Children of Heaven, Chapter 28

Chapter 28:

May 15th, 4201
Manticore Eye
Eastern Expanse
United Terran Concord

Manticore Command Base

“You’ve eaten?”

Lieutenant Donald LeFay nodded, saluting Rear Admiral Vater Hoss. “Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” He’d been surprised when the officer had asked to meet him alone on the CB. He wished he could say he was curious, but he still felt emotionally numb.

Hoss nodded. He could have stepped straight from a recruiting poster with his mild brown complexion, keen blue eyes and dark brown hair. Only eighty, he’d earned his promotion from commodore several years ago for his rout of the Empties’ Third Fleet. Before then, a peacetime Concord had tried to cut costs by leaving officers in junior positions, with commensurate pay scales. The flag officer sat down beside the younger man. “You did good back there.” Both men already knew what ‘there’ meant. “I don’t know many officers, myself included, who could have pulled through that. You got your crew out of it and came back alive. That’s nothing to feel guilty for.”

“Thank you, sir.” But I have more than that. Alexandra

~

It had only been the luck of the draw that Unrepentant and its squadron were chosen to search for the missing exploratory group. Many aboard Unrepentant had bemoaned that their awaited deployment to the front lines was being pre-empted in favour of searching for a gaggle of wayward BXA personnel who’d undoubtedly just fallen out of contact. LeFay hadn’t been one of them; he’d been hoping to see Alexandra one more time before he was assigned to the front and this had seemed like providence. It had never crossed his mind that something might have happened to her; Aurora and its fellows were escorted by a pair of cruisers and there was no sign of League activity in this region – besides, even the Empties were civilized enough go out of their way to hunt down science and survey vessels. The idea of alien contact hadn’t even crossed his mind; Aurora’s mission had been archaeological, following an extrapolated vector of long-dead worlds in the search for more.

Alexandra had been so happy that she’d been assigned to one of the few efforts launched outside the Concord’s borders, especially given the demand for ships that the war with the Empties created. When she’d first been informed that she’d been selected, she’d barely been able to form a coherent sentence, alternatively waving her notification at everything in sight and clutching it to her, bouncing like an over-excited schoolgirl. That night, to celebrate he’d taken to her a restaurant that neither one of them could really afford.

He could only imagine how she’d reacted when they’d discovered the ‘Kitties’. It was something he’d planned to needle her about, if she’d started doing that ‘happy-dance’ of hers on the bridge, the one that had more in common with a spastic gerbil than actual coordinated movement.

Being a part of Expedition 1992 – one more in a long line of unimaginative and hopelessly bureaucratic titles – had been like a dream come true for her and it had actually discovered an alien race. Blue cats of all things, but the report from Aurora had pegged them at early 20th-century Earth levels. Unless that assessment had been grossly inaccurate, there was no way that a civilization at that level could endanger, much less destroy five Concordat capital ships before they got so much as a drone off.

The simplest reason for the lack of further communication from Expedition 1992 was a combination of two factors: the scientists getting focused on their (admittedly incredible) find and Lucas Tankersly being an incompetent drunkard fit only to ride herd on a crew of scientists in the outer dark. Still, the combination of the expedition’s discovery of an alien race and the unexpected loss contact with them had made Command a bit twitchy, so they’d decided to divert the 713th Squadron to check things out. Not that Donald was complaining.

It had been a boring few weeks traipsing out to the location of the aliens’ homeworld, but he’d never doubted that she wouldn’t be there. Well, she was. What was left of her.

The 713th had arrived in the alien system two days ago, expecting to find their ‘long-lost’ companions, castigate the eggheads and the escort drivers for falling out of regular contact and head home. What they’d found instead was a murdered world, the wreckage of Expedition 1992 and a half-dozen alien warships, each twice the size of a battlecruiser. One of those behemoths was nothing but wreckage, intermingled with the remains of Apache, gutted when the cruiser had self-destructed.

Without even a ‘who the hell are you’, the aliens moved to engage the Concordat squadron. At the cost of three of their own, the 713th had shot down four of their attackers, but the fifth had broken off and fled, faster then something that size should have been able to. It had escaped into hyperspace.

Commodore Ryan Young had ordered the alien vessels boarded, but one self-destructed when it detected assault boats moving in and one was little more than a debris field. Of the two remaining, Young had picked the vessel most intact. A few of the alien crew had survived, most of them in isolated pockets. But they’d fought to the death all the same, refusing to be taken. Not that the Marines would have been merciful, not after the boarding teams had discovered what the tentacle-faced monsters had been doing.

It was in one of those sealed sections that the Marine boarders had come across the survivors of Expedition 1992. What was left of them. It was a massive, multi-level medical section apparently designed for the express purpose of… ‘examining’ alien captives. There were hundreds of records of dissections performed upon the recovered bodies and far worse things done to those unlucky enough to be taken alive. They’d been stripped and sealed into pens with dozens of other survivors. That was where it had started.

The few personnel who were still sane told horrifying tales of their experiences, of the aliens pulling them from their cells, cutting them open while they were still alive, experimenting on them with drugs to see which ones would amplify pain, which ones would numb it completely. They exposed the prisoners to varying radiation dosages to see how long it took them to die, contaminating them with pathogens and returning them to smaller groups of prisoners to see how contagious each strain was. That wasn’t even the extent of it; the worst butchers in human history would have been hard-pressed to match what these things were capable of it.

And somehow the worst of it was that this had all been done so… clinically. So precisely. It would be hard in the best of times to tell what a tentacle-jowled, horse-faced alien was thinking, even more so for a naked, terrified prisoner but they had all reported a sensation of… detachment? disinterest? from their captors. As if they were nothing but animals – less than that, even. Vermin to be studied to see what killed them best. There had been no sadism, not as humans understood it. No malice, no hatred. Simply… science. Curiousity.

If you can call that science, Donald had remembered through the wash of sickness and hatred. Out of nearly twenty thousand personnel that had started the voyage of Expedition 1992, there were only sixty-three survivors.

He’d come across Alexandra’s body in a cryogenic facility. Unrepentant’s own medical staff had told him that she’d died from smoke inhalation; she’d passed out before she’d suffered too much. She hadn’t suffered at the hands of these monsters, but they’d desecrated her body all the same. He didn’t know – and if the medics did, he’d requested that they not tell him – what the aliens had wanted when they’d detached her head, but her abdomen was swollen and bloated, her spinal cord hooked up to some grotesque machine.

It was obscene on every level.

The 713th’s shock and horror at seeing what these aliens had done had boiled over into fury, deep and dark and brimming with hatred. They had had targets for that anger as the aliens returned with another three ships, summoned by the survivor. Two of them had been more massive. No longer than their comrades, they seemed… squatter somehow, as if they were compressed versions of a far larger design. Those had packed in obscenely heavy energy mounts and defence arrays, accomplishing through number what they could not do with skill.

Unrepentant and her sister ships had fought them again, but it had been a desperate break-through action, the Concordat vessels attempting to escape and warn their government of this threat and the aliens fighting to hold and kill them.

As the 713th fled, they put the alien hulks to the torch, leaving nothing behind for their enemy, cremating their dead and hoping that that was enough to bring them peace. The battlecruisers had blown the original alien survivor apart first, but it had cost them the cruisers Saint George and Sitting Bull. Remembrance had been next; the enemy had misidentified her as their command ship and had concentrated their fire on her. The warheads they fired were slow, but in such numbers and at such yields, it was impossible to shoot enough of them down.

The battlecruiser staggered under the impacts, her shields walls blazing brighter and bright as she fought to shove aside the fury raging about it, but it was as if the hand of wrathful, hating god has reached out for her, seizing her tightly and crushing her.

The first missile blew her prow open with such force that she canted sharply to port. The second arrived but seconds later, opening the first third of her starboard prow to space, the force of the impact and venting gases pushing her even further into a death-spin. There was no way to tell how many hits she took. The rest simply… broke her apart and when it was done, there was virtually nothing left of the battlecruiser nor the fifteen thousand men and women who’d served aboard her.

Unrepentant and Penitent were the only ones to escape, but even they were damaged. Unrepentant’s weapons were nil and her main bridge was gone, wiped away in a furious salvo from the surviving alien giant as it struggled to come about and pursue the smaller human vessels. Commodore Young and the rest of the senior staff had been killed in that volley, leaving one Lieutenant LeFay in charge of the battlecruiser.

Penitent’s hyper systems had taken extensive damage and she was slowing both ships down. Which would not have been a problem except that the final alien vessel had managed to follow them into hyperspace. It had been slowly gaining on them, not close enough to engage, though that was only a matter of time.

Combat in hyperspace was limited – missiles were too small to mount hyper field generators and unless fired at point-blank range were worse than useless. Energy weapons were the true killers in hyperspace and the great equalizer; normally buried beneath armoured plating, hyper field generators had to be extended and energized for translation. By their very nature, they could not be protected when deployed and were immensely vulnerable.

In realspace combat, a light cruiser could barely hope to scratch the paint upon a dreadnought’s hull even if the larger vessel’s shields and defences were down, but that same insignificant David could be a deadly threat to Goliath in hyperspace by destroying its hyper field generators. Hyperspace battles were brutal, close-ranged and chaotic. He who carried the fastest number of guns won and the League had used packs of light cruisers and escorts lurking along Concordat hyperspace routes to slow and disrupt military convoys.

Now, Unrepentant and Penitent had an extremely pissed-off alien gunship closing on them.

Communications were tenuous in hyperspace, ships relying on pulses of their hyper fields to communicate like Morse code or signal flags from earlier ages. With the damage both battlecruisers had taken, conversations were even more limited and the transmissions between the pair of them had been patchy. “…slowing you down, aren’t we?” the message from Captain Dorothy Cranston had read.

Donald hadn’t wanted to answer that, but his hesitation had been enough. “…got the most survivors aboard your ship …ways,” Cranston had commented. “…these bastards… to the Concord.”

He’d protested: “We can drop out of hyperspace and engage them together.”

Dorothy Cranston had been a good-natured woman, always laughing. He ‘d pictured her doing so as she’d composed her final message to him. “You’re… shape for a fight, LeFay. They’d… you off like… from a tree. And… says that if we… out of hyperspace… not going to… back in. We’ll take these… right to Hell’s Gate.…an order, lieutenant.”

“Yes ma’am.” He’d ordered Unrepentant to ‘flare’ its hyper field – an ancient, simple salute – as Penitent had come about in the stream, locking her weapons onto the alien. Moments later, the battlecruiser’s signature vanished from Unrepentant’s sensor board along with the wake of the vessel pursuing them.

~

“Sir, if I may ask… what’s the Concord’s response going to be?”

The rear admiral appeared to consider his reply for a long time, though he already knew what he was going to say. “There will be no response,” he said at last. “Because nothing happened. Expedition 1992 was lost under mysterious circumstances and the 713th Squadron was ambushed in hyperspace by deep-ranging League patrols.” As he’d spoken, the younger man’s expression had changed from disbelief to shock, to anger.

“What?” LeFay shot to his feet, reminding himself he was addressing a vastly superior officer. “Sir, we’ve lost thousands of people to these bastards!”

“No, we haven’t. We’ve lost millions.”

“I-what?” LeFay blinked in consternation. Realization dawned on him and he sat back down. “I’m sorry, sir.”

“It’s all right. It isn’t any easier for me to say this than it will be for the people to carry it out or you to keep the secret.”

Donald closed his eyes for a moment, remembering Alexandra. “May I at least know why, sir?”

“Yes, you deserve that much. That’s why I wanted to speak with you alone. Have you ever heard of an order known as ‘Case Omega’?”

LeFay shook his head. “No, sir.”

“Good. It’s something of an… elite corps within the Concord. It began two hundred years ago, when the UTCNS Janissary….”

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