September 19th, 4193
Let me tell you a story.
No? I think you’ll want to hear this one.
It begins with hope. It always begins with hope. Whatever else you may think of us, we haven’t given up on hope. Not entirely. We’ve just learned to never trust in it… rather, we should have learned that. The first time we hoped, we were betrayed – but that is a very different, very old tale. It’s not the story I’m telling you. Not yet. This story begins very recently, does it not?
It begins with a single ship, an Explorer. Yes, we still explore. We still push back the boundaries of our knowledge. We still want to learn about the galaxy. We still hope.
It sounds familiar? It should. May I continue? Yes? Thank you.
This ship was a beacon of that hope. It had crossed thousands of light-years and all the threats that lurk within them to find you. To watch. To listen and understand.
No, not spy. Were I in your position, I would be careful of such accusations.
Thank you. This ship was called Ninseirii, named for one of our martyrs, Syshir Ninseirii. A… researcher on one of our colonies. When the Immer laid siege to the planet, she stayed behind to allow her colleagues time to escape and to destroy vital technical data. Denied their prizes, the Immer had to satisfy themselves with one defiant artificer. For days on end, she was tortured physically and mentally for the information, but she refused to give in. This only stoked their rage and frustration, and eventually getting their answers took a second place to simply breaking her.
When War Fleet took back the colony, there was barely anything left of this woman, Syshir Ninseirii. Somehow, she’d managed to cling to life, refusing to give her tormentors even the satisfaction of killing her. Some accounts say she died aboard a Fleet vessel, surrounded by her colleagues who’d returned with the War Fleet element. Others claim she died in the arms of her rescuers. And others claim she died just moments before the Sectators reached her, passing away in her dank cell, as our forces stormed the prison and her captors screamed and begged for mercy.
Yes, it is an unhappy tale. But it is an inspiring one. She was not a soldier. She was not trained to resist torments and horrors. She was but a single woman and she defied a nation until her final breath. This is not the story I want to tell you, but it is important to know just the same. Each of us has the potential for greatness. Each of us can do more, be more, endure more than we ever imagined. That is why the ship from Explorer Fleet was named thusly, a reminder that everyone has a part to play and of the greatness of those who might otherwise think themselves insignificant.
I imagine you thought yourself and your mission insignificant – a single ship on a… what is the term? Yes. A ‘wild goose chase’. And you found something else. Like Ninseirii’s tale, this one takes a single woman to its heart. Another scientist. Her name is Aseira Duycetii, and she serves aboard the Ninseirii, a Keeper of the past – what you might call a historian.
Thank you, I am aware of that. But tales are meant to be told in full, or there is no point in their telling.
This woman, she was peaceful and joyous, inquisitive. Always inquisitive, always eager to learn more about other cultures and their pasts. A xenohistorian – is that the correct term?
It is? Thank you.
One of our finer Keepers. It saddens me to say this, but too many are unlike her. They are willing to let the past stay dead and buried, sparing neither effort nor thought to the civilizations we have left in our wake. We have not killed… many… as thoroughly as the Immer, but as I have said, we still strive to better ourselves. We still want to learn, to discover new mysteries and explore the worlds across the night sky. We still hope. And, I think, she most of all. or she did. And despite the soldier’s blood in my veins, I find that the saddest part of all. Do you understand? You did not kill her, but you killed her hope.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
This is where the tale changes. Sent to investigate an already impossible find, Ninseirii found something again impossible – an ‘alien’ vessel, belonging to the United Terran Concord. The Yukon. Another Explorer, sent out to search for its own mysteries, even as a terrible war ravaged many of its nation’s worlds. Even amongst such death and destruction, Yukon’s masters wished to learn. And so, there was common ground. I don’t think you ever appreciated how marvelous that was.
Two crews, two peoples. Alien in civilization if not – entirely – in blood, they took the first grasping steps towards one another. Against all odds, friendships began to blossom between the crews. I was amazed. Aseira, pleased beyond all measure. This is what she’d wanted, after all. What she’d dreamed of. What she’d hoped for. She even took a member of Yukon’s crew as one of her closest friends, sharing our culture with this woman – this alien soldier.
I’m coming to that.
Then, tragedy. The shedding of blood, the silent thunder of guns, the crash of cannon and the screams of the wounded, both crews fighting and dying for one another. I must stress this again – for one another. Ninseirii and Yukon bled together as sisters, two Explorers defying a nation. Ancient fears started to fracture and crumble and, like flowers through a concrete flagstone, hope began to emerge.
If the story ended here, it would be one of the finest ever told. But it doesn’t, does it? No, it continues.
Oh, such strong words. You even seem to think they matter. How unfortunate.
So no, the story doesn’t end there. After this crucible of blood and fire, Aseira trusted her friend more than ever and believed that that trust was shared. Hope. Do you understand? Can you? Even I fell victim to that same disease. Trusting you. Laying against you in the dark, our bodies moving together. Flesh, sweating and writhing. Do you remember? I would hate to think I was so easily forgotten, even if the only reminder is the scars my nails left in your back.
You’re right; this isn’t important. I’m sorry – we’ll return to the story.
I don’t know where or even when it started. With her? With one of her friends? With you? Was it a careless word or phrase? It’s so easy to assume that the Keeper or one of her compatriots slipped. But perhaps it was I, or one of the other soldiers. Something about us. Was that it?
I see. A word here and there and we… we were simply too good at what we did. Then it started with you? Or perhaps Aseira’s friend acted on her own, violating that trust. This part we know very well, yes? How a soldier attacked a historian, screaming in betrayal. How that same gentle, loving woman was forced to murder her friend. How you reacted, dragging Aseira away like some animal, imprisoning her. Your ultimatums and imprecations.
I told you there was one woman at its heart, but there is another in this tale. A soldier, like you. With different hands, different skin and different dreams, but a soldier all the same.
One who committed that cardinal sin, the one above all others. She hoped. And because she did, she betrayed her brothers and sisters. She did not see what she should have seen, did not act in time. And because of her sin, one of her sisters – an innocent soul – was forced to kill someone she’d trusted. That is how this woman failed. But she would not do so again. She acted to save her sister. I acted.
‘Murder’… if that’s what you want to call it, so be it. Yes, I gave the order. I hunted you. Killed your crew. Destroyed your ship. Not just for the life of one sister, but for the uncounted trillions beyond. Because we trusted you. We hoped, and this was repaid with death and suffering. We will not let it happen again. We can never trust you, can never accept you to live. As long as your race does, ours will be at risk. I will not allow it. You are not our blood, not our kin. You are Enemy, and forever will be.
This is how the story ends. One story, but now it is time for another. I know what you did, captain. I know there is nothing to be found in Yukon’s databanks. But your mind is another matter. You are a soldier. You know what we are, what we are capable of.
Tell me… do you think you will be able to endure as well as Ninseirii did?
September, 4233: Falling Leaves
September 25th, 4233
Hyperion Sector, Outer Reaches
United Terran Concord
UTCNS Titania Mons
Petty Officer Ludmilla Aninova rubbed her sore eyes with one free hand, holding a cold cup of weak coffee in the other, trying to will away the constant din and babble of voices around her. Unfortunately, the attempt at respite, however brief, was doomed to failure. Titania Mons’s Space Control Center was swamped with traffic controllers and had been for the last nine hours, ever since Refugee Convoy 958 had arrived.
The rag-tag fleet was made up of approximately 90 ships of various size; hyper-capable freighters, liners, barges and civilian cruisers. Now that RC 958 had translated back into normal space, dozens of dorries, yachts, shuttles and various other parasite craft were spilling away from these host vessels, each of which was itself packed to the brim with formerly well-to-do refugees.
The convoy’s point of origin was Hyperion Hive, a system to the galactic east of Pioneering. Convenient to dozens of nearby systems, the primary shipyard and naval base within the hundred-odd worlds of Hyperion Sector and the few dozen established planets of the neighbouring Twilight Sector, Hyperion Hive was notable for two major features. The first was Hyperion Secundus, a paradise world bathed in the warm, easy light of the yellow main-sequence star Hyperion, its natural beauty and comfortable environment had established it as one of the premier vacation sites within the Outer Reaches.
Normally such a planet, so far from the center of Concordat power, ran the risk of their very wealthy clientele gaining firsthand knowledge of pirate attacks – the Concordat comprised some two thousand ‘major’ worlds and thousands more barren, isolated or all-but-uninhabited star systems and the Navy simply couldn’t be everywhere. The further you traveled from the Inner Worlds, the more the local raiding clans grew in power and boldness, although even the strongest would never dare strike at Hyperion Hive.
Orbiting the Hadean world Hyperion Prime was the second of Hyperion Hive’s noteworthy attributes. The hollowed-out moonlet of Hyperion Prime Command Base – also known as ‘the hive’ – was the lynchpin of Hyperion Sector’s naval forces and boasted a truly terrifying defence grid. Orbital fortresses, minefields and the eternal presence of naval warships made Hyperion Secundus as safe as any Inner World. The Concordat Navy liked to brag that in one thousand years of operation, Hyperion Hive had never fallen. Even the League’s most determined efforts had never been able to break the system’s defences.
To Ludmilla, it seemed as if that millennium-long lucky streak was just about over.
Its name was Blind Oracle. To the Enemy, it was a Nakir-class scout cruiser. To its builders, it was the latest incarnation of the Rath line of Scouting Vessels. 643 meters long, it was dwarfed by many of the vessels around it, but none of them possessed even a tenth of its firepower. Even an Enemy Strike Vessel would be hard-pressed to kill Blind Oracle without a great deal of luck.
The Commander of Blind Oracle sat in her command chair, her chin resting upon her hands as she watched the display. Ahead of her Scout Vessel lay the Enemy System. It was full of noise: chattering radio waves and bubbling energy emissions from hundreds ships and dozens stations, both great and small. This system was a resource node; asteroid miners and refineries filled the system’s thick asteroid belt. Sunward, the Enemy had already cracked open one of the rocky planets, dozens of massive processing stations orbiting the wrecked world, breaking continent-sized planetary fragments down into manageable chunks, shuttles and barges carrying the smaller fragments up to the stations for processing and clearing jettisoned waste products safely out of the stations’ and vessels’ orbital paths.
The woman licked her lips hungrily, as she looked over the bounty of targets before her.
“Continue to close,” she ordered softly. “I want to see the horror in their eyes.”
She looked out upon the Enemy System and her expression was almost gentle. Let me show you the death of gods.
No one knew who they were. Someone had called them ‘Lefu’, a word that, in some ancient language, meant ‘death from sickness’. Plague. They had descended upon the worlds of humanity as a swarm of locusts, killing everything in their path. Millions had perished in the firestorms that had swept across the planets they’d burned, in the holocaust that had consumed ships and stations, in their crushing assaults that had ground the Concordat Navy down before them time and again.
Lefu. It was the name for a theoretical species-destroyer that some labcoat from the Bureau of Xenological Affairs thought had, thousands of years past, gone on a genocidal spree throughout this corner of the galaxy. The Concordat had found a handful of alien worlds, yes. But aside from two protectorates – whose inhabitants were little more than cavemen and Bronze Age primitives respectively – every other civilization that the children of Earth had found had died a long, long time ago. Nuclear war. Asteroid impact.
Aninova chewed on the end of her stylus, the pen worn with years’ worth of toothmarks. No one knew for certain that the aliens attacking the Concordat right now were the Lefu, but no one had come up with any better explanation, either. They refused all attempts to communicate, had never shown themselves to any of the worlds they hadn’t (yet, anyways) exterminated and since the Concord had never won any battles against them, humanity had no information – literally none – on their attackers. Twilight Sector had fallen entirely to the Lefu; the naval base at Unicorn Set had been depleted in manpower and importance ever since the Zion Armistice. It had been the Lefu’s second target and the few ships that had escaped the slaughter (by virtue of being on patrol at the time) had either been hunted down without ever knowing that the Sector was under attack, or managed to flee to Hyperion Hive.
Refugees had been pouring out of Hyperion Sector ever since; only a few lucky souls had escaped Twilight before the hammer fell. The Lefu didn’t distinguish between civilian and military starships; they slaughtered both with equal abandon. Although Ludmilla could understand why – even a centuries-old civilian freighter could be a weapon of mass destruction if used creatively – that made it no easier to accept an enemy that would wordlessly gun down those begging for their lives. They’re monsters.
“‘Milla,” CPO Kerhsaw caught Ludmilla’s attention. “Your board.”
Aninova blinked, pulling herself out of her morbid reverie. “Right. Sorry,” she turned her headset back on. “This is Titania Mons space control hailing Westerly Spirit. A docking berth is being prepared for you; do your crew or passengers require any additional support?”
As Ludmilla handled the arrangements for Spirit, she listened with only half an ear to the skipper’s disatribe – it was nothing she hadn’t heard before. Even the weeks-long journery to Pioneering hadn’t been enough to take away the desperation, the fright and anger of those crews and now they had someone, anyone to take it out on. In the background, the rest of the flight control staff attempted to wrangle nearly a hundred starships and dozens more parasite craft into some semblance of order. As she signed off with Westerly Spirit, she took a quick look at her board. Damn.
“Lieutenant Chao,” she called out. “One of the refugees is breaking formation.”
Harold Chao was a portly man, seemingly destined to sweat profusely no matter the temperature, and stood up, dabbing at his brow with a salt-stained facecloth as he trundled over to the rating’s chair. “That’s all we need – another panicky idiot to screw up our schedules. Kershaw, pass the word up to Lieutenant Commander Minh – we may need to rustle these folks back into the flock. Aninova, get on the horn to these people.” He leaned over Milla and her nose crinkled at the scent of the lieutenant’s perspiration, though she knew she probably didn’t smell much better. “What’s their designation?”
“I don’t know, sir. I can’t read their IFF.”
Chao sighed. “Probably damaged. Reel them back in, ‘Milla.”
Ludmilla nodded, somehow finding the strength not to gently curse. “Sir.” Chao had only dropped this in her lap because she’d talked down the last ship to break formation. No good deed goes unpunished. “This is Petty Officer Ludmilla Aninova of Titania Mons to the transport breaking formation,” she began. “Please identify yourself and cut your thrust; this is an active flight zone. You are endangering yourself and others in the area. If you have an emergency situation, we can divert a tender to you. Unknown vessel, respond.”
“I say again, this is Titania Mons Flight Control to unknown ship. You are breaking from the convoy route. Do you wish to declare an emergency?”
The ship still refused to answer. Maybe their comms are down? “Unknown vessel, cut your thrust.” She muted the headset and looked up at Chao. He was listening to his headset comm, then turned back to her.
“Cougar’s diverting to sheep-dog them,” he informed Ludmilla. “Minh’s putting Six Shooter and Rifleman on standby, just in case.”
Aninova nodded as she opened the comm channel again. “We are diverting a destroyer to your position now. If your communication array is nonfunctional, signal using your running lights and they will provide whatever aid necessary, but you must cut your thrust.” Already, the rogue’s actions were causing the ships in front of it to pull out of their own flight paths. Given the distances normally involved in space travel, it was unlikely that any collision could actually occur, but RC 958 had been decelerating to approach Titania Mons so the various refugee ships could dock with the station, meaning that each of them had less room, less speed and less reaction time.
“Unknown freighter, you are disrupting the convoy’s approach and you are endangering yourselves and those around you. Cut thrust immediately.” No good. They were still refusing to respond.
Cougar was threading its way through the convoy towards its errant ‘sheep’. Ludmilla didn’t know that the freighter’s problem was, but nothing quite captured your attention like a warship pinging a radar map off your hull.
Captain Reginald Boday of the destroyer UTCNS Cougar ran his hand through his hair. He wasn’t even sixty and during the journey to Pioneering, he’d identified several grey hairs. No wonder, he thought ruefully. Riding herd on dozens of civvies had taxed him and his fellow escort captains physically and mentally. There had been periodic emergences from hyperspace to tend to damaged vessels and shift passengers; even Cougar had had to take on evacuees when Aching Bones’s life support had crashed. Medical aid and spare parts had been doled out to those that had needed them, depleting Cougar’s own reserves in the process.
Adding to the stress of shepherding dozens of overcrowded, panicked civilian ships was the faint anomalies their rearguard had detected in hyperspace. Those could have been simple sensor ghosts, inherent to normal hyperspace travel – particularly with the damage some of the civilian vessels had suffered to their hyper systems – or they might not have been. They might have been indicative of shifting hyperspace fields – how vessels communicated with one another in hyperspace or they might ‘only’ have been the faint bow waves of something stalking them. Boday had told himself again and again that he was overreacting. It hadn’t been easy. Hyperspace ambushes were deadly, where half-blind leviathans slit each others’ bellies at point-blank range and a destroyer was as much a threat as a dreadnaught.
Thoughts of Lefu reavers slicing through his helpless convoy and his futile plans to defend those ships from an attack in hyperspace – or at all – had made for more than one sleepless night and apparently more than one grey hair. He’d been so relieved to finally reach Pioneering – it had taken longer to get here than any other possible destination, but it was also well outside the combat zone. Too many had died just getting here, and he’d cursed himself for not taking the convoy to New Britain or Vansing’s Landing instead. Those systems were much closer to Hyperion Hive… but that was why he’d rejected them. They were too important for the Lefu not to have already scouted them. What he’d feared, what he’d weighed against the long crawl to Pioneering had been the image of RC 958 being ambushed by spiders as they came out of hyperspace.
Lurking Lefu scouts hadn’t been the only threat; as the Navy crumbled, every oppurtunistic motherfucker who fancied himself a pirate was crawling out of the woodwork to sack Hyperion Sector before the Lefu burned it to the ground. At least with Pioneering, the survivors would be safe from reavers and raiders alike, getting a chance to catch their breath before the Lefu pushed deeper into Hyperion.
At least he hoped so. When he’d pulled out, Admiral Hunt’s defence of the hive hadn’t been going well. Outnumbered and caught in a vicious pincer movement, the Lefu fleet had been taking everything the Concordant ships and fortresses could throw at it and more. He’d seen the wrecks of starships that alien missiles had created, hammering defiant, wrathful vessels into burning tombs, heard the screams of the dying and the blasts of static as ship after ship fell from formation despite everything that they could hurl at the Lefu juggernaut. It had been almost a relief to be ordered to escort detail, not to have to face the hurricane of fire that swept people and starships aside like they were nothing. Guilt over feeling that way had cost him more than one night, too.
But they’d made it out of Hyperion Hive. Now all that was left was to wrangle ninety-plus starships and a few odd hundred thousand evacuees into an orderly formation so that they could tended to. A job certainly not made easier by people like… Boday frowned. From this close, he should be able to ID the ship! She’s scrambling her signature, he realized. A smuggler, then. Maybe even a pirate, caught up in the attack on Hyperion Hive and suddenly finding themselves amidst dozens of transports… and several Concordat destroyers. “Communications,” he ordered. “Hail our friends over there again. Sensors, give me an active read of their hull. I want to know exactly who and what we’re dealing with.”
An alarm blared as the Enemy Vessel’s augurs went active and the Commander’s head snapped up. Blind Oracle’s deception systems were good, but not that good! Even the Enemy’s clumsy pawing would pull the tapestry down from this low range! Already, she could feel her ship’s shroud starting to fray, the smallest glimpses of Blind Oracle’s true self shining through.
There was no way she could break contact with the Enemy Vessel either, not without using the Scouting Vessel’s full acceleration – which would amount to the same thing as letting the Enemy scanners pierce Blind Oracle’s shroud.
“Weapons,” she ordered in a strong, clear voice. “Acquire targets and engage.”
Wait, that’s not a- Boday, his crew and his ship were erased from the universe before he could even complete the thought.
They did not go alone.
Ludmilla’s face was white with horror as the screams started. The ‘unknown freighter’ was a Lefu scout cruiser! It… it had been part of a convoy for weeks and no one had known! Even as her mind staggered under the impossibility of the situation, the chaos truly started.
What had started as an attempt to get clear of a rogue ship turned into a mindless, full-blown stampede and the convoy came apart, each ship acting on its own sudden, terrified rush for survival as desperate STCs and escort captains futilely tried to impose order on the refugee ships, their panic stoked further as the Lefu cruiser opened fire.
Cougar died in the first salvo, ripped open by the Lefu’s energy mounts. Normally, a destroyer was a meaty mouthful for a single light cruiser, but Lefu technology was generations ahead of the Concordat; Cougar never had a chance; the beam mounts of a Concordat capital ship had an effective range of just under a million kilometers – the Lefu’s fire gutted Cougar at over four light-seconds.
The civilian vessels closest to the Lefu followed their would-be protector soon after, Lefu missiles ravaging them utterly. The alien ship went into a frenzy of destruction as its acceleration spiked, the CL whipping into the midst of the convoy. Ludmilla could hear Lieutenant Commander Minh screaming at Pioneering’s own defenders to get to grips with the hostile even as the fort’s weapons struggled to acquire a target amidst dozens of friendly ships and the slippery shimmers of the Lefu’s own ECM.
Two of the civilian transports actually managed to collide, crushing against one another; the relative differences in their speed wasn’t that great, but it – and their own great mass – was enough that both ships were shredded against each other’s hull. Ludmilla heard the static squeal as their comm lines went out.
Carbine curled in through the fray, the heavy cruiser trying to get a clear lock on the enemy CL, but the Lefu ship’s countermeasures made acquiring a target all but impossible, sowing sensor ghosts and scattering Terran sensors to near-uselessness. The Lefu danced among the Terran flotilla like a wraith, sowing a bloody harvest.
White-knuckled, Ludmilla could only stare helplessly at the slaughter. Tears brimmed in the corners of her eyes, but she refused to let them fall, choking on her own hate and despair. What are you? she wanted to scream. What are you that can do this?