October 25th, 4233
Hyperspace – outside Canis Sebra
‘Line of Control’ – Outer Reaches
United Terran Concord
Prevarian wanted to pace, but he suppressed the urge, grimacing mentally. Natalya had always fidgeted, particularly when she thought no one was looking, when she lost that little bit of control needed to keep herself in check. It hadn’t been the most professional habit she’d had, but it had always made her easy to read, gave him some glimmer of what she was thinking or feeling. He found he missed that, missed her.
He’d known Natalya for much of his career and it hurt to think about her being unable to move, to feed herself or do anything except lie in bed, all because of the whim of some barely-human thing. But he and the fleet couldn’t lay idle for one woman. Increased Lefu activity had been reported in several systems neighbouring Hyperion Hive. Pioneering had lost another two small outposts to its interloper and even Hyperion Hive wasn’t immune; two more enemy scout cruisers had been picked up in the past five days. One of them had been chased out of the system with its tail between its legs, but the second had crippled the destroyer Vulture before slipping away.
Because of the upswing in incidents, neither Foraker nor Hunt were willing to spend the ships necessary to safeguard non-vital traffic, stranding a good number of personnel in Hyperion Hive, including Archer. The Lefu didn’t see a difference between a medical ship carrying the sick and injured and a troop transport; despite the stress on its medical personnel and resources, the hive needed to make sure the latter got where it was going more then it needed to send the former out.
The increase in Lefu presence had convinced the brass another major attack was imminent and if the aliens came in force, the Concord needed every ship available to beat them back – and deal with this new threat from the ‘Necros’. Thankfully, at the moment the second alien force was not Command’s priority – if the specs from the Empties prize vessel were right, then the Necros were slower then molasses in hyperspace. And they’d have to go through the Lefu-held systems to reach Concordat space.
With luck, those two will kill each other off and save us the trouble.
The Concord couldn’t rest on its laurels though, which was why Foraker had tapped TF 111 for this mission. Unhappily, they were going in cold, but they needed to probe the Lefu defences in the ‘Line of Control’ – the undefended buffer systems between Concordat territories and the Lefu-held systems – to determine the nature and rapidity of hostile response to unexpected incursions. When a heavy counter-attack rolled around, command would need to know what kind of leeway they had.
Secondary objectives were to make contact with the local governments and, if possible, drop supplies to them. They were explicitly ordered not to attempt to hold any of those systems; they hadn’t been fortified, but Lefu quick-response units could still inflict heavy casualties and that was something that they were ordered to avoid if at all possible.
This mission was to make the tattooed bastards nervous, make them think the Concord was preparing for a counter-offensive – get them to back off and buy more time. Every day meant more ships trickled into the Outer Reaches, squadrons and task forces. Four more dreadnaughts had been re-activated locally since the Battle of Hyperion Hive and another squadron of boomers were en route from the Inner Worlds.
The Lefu had no idea what they’d gotten themselves into.
Or maybe they did; reports from Lefu-held systems were always sketchy, but new information from Priorii suggested that two new industrial facilities had come on-line planetside along with an asteroid mining base in the outer system. They’d almost gotten the shipyards back into operation and had started laying down a new class of vessel.
Tebrinnin was even worse; Tebri was no longer recognizable as the planet it had once been and the system was filthy with Lefu warships and defence installations. The same went for the other worlds they’d hit in their first wave. Unicorn Set was again a staging point, only now it was for Lefu warships, not the Concordat Navy. Making matters worse Asset Tracking had positively identified four new superdreadnoughts; two were Abaddons, one was an Ahriman and the last was another supercarrier, an Azazel.
Why they hadn’t taken that firepower and brought it against the Concord yet was a matter of conjecture inside OMI – some believed that they didn’t want to leave their newly-conquered worlds unprotected, others believed that the ships were a bulwark against the Necro forces and a third group thought that they were doing the same thing as the Confederation: building their forces up a level where they could simply roll right over anything in their way.
At the moment, James Prevarian doubted that it really mattered as long as those ships weren’t anywhere near TF 111.
“All ships report ready for hostile emergence,” Operations reported.
“Breaking through Alpha now,” his helm officer announced as Intolerance, a dozen battlecruisers and two BCVs smoothly dropped from one realm into another.
The executrix coiled a finger through her braided hair as she watched the displays, chewing on her lip. Something was wrong with this situation; Liana looked to her commander and knew that Kanis felt it too. The Scouting Fleet element based in this Enemy System had only gotten off a single badly damaged brightspace drone unit before it had been silenced. Luckily, the Strike Fleet element had been nearby in brightspace, preparing for an incursion at one of the Major Enemy Base’s bordering systems.
Liana twirled the end of her ponytail in a finger. The Barricade Lands were not of high value to the Fleet; they were a tripwire, a desolated zone that forced the Enemy to fight with no support mechanisms, leaving them open to counter-attack from all sides. Once the Conquered Lands were built up to an acceptable level of defence, the Fleet would move to secure the Barricades and carve out a new buffer zone. But they could not leave their rear echelons vulnerable to do so. Not with Haven’s Spire so near and certainly not with the End of Dawn lurking in the shadows. If the latter had not chosen this particular moment to show their faces, the Major Enemy Base would be in the Fleet’s hands by now. Their interference had slowed the Fleet’s timetable and let this Scouting Fleet element fall prey to the Enemy’s designs.
It wasn’t right. But they would make it right. Commander Vualii had detached Ambuscade and Harbinger’s Whisper ahead of their element to scout out Sentinel Fourteen for signs of the Enemy and if it they were there, the Strike Fleet element would descend on them, pick their bones and throw what was left into the Abyss.
Liana raised her head, nodding towards her superior. Everything was ready; all that she or the crew needed was the word.
“I don’t like this,” Prevarian muttered to himself as he stared at the tactical repeaters. TF 111’s emergence into realspace should have been greeted by a hail of missiles. Lefu sensors couldn’t have failed to see the squadron coming from hours away, so where were they? “There’s nothing from our drones?”
“Not yet, but the shell is still expanding. We’ll have full system coverage in six hours. Picking up heavy static from Canid, some signal leakage. Looks like a jamming array similar to the one established over Prior. Processing images from the planet; looks like the main city’s still there, but aside from the jamming net, I’m not reading any orbital works.”
“No surprise there,” Commander Andrei Ivenov commented. “We know the Lefu destroy most space-based installations and Canid’s a minor farm world; they’d have nothing worth salvaging like at Prior.”
“True,” Prevarian mused. “But you’d think that at the least they’d have a monitor station there to keep an eye on the planet.”
“Maybe the scouts do that, or the jamming sats double as watchtowers.”
“Possible; still nothing on sensors?”
“No, sir. Not a peep. Hold on; picking up some anomalous thermal blooms and radiation markers. The nearest one is fourteen light-minutes deeper into the system.” Several purple blobs blossomed on the holographic map of Canis Sebra. “High probability that they’re traces from multiple missile detonations. Only a few hours old.”
Prevarian frowned. That didn’t make any sense; none of BG 97’s scouts had been through Canis Sebra that recently and there shouldn’t have been any civilian traffic for the Lefu scouts to hit. Pirates, then? Raiders hoping to loot an unprotected world and running afoul of the enemy’s ‘tripwire’ force? A black-box operation from OMI? Or even a Necro advance force? Any one of them could explain that thermal residue, but only one could be the rationale for why TF 111 had not emerged under fire.
That worried the captain. But he was an officer in the Concordat Navy with a mission to perform – he couldn’t run and hide under the blankets every time something was spooky. “Julius Caesar and William Wallace will remain on the hyper limit,” he ordered. “Wallace’s HAVOCs will support our approach towards Canid and Caesar’s will fly CSP for the carriers in case any hostiles remain on-site. Our carriers are to hyper out if attacked. Make sure their captains understand that we can’t afford to lose them. Our BCVs are the one defence we have against their fighters.”
Commander Ivenov nodded crisply. “Yes, sir.”
“All other ships, approach vector to Canid.”
Rebecca Eloi handled Glaive’s throttle gingerly; the ship had taken some damage during the Battle of Hyperion Hive and the new drive controls were more sensitive then she was used to. Despite all the drills she and the surviving HAVOCs had run, she wasn’t as confident in the refurbished Gold Four as she would have liked. Even with the new missile canisters, a Firehawk-class HAVOC was still no match for a Lefu Nephilim. Scientists and engineers on Hyperion Hive and throughout the Concord were trying to glean everything they could from the leftover debris, but the Lefu had been thorough; there was almost nothing useful left and what there was… from what she’d heard the tech-boys say, it was like engineers from the Age of Steam trying to understand a nuclear reactor.
She’d been so proud of her sleek teardrop-shaped Glaive and now it seemed so clumsy compared to those sleek black fighters. Rebecca would give almost anything be able to fly one of them… minus the whole ‘drilling holes in your spine and hooking your nervous system up a computer’ thing. She repressed a small shiver; just thinking about that gave her the willies.
The ensign put the thoughts from her mind as she checked her HAVOC’s course; they were still six hours out from Canid and so far, there hadn’t been any response to TF 111’s incursion. If their enemies were the Empties, she’d say that could only be a good thing. But the Lefu could be running silent out there, just waiting for the Concordat ships to fit the noose of the system’s gravity well around their necks.
The Commander of Ambuscade bristled with anger. Like gluttonous thieves, the Enemy had remained here amidst the corpses of the murdered Scouting Fleet element. They would pay for that arrogance. His hand passed over a control rune; Ambuscade lay along the transition limit while Harbinger’s Whisper was tailing the inbound force. He would have liked for the Enemy’s Aggressor Vessels to follow their battlecruisers, but one couldn’t have everything.
“Captain – comm from Casear. They’ve detected a hyper event; someone just left the system. It’s a small trace; equivalent to a light cruiser or escort – most likely a Nakir.”
“Combat stations, ladies and gentlemen” Prevarian ordered. “Company’s coming.”
Kanis took a moment to circle the tactical display Daemon had obligingly provided for him. Though not truly sentient, he could nonetheless almost feel the ship’s anticipation and definitely sense the surge of excitement that ran through it from his crew. Daemon wanted to fight; it was what she, he, it had been built for. What all the Evea’shi had been bred for, a legacy that they could never escape.
One that you cannot, either. He reached into the holographic field, his fingers enfolding the Enemy squadron in his fist. It was a pity. In another age, these Enemy would have been brothers and sisters to him and his. But the Evea’shi had learned the lessons of an uncaring universe. Their former masters and gods, the Brei’orai, had taught them the first lesson. The Mulkari had taught the second. And during the Broken Days, when the Evea’shi had dared to hope, forgetting the first lesson, the End of Dawn had showed them the price for it. The Evea’shi would never be victims again, never kneel before another. No matter the cost in blood. Theirs and that of their long-lost cousins. It was a lesson that this Enemy had never had to learn and Kanis envied and hated them for that.
He looked over at Liana, his executrix raising her head, awaiting his command, her unspoken desire shining like a star. “All ships,” he ordered. “Prepare for combat transition to darkspace. Aggressor Vessels will hold at transition limits. We will engage.”
“Oh, damn you all,” someone growled as a Lefu assault force appeared from nowhere.
Prevarian didn’t reprimand the speaker for this particular lapse; he felt rather the same way. There were a dozen battleships arranged into three four-ship squadrons, accompanied by two of their smaller carriers and a dozen lighter screening units. Strictly going by the numbers, both sides were evenly matched. Going by capabilities, the Lefu had their Concordat enemies vastly outgunned. Their arrival hadn’t been a coincidence, either – they’d dropped from their holding position in hyperspace as close to TF 111’s battle carriers as they could manage – which still put Julius Caesar and Winston Churchill well away from the outer edge of enemy’s missile envelope.
James didn’t know how long it would be before the Lefu managed to reverse-engineer Concordat hyper systems, but he wasn’t looking forward to that day. Until then, barring the direct intervention of God Himself (and being agnostic, Prevarian doubted that more then most), there was no way for the bastards to range on Wallace and Churchill before they-
The carriers’ icons blinked off the display as they flashed into hyperspace. James nodded to himself, wishing them well.
He wanted to say that it had been a trap, but to do that, they’d have needed advance warning that TF 111 had been coming. If they’d had that level of foreknowledge, why not just catch them as they emerged from hyperspace? This was either a response to the attack that neutralized the system’s defenders or they’d had the misfortune to come across a raiding fleet. Judging by its size and location, they’d been planning to hit Hyperion Hive.
Maybe he could discourage them a little.
Wing Captain Shawnesy’s voice came through the comm. “All squadrons, come about. Beacoup bad guys after our ships. We are scrubbing and bugging. White and Blue – take position aft and dorsal to the BCs. Green and Purple – aft and ventral. Hold just outside the group’s effective point defence range and engage incoming missiles. Everyone else on Red squadron; we’ll be keeping their fighters off the capitals.”
“Not a shipping strike, sir?” Gold One inquired.
“Negative. Not through their screen. Control’s already seeing one carrier group forming CSP on their capitals.”
“HAVOCs are back inbound, sir. Enemy forces are accelerating in-system, attempting to cut inside us.”
“Processing the data we can,” Tactical commented. “It looks like two Hydras leading the formation, the rest appear to be Gorgons and Cetuses, but we can’t get a good count on the specific classes.”
Prevarian nodded. It didn’t make that much difference anyways. He could continue in-system and do what he could for Canid as he passed it, but that would mean taking his entire force across Canis Sera’s gravity well and the Lefu warships were faster then TF 111; they’d overtake his vessels well before they reached the hyper limit, or simply dog them from outside the Concordat ships’ missile range and wear them down. Even worse, once his ships were committed, the Lefu could splinter their attack force, chasing them with one unit and dropping the second out of hyperspace on the other side of the system, pincering the Concordat fleet.
Those scenarios meant he’d be fighting them on their terms. He couldn’t allow that. Even more, he wouldn’t run from them. Not any more. No matter what he did, it was going to be a meat grinder.
But it was going to be the one that he chose.
The Lefu knew how badly they outgunned his force; they’d expect him to run. If there was one thing and one thing only he’d learned from Commodore Archer, it was never to do the expected.
“All ships – hard about. Maximum delta-V. Helm, plot us a course through the center of the Lefu formation. I want a spearhead, nice and tight. All ships to maximum thrust, all available power to prow shield walls. We’re going right down their throats.” If he spread his formation out, he gave them every chance to pick his ships off one by one. This way, the vessels to the fore would take the hits; he was under no illusions as to what was going to happen to those ships and their crews. The Lefu had blood on their minds and they weren’t going to be very accommodating.
As Intolerance and her comrades came about hard, HAVOCs shifting position from the fleet’s aft to its fore arc and the inertial compensators strained against a maneuver of hundreds of G’s more force then they were used to, Prevarian leaned back in his command chair and laid his hands in his lap. Just over an hour and a half until it began. Perhaps he’d have the galley bring up a light meal; he’d never had their duck before and he doubted he would get the chance to have it later.
“Take us in,” he whispered.