September 12, 4233 (Several hours ago)
United Terran Concord
Inner system, closing on Hyperion Secundus.
Space was never silent.
The electromagnetic chatter of a thousand times a thousand suns filled it with crackles and pops, a static symphony that meant nothing, yet filled the universe from its darkest shadows to its brightest plateaus. There were other voices in space; the hushed whispers of warships conspiring, the stammering yelps of haulers and yachts.
Planets sang too, crying and spilling the fears and hopes of their inhabitants across the ether in every direction. Too many of these worlds had learned, in their final moments, that that very song was what had led their killers to them. There was no peace out here, there was no freedom, no enlightenment. There was only what there was: a galaxy red in tooth and claw, where only the strongest survived.
There was no silence in the depths of space, and there was no silence here. A world, recognizing that its killers had come, pleaded and sobbed and begged on the wings of radio, but the swarm that descended upon it had nothing to say, for there was nothing to say.
Many would die, and she regretted that, but she regretted more what would happen if she did not fulfill her duty.
“Faster,” Wing Captain Abigail Drake whispered, her eyes fixated on the display. Over three hundred Lefu fighters were swinging in towards Hyperion Secundus; all her HAVOCs were red-lining their drives in a desperate bid to intercept the aliens.
The Enemy’s Fire Knives had reacted too late, from too far away: they would never reach them in time. They would sweep the planet clean of the Enemy and their base upon it would burn in Wrath’s fires.
She checked her readouts; the Enemy Base’s targeting sensors should… be… gone?
Their jamming wasn’t that good; there should be some sign of the Enemy’s base on the planet by now; the furious defences that the other Fire Knives had encountered around the Enemy shipyard and their own steadfast defence in every other system proved that they wouldn’t leave it unprotected.
The other Fire Knives were reporting similar consternation; the Strike’s sensor specialist was unable to confirm the location of the Enemy’s command and control center; communications intercepts were banal chatter, none carried Enemy Fleet-level encryptions. They had dug themselves into a hole then, hoping to escape attention? Perhaps they weren’t even here? But all other Enemy systems had had military facilities on their planets. The moonlet structure in orbit of the fourth planet was clearly one command center and the Fleet would deal with it. But this planet had none at all? It was certainly possible, but without orders or information to the contrary they would proceed as directed.
Orders from the Strike Commander flickered through her mind; she and two more squadrons banked away from the main group, cutting their thrust as they approached the planet. If the Enemy wanted to hide in a hole, then she and her brothers and sisters would just have to dig them up, pull them out and burn them.
Abigail leaned forward in her chair as the mass of Lefu HAVOCs opened like an unfurling flower. Some of them were braking hard, still on approach to the planet. The rest were shifting ranks as they came about on a course that would take them right to her pilots. What in hell are you playing at? Humanity’s experience with the Lefu was not what one might call vast, but they had the range to slag Hyperion Secundus from thousands, if not millions of kilometers away. Why did they need to decelerate in order to….
Oh. “They’re preparing to break atmo,” the wing-captain realized.
The concept was almost anathema; only pinnaces, shuttles and Marine assault boats had any business crossing from space into a planetary atmosphere. Some larger ships were capable of landing, but they could withstand the forces caused by them bulling their way through the air. Smaller craft didn’t have that luxury and most, if not all, parasite vessels were built with an eye towards a modicum of maneuverability in a planet’s atmosphere.
HAVOCs were one the few exceptions; her fighters would not be able to pursue theirs to the ground and dared not fire on them; a miss could kill hundreds of thousands of people. Her only hope was to catch them before then.
“Intercept in thirty-three minutes,” one of her officers noted.
“Faster,” she whispered, watching the numbers on her screen drop away as the range closed painfully slowly.
Gunnery Sergeant Alphonse Jermaine laid one massive hand along the barrel of ‘Betty Boop’, Ramses Squad’s half-ton support weapon. The Dynacom JT-776 ‘Harbinger’ was a short-ranged, ground-based, triple-barreled antiaircraft missile launcher, designed to shoot down assault boats as they broke atmo.
Throughout the city of Rifinni Atoll, Marine teams were setting up their own weapons – railguns, flak batteries, missile launchers – in a hurried effort to get out of their bunkers before the Lefu arrived. They were Secundus’ insurance policy. Should the alien bastards take Hyperion Hive, they were intended to make the aliens’ efforts to subdue the planet as costly as possible. Hopefully without pushing them into ordering a Desecration, or whatever they called it.
When Jermaine had heard that HAVOCs had been launched on Secundus, he’d figured that they’d already been pushed to that point; capital ships might be able to turn a planet’s surface into molten rock, but fighters could kill cities just fine, thank you very much. A last-minute and possibly futile effort to get as many civilians into the bunkers as possible was still underway, though many of the Marines had been pulled away to set up a defensive grid over the city.
If the bastards wanted to come down and say hello, then it would be damn impolite not to greet them accordingly.
“Open ranks… and engage!”
The HAVOCs of William Wallace’s carrier squadron scattered apart like a startled flock of birds. “Red squadron, Gold squadron – mow through. Get to the breakaways. Everyone else – kill the bastards!”
Drake had drilled her replacement crews relentlessly in the weeks following TF 111’s return to Hyperion Hive in dogfighting simulations. Despite being outfitted with their new missile pods, the HAVOCs were clumsy in comparison to the Lefu fighters, their crews and pilots too unfamiliar with such engagements. The Lefu possessed every possible advantage: numbers, technology, training. But they didn’t have it all their own way; many of them had been intended for an anti-shipping strike and were armed accordingly. Though those warheads guaranteed a complete kill on a Concordat HAVOC they were intended to be used against vessels far larger and less maneuverable than a HAVOC.
That did not dull the Lefu’s aggression, nor their willingness to engage the humans. They fired their shipkillers from extreme range, forcing the Concord pilots to focus on them as the swarm closed. The Lefu descended upon the larger HAVOCs like piranha, stripping flesh from bones, metal from hulls. The frenzy snarled and spat, the Concordat ships trying to hold their attackers at arm’s length and the Lefu just as fervently attempting to get closer, where the more powerful guns upon the HAVOCs would be just as useless as their own heavy missiles.
Rebecca Eloi yanked on the rudder, spinning Glaive around on its axis, the fighter clinging tightly to Gold Four’s aft clawing at the stronger ventral shields she’d just put towards it. “Good one,” Waters commended her and Clarkson as Randy stitched the attacker with fire from one of the aft PDLs. The fighter shuddered and burst apart.
“Didn’t like that, did you mother-fucking son of a-”
“Clarkson!” Albert snapped. “Incoming from port.”
The Lefu ranks were thinning; Red and Gold’s headlong charge into their formation had caught them by surprise and they were unable to come about to catch the brazen squadrons; the rest of Wallace’s fighters were holding them at the cost of their lives. Every moment brought a new death-cry and the disappearance of a friendly IFF icon from the sensor board. They were doing it, but their losses were already sickening; Wing Commander Shawnesy’s HAVOC had been set upon by four Lefu and torn to pieces, though he had managed to take one of them with him.
Gold Fifteen bucked like a wild horse as an enemy missile sheared through its defences and blew a fifth of the fighter into superheated gas.
Red Five shook like rat in a dog’s mouth as an enemy fighter dove down on it, lasers ripping through the HAVOC’s paltry shield walls, vomiting air as it heeled blindly away, its crew dead.
Gold Twelve simply exploded; whether its reactor had been hit, or if one of the enemy had been lucky with a shipkiller was unclear. Not that it mattered.
And then they were through, leaving the swarm behind as it churned, grinding their friends and comrades down piece by piece.
Ahead of them lay the still-braking squadrons.
The order from Red One was possessed of a snarl that had nothing to do with communications distortion. “All craft – fire.”
The Enemy Fire Knives behind their formation opened up, clusters of Seeker missiles pulsing out in thick, numberless salvos. Hobbled by their own deceleration, the Fire Knives evaded as best they could, but it wasn’t enough; seven died in as many seconds and four more followed them, the searing flashes of their deaths burned into her mind. As abruptly as it had come about, the assault stopped, the Enemy reloading their surprising new weapons.
She growled hatefully, flipping her Fire Knife end-for-end, swapping power from her lighter cannon to her mortar.
Red Two died without even a scream, that beam punching through her prow wall and coring straight through the entire vessel, out the other side. An instant later, whatever was left the HAVOC blew itself into a cloud of plasma.
“Evasive maneuvers, all units!” Drake snapped. “What the hell was that?”
“Particle beam, skip. I don’t know how they got it on a little thing like that, but there’s no way we can take that kind of damage.”
“I’m trying, but this son of a bitch isn’t working with the program. He’s jinking something fierce, still trying to get to the planet.”
“Run him over if you have to. We’ve got less than twenty seconds before the others get out of our kill zone.”
“Almost got him; auto-reloaders are just about in the green, too. Another five seconds and-”
“Energy surge! Captain, he’s targeting-”
Red Leader vanished from the screens and for an instant, Rebecca didn’t understand what had just happened; she saw the lone Lefu fighter diving back towards the planet, but Wing Captain Drake and her CHAVOC were just… gone.
“Get on them,” someone urged her and Eloi threw everything Glaive had into its engines. There was the chime of a targeting lock and Randy swore viciously as he emptied an entire missile pod after the fighter that had killed Abigail Drake.
She’d the hit atmosphere at a faster speed than she’d intended and her craft protested at its mistreatment. She whispered soothingly to it as she shifted her approach vector into one not aimed at the ground; the survivors of the other squadrons had already completed their entry and were prowling the skies, safe from the Enemy Fire Knives above, searching for the Enemy Base.
Behind her; missiles. They were pursing her down through the atmosphere, but their own speed killed them; two of them impacted the atmosphere at the wrong angle and bounced away. Another two fried themselves on their descent. There were two more; one missed by several dozen meters, the plume of its passing bouncing her Fire Knife about, jerking her lock off the survivor. It was close, too close…
“Got one of the bastards!” Private First Class Jenny Jendreison – known as Jen-Jen if one was feeling particularly suicidal – cheered.
“Only a piece of it,” Jermaine grunted; the Lefu fighter was trailing smoke from one engine, but it was still in the air. As were the rest of its fucking friends. Rifinni Atoll exploded with fire from rooftop and groundside sites, but the aliens were holding themselves pretty high up; not enough to encourage the HAVOCs up above to get any ideas, but far enough that they had plenty of time to deal with missiles and they were moving too fast, too erratically for the railguns to get a good bead on them. If the defences had been thicker, the Marine defenders would have had a better chance of getting kills. As it was now, they’d need luck and prayers to do much.
Reports were coming in; the Lefu were beginning strafing runs; the spaceport was under heavy fire, as was the marina and several… car parks? They don’t know what they’re looking for, Jermaine realized. The bastards came expecting to find a military base – all the other systems they’ve hit had planet-based command facilities; they must think Secundus has one too! And they were trying to locate it, blowing up anything that looked potentially military at the same time.
I hope the dumb bastards don’t start thinking that it’s underground; we don’t need nukes going off around here. Gunnery sergeant Jermaine grinned as the crippled fighter dropped closer, still trailing smoke. It was twitching in mid-air and couldn’t maintain the same altitude that the others were. One of them was even now banking around to rendezvous with it.
Too bad; little Billy Bug-Face isn’t coming home today.
He fired, the cannon’s triplet salvo homing in on the lamed enemy HAVOC.
She was in pain. The damage to her Fire Knife was bad; one engine cluster was ruined and she could no longer fly at full burn. It was hard enough just to stay in the air; she’d sent a request for help and one of her brothers was responding. The strike was almost over; Command had been wrong. There was no Enemy Base here, not that they could find. To burn the planet over nothing… what was the point?
She checked her sensors again; her brother was coming around now, confirming that he was prepared to grapple her. She jerked in her seat as a warning alarm glared in her mind as a previously shrouded Enemy installation came to life, targeting her Fire Knife.
She pulled her craft into a roll, but with one engine out, her Fire Knife was too slow; the first missile almost hit her. The second and third did. The concussion slammed her head against the side of her canopy and she felt her connection to the Fire Knife die, her fighter rolling in towards the city. She could taste her own blood.
No. No, she wasn’t going to die this way. She fought her dying fighter as it spiraled out of control. Inertial dampeners had failed and the g-forces pulled at her, crushing her into the chair, but she managed to point her burning Fire Knife towards the rooftop of the Enemy who had killed her.
She never felt the impact of the crash.
“Got her! She’s going down!”
Jermaine’s eyes widened as the alien fighter fell from the skies towards Rifinni Atoll’s business district. The city had been evacuated, but there was sure to be somebody in one of those buildings and at the speed the HAVOC was going… wait. It was pulling up.
No, not enough to get itself out of its death-spiral, but it was now coming right for them. Oh, fuck me sideways. “Clear out!” he ordered his squad as they scrambled off the building’s roof; it was over two hundred stories to the ground, but Concordat marine armour came with jump gear, and the soldiers bounded away to the next building, and from there to the next.
The burning, mangled fighter came crashing down, the force of its impact collapsing the first two stories of the apartment complex, but before the rafters had crumpled, it skipped off the roof like a stone, slamming headfirst into the taller building across the street. A burst of flame roiled out from the crater and the skyscraper trembled, wobbling from the force of the impact. Alphonse stared it, expecting it to come tumbling down at any moment, but this part of Hyperion Secundus was not without its earthquakes and the designers had factored that in the construction of their city.
The building stood, smoke and flames pouring out from the hole in its side, but it stood.
The second Lefu fighter prowled overheard for a moment, perhaps scanning for survivors, perhaps simply seeing if there was anything worth salvaging. Neither appeared to be the case and it turned skyward with the rest of the attackers.
The remains of Red and Gold squadron did not contest this exodus, merely watching as the Lefu fled for the hyper limit and their waiting carriers.
Command’s response to Ramses making the only groundside kill of the day was to order his squad to investigate the wreckage. The fire had died out, but there was still a great deal of smoke; Marine power armour was fully sealed, providing complete NBC protections – during the Resurgency, there had been multiple assaults occurring on the hulls of starships and space stations – and offered better protection than civilian hazmat gear.
“95th floor: Ladies’ garments, formal wear, knickknacks and the charred remains of bug-eyed aliens.”
Jermaine shook his head. “Anyone ever tell you how funny you are, Gerald?”
“Yeah, my mother. Though she kept adding ‘looking’ after it.”
“I’m serious. You should be on HV. Get your own show.”
“I know where this is headed.”
“Then I could turn you off.”
“I’m turned off plenty. Wading through alien goo inside a building that may be on the verge of collapsing isn’t my idea of a good day’s work.”
“You don’t like the Corps? Go back to that overgrown farm you a call a homeland, spend the day fondling barn animal anatomy.”
“Firstly, it’s called Iowa, sir. Secondly: fuck you.”
“Just open the door. Time, tide and alien entrails wait for no man.”
The building that the alien fighter had crashed into it was called the Skywerx Tower, owned by the Terran real estate firm Skywerx, who built and rented properties all across the Concord. This one was leased by the floor to a variety small office businesses; accounting services, temp agencies, software design firms and other such companies. The particular floor where the Lefu had ended up was leased to Chroniton Development Technologies. Jermaine didn’t know what they did, only that it looked like they were going to be doing it from a new office; the fighter had smashed through cubicles, walls, doors and windows, piling up a bow wave of smouldering debris on its entry into Skywerx Tower. The ceiling had collapsed in several places, piping and wires hanging down like guts and the entire floor was filled with smoke.
The sergeant nodded to two of his Marines. “Jen-Jen, you and Tyrone get some airflow going.”
The private nodded, stifling her comments about Jermaine’s parentage as she and another Marine moved about the periphery of the room, blowing out the windows that were still intact. The rest of the team approached the broken remains of the Lefu fighter.
Tough bird; she’s still mostly in one piece. Mostly. The wings were bent and broken, the lower and upper tail fins had been snapped off. The previously damaged engine was the main source of the smoke and was still pumping it out. The craft’s chassis was ruptured in several places and what Jermaine really hoped was not fuel was dripping out. A trail of it was sluggishly oozing towards a burning computer. The gunnery sergeant stomped on it, plastic and glass crunching under his boot as he snuffed the flames out.
“Sir, up here.” The voice crackled over the squad’s comm frequency; it was Corporal Peters. He was standing on a mound of debris up near the craft’s nose. “The canopy’s cracked; it must have popped open on impact.”
“Or malfunctioned during an ejection,” Gerald pointed out helpfully.
Alphonse didn’t need to see through Peters’s helmet to see the does-it-really-matter look he’d just shot the PFC. “Anyways, I slipped a bug in there; the pilot’s still inside. Doesn’t look like she’s in too good of a shape. No movement and she’s slumped up against the other side of the cockpit.”
“Well, unless you think that Lefu men are the ones with breasts. Looks like some kind of EVA body stocking, like the ones our HAVOC crew wear. Wearing a flight helmet; can’t see shit through it.”
“Open it,” the gunny ordered, lifting his weapon.
Peters detached the carbine from his arm, hooking his gauntlet’s fingers under the canopy. Augmented and synthetic muscles strained as the corporal pushed the damaged canopy back. The alien pilot fell forward against the console, but did not move, though every few seconds the body beneath the stained flight suit twitched. “Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” Peters swore, trying to cross himself in power armour.
Jermaine could understand why; the alien pilot had thick cords attached to her backbone, running all the way from her spine, through the middle of the pilot’s chair and from there deeper into the fighter. There was one larger cord that stuck through the back of her sleek, faceless helmet. Into her skull. Lovely. “What the fuck is this?” he wondered aloud.
“God knows,” Peters answered from where he crouched on the craft’s nose. He pointed. “Look, those tubes are hooked into sockets on her spine. You can see where they join.”
“Should we get her out of there?” Gerald asked.
“Fuck if I know; the BXA’s going to want her alive, but shit like this is outside my area of expertise.”
“We could always cut the cords; I don’t think they’d stand up to a shimmer-blade.”
“What if it’s her life-support?”
“In her spine?”
“Well, if BXA does want it alive, we can’t leave it here,” Corporal Tyrone Jabar interjected. “This building does not look stable and I sent bugs up the air shafts; there are fires on the upper levels, but all the main routes up are closed. Also, the bitch took out a few load-bearing walls when it crashed into this floor.”
“Shit,” Germaine cursed. “How long do we have?”
“Hard to tell. With all the damage to the rest of the city, I doubt EmSer will be here that quickly; they’ve got more important things to do than save some damn alien. If you’re going to pull it, pull it and let’s go.”
“All right. Gerald, you cut the cables. We’ll drag her out of here and turn her over to Command.”
“One second, sir,” Peters interrupted. “I want to try something.” Carefully, he reached around the unconscious Lefu and took a hold of the cord hooked into her brain. “These are probably made to come out easily if someone gets stuck and whatever system that retracts them isn’t working.”
“How the fuck do you know that?”
“I know that her arms reach forward and it’d be harder than hell to pull a cable out of the middle of your back in this set-up. Just let me…” The cord came loose with a click and the pilot slumped forwards, the rest of the tubes popping out from her spine, retracting back through the chair. Peters grinned under his helmet. “There we go.”
The fighter’s computer droned something, a blank, broken screen coming to life. Alien symbols scrolled by, a larger set flashing above a smaller pair that shifted. The smaller set stopped and the screen flashed a bloody red; from somewhere deep in the fighter’s body something started to hum. A segmented circle blossomed, bits and pieces of it ticking away.
“What the fuck did you do?” shouted Jermaine.
“I don’t know! This is… this has got to be some kind of a fail-safe!”
Gerald looked up. “Sarge, reading increasing energy in the fighter’s reactor. I think we’re looking at a self-destruct.”
“Well, shut it down!”
“Sure, I’ll just use my magic ability to interface with an alien computer.”
“Then plug her back in!”
Peters looked down at the crumpled alien pilot. “And how the fuck do I do that?”
Jermaine growled. “Ramses – all units; time to bounce. Out the window – Peters, you take the baggage. Control, this is Sergeant Jermaine; we’ve hit a small snafu; the Lefu fighter is initiating a self-destruct sequence. Request immediate pick-up. Send a medic; we have a prisoner.”
“Confirmed, Sergeant. Lander en route now.”
The explosion was not as bad as it could have been. There were no square city blocks of devastation, though the Skywerx Tower was now the Skywerx Pile of Rubble, along with its closest neighbours… and along with anything that might have been learned from the Lefu fighter vapourized and smashed beneath tons of wreckage.
Back at Hyperion Prime Command Base, the Lefu pilot was being wheeled into a secure medical bay; aside from occasional muscle spasms, she had been unresponsive. The medics were attempting to get her out of her flight suit for treatment, but the material had resisted every attempt.
Admirals Foraker and Hunt, along with their staff were watching the proceedings. “Ah!” one of the medics cried. “There’s a catch right here on the inner rim of the helmet…” he depressed it, a hiss of gas escaping as the armoured helm released.
Commodore Archer stood to one side, staring at the prone form with a mixture of hostility and curiosity. What was the face of the enemy? Green? Scaly? Were they lizards, fish, birds? I already know what you are. You’re murderers. Aliens. You’re not…
There was a collective gasp from the medics and they pulled back, an open murmur of astonishment running through the officers in the observation deck. A thin curl of dried red blood lay along the Lefu’s lips, startlingly vivid on her alabaster skin and the brightest blue eyes that Natalya had ever seen stared back at her sightlessly.