October 17th, 4233
United Terran Concord
“Sir, we’re receiving a signal.”
Jacob’s chair squeaked as he turned in his chair. “Source?”
“Unknown, but it’s on a Concordat channel.” Communications adjusted one of the controls on her board. “Playing now, sir.”
A standard friendly greeting from the Concord rolled over the bridge, requesting that they state their intentions and identify themselves. “To better facilitate a dialogue, they’ve sent us a database of English on a subsidiary channel,” Communications continued with a smirk of amusement.
“Thoughtful of them,” Goldstein replied, pausing to look up as Allston ghosted beside him, the younger junior captain leaning down to speak softly.
“Belligerent – that’s a battlecruiser’s name.”
Jacob nodded. “It is. And there’s no sign of it on sensors. Which means they’re running silent, which means that they’ve been stalking us.” The sinking weight in his gut faded almost entirely. They’d ‘only’ been hunted by the Concords. “Can we respond back to the same point?”
“Yessir,” Communications nodded. “Ready to send at your discretion, sir.”
“Excellent. Very well; prepare for transmission….”
The wait between transmission and reply was interminable and Hiro could do nothing but watch the display as the alien monolith drew deeper in-system. He wondered what it would take to kill a vessel like that. From the way it was maneuvering, it was even less graceful then its size implied, which suggested heavy armour. If Belligerent could cross its T, he was certain that they could take it. But going broadside to broadside with something of unknown capability over twice his size and several times his mass was sure to be unpleasant.
And weren’t you the one looking forward to an energy duel with a Lefu warship? that annoying little voice inside his head asked. Before Hiro could get past Fuck you and the id you rode in on, the communications console chirped with the acknowledgment of an incoming signal.
“Captain, we’re receiving a hail in return, audio only. It’s on the same frequency as ours. Also picking up an enclosed file.”
Hiro nodded, stroking his moustache. At least we know that they’re not Lefu, then. “Drop the file into an isolated system. Let’s hear what our guests have to say, shall we?”
“Yes, sir. Playing on speakers now.”
There was a brief crackle before the alien’s hail came through. In perfect English, though accented with an Empty’s inflections. “Greetings, Belligerent. This is Senior Captain Jacob Goldstein aboard the League of Independent Systems Naval Ship Covenant. Thank you for the warm welcome to Hyperion Hive. You’ll have to excuse our clandestine arrival; we’ve had quite a rough time since Priorii and didn’t want to attract the wrong kind of attention. I’m sending a copy of our logs on a sub-channel, including Liberty’s authorization code. Covenant, clear.”
Hiro blinked in shock; another human’s voice had been the last thing he’d ever expected to hear and he shot a glance over at his Operations chief. The woman was already running information through the computer, looking up at Takasawi. “Confirmed, sir. LISNS Liberty, under the command of Senior Captain Jacob Goldstein, was at the Battle of Priorii, though the ship was listed as destroyed. His transit code checks out as well.”
“It could be some kind of trick – a Trojan horse,” Commander Norita Sackhoff put in. “A vessel that size could carry significant munitions and it’s different enough from known Lefu designs that we might not draw comparisons.”
“Very true,” Hiro replied. “Communications, order them to heave to while we sort this out.”
“-cut thrust and stand by for further instructions, Covenant. Belligerent, clear.”
“Well,” Karen mused. “At we know that they’re who they say they are. I don’t think the Lefu could manage to pack that much officious bluster into so few syllables.”
Jacob smiled a little. The Concords’ reaction was more or less what he had expected. To be fair, he wasn’t sure that he would have done things any differently, but it was like the prigs had a setting that they switched to as soon as someone mentioned the League. Ironically, it was the outer worlds that resented his people the most; it was their planets and industries that had been leveled, their ships that had been shot down and their people that had died in the League War. The Inner Worlders looked on the League and the entire incident with a sort of dismissive, paternal contempt, but it was the populations of the Outer Reaches that had the sticks lodged firmly up their asses. ‘At least we’re not Empties’ was a good part of the attitude too. They could get back to him after they’d had their planets systemically raped for centuries, their people displaced, disregarded and pushed aside like troublesome vermin. “Doubtful,” he conceded to his junior captain. “Helm – cut our thrust and strike weapons. Leave defensive systems powered up. Just in case.”
“Belligerent’s coming out from deception-mode and she’s shifting course to come alongside,” Sensors reported. “We’ll be in their outer missile envelope in thirty minutes.”
“Also to put her port side across our bows,” Goldstein noted wryly. “That’s a BCE. She’ll want to swing in close to bring her batteries to bear.” The thought of allowing a Confed ship to put his own, no matter what she looked like, in its sights was not something that Goldstein would have ever accepted graciously before, but right now he was prepared to accept the Concords’ little games if it meant a meal not served from ration packs and water that didn’t come from an alien reclamation system. “Let her come in; we’ve got nothing to worry about. Tell the flight pods to prepare for boarding; they’ll want to put in an appearance.”
He should feel relieved, but that uncertain feeling was still there.
There was still something wrong, something not right about this situation. But then, had there ever?
The sudden appearance of the Enemy Vessel caught Sin Child by surprise. The battlecruiser had been focused on its approach to the End of Dawn scout; the Enemy Vessel had come down from its position cutting against the brown dwarf, using the planet’s magnetic field to add an extra layer to its tapestry. With Sin Child’s own systems powered down to elude detection, it would have been difficult under the best of circumstances to locate the Enemy battlecruiser. A Scouting Vessel would not have had the same problems, but Sin Child was not a Scouting Vessel.
Commander Yolinii almost hissed; it was her failure to ensure adequate drone coverage that had allowed the Enemy Vessel to go undetected as long as it had. A mistake she would rectify. “Seeker pods – release a fresh swarm,” she ordered. “Let’s make sure that the new arrival is alone.”
“And if it is?” her executor asked. His facial tattoos were crooked lightning, radiating from his vertebrae around his face, complimenting the whirlpool family emblem beneath his right eye.
Sin responded to Yolinii’s mental summons, relaying the distance to target. Twenty minutes to the Enemy Vessel, thirty to the Mulkari. “Make sure all communications bands are jammed once the attack begins. Neither must be allowed to cry for help.” Cendi ran her fingers sensually over the arm of her control chair, cocking her head up towards her first officer. “Terran first. Then Mulkari.”
Officially, it was known as Fallow Sky 6561, but the AI aboard preferred to think of itself in much grander terms. It did not know why Lamentous was no longer issuing its orders instead of the other, but the other had the correct verification protocols and so Fallow Sky 6561 obeyed the orders of its hierarch. Fallow Sky 6561’s imperatives told it that some threat factions tried to broadcast misleading instructions to drones, to force them to reveal their locations or transmit false information. Which was unacceptable.
Fallow Sky 6561, like its fellow reconnaissance units, was a sleek charcoal-coloured diamond, coated with radar and sensor-system absorbing materials and heat bafflers to obscure its signature and extendable sensor pods to conduct routine sweeps of the space around it. It carried multiple scan protocols, making it exquisitely sensitive to perturbations in local space. It was currently on a system north-east sweep, which had taken it well past the local planet and its great rings and it was now cutting back around to return to its host vessel. The system’s distant primary was rising up over the gas giant’s terminator now, casting shadows from the moons onto the cloud tops of the ringed world.
The beauty of the spacescape was lost on the recon drone; it had no eye for such things. It was designed to carry out a specific mission and that was all that mattered to it.
Fallow Sky 6561 shifted position slightly as it passed through a large moon’s Lagrange point. These were favorite points for ambushes, where a ship or squadron could allow themselves to held in relative position behind a stellar body without the need for excessive station-keeping. There was no sign of hostile contact there and so Fallow Sky 6561 continued on its path. Its system froze for a moment, replaying images from one of its cameras. There, briefly cast against the southern pole of the ringed world was a silhouette that existed where none should have been. The drone consulted its sensor logs, but nothing had been detected that could account for the anomaly. A fleeting image, it had only existed for an instant, but that was long enough.
Recognition software and imperatives activated and the drone transmitted a warning to its command ship, paying with its own life as Sin Child detected its message and blew Fallow Sky 6561 out of space.
“Captain… we’ve picked up a transmission from one of our recon units – wait. It’s just been cut off.”
Goldstein narrowed his eyes. That’s never good. “What did it have to say?”
“Translating… now. Sir, it reports a high probability of contact with an unknown vessel. We didn’t get a class or identity from it, but we do have a partial vector. Best-guess is an intercept course.” The young officer’s eyes flicked over to Jacob.
Allston frowned, glancing over at Goldstein. “A second Concord ship?”
“It could be.” But it doesn’t feel like it.
Hiro had to admit that if this was some kind of trick, it was the most convoluted attempt at deception he’d ever come across. He was skimming through the logs he’d passed on to Admiral Hunt and if true, it was one hell of a tale. Takasawi hadn’t got past the effort to seize ‘Necromancer’; he’d gotten a bit bogged down checking to make sure that he’d been reading it right and the Empties [i]had actually sent a battle tank crawling through the guts of the ship.
The captain shook his head. Whoever had done that must have had balls of solid iron. But then, the Empties always had. Making up for a lack of sophistication with bravery bordering on psychosis was their stock in trade. Lucky for the little mudfarmers that it paid off this time. He skipped over the casualty logs; he’d let his analysts compare the names to Liberty’s registered complement. From his cursory look though, it seemed like the alien ship was on the up-and-up. Which only proved that reality was stranger than fiction.
“Commander Sackhoff, please inform Major al-Sadiral that we will be launching our Dragon’s Teeth shortly. Ensure that the major knows that he’s not to kill people unless they attempt to kill him first.”
“Captain,” Communications spoke up. “Incoming hail from [i]Covenant; they’re sending another file. They’re asking if the contact they’ve picked up is one of ours.”
Hiro blinked. “Contact?”
“Yes, sir. The file appears to be an attached sensor snapshot.”
“Open it in a secure computer and bring it up on one of the main screens.”
“Doing it now, sir.”
Foreign lettering scrawled down the side of the image clip, bits and pieces overlaid by English script and Arabic symbols in the League’s standard font. Other alien words remained untranslated and Takasawi could only guess at their meaning. That wasn’t what caught his attention, though. It was the momentary shadow ghosting across the dark southern bands of Hyperion Meta. Indistinct and fuzzy, it could have been anything – a ghost from a rogue asteroid, a shift in the cloud tops. It could have been anything, but Hiro knew that it wasn’t. Looks like some Empties actually proved themselves useful for once.
“Battle stations,” he ordered. He couldn’t help himself and he smiled a wolf’s grin at the thought of engaging a Lefu warship, even if it was only a scout. At last.
The signature of the Enemy Vessel was changing; it was coming about, but not to engage the Prime Enemy Vessel. No – inexplicable as it was, it was coming for them. Given that it had been a Mulkari drone that had detected them, that raised several possibilities. None of them were good.
So be it, then. They had tried to protect the Enemy from their own stupidity – by killing them, yes, but removing a fool who blithely closed with a Mulkari killship from the gene pool was a benign gift – but if their degenerate ‘cousins’ were so eager to blot themselves from the stars, then the Strike Vessel would oblige them with the Angel’s Mercy.
Sin Child rippled with song as it altered its course a final time.