October 17th, 4233
United Terran Concord
The engines keened with the sound of screaming, chained daemons and Alicia was glad of it; life was returning to Warlord, her Warlord.
Hunt’s flagship was still quite damaged from its tussle with the Lefu armada last month. The admiral had sacrificed the Kali-class dreadnought’s place in the repair queue for vessels that were more damaged then her own. Currently, Warlord’s own damage control teams were handling the DN’s problems. There was little major damage done to Warlord, but it had taken several of the Lefu’s godawful warheads through its shield walls; there was a two-kilometer gouge across the boomer’s port flank running several decks deep, but it took a lot more than that to put a dreadnought down. She and her crew just kept right on fighting, albeit with fewer weapons.
Like all modern warships, Warlord’s vital systems were buried deep beneath layers of battle steel, safe from most forms of attack. Missiles could batter a ship into rubble, but it was energy weapons that would pierce their hides and knock out primary systems. If she’d allowed the Lefu to get into their energy range, the battle would have been over, despite the Concord’s numerical advantage. Concord armour was simply no match for Lefu energy fire.
The enemy’s boomers had been bad enough in a missile duel; Alicia didn’t want to think of the kind of carnage an Abaddon, or worse, an Ahriman was capable of. Images taken during the battle had shown that both of those ship types had rows of banded armoured plating – covering for their energy mounts, each of which appeared larger than even a Mars-class dreadnought’s heaviest lasers. That was a bit of a misnomer; all of the Concord’s energy weapons, whether masers, gasers or actual lasers went by the same shorthand. Rounding out their complement, each of the Lefu dreadnoughts had three rows of turrets along each spine; the position of the turrets on the outer rows matched each other, with the center line staggered between them. This meant that two rows could rotate to fire on any abeam vessel, while the third row had to make do by firing ‘up’ or to the other broadside. All three rows could, of course, rotate upwards to fire on a vessel ‘above’ them.
The Concord’s ships followed a similar design, neither fleet going in pointless ornamentation such as raised superstructures or exposed bridges; those parts of a vessel were simply too fragile, too inviting a target.
Alicia ran a finger over the ballpoint pen in an inkwell on the edge of her desk. Long since dried out, it had been a gift for her from her father when she’d made the Academy’s honour roll. The pen wobbled around in a circle in its holder, the joint squeaking. Until she’d faced the Lefy, Alicia had genuinely believed that there was nothing in the galaxy that could stand up to the full power of the Concordat and its Navy. It was… humbling to learn otherwise. Lefu technology was generations ahead of their own – one of their Nakirs was equal to a Concordat heavy cruiser.
Even more so, because they had someone who, if not a flag officer, at least understood the basics of Lefu technology and what had they gotten out of her? Nothing. Not a damn thing.
Alicia sighed. The Centauri Accords specifically laid out what was and was not acceptable in military actions. There were a few exceptions – such as Special Directive Seventeen – but by and large, what was in the Accords was enshrined in military law. Of course, as she had found out some forty years ago, military law could be flexible when there was an overriding need. OMI lived and breathed by that principle and so did its black-ops divisions – the ones that no one was supposed to know about. After the Daedalus Raid, Commander Alicia Hunt had met some of their people and even today, she remained in contact with a few of her patrons.
Foraker had contacts of his own, she knew. Some at the same levels as hers and some even higher, but damned if she knew what power source they were tapped into, though she was certain that some of ‘her’ people were his, too. That could be a problem, but if she was the one getting the results and not him… well, even the deepest ‘black box’ sections of OMI were pragmatic.
The admiral sighed, turning back to her console, a 2-D map of the system on its display.
Four more HTBs had gone down with not even a sniff of the ship responsible. That was not to say that there was nothing; twice her ships had picked up traces of another vessel, but that only confirmed the presence of scouts in Hyperion Hive. Those contacts had, respectively, been too far away before an HTB had been taken out and afterwards to be the culprit. So, she knew that there was something out there putting holes in Hyperion Hive’s early-warning system – and she was more than half-certain that those contacts had been intended to distract her ships from that same ‘something’.
Star systems were big places – even one as buttoned-up as Hyperion Hive – and finding something like a single vessel that was doing its damnedest not to be found was easier said then done. If I ever get a hold of a time machine, I’m going to find the fucker that said there’s no such thing as stealth in space and break his fingers.
Hunt had conferred with Foraker – as the on-site commander, he had technical authority over her – and she was dispersing the HAVOCs to assist in locating the enemy bogeys. Together with the escort shell and her quick-reaction battlecruiser squadrons, they should be able to ferret out the Lefu, sooner rather than later.
Alicia had considered long and hard about using Commodore Archer’s ships, but in the end had decided against it. It wasn’t just that she’d broken off pursuit of the retreating Lefu task force – Hunt’s inquiries suggested that Courageous and Captain LeFay had had more than a little to do with that action, which in itself was another annoying puzzle – but Archer’s repeated visits to the prisoner made Hunt question her judgment.
If it were up to her, she would have shipped Archer back to Earth on the first red-eye, but Hawthorne had a soft spot for the commodore. Well, he could use her ships to safeguard what was left of the hive’s industry as long as it kept Archer stayed out of her way. Besides, she was Foraker’s pet. Let him deal with her.
Officially, it was known RD-8477, though the AI aboard preferred to think of itself in much grander terms. Currently, RD-8477 was sweeping through the remains of LP 01, searching for any trace of the ship that had killed it. The automata’s sensors had already determined that the missile that killed LP 01 had struck the HTB in the center of mass. It had not been a kinetic warhead, either: perhaps the Lefu realized that it had been a futile attempt to try and conceal their sniping, or they had simply been testing the Confederation’s response.
Whatever their reason, they’d stopped using ballistic strikes four days ago. This HTB had been hit by one of the Lefu’s CASKs. One of their directed bursts, which meant that a section of armour only a few meters across had taken the full force of an multi-gigaton explosion. Armour had boiled away as the plume cut straight through LP 01’s core, expanding and blowing virtually the entire back half of the station out, the shockwave of the impact pushing what was left of the HTB out of its orbit. With its core systems shredded into molecular splinters or blown into fragmented debris and its internal superstructure crumpled and melted, it was only a station in name only.
RD-8477 observed the destruction with a clinical sensor eye, unaffected by the death of one of its distant relations.
Internal logic engines spooled through calculations, plotting the arc of the station’s death-spiral, the rate at which it was spinning and thermal decay maps of its hull. The calculations lined up and, had RD-8477 the ability to express emotion, it would have twittered in happiness. The AI now had a precise location for where LP 01 had been when it had been killed, which meant that it had a trajectory for the missile that destroyed it. Which meant it had an area of space to begin searching for the Lefu warship.
Had the drone slightly more cognitive development, it would have lamented that it was under-appreciated by its human controllers. Nevertheless, RD-8477 updated its logs and squealed off a laser transmission to the ship that had launched it.
In the absence of further instructions, RD-8477 fell back on its imperatives and randomly selected one of the possible vectors that the hostile vessel had taken and began to sweep along it, antennae and sensors strained to the utmost. It was a pity that RD-8477 couldn’t hum with self-satisfaction.
It slid through the Major Enemy Base like a mako in murky water, drifting along on a parabolic course that would take it past its next target. Early efforts to open a hole in the Enemy’s shell of brightspace listening posts had proven harder than anticipated; the Enemy were adapting. Wise of them.
The End of Dawn were slow to adapt. Perhaps they considered change and compromise failings, adaptation to be a weakness. Whatever the reason, their doctrine, though it made them somewhat inflexible, had not noticeably hampered their ability to expand across tens of millions of stars and wipe out almost every species that they came across. The Brei’orai had tried to exploit the Prime Enemy’s stagnation and had done so to great effect in the early years of their conflict.
Unfortunately, ‘slow’ was not synonymous with ‘never’.
Later Mulkari killfleets did not sacrifice tactical flexibility for a philosophical viewpoint and had counted on the Brei’orai predicting their tactics, luring them into death ground. Several fleets had been destroyed and three systems lost before the Brei’orai Command Structure abandoned their own doctrines. They underestimated their foes. The End of Dawn changed as much as needed, as much as they believed necessary. They would sacrifice both ships and time if it meant it would, sooner or later, cost their foes more.
It was a lesson that the Evea’shi had learned well and only forgotten once. When they had fallen, the End of Dawn had showed them what the price for such failures was. They remembered their lessons, all of them, and that was why there could never be peace. They would not risk the events of the Broken Days, would not risk the Breaking, ever again.
Sin Child adjusted its course, letting the distant light of the star the Enemy called Hyperion wash over its hull. Its target lay ahead and if it could not open a path for its brothers and sisters, it would be satisfied with tearing down the walls of the Enemy’s house.
Natalya was eyeing a system map, each of the half-dozen listening posts that the enemy vessel had destroyed marked with a grey blob. Those still operational were a bright green. It didn’t take any stretch of the imagination to realize that it had been trying to open a hole in their coverage, but denied that, their intruder seemed to settle for destroying them at random. At least, was it random?
If it was, then she was wasting her time, but since she and what was left her command were still undergoing repairs or assigned to cover the inner system, she had plenty of time to waste. Captain Winters had commed her a few hours ago, requesting another CAT scan; he’d told her that he was working on a theory. Whenever one of her engineers said that, the little hairs on the back of Natalya’s neck stood up and she wasn’t convinced that the CMO’s statement warranted any less of a reaction, especially since she was likely to be the theory getting worked on.
She hadn’t spoken with Arykka – the prisoner, she corrected herself – for several days and she hadn’t had so much as a migraine since. That was good for her, less so for the Concord. The Evea’shi stuck to her vow of silence. Like Sisyphus and his boulder, BXA researchers and OMI operatives kept trying to get through to her, but she was either unable or unwilling to meet them halfway.
Unwilling, you mean.
Natalya didn’t want to admit it, but she didn’t know how cooperative she’d be if the situation was reversed. But it wouldn’t be, would it? The Concord wouldn’t launch an unprovoked attack on anybody else. In fact, in its history, it had been the one traditionally getting ambushed. The Resurgency, the Empties and now the Lefu, just to name the three most recent ones. Never start a fight, but always finish one. That was the Concordat Navy’s guiding motto.
That was what they were going to do here, too. Every day that the Lefu left them alone was another day for the Concord’s fleets to marshal, for dockworkers and engineers to load and refit cold husks into shimmering titans. The next time the Lefu stuck their noses into Hyperion Hive, the welcome they’d get would be very warm.
The redhead leaned back in her chair, brushing the loose forelock of hair out of her eyes as it again slipped down into them. Even with the fleeting contact she’d had with Arykka, no one was any closer to understanding why the Lefu had attacked them without warning or provocation.
You are Enemy. That is enough.
But what made it enough? Natalya groaned, feeling the beginnings of a migraine. Humans – even the craziest, frothing-at-the-mouth zealots – had a reason for why they made someone their enemy. Fights between people could be set off by the simplest excuses, like ‘I just plain don’t like you’. But nations needed more than that. At least in her world, they did. Territory, ancient grudges, holy war. None of them fit.
The Lefu were seizing systems, but they weren’t occupying them. Being a part of Case Omega did have some benefits: the Marines that Donald had covertly dropped on Prior had managed to get another drone out, confirming the initial report. After satisfying themselves that the planet was no threat to them, the Lefu ignored the populace completely. They’d landed several prefabricated industrial complexes and a few of their construction ships and had begun mining operations, though each site was, at a bare minimum, hundreds of kilometers from the nearest population center. Infiltrator teams had also reported Lefu drones harvesting abandoned crops before they rotted, packaging the produce for shipment up to their fleet. Both operations were heavily defended; Major Lewinksy noted that he and his Marines were preparing sabotage efforts aimed at the mining facilities.
Natalya didn’t know whether or not to wish him luck and she banished the treacherous thoughts, her eyes drifting back to the display screen in her office. She felt a surge of familiar anger. The enemy scout had only been targeting unmanned listening posts, but it was not so long ago that they hadn’t confined themselves to such bloodless violence. Five of the 181st’s ships were gone, along with their crews and captains. Only Donald and Li were left of her original command. Bill. Abby. Fajr. Kate. Frida. Men and women that she’d served with for years, known and respected. Now, all gone.
There had to be a reason for it, some meaning to their deaths, she’d accept nothing less. She had to know – even if it killed her.
And that was all too likely.
Captain Hiro Takasawi ran his fingers through his graying hair, resisting the urge to tug at his moustache instead. According to UTCN regs, facial hair was not proscribed, provided it was trimmed to a reasonable length. Which Hiro could only agree with: aside from safety and sanitary issues, nothing was a bigger turn-off for him than a huge bushy beard.
The master of the Belligerent crossed his legs as he watched the tracking displays on the main screen. His battlecruiser was fresh from the CDS Yards, one of the Emancipator-class BCEs. She carried refined fire-control and power systems, which added an additional 150,000 klicks to her effective energy range, bringing her up to three and a half light-seconds. That additional range came at a trade-off; her weapons were more tightly focused than normal beams, which meant greater accuracy and increased penetration, but less overall damage and increased cooling times. Emancipators were normally paired with other E-variant warships to make up for this, but at the moment Belligerent was on her own.
The Old Lady was trying to locate the Lefu bastards who were mucking up Hyperion Hive’s listening posts and to do that, she needed as wide a dispersal pattern as possible to catch them. Though his battlecruiser was isolated from the rest of the fleet, Hiro himself wasn’t worried. A Lefu scout cruiser would have a hard time taking down a battlecruiser, let alone Belligerent. Hiro smiled with a touch of pride in his ship and crew. They were the best and part of him was disappointed that he hadn’t gotten to show the Lefu that, but the upper echelons were still freaking out about the silent bastards’ energy batteries, never mind that they’d never gotten a real look at them; all the engagements to date had been missile duels.
Takasawi was looking forward to an oppurtunity to sink his teeth into the enemy. Which, he thought as his senior Sensor officer looked over at him, might be coming up soon.
Hiro rose from his command chair and stood behind the younger man. “What do you have, David?”
“Sir, one of our recon drones reported a burst of EM radiation from these coordinates,” the ensign pointed to a series on numbers on his main screen. “It’s consistent with a hyperspace emergence.”
The captain frowned. “Shouldn’t the beacons have picked it up? They’re still on-line in that area.” He shook his head, correcting himself. “Not if it was a single ship.”
“Yessir. The hive’s gotten a shipment of technicians and parts to upgrade our posts to ultra-sensitive variants, but they were just about to start the retrofitting when this happened. The drone’s reporting a contact, unknown configuration, but it’s heading in-system.” The officer frowned. “Our recon unit was too far away to get a definitive reading, sir, but it looks like a Lefu battleship.”
“All right. Helm, shift our course to slide us out over Meta’s northern pole; the magnetic interference should give us a little extra cover. Let’s go and greet our friends. Communications, drop a squeal to Warlord; let Admiral Hunt know we’ve got a bogey and are moving to investigate.”
Sin Child had detected the anomalous lone contact itself less than two hours ago. Mirror Shard[i] requested permission to investigate, but the battlecruiser’s Commander chose to take it upon herself. Her vessel was closer, and if this was some sort of lure, Sin Child was more likely to be able to fight its way out of any trap. If it was not, then the Enemy Vessel would be better dealt with by the more capable Strike Fleet vessel.
Pragmatically, Scouting Fleet’s tapestry systems and the intelligence the element here provided were of more value to the Fleet then one battlecruiser and if someone was to be sacrificed, Sin Child’s Commander was adamant that it not be the ship packed to the brim with data on the Enemy’s movements. Truthfully, she and her crew were craving something more challenging than pot-shotting helpless brightspace monitors.
With agonizing slowness, the battlecruiser quietly shifted its course more drastically than it had in days, letting the nearby planet’s gravity well aid its endeavours.
Missiles slid into firing tubes and gunnery crews waited for the order to pull open their armoured doors and unleash hell.
“There.” Hiro noted the contact as Belligerent slid down towards it. “Stupid bastards don’t even look like they’ve seen us.” He had to admit, that the enemy vessel didn’t match any known Lefu specifications – the range was still a bit much for visual ID, but who else could it be? And why were they moving so openly? All of BG 97 had been trying to hunt them down for days and now they were making a break for the inner system? Were they a distraction?
He had too many damn questions and he didn’t like that. Well, if this was a trap, the best those pale-skinned freaks would get would be one ship – and he’d make sure that they wouldn’t have an easy time of it. “Let the range drop to twenty million,” he ordered. “Then launch all bow tubes. Use our nukes – the dirtiest ones we’ve got. Set them to go off a light-second away.” That should scramble their sensors, comms and EW. Maybe their shield walls, too. “Once the bow tubes are clear, I want us redlining the drives. Helm, put us alongside. Guns; defensive missiles only. We don’t have the payload to duel them and I want us in our energy range ASAP. Knock out their weapons as you bring ours to bear.”
There was a chorus of acknowledgments as his crew set to work. Hiro leaned back in his chair and crossed his legs. Nothing left for the moment but to wait.
It looks like I’ll be getting some action after all.