October 10th, 4233
United Terran Concord
Hyperion Prime Command Base
“Under no circumstances. Sir.”
Hawthorne Foraker blinked in surprise, not used to that kind of tone from his subordinates. “Captain Winters…”
The chief physician shook his head. “My authority in medical matters remains absolute, sir. I will not allow Commodore Archer to be exposed to the Lefu prisoner again.”
“There are overriding concerns, doctor.”
“There always are. The Lefu may decide to reveal something of value, whereas Commodore Archer will suffer a massive overload of several sensory and processing centers within her brain. This will cause multiple blood vessels to rupture, others to be obstructed. Several small strokes will occur in addition to microseizures. Were she not genetically enhanced and out of the reach of proper medical facilities, she would be left crippled and perhaps mentally retarded. At best, sir. At worst, she would be dead.”
“Overriding, eminent security needs take precedence over medical concerns, captain.”
“They do, but I do not agree with OMI’s or your assessment of this situation. The prisoner is a fighter pilot and thus, unlikely to know anything about the Lefu’s tactical plans. You can replace me of course, but Captain Sanskee is unlikely to give you the decision that you require, either.”
“There are other doctors. Ones who are more likely to understand their loyalties to the Confederation.”
“I have spent the last month watching good people die, sir,” Winters replied angrily. “Not on a tactical monitor as icons that blink out on a map, but as burnt and skewered and desiccated and mutilated bodies. I have spent hours trying to pull shrapnel out of a young man’s guts, trying to restart hearts, stitch intestines back together and repair shattered limbs. I have spent hours listening to the dying pleas of men and women, men and women killed by the Lefu, sir. I will not lose another. You may question my decisions, but never my loyalty.”
Foraker was taken aback by the harshness of the normally quiet, nervous doctor’s tone. “I apologize.” He sighed, sitting down on an open bed. “I have four hundred thousand dead civilians in Pioneering, messages from Gowest questioning the competence of myself and my officers, officers advocating ‘special questioning’ to extract information from a prisoner who refuses to meet us halfway, except through one officer that nearly dies every time they speak and I spoke without thinking. I didn’t mean to impugn your loyalties, captain.”
Winters sat down and slid on his rolling chair over to a medical computer. “Thank you, sir.” He nodded sympathetically, trying to think up something, anything useful. He had very little. “There’s… a discrepancy in Commodore Archer’s brain structure between her latest scan and those from her physical several months ago. I’m not sure what it means; it could be simply indicative of brain damage.”
“Or it could mean that her neural anatomy is acclimating, as you predicted.”
“I also predicted that that was only one possibility, sir. Based on what data we have, there is some scant evidence to suggest that Commodore Archer’s brain may be adapting to accept telepathic speech,” Winter reluctantly admitted. “As I said, this is very preliminary and could be an artifact of the regeneration procedures we’ve used. It might mean that with continued contact, she could eventually… build up a resistance, to use a quick and dirty analogy. It also means that until her brain does, she’s not immune to the damaging effects.” He frowned, tapping several keys. “We don’t have enough information to tell one way or the other and I’m not about to try to find out, especially if this is the onset of irreparable synaptic failure.”
“Is there anyone else that we could use? Perhaps with less sensitivity, they would be buffered against the worst of the effects.”
Winters’ jaw worked. “Without my knowledge, one of my staffers suggested the names of several of the individuals who’d reported waking nightmares during the… first disturbance to supervisors running the contact teams.” He keyed open a file. A pair of BXA personnel were seated in front of the formshifting wall as the pilot paced back and forth in her cell. Abruptly, she froze and turned to stare at the man on the left. Her face twisted into an expression of disgust and outright hatred an instant before she threw herself against the window over and over. The officer jerkily reached up to his temples, but there was no blood running from his nose, nor did he collapse as Archer had.
The interrogators departed in a hurry and for several minute afterwards, the Lefu paced wildly in her cell, clearly agitated.
“As you can see, she has… an adverse reaction to contact attempts.”
“I hadn’t heard about this incident,” Foraker said carefully. “There were reports of her outbursts of aggression, but…”
“The security personnel didn’t know; to them it was just a random act of violence. I only found out recently and was preparing my report to you when you came in.”
“Archer said that she attempted contact the first time; why didn’t she get this kind of response?”
“I don’t know, sir. As I’ve said, this is all new territory for us. It could be she was simply surprised the first time. Maybe the other sensitives are doing something ‘wrong’. Maybe she’s just being an obstinate bitch.”
Foraker couldn’t help himself; he barked a laugh. “That’s the common theory. It’s also frustrating. She’s obviously making attempts to learn, but only for her own knowledge; whenever anyone tries to interact with her, she ignores them or turns hostile. The only one who’s gotten anything out of her is Commodore Archer – which brings us full circle.”
“I’m afraid so.” Winters scratched the bridge of his nose. “I have my staff working on a possible solution, but this is uncharted territory for all of us. It would be immensely helpful to have more information on the Lefu’s telepathic abilities, but…” he shrugged; he had made his position clear.
“Thank you anyways, doctor. Make this your top priority and keep me appraised of your progress.”
“Of course, sir.”
It had slipped into the system two days ago, unseen and undetected. The Enemy were attempting to refurbish their brightspace tracking systems to detect single-ship incursions, but according to the information squealed to it from a Scouting Vessel, they were awaiting a shipment of specialized parts and systems. The Fire Knives had wreaked more havoc then anticipated and severely crippled the Major Enemy Base’s production capability.
That was encouraging.
Less so were the additional emission signatures of Enemy capital ships and escorts. Most of them were still clustered around the Enemy Base – the moon fragment finally revealed for what it was – and several concentric rings of lighter vessels sweeping through the outer system, searching for Scouting Fleet’s rath, layered to reduce the chances of a mimic or vessel under cover of tapestry slipping past them.
That was acceptable. The vessel that had only just arrived had no intention of attempting to attack the armoured inner system. Her interest lay further out.
Maneuvering thrusters fired only slightly, shifting the warship onto a new ballistic course. Silent though she was, her dark hull almost seemed to shiver in anticipation.
“Give me some good news, chief.”
“We patched the hole we accidentally blew in the hull yesterday.”
Natalya smiled. The chief’s sense of humour tended to revolve around exaggerating any problems to catastrophic levels or, if that was too hard, outright inventing ship-ending disasters. In point of fact the ‘hole’ had been a stress fracture only a few centimeters long and it had been sealed almost as soon as it had been discovered. “I guess I can hold off on the keelhauling then.”
Jeffery Racemb, Intolerance’s chief engineer grinned in response to his superior’s attempt at humour. “That’ll spoil the EVA teams’ pool, ma’am. They were betting on which part of the hull I’d get snagged on.” His expression sobered slightly. “Aside from that, there is something worth celebrating, ma’am. Damage to the outer hull has been made good and all systems there – weapons, shield wall generators – have been repaired or replaced. Our secondary reactors are at full functionality and the primary will be on-line within the week. The construction units and supplies from Rube’s Luck have been immensely helpful; we’d still be patching holes if it wasn’t for them.”
“I’ve passed along our thanks to the hive’s DC teams, but I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to grovel in gratitude a bit more.”
“No, ma’am. The long and short of it is, while I’d prefer some more time in drydock to iron out all the kinks and finish the overhaul – we’re spaceworthy again.” Racemb didn’t – quite – wince, despite the good news. Intolerance had been lucky. Seventeen of the Light Brigade’s two dozen ships had not: each of them destroyed or severely damaged. If the Lefu boomers had been able to lock Intolerance down as the command ship, that number would have been higher still – including Intolerance herself.
Lefu superdreadnaughts were nasty pieces of work and if they hadn’t been shackled by the need to engage two separate fleets simultaneously and not hit their own screening units, things could have been much worse for the battlecruiser.
“Good news, Jeffery. Pass my thanks along to your staff. I’ll try and wrangle extra shore leave for your teams as well, but things are still pretty hectic around here for the foreseeable future.”
“Just doing our job, ma’am. I’ll have a more formal work-up of the lady’s condition,” – Racemb often referred to Intolerance as ‘the lady’ – “sent to Captain Prevarian by the end of the shift. If there’s nothing else, I should probably get on that core breach before it kills us all.” The petty officer saluted choppily and took his leave. Shortly after the doors closed behind the engineer, the door chime sounded and James let himself into her office, handing Natalya a status report.
She cocked an eye at him; normally these were automatically shunted to her inbox or brought by a yeoman. Prevarian smiled sheepishly, anticipating her question. “You’ve been out of touch recently,” he commented. “I’m just wondering how you’re doing.”
Natalya almost groaned and leaned back in her chair. “That’s a loaded question, James.”
“I know,” he replied, seating himself in front of her desk. “It’s also an important one.”
“Mmm. How am I doing?” Well, I’ve found out that I can telepathically communicate with a genocidal alien who happens to be a member of just one of the species that wants to kill us and the second one is currently amassing a fleet of over three hundred vessels to try and wipe us out. Other than that, I’m fine. How about you? “I’m sleeping,” she answered at last. “I guess that’s enough. Other than that… ask me tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow never comes.”
“Exactly.” Natalya pinched the bridge of her nose, trying to think. She wished she could tell James everything, but Admiral Foraker had nixed that firmly. But he deserved to know something, even if she couldn’t tell him everything. “James, you grew up in Iowa, right?”
Prevarian nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”
“On a summer night, when everything grew still and quiet and you knew it meant that a storm was coming? That’s… what I’m feeling now. No matter what’s going on around me, around us, it’s nothing but the silence before something worse arrives.” She stood and paced back and forth nervously. “There is a storm coming, James. I can feel it and somehow, just knowing that makes me feel a little crazy.”
“Is this something that the Lefu told you?”
Natalya shot Prevarian a sharp look, but his tone had been without sarcasm and his expression was earnest. She felt a flush of guilt for thinking that he’d been mocking her and her shoulders slumped as the defensiveness drained out her. “Not in so many words,” she replied. “It’s bits and pieces; not so much what she says, but how she says it.” She stared down at her hands. “I’m sorry, you probably think I’m due for a section eight with all this cryptic shit.”
“The psychs cleared you,” Prevarian pointed out. “That’s more than enough proof for me. Even if they said you were all the way around the bend, I’d still trust you over them. Do you remember the Pegasus?”
Natalya nodded. That old cruiser had been the first time that then-Captain Archer and one Lieutenant Commander Prevarian had met. He had resented her presence, believing that the younger woman had only gotten her position from her family’s connections. The Old Families had more political and economic power than some star systems and the Archers were no exception. She’d never have done it, but a word from Natalya (or one of her many relatives who felt that one of their own wasn’t getting the respect the Archer name deserved) could have torpedoed James’ career, so he’d never been anything but courteous. For all that, there had been an undeniable distance between them. Natalya had resented Prevarian right back because of that: he was seeing her as an Archer, not as his captain. Any attempt she’d made to show him that she was capable had only backfired as a rich girl trying to be taken seriously.
The conflict between first officer and captain had seemed to be spiraling into a head-on collision, until Pegasus had been assigned to escort Convoy 951 – eight freighters carrying high-value industrial goods from the Inner Worlds to the Eastern Expanse. It should have been a milk run, despite the perennial pirate problems that plagued shipping in the Expanse.
Normal pirate vessels were no match for even a destroyer – and those that were certainly didn’t make a habit of taking on Concordat naval ships – but these raiders had had a pair of Kestrel battle-wagons.
Kestrels had begun life on Andrew Francis Leveque’s drawing board. A designer working for Galactic Technologies, he had been one of its rising stars; in whole or part, his designs were still in use by GalTech’s fleet and many of these had been picked up by many other companies and governments. After these early successes, Leveque had turned his attention to bolstering GalTech’s security forces and suggested many improvements to existing classes. As far as tweaking previous escort designs went, GalTech’s board was only too happy to indulge Leveque, but they’d grown increasingly nervous as he began to press for newer, more powerful capital ships. Ever since the Corporate Wars, the Concord military had severely restricted what combat assets trans-stellar companies were allowed to possess and the consequences for any company that even appeared to be skirting the Eridani Accords could be unpleasant. Actual violations of the Accords ranged from the merely punitive up to ‘we will come and fucking kill you’ – the infamous, unofficial ‘FKY clause’ of the document.
The situation had only gotten worse when one of GalTech’s ‘security officers’ – a former Concord Navy man – discovered Leveque’s designs and leaked them to the Office of Military Intelligence. If GalTech’s board of directors had merely been unsettled by Leveque before, an official visit by OMI representatives moved them to the verge of panic, desperately looking for a scapegoat.
Consequently, Leveque’s career began an immediate and irrecoverable downward spiral as GalTech cut him loose and ensured that no other major corporation would take him on. Even planetary militias and engineering firms who would have normally welcomed someone of his talents were unwilling to hire him after the double-whammy of irritating the Concordat navy and being blacklisted by GalTech.
Leveque blamed both the Concord and its many corporations for ruining his life; unable to find work in the Concord, he’d been relocating to the Twilight Realms (not to be confused with Twilight Sector, which was in the Outer Reaches, on the opposite side of the Concord) to seek work with one of the many dime-store star nations there, when his liner was attacked by pirates from the Black Star Clan. Uncharacteristically, the entire crew and passengers were massacred and Leveque was presumed to be one of the casualties. However, inside of a year, the Black Stars began fielding ships with an uncanny resemblance to some of Leveque’s designs, which soon spread to the other raiding clans.
The most common theory was that the Black Stars came across Leveque’s design notes when they were raiding the liner and put them to use. Another was that they’d known he was going to be on that ship and used the massacre as cover for a kidnapping. A third was that Leveque himself arranged the attack – in the months leading to his disappearance, he became more erratic than normal: often seen in the company of figures with ties to organized crime and raiding clans, with a corresponding increase in his comm traffic to these and other unknown individuals.
Whatever had happened, Leveque’s legacy lived on through these pirate ships and Kestrels were the apex of his art. No one knew how outlaw trash could afford to build and operate the massive warbirds or where they were constructed, but although they were extremely rare, a Kestrel was easily a match for a modern Concordat cruiser.
On the verge of being decommissioned, Pegasus had been outclassed by the raiders, but Natalya had refused to back down. She had taken out both Kestrels and saved the convoy. Her ship had been a wreck, but she had done it. Since that moment, James had never doubted her ability.
Natalya had driven the pirates into a frenzy, getting them to focus on her instead of the convoy, making sure that they not only had to kill her before going after the transports, but that they’d wanted to. At the cost of her own ship, she’d pulled them far enough away from the convoy that they wouldn’t be able to catch the freighters before they escaped into hyperspace and when they’d realized that, they’d gunned for Pegasus even harder. Simply turning the ship into a hulk hadn’t been enough of a victory for them – they’d actually launched boarding attacks against the ancient Concordat vessel in order to take the head of the captain that had been such a thorn in their sides.
But Pegasus had survived. Natalya hadn’t given up and refused to let her crew give up, either. Her Marines had counter-attacked the boarding Kestrel and taken her, blowing the second pirate out of the stars with their own ally’s guns. It was a victory, but one that had cost her over half her crew and her ship.
Natalya remembered the hell that Pegasus, broken and burning, had been transformed into, the dead and dying scattered through the corridors as raiders and Marines slaughtered their way through both ships, the stench of blood on the Kestrel’s command deck, the taste of the order to fire on her lips as she turned the pirate’s guns on the other raider. “I do,” was all she said, so softly that it was almost a whisper.
“I trusted you then. I should have all along, I know. That was my failing, but I trusted you then and I trust you now.” James stood and put a friendly hand on her shoulder. “If you say that something’s coming, then I’ll make sure the ship and squadron are ready to greet it and kick its ass.”
Natalya smiled gratefully, squeezing her flag-captain’s hand in return. “Thank you, James.”
“Command to Commodore Archer,” the comm snarled, interrupting the moment. “You’d better get up here. The hive’s reporting that we’ve lost contact with one of our listening posts.”
“What do we have, Ops?”
“Ma’am, five hours ago at approximately 1437, LP 23 went off-line. NavOps dispatched the destroyer Grizzly to investigate. This is what they found.” The junior officer adjusted some controls on her board and one of Intolerance’s viewscreens switched to imagery taken from a destroyer’s recon drone. LP 23 had been gutted, a hole punched straight through the station’s core. It was one of the unmanned varieties. Thank God for small favours.
“Could it have been a micrometeorite?” James wondered aloud.
Natalya shook her head. “No. The posts’ armour is rated to withstand collisions from anything up to an ELE asteroid. Look – around the impact site, the way the metal crumpled inwards – that’s too much buckling of the LP’s internal supports for a low-velocity rock impact; this was something moving c-fractional. A kinetic warhead.” Her eyes narrowed. “We’ve got company.”
Aboard BG 97’s flagship, Admiral Hunt and her staff were reviewing the same information as Commodore Archer and coming to the same conclusions. “Message to Hyperion Prime Command Base,” she informed Communications. “Am ordering the 173rd and 59th BatCruSquads to hunt down presumed hostile bogey within Hyperion.”
“Message sent, admiral. The hive is acknowledging and confirming orders. Relaying messages to Commodores Haskey and Butchinson now.”
“Excellent,” Hunt settled in her flag chair. First the incident at Pioneering and now in his own backyard; Foraker would be wiping egg from his face for quite some time. If his mistakes weren’t costing lives, she might have taken more satisfaction in his failures. Admiral Foraker had served the Concord with a distinguished record for almost a century, but the last thirty years spent behind a desk had dulled his edge. He was an able administrator and a competent strategist, but he was a political admiral now.
Alicia respected Foraker’s past accomplishments, but that was just what they were – past. Hunt had better things to do than try and hamstring Foraker, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t going to keep an eye on him. It would be disappointing if Earth was forced to relieve him, maybe even with someone who thought more about the military situation and less what the politcos back home would think of their actions.
Well. That wasn’t quite accurate; like her, Foraker was from the Johannen School. But wars weren’t won with half-measures. Either Hawthorne would figure that out for himself, or he’d end up shuffled off to the sidelines. Which was too bad.