November 17th, 4233
United Terran Concord
Hyperion Prime Command Base
“I’m sure Envoy Pierce has kept you up to date on the political maneuvers back home,” Vater began as he circled the conference table in the amphitheater, the dozens of ship captains, squadron leaders and other officers filling the seats watching and listening to him as he explained why they were about to risk their lives. “The current administration is under mounting pressure to deal with this incursion into our territory. To avoid looking weak, the government has produced a war tax increase, allowed the re-activation of the Reserve and sent me out here to whip the rest of you into a frenzy.” He smiled sardonically. “Or just plain whip you. The point is that because of these issues, President Erasmus has impressed upon the admiralty the need to take back our worlds from this alien menace. At all costs.” Hoss paused for a moment to let that sink in to the assembled captains and officers in the small amphitheater.
He knew what they were thinking, because he had been in their place, being told that his life and those of his comrades were secondary to the gains of their political masters. It was a soldier’s duty to fight in defence of their nation, but it was another thing entirely to risk your life simply so a blowhard in a suit could survive the next election cycle. Hoss had no doubts that the men and women in this room understood the practical reasons for this fight, but they could always use a little reminding.
“He’s right,” the fleet admiral announced after a moment. “Perhaps not for the reasons we would like, but he is our President. If he told us to take back the planets we’d lost because he’d stubbed his toe getting out of bed and wanted to take it out on the Lefu, we’d still follow his orders. It’s our duty, ladies and gentlemen. To protect the Concord from all threats, foreign and domestic. This situation is definitely the former. We have been attacked without provocation by a technologically superior enemy, one who appears unwilling to negotiate and has already killed millions. It is our duty – our privilege – to defend the Concord and its citizens against this unwarranted aggression.
“I know you’ve all lost comrades, friends – even family. I’m not going to ask you to forgive, but I am going to ask you to forget, at least for this operation.” His voice hardened. “We are fighting for the Concord, not for personal vengeance. For the billions of people who have to look up into the sky every day and wonder this is the time that they’re going to see the Lefu in it. Retribution will come, but only through the campaign. If I see anyone fighting for glory or gunning for a white whale of their own, I’ll shoot them myself. With that in mind, it’s time you understood what we’re preparing to do. Admirals Foraker and Hunt will brief you on Operation Reignfall.” Hoss nodded respectfully to the other admirals, seating himself as Hawthorne and Alicia stood.
Foraker was first. “Thank you, Fleet Admiral. Operation Reignfall is planned as the first major counter-attack since the beginning of the war. We can never expect things to tumble completely our way, but at the very least, we hope to secure the Line of Control and create our own buffer zone between Concordat territories and Lefu-held systems. This will force the enemy onto the defensive, hopefully for the duration of the war. Reignfall has three main objectives: the first of which is taking Priorii back. It will be a significant morale victory and, since the Lefu appear to be constructing ships of their own at Prior’s yards, a blow to their industry. Groundside assets continue to feed us information when they can and coupled with our scouts’ reports, we have an idea of what the situation in Priorii is.
“From these images, you can see that the Lefu presence on Prior itself is minimal. The space around the planet is another matter, unfortunately. It’s clear that that they recognize the strategic value of the system and have begun laying fortifications, particularly around the shipyard. None of our scouts have yet been able to get a good look at the inner system defences, so the first wave will be going in cold. We’ll try to acquire as much data as we can until the balloon goes up, but you all know how good the Lefu are at plinking our scouts.” There was a rumble of unhappy agreement and Foraker let it subside before continuing, nodding to Alicia. “Admiral Hunt.”
She inclined her head in acknowledgement, picking up the briefing. Her voice was steady as she looked around the room, taking a moment to survey the other officers. There was some uncertainty on a few faces, but most carried the lean, hungry expression of a wolf. She liked to see that. “Our second priority objective is New Mozambique in the Line of Control. Despite the damage to its orbital works, much of its groundside industry has survived and has been surreptitiously building munitions, making it an excellent supply depot.”
New Mozambique was also only seven light-years from Crag, which was the hub for three rather shallow hyperspace corridors, one of which led straight to Firmament, one of GalTech’s sector headquarters. The megacorporation maintained several small shipyards and outfitting complexes there for the benefit of its fleet in this region of space. The Lefu had reconned Crag and Firmament, but their probes had been driven back. They hadn’t made a bid for the corporate system, since it would spread their forces out too thinly – and one of Hyperion Hive’s two hyperspace corridors led to Firmament, exposing the Lefu positions to a rapid counter-attack.
Once the hive was destroyed, Firmament had to be high up on the Lefu’s list of targets. If it fell, it would give them the ability to roll over Vansing’s Landing, New Britain and the rest of the Red worlds in the Sector, possibly the entire Outer Reaches. The corporation had called in a good percentage of its local ‘trade security’ fleet, but nothing they had would slow down, much less stop a major attack. Still, GalTech’s use of its own security fleet freed up several squadrons of Concordat ships that would have otherwise been tasked to defend Firmament. There were very few instances when the Fleet was happy to see corporate ‘toy soldiers’, but this was one of them.
Hunt circled the large holo tank on the table at the center of the room, the display shifting as she spoke, starbursts dotting many of the systems marked as being conquered by the Lefu. “Up until Reignfall is launched, we’ll continue our probes across Lefu-held space, trying to get them looking everywhere but at our true targets and to bait them into attacking strategically worthless systems, dispersing their forces.
“For Reignfall to be successful, we’ll need most of the mobile forces under BG 97 and the 812th Attack Squadron’s command. Collectively, Parliament has authorized us to amalgamate them into Eighth Fleet. Both task forces will be launched from Hyperion Hive simultaneously in order to confuse any Lefu scouts and make them believe we’re dropping a single hammer on them. Once in hyperspace, BG 97 will break off and shift course to Prior. The 812th will continue on to New Mozambique. Once those two systems are secured, attached support vessels will fortify them. Our goal is to re-take and hold these worlds, not simply trade them back and forth.
“We can’t afford to give the enemy time to respond; once the target systems are deemed secure and the support units begin laying defences, BG 97 and the 812th initiate the second stage of the operation, fighting their way to each other. On the way, both fleets will sweep each system in the Line of Control clean of all hostile presence. Blitzkrieg, ladies and gentlemen – we’re going to keep the pressure on the Lefu and force them back, off every system they’ve taken from us. Once that objective is accomplished and Eighth Fleet has reassembled, we will launch an attack on Reignfall’s final target.”
A single star system swelled to prominence on the holographic view and there was a ripple in the assembled officers as they recognized it. “Unicorn Set. This is the second hardest target the Lefu have, ladies and gentlemen.” Hunt’s voice was granite, radiating nothing but pure conviction. “And we’re going to take it out.”
In the darkness around the conquered star, they moved. As first the motion seemed random and haphazard, like the actions of insects from a disturbed hive. But very quickly that impression faded as smaller vessels formed up alongside dark leviathans, cruisers and heavy cruisers shifted into defensive formations around their larger wards, battlecruisers aligned into squadrons and light cruisers, destroyers and frigates spread out from the formation in a protective screen.
Fire Knives whipped through the ether, dancing through the ranks of the titans around them, skating along the backwash from those monsters’ drives as they flared, pushing thousands upon thousands of tons of obsidian battle steel inexorably forwards, towards the system’s brightspace horizon. At the heart of the formation lay a full ennead of some of the most powerful warships in all of creation. No longer were they shackled and waiting. Now, the infernos within the heart of every ship pulsed brighter, the rising power coruscating them a reflection their crew’s anticipation.
Obsidian hull plates irised open and spires raised upwards, crackling with energy and ready to bend reality to their will. Unfathomable power filled those ships and had they been flesh and blood, they would have quivered in orgiastic excitement. This was what they had been created for. Voices raised in song filled kilometer upon kilometer of hallways as the Fleet element vanished into brightspace. Every mind aboard those hundreds of ships was filled with a single, unified purpose as their course inevitably led them towards a single star.
Natalya was still settling in aboard Courageous; the BC was a Venerator class. Intolerance had been a Manductor and there was just enough similarity in the builds that, despite having memorized Courageous’s schematics, she’d still gotten turned around once or twice. Confusing the two ships was embarrassing enough, but one time she’d thought she’d been aboard Severed Dream, Arykka’s hiveship. Carrier, the young woman corrected herself, trying to force the Evea’shi word from her mind. The memories the pilot had implanted were still there, bubbling up to the surface at inopportune times. She was constantly reminding herself to speak in English and even then, sometimes she’d substitute a word or phrase in Dryn’evea without even knowing it.
Too often she’d wake up drenched in sweat, visions of molten Concordat ships still trapped in her head, warsongs fading into the recesses of her mind, not knowing if she’d been having a nightmare or not, terrified at what the answer might be. Worse still were the moments when she couldn’t remember who she was, whether she was Natalya Jereni Archer, daughter of Andrew and Marie Archer or someone else.
Given all that, she could understand why some officers might be wary around her. She didn’t like it, but she could understand it. However, recent events went far beyond mere caution.
It was inappropriate for a commodore in the United Terran Concord to throw a tantrum like an unhappy schoolgirl, but at the moment, there was nothing that Natalya wanted to do more. She’d known that she was persona non grata to the admirals and their staff, but she’d never thought that she or her captains would be deliberately frozen out of a staff meeting that every other commanding officer in Hyperion Hive was attending. God, it wasn’t like highly classified information was ever released in a briefing that size. What were they worried that she’d learn? That the Concord was planning a counter-attack referred to as ‘Reignfall’, that its primary objectives had to be Priorii, New Mozambique and the Line of Control?
That her superiors were paranoid assholes?
Natalya kept telling herself that that was an unfair assessment. Nothing like this had every happened before in human history (Terran history, anyways) and that was bound to make people nervous. But that reaction was isolating her precisely at the moment when she most needed to be with ‘her’ own people. Only Arykka, a prisoner and an enemy, was a constant for her now, was always there for her. Even when Natalya had wanted nothing more then to see the Lefu die, Arykka had sung her to sleep. She still didn’t know why.
The Evea’shi’s memories inside her never went away; they were always there. A part of herself that wasn’t her. I don’t know if I’m slipping… or what will happen when I fall. Will there be anyone to catch me?
Alone in her office, Natalya rested her head on her arms and tried very hard not to be afraid.
“Current estimates indicate that the Lefu have a battlegroup’s worth of ships defending Unicorn Set, along with over a dozen OWPs and undoubtedly lots of other surprises that we haven’t seen.” Hoss was sitting in Alicia’s office, his feet up on an end table. He liked to cultivate the ‘Southern fool’ image that his last name often brought to mind, but his blood was quite blue, straight from the Old Families of Centauri. His mannerisms were his simply way of tweaking the sensibilities of other well-to-do members of society’s elite who took themselves too seriously. “Reignfall is going to be bloody.”
Hunt nodded, taking a sip of jade-leaf tea. It was a rarity out here in the Outer Reaches and she rationed her stores of Inner World cuisine religiously. “I know. We can’t predict how the Lefu are going to react, but if the prisoner’s reactions are any indication, as soon as we hit ‘their’ territory, they’re going to fight like demons.” She sighed. “That’s why we have Case Black.”
The fleet admiral nodded; Reignfall had been divided into several cases. Case Green was the easiest to understand, a directive to move on to Reignfall’s next objective. Blue indicated that all ships should hold at their current system and await further orders. Case Orange was an order for all ships to hold over, or fall back to, their primary objective and expect heavy counter-attack. Case Yellow halted the advance after the Line of Control was secure; Red was a confirmed order to advance on Unicorn Set. And Case Black… if it was ever uttered, it would mean that all ships – all surviving ships – were to retreat to Hyperion Hive. Neither of the flag officers ever wanted to have to give that order.
Of course, the chances were that if Case Black was necessary, one or both of them might already be dead.
“I suppose it is,” Vater replied after a moment. “But we can’t keep sitting here on our thumbs. Not with the Mulkari and the Evea’shi out there.”
Hunt shook her head in vehement denial. “Of course not. I’ve been pushing for a more aggressive response to the Lefu ever since I arrived on the scene.”
Hoss raised an eyebrow. “And Admiral Foraker hasn’t?”
“Admiral Foraker is an able administrator,” Hunt replied neutrally. “He’s run Hyperion Sector efficiently throughout his tenure here and with Pierce’s assistance, has been able to keep a lid on virtually all problems that have cropped up. Supply shipments arrive on time, the re-activation of mothballed ships is on schedule. Things like that.”
“Yes, I’ve familiarized myself with the situation here. But you didn’t answer my question.”
Hunt hesitated only slightly; badmouthing a fellow officer to one’s superior was poor form, to say the least. “I have nothing but respect for Admiral Foraker for his service during the League War and as a peacetime officer, sir,” she said after a moment. “But as I’ve mentioned in my reports, I feel that there are legitimate concerns regarding system security.”
“Hrrm. Parliament feels much as you do, admiral. That’s one of the reasons that I was sent out here. They feel that an operation such as Reignfall would… benefit from the presence of two flag officers with recent experience in fleet operation.” Vater swirled his glass, the ice cubes in his water clinking against the side. “If it will calm the politicos, then it doesn’t make much difference to me. Truthfully, I’ve been looking for a chance to see the Lefu for myself.”
“If you’ll forgive me sir, but we have plenty of dead men and women who said the same thing.”
“I suppose you do.” Vater took a sip from his water. “The League – we knew why they were fighting us. They were sick and tired of being the megacorps’ little bitches. They were only too willing to talk to us about their oppression, to demand the removal of the Concord’s presence from their worlds. We were on opposite sides, but we could at least understand them, understand what they wanted from us.”
“With respect sir, but what the Lefu want is clear. Us dead. By Archer’s own admission, they commit genocide when they deem a species too dangerous to leave alive. We’re not fighting over territory like with the League or ideology like we did with the Resurgency. They want every last one of us dead.”
“If that were true,” Vater replied. “Why haven’t they wiped out the civilian populations on the worlds they control?”
“A handful of acts of ‘mercy’ do not atone for weeks of atrocities,” Hunt replied icily, her tone making it clear that the Lefu’s compassion was anything but. “These… Evea’shi may not be ‘bugs’ or cybernetic monsters or anything like that, but they’re not human. Not anymore, perhaps not ever. They invade our space, and we fall back. They take our planets, and we fall back. They murder our citizens and we fall back. It’s time we stopped running, time that we showed them what fighting the United Terran Concord really means.”
Hoss raised his glass in a salute. “Now that, I couldn’t agree with more.”