September 13, 4233
Milky Way Galaxy (Orion-Perseus Divide)
Jacob lay on his bunk, trying to sleep; the sheets smelled stale and they hadn’t been washed in almost a month, along with the rest of his clothes. He had his eyes closed, imagining that he could hear the raindrops on the hull. He’d grown up on Rainfall, a world remarkable for its incessant precipitation. Storms were nothing new to him. When he’d first enlisted in the League’s Navy, going through the Academy on Jasmine, he had found it hard to sleep without the constant drumming of rain on the windows and roof of a home nearly many light-years away.
Jasmine was a desolate world; with continental deserts spanning over 80% of its landmass, it was barren and all but lifeless, save for the enormous colonial flowers that had it had been named for. Those plants had thrived in the unending heart and beneath the canopy of a desert forest, the League had hidden many secrets from the Concords. There had been no rain on Jasmine except during the monsoon season; the storms that had crackled across the endless wastelands had been electrical; only rarely had more the smallest drizzle of rain fallen. In the aftermath of a storm, many cadets would try and find the glass puddles that the lightning strikes had created in the oceans of sand.
There was no rain here either, only the shuddering of winds and the crack of thunder from 300 kilometer-long lightning bolts. Refusing to toss and turn, Goldstein stood up and turned on one of his windows; flashes of those immense discharges filling his bedroom with bursts of light, a muted orange glow filling the cabin, clouds of hydrogen, helium, ammonia and sulfur. Even water, but there was no rain. Not here.
Inside a gas giant’s atmosphere, Liberty lay inside a storm large enough to swallow five Earths as many kilometers above, a murderer prowled.
The Lefu cruisers had run, ignoring Liberty after their first and only message. Though half-blind and unable to see what was coming, the battleship had nonetheless broken orbit as it watched the Lefu begin their own long race towards the hyper limit. Jacob had at first thought that it was some kind of game that they were playing to lure Liberty away from the planet referred to by the cadets as ‘Cemetery’. But that made little sense, the scouting vessels had crept up on them with enough firepower to easily destroy the crippled League battleship outright. What was the point of tricking them?
So, he had ordered Liberty to break orbit; that hunch had saved his ship. Liberty might have been half-blind, but her drones had no such problems and the data they relayed was… unpleasant. And even that was being generous.
Dozens of unknown ships were descending upon Cemetery. From the images the recon unit had managed to lift before it was blown to pieces, they were no more friendly explorers than the Lefu were. They were clearly killers, but they lacked the predatory grace of the Lefu warships. There was nothing to the newcomers but ugly steel and sharp edges. Most of them, at any rate.
There were a half-dozen ships in the heart of their formation, larger than the rest by half. They lacked the bloated-U profile and the sharp angles of their kin; their ‘core’ was a simple rectangle five kilometers long that bulged with massive protrusions on all facings. Goldstein’s first thought was that they were carriers, but there were no visible hangars on those ovular structures, only windows.
Not even troopers, then – colonizers. He was looking at the species that had murdered the world beneath him, come to claim it as their own.
None of them were happy to see the intruders.
An entire squadron of those giants broke from the main fleet body to pursue the Lefu cruisers, several more ships sweeping to engage the wounded Liberty. Like the Lefu, they neither initiated nor responded to communication attempts. Like the Lefu, their intentions were overtly hostile, and neither were those intentions limited to humanity. With acceleration far higher than Goldstein had believed that their massive, slab-like bodies could manage, the newcomers managed to intercept the Lefu cruisers, but the obsidian predators welcomed them with fire, shredding one of those monster ships in their first salvo. Even for their size, they took a lot of killing, but the Lefu had the range on them, massing their fire for maximum damage. Another was blown into shrapnel and a third badly injured before the newcomers could respond with their own weapons.
It became apparent that their missiles were no great prize either, but the warheads they carried rivaled – perhaps exceeded – the Lefu’s for destructive power and the newcomers’ ability to fire faster than either species and make off-broadsides meant that they could put more warheads into the air then their rivals could. And given the size of those things, they can hold a lot of missiles.
One of the Lefu cruisers was blown apart and another was battered into a hulk, although there was no chance for the newcomers to claim that prize as the wounded ship immolated itself, the explosion rivaling a star’s ferocity, overwhelming the League ship’s sensors. When Liberty could see clearly again, the final newcomer was streaming air from its suddenly-ruined engines and the third Lefu scout was nowhere to be seen.
Unlike them, Liberty didn’t have the option of escaping into hyperspace, not with her pursuers still on her tail. They either needed to lose them or destroy them, fight or flight. Fighting wasn’t an option, so that left flight. Goldstein had ordered Liberty down into the superstorm on Cairn, Graveyard’s largest gas giant, named in the same spirit as the rest of the system. They’d been hiding here for two weeks, with an alien battleship prowling overhead, waiting for them to emerge.
The turbulent atmosphere and massive lightning storms precluded any attempt to locate Liberty’s wake or her energy emissions, especially in her powered-down state. For whatever reason, the newcomer had not launched scouts; perhaps they couldn’t survive in the storm. Maybe they just didn’t think it was worth the effort; Liberty had to come out at some point and when they did, the alien cruiser? battleship? would be there to pounce on them.
In those two weeks, the crew of runts and officers had managed to get some good work done; repairs were proceeding slowly and they were running out of parts, but they had managed to stave off complete systems failures for the moment. The hyper field generators were still worse than useless and without access to more complete foundries, it was unlikely that they’d be able get more than ‘twelve hours in, thirty hours out’ from them. And that would only last so long. They’d also managed to slip a drone through the newcomers’ network of ships, seeing what they were doing to the planet.
It was grotesque. The colony vessels were dropping prefab structures all over the planet, cranking out automata that had begun building more structures. Other drones were visiting the remains of Cemetery’s industry, repairing neglected dams, nuclear power plants and factories, using them to provide for and produce even more robots. Larger units had appeared in the last three days. Some were the size of small towns and they ground over the craters left by the bombardment, smoothing the surface and clearing away all trace of the planet’s former inhabitants, wiping the scarred planet clean.
Armadas of white-hulled, fat-bodied drones swam through the soot-clogged atmosphere, intakes sucking the suspended particles out of the sky; when they were full, they landed beside one of several prefab structures, disgorging mounds of ash and dust which was pulled into the factory… and came out as some kind of building material. Perhaps a cheap version of concrete aggregate. Sickening.
When one considered the population that Cemetery had had – conservative estimates put it at around fifteen billion – and the number of people that had been vaporized by the shockwaves of the meteor impacts, what was left of them thrown up into the atmosphere…. The newcomers weren’t just building their homes on the graves of their victims; they were literally building those homes out of the bodies of those they’d murdered. Goldstein had never heard of anything approaching that level of callousness. Even the Lefu’s actions couldn’t compare to this… this… he couldn’t think of a word for it. It was too clean, too precise to be barbarism.
He hadn’t know who the people who had lived here had been, but the soldier in him screamed for them to be avenged, to kill as many of these butchers as he was able, but it would be nothing but a futile, suicidal gesture.
There were over three hundred of the enemy’s warships here, most of them clustered tightly around the planet and the colony vessels that carried out their vile work. A handful more were scattered throughout Graveyard on patrol loops. He would never get anywhere near the planet before he was blown out of space.
Liberty and her crew were trapped; they couldn’t run. They couldn’t hide forever; either their stores or the alien’s patience would run out and they couldn’t fight. What was left?
Watching as a planet and its murdered billions were defiled.
Jacob poured himself a cold cup of coffee; they couldn’t spare the power for heaters and food rations had become a fact of life aboard the ship. He sipped the bitter liquid. This was supposed to have been an easy four-year training cruise to familiarize the runts with the Concord. Instead, he’d managed to embroil himself in an interstellar war, kill over half of his cadets, supposedly the best and brightest in the League.
Goldstein closed his eyes, recalling the grimy, exhausted faces that stared up back him every day. Youngsters. Children. Children caught up in someone else’s fight, and they paid for it. We all did. He shoved the guilt away; it was a luxury that he couldn’t afford. The faces of the dead still haunted him, the last pleading whispers of men and women no older than his own children. It wasn’t just them, either.
Most of his senior officers, friends that he’d known for years, were dead, his ship was trashed. All he had left was his complement of Marines. And what good would they do him against an alien warship hovering right… over… their… heads.
Goldstein tossed the rest of his coffee back in a single gulp as he slapped the commpanel on his desk, calling a meeting of his officers.
“I think we’re all aware of the situation,” Goldstein began heavily as soon as his officers had seated themselves. “We’re in no shape to fight, our defences are barely functional and we’re losing systems as fast as we can repair them. Sooner or later something will give and when it does… rock and a hard place. Scylla and Charbydis. Take your pick. Recently, I’ve been trying to think of a way to get us out of this, distract the alien ship, cripple it and take our chances. But the truth of the matter is – those chances aren’t very good. Simulations indicate that we might be able to take our watchdog out with torpedoes, but the rest of the patrol groups will be on us before we get halfway to the hyper limit. That’s the best-case scenario. The worst-case is that we get shot down three seconds after they detect us maneuvering to fire.”
“But you have a plan now?” Karen inquired; she’d been spending a lot of time with the damage control parties and her face was smudged, her long hair hung from her scalp in greasy and unkempt strands.
“I think so. Senior Major Leibowitz – what’s the status of your Marines?”
The Marine commander had a short bowl-cut of black hair and was no cleaner than the rest of them. “Most of my boys are good, sir. Our armoury was deep enough in the ship that we’re at full capacity if you need us; we’ve got our full allotment of Warhawks. If you’re thinking of a lightning raid, we’ll cripple that ship before they know we’re there.”
Jacob shook his head. “Thank you, Senior Major, but that won’t be quite necessary.” He turned back to address the rest of his officers. “We’ve made some headway in our repairs, but we all know that we’re just fighting the inevitable. Our engines are toast, weapons are laughable and it’s only a matter of time before life support kicks out. What we really need is a new ship.” He touched a control and the holo tank in the middle of the table fluttered for a moment before a green wireframe of the alien warship overhead appeared. “So we’re taking theirs.”