the Fleet elements here: Strike, Onslaught and Aggressor. The crew of the small cruiser knew what was at stake here, but they also knew what was at stake everywhere and they called out to their brothers and sisters in every way that they knew how.
His ship had taken two hits through her shields and would have been dead if not for the fact that they’d been fired from the battleships, not the superdreadnaughts. As it was, Courageous’s port flank was almost a complete loss and she had a hull breach that extended through multiple decks. LeFay had rolled his ship to put Courageous’s functional starboard side to the enemy, for what that was worth; his magazines were emptying too quickly for too little reward.
Donald dug his fingernails into his palms as he, like Natalya Archer, was forced to watch thousands of men and women die. It’s not going to be enough, he realized. We’re hurting them, but it’s costing us too much.
“Captain, Communications has received a data squirt from one of the drones we left in the outer system; it detected the arrival of a Nakir,” Commander George Orsonly informed LeFay. “She’s screaming bloody murder on every frequency. Most of it we don’t have any idea what it is, but Analysis picked this out of the data stream.”
LeFay spared a quick glance for the material showing up on his personal display. Then he did a double-take, the blood draining from his face. That’s not possible. “Compare the emission signatures in this file to those in our archival banks,” he ordered, the words coming out in a rush. He didn’t have time to do this himself, and his crew were used to the occasional odd demand. “Directory Gilgamesh, file IFF/Dawn. Use the passcode ‘revelation’ – lower case.”
One of his tactical analysts bobbed her head. “Yes, sir.”
The moments passed agonizingly, all the more so as if the time it look his ensign to compare the data, two more battlecruisers were blown out of the sky. Impeccable and Accuser. He’d known both their captains. “93% match,” the young woman informed LeFay, though from the confusion in her voice, she had no idea what that meant.
Ignorance is bliss. LeFay practically slurred his words together, the urgency in his voice unmistakable. “Get it to the hive. Get it to the hive, now.”
The Enemy had damaged the Fleet. More than Command had anticipated, but not enough to change the outcome. The Enemy Vessels were dying too rapidly. The Onslaught Fleet element was making the difference; they were too much for the Enemy to handle and they flayed the incoming squadrons, stripping the lesser vessels from the main Enemy group, exposing their own dreadnaughts to Onslaught Fleet’s fire.
This was how it was, how it had to be. There could be no other option but flame and death.
Vast obsidian juggernauts, remorseless and methodical, selected their new targets and launched upon them.
The flail came crashing down.
“It’s no good, Admiral. We’ve put holes in their screen, but we can’t keep trading punches with their battleships and boomers. Their HAVOCs are falling back from the shipyard; once they re-arm and launch, we won’t be able to hold.”
Hunt hissed out a breath between her teeth; her flag captain was right. Unless BG 97 broke from the engagement within the next twelve minutes, they’d be overwhelmed. It galled her to admit it, but even with the Lefu besieged from both sides, they needed the hive’s defences to break the alien lines. “Withdraw,” she ordered. It was not a defeat; it was only a temporary withdrawal, chance to re-arm and repair. The Lefu would have to come to the fortresses now.
She tried to tell herself that, but if the alien fighters made it to Hyperion Secundus before Archer’s HAVOCs, it would all be for nothing.
“Admiral – Thunderer!” The cry came from somewhere in the crew pit and Alicia turned towards the fleet display, acid bubbling up into her throat. Neither decades of service in the fleet nor centuries of genetic enhancement could quell the woman’s atavistic flush of fear as she watched a god of metal thrash in its final, tortured agonies.
The Enemy dreadnought belched fire from more than a dozen ruptures in its hull, the flames vanishing as quickly as they formed as the vacuum snuffed them out. The dying ship heeled sharply to starboard as its crew lost control of their own vessel, its weapons bereft of orders, single batteries launching on their own volition as the Enemy Vessel dropped from the battlegroup’s command network. The remaining Enemy ships began to suffer all the more as their comrade could no longer assist in its own defence and the Fleet’s salvos rushed through the gap in their own defences.
“Warlord to Thunderer – abandon ship!”
“Negative, admiral. We can hold her! We can save her!”
“No, you can’t. The Lefu have you locked in; their next salvo’s already on the way. Abandon ship.”
Slowly at first and then in ever-increasing numbers, lifepods burst away from the burning giant, pinnaces, assault boats and shuttles packed with crew fleeing from its crumbling hangars. Only a third of the crew made it off before those monster warheads arrived. There was a flash, brighter and more terrible than a star and when it faded, there was nothing left of Thunderer but ionized gas and chunks of debris.
“Continue to disengage,” Hunt ordered tiredly. “Switch to defensive missiles and order Commodore Archer to do the same.”
Singh nodded. “Yes, admiral.”
“Admiral – we’re picking up unusual energy signatures from the Lefu fleet.”
Natalya practically jumped up out of her seat. “What are they doing?”
“They’re tightening up into a defensive formation; Commodore, they’ve stopped firing and they’re grappling their cripples. I think… I think they’re preparing for a withdrawal.”
“Missiles loose – reading multiple missile drives incoming. High acceleration curves, consistent with Lefu defensive missiles, not their shipkillers. Jamming is spiking heavily; they are attempting to break off.” Sensors admitted it with a note of wonder in his voice. “They’re changing course, too – closing with Hyperion Meta. My guess is that they’re preparing to slingshot it.”
“Reading what looks like smaller boats – they’re recovering their personnel. Recalling their fighters, too. Commodore, they’re firing on their own hulks!”
Evacuating the crew first. They’re not total monsters. “They don’t want to leave us anything,” she realized aloud. A thin smile formed on her lips. “Operations – new orders to the squadron. Cut every ship without functional engines loose; the rest of us will slip up their skirts; we’re going to chase them the rest of the way out of this system.”
Confirmations from her surviving battlecruisers rolled in, all except for Courageous. “Negative on stern-chase, Intolerance. The squadron will stand down.”
Donald heard Commodore Archer’s order to pursue the Lefu fleet. Tactically, it was a sound idea. TF 111 and its Operation Light Brigade had attacked the Lefu from around Hyperion Meta; if the aliens continued on their projected course, the battlecruisers would fall in right behind them and, shackled by the slower SDs, the Lefu wouldn’t be able to outrun them, either. TF 111 could dog them all the way to the hyper limit.
Strategically, he couldn’t let that happen. As soon as they picked up that data stream from their scout, they aborted their attack. There’s no way they don’t recognize those signatures. They know they can take this system, but now they can’t afford the ships it’ll cost them. It was a gamble – everything he ‘knew’ was speculation at best, wishful thinking at worst. But what wasn’t speculation or wishful thinking was the data from that scout, confirming his worst fears, a nightmare from thirty years ago.
Opening a secure channel to Intolerance, Donald LeFay took a step that could very well end his career. “Negative on stern-chase, Intolerance. The squadron will stand down.”
For a moment, Natalya was positive that she’d heard Donald incorrectly. “Say again, Courageous?”
There was a pause longer than communications lag could account for. “Negative on stern-chase. Please rescind the attack order. We’re not going after them.”
“I’m going to consider that suggestion a result of combat fatigue and not an act of insubordination,” Natalya said carefully, her cheeks flushing with anger.
“It’s not a suggestion, Natalya,” Donald said softly. “It’s an order.”
“You don’t give orders to me, Captain,” the young woman hissed dangerously.
“In these circumstances, I do. Authorization code: Seven. One. Phoenix. Zed. Eight. Eight. Zero. Three. Directive: Case Omega.”
Against her will, Natalya input LeFay’s code. Her screen went blank for a moment, then a status report appeared; the computer was accessing its sealed orders archive! Another few seconds and CODE AUTHENTICITY CONFIRMED appeared on-screen. That was odd; normally sealed orders came with a summary of the directive. This one didn’t. It just had just a note that if activated, it took precedence over all issued commands. She nodded towards Prevarian, who relayed the orders to disengage to the rest of her ships.
“All right,” she confirmed to LeFay. Her tone was not enthusiastic. “Your play. Why are we letting these murdering bastards go?” Her eyes drifted towards the holo tank and the retreating armada. They’d cost her so much already and she wanted them. She wanted them so badly that she could taste it and it took everything she had not to countermand his orders, no matter what that directive said. She wanted to hurt them more, to make them bleed all the way to the hyper limit. It was no less than what they deserved.
“That’s classified,” Donald replied.
“No, it isn’t. Not if you expect me to let them go, Donald. These fuckers have rolled over a dozen of our star systems, killed millions of our people and now when we have a chance to bleed them a little more, you tell me – you order me – to let them go with this ‘classified case omega’ bullshit. No. Not without some idea of what the hell is going on. Give me something, or we’ll see where this goes.”
Another pause. “All right. I can’t tell you everything right now, but… I think the Lefu just found someone that they hate more than us.”
Foraker paused for a moment, reading over the after-action report for the thousandth time. It didn’t help. Forty percent of BG 97 had been put out of commission, another twenty percent suffered mid to heavy damage. In exchange, they’d inflicted perhaps twenty-five percent casualties on a numerically inferior and outmaneuvered force, with unknown damage to their surviving ships. None of the Lefu wrecks were worth salvaging; if anything had been left of them at all, it was irradiated, melted and blasted into complete worthlessness. He had dispatched a few vessels to sweep the debris more thoroughly, but they hadn’t checked in yet.
Hyperion’s shipyards were virtually a total loss; thank God he’d had them evacuated beforehand, since the alien HAVOCs hadn’t either known or hadn’t cared about the differences between machine shops and workers’ quarters. Hyperion Secundus was good news; the damage to the planet had been minimal and casualties were light. The Lefu fighters hadn’t carried out genocidal attacks and retreated to their carriers after the aliens had begun to pull out.
They’d held. It was still possible that they could have won; Admiral Hunt’s group had been headed back to the fortresses and the Lefu screen had been all but destroyed; the combined fire of her surviving CASK-armed ships and the orbital grid would have racked the kill count up even higher. Yes, it was possible. Just not probable; the Lefu boomers were simply too tough. He didn’t know if they could have cracked his defences, but he knew that there wouldn’t be much left of them if the Lefu had made the attempt. Thankfully, they hadn’t.
Because it appeared that they, too, had a Case Omega of their own. It was possible that this had been an elaborate ruse, since the incepted parts of the Nakir’s had been transmitted in a format that, his analysts told him, was designed to be read by Concordat computer systems. Courageous’s personnel thought that it had been supplementary information, that the light cruiser’s crew had forgotten to encrypt it in their haste. That wasn’t the case; the Lefu had wanted the Concord to see at least part of what they were saying.
It was impossible that they knew about Case Omega; none of the ships lost to them had personnel who knew about it, and a warship’s sealed archives erased themselves unless they were accessed in a very specific way. So, if it had been a ruse, the Lefu would have needed preternatural senses to learn just what they had to say and to know precisely how Captain LeFay would react. In order to secure a retreat from a battle that they had every chance of winning.
He shook his head, standing up from his desk. It had been a long day and he desperately needed rest. Turning off the lights in his office, he headed for the door, freezing in mid-step as his comm buzzed insistently. Groaning, he turned around and hit it. “Foraker.”
“Sir,” one of his aides began. “We’ve just received word from Hyperion Secundus – they’ve got a prisoner.”