September 24th, 4233
United Terran Concord
Hyperion Prime Command Base
“Initial contact with what we originally called the Lefu came about two hundred and forty-six years ago in 3987,” Foraker said into the silence. “The cruiser Janissary was leading a deep exploratory mission, following a nascent hyperspace corridor.” Hyperspace corridors were not entirely natural formations – there were doubts that any of them had formed without assistance. As vessels plied a specific path in hyperspace between set destinations, the constant travel had a ‘calming’ effect on the energy tides, allowing vessels to travel deeper downstream. It took centuries and thousands of ships to create even the smallest hyperspace corridor, and the Concord was a latticework of these man-made passages. Without them, it would take even the fastest courier almost two years to travel from one end of the Concord to the other; with them that travel time was but mere weeks or months.
The Inner Worlds were tightly linked through a spiderweb of hyperspace corridor, the result of fifteen hundred years of interstellar civilization, but as one moved further out from Earth, the weaker and fewer these corridors became. Exploratory missions had discovered corridors; some were barely a handful of light-years long, such as the Manticore Eye-Regulus Dawn corridor, while others were dozens, hundreds of light-years in span. There had never been any sign of the civilization that must have created them, leading many to assume that some hyperspace corridors formed naturally. Various mechanisms were proposed, and some were given official blessing, but in the minds of conspiracy theorists and BXA personnel alike, there had always remained some doubt.
“The exploratory force launched from the colony at Septimal Eve – I thought that name would ring a few bells – hoping that the corridor they discovered was going to lead them to a new, resource-rich environment.” Foraker continued. “Like the Orion-Perseus corridor did. Instead,” his voice grew darker. “They found our Lefu – what the prisoner called ‘Mulkari’.”
Natalya mumbled something and the admiral narrowed his eyes. “What was that?”
“The End of Dawn,” the young woman replied, a haunted note in her voice. “She also called them the End of Dawn.”
“Poetic. And true. Janissary ran across what we refer to as a sleeper fleet. A handful of colony vessels protected by two, perhaps three times their number of ‘killships’.” He pressed a button on his desk and wireframe image appeared of a wide-bottomed V-hulled vessel. “From what we can tell, they don’t really differentiate between ship types like we do. We have the generic term ‘warship’, but we’ve got ‘cruiser’, ‘frigate’, etc. To the Mulkari, a killship is a killship is a killship; they tell them apart by class, not function. This, however, appears to be one of their standard scout designs. It’s almost four kilometers long.”
Natalya’s eyes widened in shock. Something like that was what they considered a scout?
“Janissary and its fleet were engaged by the Mulkari sleeper fleet. They never made any attempt to determine our intentions. Though initially they did not react, that changed inside of two hours. After that, they were gunning for the exploratory force with everything they had. Our entire fleet was destroyed. Several months later, the Mulkari sleeper fleet showed up in orbit of Septimal Eve and carried out a Desecration-level event. Within an hour, four million colonists died from the bioweapon they unleashed. Those that survived were hunted down and killed as the colonizers began dropping automata to ‘reclaim’ the planet for themselves. You see, the Mulkari colonize the very planets that they wipe out. We have no idea why. Is it cultural, sociological? Religious?
“Luckily, a small sloop – through the sheerest, stupidest luck of the draw – managed to survive the initial cleansing. A young man named Andrew Norton was the pilot. He’d taken his girlfriend out on a weekend-long trip through the system and they’d parked themselves onto one of Septimal Twilight’s moons to watch the sun come up over the gas giant’s atmosphere. The Mulkari didn’t spot them and they managed to bug out to the nearest Fleet base. The Mulkari must have thought that we were only a provincial star nation, because the level of our response caught them completely off-guard. Our forces, under the command of Admiral Daniel Rudebaker came in and cleared them out, destroyed their killships and one of their colonizers, but the second one managed to escape.”
More images cropped up on the holographic tablet in a slideshow; Septimal Dawn’s mishmash of half-leveled human cities and half-built alien ones, wreckage from the Mulkari force that Rudebaker had destroyed, autopsy results from the casualties.
“Analysis of their systems told us what happened to the Janissary and its fleet, and that they’d backtracked the exploratory force to Septimal. They hadn’t expected strong resistance and once a new colony was established there, planned to move on in search of the rest of our worlds. News of an alien race was shocking enough, but a hostile one? A hostile one utterly committed to our complete annihilation? There were fears of mass panic and societal upheaval. Many in power dreaded what would happen to them if news of this massacre got out and they were expected to account for it. A choice was made to bury the incident. Janissary and her fleet were written off as ‘missing’. Septimal Eve was declared ‘lost, due to a rogue comet strike’.”
Natalya didn’t want to believe it, that the Concord had been lying to its citizens for over two hundred years. But she could also understand why: the Lefu’s presence had spread fear to every corner of society. There were riots, demonstrations. But civilization hadn’t fallen. Not yet, anyways. “Over four million people,” she said carefully. “And they were swept under the rug.”
“Yes. It wasn’t my decision, but if I had been there, I might have made the same one.” Foraker gave her a few moments, perhaps waiting for another question, but Archer remained silent. “Those in charge weren’t completely short-sighted; they recognized that defeating a single Mulkari fleet meant nothing. Case Omega was created, an order in the sealed directives archives and… an order, a fifth column of men and women who’d either fought the Mulkari or had been selected by those who had to be… ‘keepers of the flame’. None of the knowledge was forgotten, only kept secret and safe. The Concord wasn’t ready for this. Humanity wasn’t ready – as you can see from the reactions to the Lefu, we’re still not. But the Mulkari were.
“Our forces have clashed several more times in the past two hundred and fifty years. Four of those incidents occurred well away from the Concord’s borders; sleeper fleets that we either stumbled across or hunted down. Two sleeper fleets, apparently launched from the Mulkari Home Worlds, attacked Concordat territories in 4073 and 4144. The first was destroyed before it could be noticed by civilian agencies, while the second wiped out the Endo system; a mining venture of 200,000 colonists was exterminated, but the sleeper fleet itself was driven into hyperspace and eliminated.”
“Pirates,” Natalya commented, remembering the Endo Massacre from her history books, staring at the images from the true version of history grimly.
Foraker nodded. “Pirates were the official cause, yes. Case Omega has learned some interesting things about the Mulkari. They consider their survival to be the highest priority, so much so that they actively seek out other intelligent species and exterminate them. We don’t know why; we know almost nothing about their society or culture. Is it a religious drive? Is it because they were nearly wiped out themselves? Some cultural imperative, like ants? BXA agents who know what Case Omega is have spent their entire careers in silence, trying to understand the ‘Lefu’, but all that we know for certain is that they kill.
“They’re most found of kinetic weapons – asteroid bombardment – and gengineered bioweapons tailored to specific species. They’re not stupid and their xenophobia doesn’t extend to shunning all possible contact with aliens – they take prisoners for study, analyze wrecked ships and facilities for information on their enemy.
“In most areas their technology lags significantly behind ours,” the Admiral paused for a moment to wet his throat with a drink of water. “Their hyperspace technology is particularly limited; their search-and-destroy missions take decades and the crew of their killships and colonizers enter suspended animation. Their fleets appear to emerge from hyperspace in a random pattern to take readings and of nearby star systems for habitable worlds or other species. Once they detect one or the other, the killships move in to secure the territory, then the colonizers are sent for. That’s why they took so long to react to Janissary; the exploratory force came across them before their crew could be roused.
“There’s almost no innovation, either. The Mulkari have made virtually no technological or strategic developments that we can see; we’ve managed to successfully date some of the hulks we’ve captured over the years. Some that are nearly a thousand years old are virtually identical to vessels that have been in service for only a few decades. Originally, BXA thought that this was deliberate, an attempt to increase casualties and justify the danger of the galaxy, but that theory doesn’t hold water. If the Mulkari are doing this out of a need to eliminate potential threats or competition, then their vessels are more than adequate to wipe out a planet that can’t fight back. 99% of the time, they won’t take any losses at all.
“Religious fervour and cultural prohibitions against innovation may be in effect, but from what we can tell, the Mulkari don’t treat their technology like magic or consider it sacred. It may be that they simply have no reason to improve; their ships are good enough to kill almost everyone they encounter, so why bother with anything else?” the Admiral frowned. “It could also be designed to temper intra-species hostilities; deep-range scouts reported two instances in which separate sleeper fleets have attacked one another.”
Natalya was shocked. For over two hundred years the Concord had been fighting a secret war with an alien race and nobody had noticed? Millions of civilians dead, thousands of personnel. It seemed inconceivable, but the Concord was over two thousand light-years across with hundreds of star systems and thousands of planets. A squadron here, a colony there – they were rounding errors. She shook her head. “And after all this time… nobody’s come forward?” Her cheeks flushed with anger. “Did this… did you people in ‘case omega’ know about the Lefu, too?” Were the people they’ve killed just sacrifices to keep your secret? she wanted to demand.
Hawthorne’s face clouded at the insolence in the commodore’s tone, but he didn’t chastise her for it. He could understand her position; he had been there himself. “No. On my oath as a Concord officer, we had no idea of their existence. Originally, we suspected – feared – that they might be another Mulkari incursion.” He shook his head. “Mulkari attacks are so infrequent that it would do nothing but create widespread panic over something that most people would never even see. There’s a selfish aspect to it as well, I’ll admit, but we’ve pushed for years to increase military spending, laid the groundwork as slowly as we could for the day when we’ve had to come forward. That day might be closer then we’ve thought.”
Dread ran icicles through Natalya’s spine. “What do you mean?”
Foraker nodded to LeFay, the captain handing Natalya a paper. Its screen gleamed under the fluorescent lights. “This data burst was intercepted from a Lefu Nakir during the closing moments of the Battle for Hyperion Hive. The main Lefu fleet got more of it, but this is something that they wanted us to see. It’s why they bugged out, why I had to prevent you from chasing them.”
It was a data snapshot of over three hundred emission patterns, each of them a match for a Mulkari killship. “They recognized them,” the redhead murmured. “‘Something they hate more than us’. That’s what you said isn’t it, Donald?”
“Yes. Given their reaction, I thought the same thing. If they’re going to fight the Mulkari, we want them to inflict as much damage as possible. Because honestly, commodore? The Lefu leave survivors. The Mulkari don’t.”
“That’s the reason Case Omega was created,” Foraker interjected. “Not only for Mulkari incursions, but for a full-scale invasion. Not a sleeper fleet – a killfleet. That’s what we might be looking at now. And as you can see,” he hit the NEXT button on his desk and a floating image of the galaxy appeared. The Concord and its worlds appeared, a tight-knot of bright blue spheres. In the Perseus Arm, the League of Independent Nations winked to life, its green stars encompassing more area than the Concord did, but there were fewer of them. Finally, on the other side of the galaxy, a red dot appeared. And then another. And another. Within seconds there were tens, hundreds of thousands of them. More. Lone specks of red stood out like blisters scattered like shot throughout the Milky Way, but Natalya’s eyes were fixed on the innocently gleaming mass of red lights that took up nearly a sixth of the galaxy.
“We have a lot to be worried about,” Foraker calmly understated.
Natalya paced back and forth through her quarters, unable to sleep, unable to even think about sleeping. It was almost too much to process. For over two hundred years, the Concord had been in a state of war with a genocidal alien race, inducting new soldiers into a silent order. One that she was now a part of. There was no secret handshake, no pledges in dead languages or nefarious agendas. Just the grim realization that they were not alone. It seemed like such a little thing now that the Lefu had descended, but it was still a duty to which Foraker, LeFay and the thousands like them still clutched.
The admiral had made some Case Omega files available to her. Reading them had made her nauseous; given the tradition of the Mulkari to settle upon the worlds they cleansed and then to spread out from them made it possible to estimate just how many races they’d killed. Applying the Garshawski Thereom to those ‘locus’ planets (which assumed an average of two hundred nominally habitable worlds for every planet on which a sapient species had arisen) had given Case Omega a lower limit for how many races the Mulkari had annihilated.
Five thousand at best. Tens, possibly hundreds of thousands at worst. The Mulkari had been at this a long time and only the fact that they were over 80,000 light-years away had given humanity time to develop to the point that they could not be murdered out of hand. Had the amino acids drifting in Earth’s primordial soup fused together but a few thousand years later – the blink of eye in the life of the universe – had the Bronze Ages lasted a few hundred years longer, had any of a million things delayed humanity’s development then they might have already fallen to the Mulkari.
One thing had always puzzled the Concordat officers, though – the Mulkari’s expansion to the galactic east. Or rather, the complete and utter lack of it. Transmissions intercepted by deep-ranging scouts and analysis of seized Mulkari computer systems had hinted at a progressive loss of colonies in those regions, but no underlying cause had been discovered. Something had been holding Mulkari expansion in check across a sixth of the galaxy. Civil war, superstition, another foe – the theories had been endless.
The Lefu. It had to be them. But that still didn’t answer why they’d attacked the Concord. Had they come to see every species as a threat, even their own cousins? Had they been driven out of their own space and simply acted out of desperation?
Did you lead the Mulkari to us? she demanded into the silence around her. There was no answer and she knew that she needed one. At least one. Natalya couldn’t look at the Lefu without remembering all the dead, but Foraker and LeFay were right. The Lefu would leave some alive. The Mulkari wouldn’t.
Maybe Pierce was right; they did have common ground.
Justine watched as the Lefu girl stood on her tip-toes, reaching up towards the ceiling. Her expression was curiously gleeful, like a child with a new toy. “Pretty lights,” the security officer quipped. “Creepy bitch like the pretty lights?”
<Welcome back, little Echo. Finding new ways of playing?>
Natalya lay on the floor of the deck above the Lefu’s cell. Just tell me one thing. The End of Dawn – what are they?
Revulsion and hatred bubbled up through her, so strong that it made Natalya’s stomach churn. She almost screamed. <The Prime Enemy.>
You hunt them? You kill them?
<Would that we could burn their worlds to ash, drown them in their own char.>
Thank you. That’s all I needed to know. Natalya stood up, and moved towards the door. She froze for a moment, resting her head against the jam. She didn’t want to ask this, but some part of her would not let her leave until she did. She wanted to cling to her hate, to leave the conversation there, leave the Lefu pilot as nothing but a nameless killer, but she couldn’t. She had to ask. She had to know. Do you have a name?
There was a long pause, but the Lefu finally answered. <Yes.>
What is it?
Another pause, a hesitancy to the Lefu’s ‘voice’. <I am Arykka Selliphii.>
Her temples pounded, but she ignored it. Natalya Archer. Now we now a little more about each other. With that, Natalya took her leave.
Alone again, Arykka considered the Enemy woman’s – Natalya Archer’s – words. The Evea’shi didn’t get to know Enemy. They destroyed their ability to be Enemy. She already knew that these Enemy… these people didn’t think that way. That was more confusing then anything else about them.
The young pilot curled up on her cot and tried not to think about that.
The Scouting Vessel had a name of course. All their ships did. Blind Oracle was a Rath-class light cruiser, modified for stealth and scouting operations. Her tapestry systems were functioning at full capacity; none of the Enemy Vessels around her knew that a wolf was wearing sheep’s clothing.
Scouting Fleet was not only responsible for locating and surveying territory but in wartime, they shared some of Strike Fleet’s duties by launching raids onto unsuspecting Enemy facilities. Matching the movements of the Enemy’s haulers, Blind Oracle had inserted herself into the midst of their refugee convoy as they’d fled the Major Enemy Base.
They and the Enemy warships watching over the fleeing hulks were too distracted to think anything of an additional transport. Holo-emitters on the Scouting Vessel’s hull had cast an image of another unlovely vessel, filled to the brim with Enemy noncombatants, while Blind Oracle’s EW systems sang to every watching sensor, bedazzling them with false images and information, like a dancer hiding herself behind deceptive flicks of her veils.
Blind Oracle had not received the information that the Fleet had and as far as its Commander and crew were concerned, their orders were unchanged.