Children of Heaven, Chapter 23

Chapter 23:

September 15th, 4233
Graveyard (Enitri)
Uncharted Space
Milky Way Galaxy (Orion-Perseus Divide)

Target ship designated Necromancer

“Another ping from the fleet in orbit of Cemetery, sir. Sounds more insistent than the last one.”

Jacob nodded in acknowledgment of Communication’s notice. The senior captain sat on the command officer’s sling, The creatures aboard Necromancer hadn’t had the physiology to make use of chairs and instead relied on something like a cradle that they’d lowered themselves onto, tucking their legs beneath it. This one was for the vessel’s captain and was mounted atop a dais in the alien ship’s bridge. The rest of the deck was arranged before the captain’s station in a crescent-shaped crew pit of decreasing levels; the most senior positions were on the highest levels, closest to the command officer’s dais.

The senior captain remained on the edge of the cradle, since the majority of the seat was still stained with blood from the previous vessel’s master. Corporal – soon to be Senior Sergeant – Rentwell had certainly secured the bridge with extreme prejudice, just as her counterpart Sergeant – also due for a promotion, Goldstein felt – Hennessy had done with Main Engineering. Even with those two sites under the League’s control, it had been a very messy, very bloody business taking the rest of the ship, one that was still not complete.

The aliens had tried to re-take engineering several times and nearly succeeded on two occasions. If Wraith Two hadn’t been there to act as a pillbox and rally point, they would have lost the objective on the enemy’s first assault. By the end of it, there was little left working of Dark Lord but her main gun and co-axial autocannon. Hennessy and her single surviving crewman were both in critical condition; burned, shot, shredded. They might have to be put into stasis and even then there was no guarantee that they’d survive.

Denise Rentwell hadn’t fared much better, but she’d managed to hold the bridge until support had arrived. She’d lost her right arm at the elbow to a plasma burst and suffered third-degree burns to that side of her body. Under fire, she’d managed to get a channel to Liberty and under instruction, set up a computer link between the ships to allow Liberty’s computers to start translating the alien language and software.

The enemy’s system hadn’t liked that and it had repeatedly tried to sever the connection or infect Liberty with viruses. Fortunately, Liberty’s network was not as centralized as the aliens appeared to prefer theirs and her computers had more brute-force power, but it took a lot of that power to restrain the alien system. Even now, Liberty was still trying to pacify the alien software as it kicked and fought every step of the way. Just like the battle in Engineering, several times it had almost swung in the aliens’ favour – their system might not have as much raw processing power, but it was certainly more advanced in other ways. Definitely a lot more intuitive and cunning, if such terms could be applied to an AI.

It had had victories, though. Most of Necromancer’s secure files were gone, purged before Liberty could work her magic. And it continually frustrated their efforts to translate, shifting words into synonyms, altering values and slowing their work whenever possible. They’d had to lock down communications to prevent it from broadcasting a distress signal. It was clearly intelligent, at least after a fashion. Even more frustrating because it was hard-wired into the vessel’s operating system. In all likelihood, they’d have to rip out Necromancer’s computer core to get rid of it, but they couldn’t afford to do that. Not yet.

The rest of the alien crew had been pacified, also after a fashion; Goldstein had ordered waste products from the ship’s own power plant vented into the living sections – and oh, the AI had fought them on that – before depressurizing them completely. Neither of those measures did anything to affect those personnel already in EVA suits or power armour and the deck-by-deck sweep was still ongoing; the bastards in armour could hide from internal sensors when they wanted to. Nearly sixty percent of his Marines had died in taking the ship and securing it had cost him two hundred more already. Turning the internal defences onto the survivors had helped thin their ranks by a wide margin, but there were still enough of their marines left to put up a hell of a fight.

Already, two sabotage attempts had been detected and it was sure bet that more were in the works.

There was good news. For starters, that the aliens hadn’t been able to destroy the ship. Secondly, judging from the irate tone in the last transmission, the rest of their fleet hadn’t realized that they’d lost a ship yet. No one had suggested that they try a bluff; none of the humans could pronounce the aliens’ language. Even if they could, there was no way to know how to respond. They might not even be able to keep the vessel’s AI from spilling the beans if they opened Communications, so that was out of the picture.

However, if the aliens acted with any semblance of intelligence, they had already or would shortly be sending someone to check up on them. And neither Liberty nor her prize vessel was in any condition to fight.

Even now the League battleship was mated to the narrower alien, offloading everything that wasn’t nailed down – that would be in the next wave. Spare parts, hydroponics shelves, medical equipment, armoury caches, missiles – even her few remaining spinal turrets were being removed. Her computer cores were coming out, leaving just enough functionality to her to execute Trojan Horse.

It was heartbreaking to see his ship stripped of everything conceivably useful, but they couldn’t afford leave anything aboard her. She was too badly damaged, unable to be recovered and there was no telling what they might need. Practically, if Liberty was taken, nothing useful of her could be allowed to fall into enemy hands. The cold equations demanded that they cut loose with what they could and use Liberty to buy them time. Despite the damage to its systems caused in the assault, Necromancer could escape into hyperspace, something that Liberty could never, would never do again.

Necromancer. That would never be this vessel’s name, Goldstein promised himself. It was an ugly Concordat type of name, made of death and fear. That was what it had brought, but not any more. The older man ran his hand over the smooth dull red surface of the former captain’s display panel. We’re both getting a second chance. Let’s hope we put it to good use.

~

“We’re not scrapping her.”

“Sir?”

Senior Major Leibowitz looked over at one of his Senior Sergeants; Mitchell Croakus. Epsilon Squad. The major nodded towards the broken wreck of Dark Lord as she was dragged out of Main Engineering by her sister, Last Hope. The officers didn’t yet have control over the ship’s own maintenance drones, even if any of them could have pulled that hulk clear. They’d had to bring Wraith One up through the service corridor to hook a cable to her crippled sister. “We’re not scrapping her. She gets fixed and goes back into the fight. Nothing less than she deserves.”

Croakus nodded in agreement. “Yes, sir.” He paused as a comm signal came in. “Sorry, sir. Zeta’s run into some problems near one of the magazines. They think it might be another sabotage attempt.”

“Take as many men as you need. We’ll keep the fort.”

“Yes, sir.” The sergeant called up his squad and moved out. There were only seven of them; Leibowitz wondered who they’d lost. He suspected he’d find out soon enough. The dorsal port flight pod had been turned into a makeshift morgue and was already filled with rows of the dead. Bodies and pieces of bodies of battle-armoured Marines still in their armour and of the cadets, most of whom were barely old enough to shave, covered the bay’s floor. Lives of promise cut short.

The major looked down at his huge gauntlets; they were stained with blood. The freshest blots were from a young ensign who’d been skewered on the end of a bayonet. She’d never even seen what killed her, the alien creeping up behind her, invisible and impaling her on the end of its rifle. There were some sounds that you never thought a human could make until you heard them for yourself, straight from a dying throat. Leibowitz had heard too many of those.

He’d killed the ensign’s murderer. Not very forgiving, but he hadn’t joined the Corps to proselytize mercy. Especially not to some tentacle-faced monstrosity that had just gutted a helpless girl like a fish.

The Marine leaned back against the scarred bulkhead, listening to the comm channels as more of his people died. I hope this tub is worth it.

~

“Salvage operations nearly complete, sir.” Karen informed Senior Captain Goldstein. “We’ll be ready for Trojan Horse within two hours.”

“Good. Status of the enemy probe?”

“They’ve broken Cemetery orbit and are heading this way; one of their larger vessels and what looks like three smaller escorts. No reaction from the outer system patrols, at least none that we can see.”

“And we have a vector?”

“Yes, sir. We’ve managed to clean up Navigation and the interfaces appear to be functioning. We have control over sublight systems and our technical specialists say we’ll have hyperspace capability within three hours. Weapons and fire control are another matter; those systems are highly secure and we’re not having much luck breaking the encryption; Necromancer’s AI keeps randomizing them. The same holds for true for secure files, if any are left. As soon as we’re clear of Graveyard, our engineering teams will dump the core and install our system.” Karen made an unhappy face. “We’ll have to completely wipe this OS and install ours from the ground up. We’ll lose any information we haven’t copied to our system yet. And it’ll leave us vulnerable while we make the necessary modifications.”

“There’s no way to disable the specific parts of the AI and leave their network intact?”

“It’s possible, but unlikely, sir. I’ve got people trying to isolate those systems now, but it doesn’t look promising. The amount of hardware we’d have to pull or disable – no matter how we did it – to shut down the defence systems would render their computer system inoperable.”

“What about a Master/Slave situation?”

Karen paused a moment, thinking furiously. “Yes, we can run the systems in parallel and use ours as a buffer; all the commands go through it. Liberty should be able to force the Necro AI to comply, at least in the short term. We don’t want to do it too long – the thing’s too damned smart to keep leashed, but this should give us more time to analyze the alien OS and disable its security features. If worse comes to worse, we can still jettison it and our computers should be experienced enough to create a facsimile system; we won’t need to do a full nuke and pave. Thank you, sir. I’m sorry – I or one of the techs should have thought of that.”

“It’s all right; you’re doing more than enough just keeping this ship in one piece. Besides,” Jacob smiled with self-recrimination. “It was the only idea I had.”

~

Liberty surged out of the cloud layers behind Necromancer, the League battleship running on auto-pilot as its secondary systems executed its final orders. It charged towards the alien probe, radiating more power than some planets could produce even through its jamming, making sure that they saw it.

Pre-programmed firing imperatives kicked in and it launched its remaining missiles at Necromancer and the vessels closing on it. This was a dangerous gambit; they didn’t have complete control over the alien ship’s systems, but if Liberty didn’t fire on them, that coupled with their refusal to answer hails, would set off every warning bell that the newcomers had. “Point defence grid active; all manned stations reporting in. Firing in three… two… one.” The point defences that covered the spread-V-hulled vessel’s surface opened fire.

“Building thrust now,” Helm reported in. Necromancer was too large, too ungainly to turn about and engage Liberty; accelerating to slingshot Cairn and swing up behind the battleship was a perfectly reasonable response if they wanted to intercept the human vessel and not blow it apart. At least, that’s what Goldstein was hoping that it would look like. If not, those outer-system sentries would swoop down on them before they could get to the hyper limit. Jacob rubbed his palms over each other as he watched the final flight of his command.

~

+status change: highthreat vessel moving to engage killship ennead+

+status change: killship solemn lament moving to intercept highthreat vessel+

+imperative: intercept and cripple highthreat vessel for analysis. query killship solemn lament on refusal to abide by imperatives+

~

“Enemy squadron is accelerating on Liberty, captain. They’re launching defensive missiles against ours. No sign of shipkillers yet; they may be planning to close to energy range and cripple her.”

“Very good. Steady as she goes.”

~

The final flight of Liberty was something to behold, but no more than her career.

She had been born in 4183 at Palshife’s hidden shipyards, forged with a dozen more like her. Avenging angels that had fallen upon the Concord forces in the League and thrown them from those stars. She had chased the survivors down the hyperspace corridor, in a year-long crusade that had culminated in the destruction of the Concord’s vaunted Seventh Battlegroup. She had railed in fury, throwing decades of oppression and marginalization into the face of the strongest war machine that the galaxy had ever seen.

She and her sisters had cast worlds into confusion and despair with her lightning strikes, bombing factories, shattering construction facilities and shredding convoys. They had struck at Hyperion Hive and met BG 17 and Commodore Hoss. So many of her sisters had died that day, hounded across the system by the Concord’s warships, unrelenting wolves dragging their victims down one by one. But Liberty had survived. Against all odds she had survived the League War, when so many of her fellows were broken and ruined by the might of the Concord’s military.

The Zion Armistice had come around and Liberty had found herself a warrior without a war, outdated compared to the newer vessels that rolled off the League’s assembly lines, but there had still been a place for her – to teach and train the next generation of officers their duties. She had sailed forth once more into the den of a former enemy, fighting in their defence against an implacable alien foe in a battle she had never asked for. But she had fought all the same and survived.

Then betrayed to what should have been her death, she had found herself here, a witness to the murder of a world by a second genocidal race. Too wounded to continue the fight, Liberty now sacrificed everything for the sake of her crew, throwing herself into the face of her murderers. Imperatives activated in her patchwork command net and she shifted her course, aligning herself directly into the path of the largest alien vessel. Power shunted through her engines as her failing systems gave their all in her final charge.

One of the alien escorts took a hit and rolled away, a burnt crater where a third of its flank had once been.

Jacob watched the sterile display; it was only icons and data streams. Even ships could have a soul and his Liberty had one, as she hurled herself right down the aliens’ throats. Their desire to take her intact was costing them; the largest vessel was too slow, too clumsy. The crew realized what was happening, what Liberty was doing, but unless God Himself intervened, they would never get out of her way in time.

Whatever survival instincts they had kicked in and the capital warship switched her fire to offensive missiles, battering and flaying the dying Liberty even as the alien monster clawed desperately away from the kamikaze.

Maneuvering thrusters fired sporadically, Liberty forcing herself back into its path as best she could despite the damage she was taking. Her forward half was burning and ruined, thick streamers of plasma arcing over her hull as she swept through the holocaust that incessantly ripped at her, stripping her of all shape and form. At the last, she was nothing but flame, an avenging angel once more. Liberty and the alien battleship embraced, meeting at a combined velocity nearly half that of light itself.

Nothing built by mortal hands could have survived that and when the light faded, when the flash of energy dissipated, both Liberty and her final foe were gone.

Jacob nodded to himself as his new command fled for the hyper limit, the alien patrols too late realizing that they had been duped. The murdered world of Cemetery receded in the distance and he vowed that they’d come back here, to make sure that its nameless people were avenged, that all the dead he’d left behind would not have given their lives for nothing.

“Covenant,” he said to himself, once again stroking the blood-red computer panel to his left. This vessel finally had a name. Covenant.

“Sir,” one of his cadets looked up; Ensign Reeds, the one who’d gotten into the alien system to begin with. The young man’s expression was drawn, the blood draining from his face. “Sir, I think I’ve just managed to get into their tactical files. Most of them are scrambled beyond recovery but I thought of a new algorithm to try and well… sir…”

“What is it?” Goldstein demanded.

“This is just preliminary information – it could be false data but from what I can tell… this fleet is just a scouting force. It’s something like a tenth of the size of their main body. And sir, I think you need to see this. The label they gave it was ‘Highthreat primary homeworld’.” The young man adjusted a few controls on the laptop hooked into the alien console. A planet’s image sprung into view. It was a blue and green bauble of a world; oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere, mostly water…

“Oh God,” Goldstein heard himself say. It was Earth.

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