Shadir 33rd, 14774
System Designate: Purgatory Three
ESFWV Daemon Rising
Commander Vualii glanced across the bridge, towards the source of the pronouncement. “Is it, executrix?”
Perhaps not realizing that she’d spoken aloud, Chardrelli appeared startled for a moment. “Yes, commander,” Liana replied evenly, raising her head. She looked at the display. “The Ongav Enemy were much more of a challenge then these… Terrans.” Though her expression did not change, Kanis could feel the sharp sting of her distaste for the Enemy.
Analysis had indicated that this system was one that the Enemy were attempting to fortify, supplanting the current meager defences with repurposed haulers and minefields. Kanis’s Fleet element – Cabalistic Birthright – had come here in force to provoke a reaction from the Enemy, which was precisely what they had gotten. The Enemy was defending this system with several enneads of lighter craft and sixteen of their ill-seen larger vessels. Interrogation of recovered Enemy Vessel systems made it clear that the Enemy considered those larger ‘battleships’ obsolete and used them solely for system defence. Now, they were the crux of Purgatory Three’s pitiful defence forces, holding a nearby moon to their flanks and creeping towards Cabalisitc Birthright like they were attending their own funeral
Which, of course, they were.
“If I recall, the Ongav Enemy took heavy casualties in every battle because they refused to maneuver, instead attempting to assault Fleet elements as quickly as possible. We countered that.” Kanis nodded towards the retreating Enemy Vessels. “They aren’t going to oblige us by throwing themselves into our guns. That makes them more dangerous then the Ongav, executrix. More… impressive.” The Enemy’s reticence troubled him. These Enemy Commanders… they may be many things, but surely they know the price that excessive caution exacts?
Liana bowed formally in acknowledgement, the action spilling her pale blue ponytail over the front of her uniform. “Yes, commander.”
“They will be within battlecruiser missile range in less then five minutes,” a thrall first rank pointed out.
Kanis’s nodded, his eyes narrowing. “Yes. They will.”
Liana’s gaze slid towards her commander and she moved to stand besides him. “What are you thinking, liege?” She used the archaic form of address for a starship commander. The executrix exemplified her family’s adherence to tradition and though he’d tried to dissuade her, Liana had the tendency to lapse back into such formalities.
Kanis reached up and stroked a finger along his executrix’s cheekbones. She hissed a little in pleasure. “Expand the rath shell another four million kilometers,” he ordered. “Sacrifice and Bloodsong will move up to fill in the weakened sections in our coverage. Get me images from that moon.”
“At your will.”
Commodore Saki Gemenez laced his fingers together as he leaned towards the main sensor repeater. Hide and Seek was confirmed; he hadn’t expected it to be anyone but the Lefu when the HTBs had picked up an incoming hyper wake. The hive had promised additional reinforcements to Newfounding, but it wasn’t one of those oh-so-vital ‘Red’ systems. Gemenez didn’t want to admit it, but Newfounding’s assistance to the war effort was nowhere near the quality or quantity of worlds like New Britain.
That didn’t mean that he was any less prepared to fight for the two billion people here, most of whom couldn’t escape before the hammer fell on them.
Gemenez supposed he should be grateful for what Admiral Foraker had managed to send his way; two cruiser squadrons, a half dozen destroyers and another six heavy cruisers. Along with Newfoundings’s understrength battleship division led by his own Gettysburg, that should have been more then enough to repel any light attack.
Two dozen Lefu capital ships did not qualify as a ‘light’ anything. Still, Gemenez had not been resting on his laurels, hoping for someone else to save him. He might not have a lot, but he was going to use it as best he was able. That was what had led him to develop Hide and Seek. Gemenez scratched his throat, his eyes drawn over to the secondary repeater.
TF 156’s drones were reporting that the Lefu group was shifting formation, probably to try and probe behind Capsize. He wished them luck; all they’d find was a deserted military training facility. Hopefully that was all they’d find. Chameleons had never faced off against Lefu sensors and Tracking still couldn’t locate the enemy’s recon units. Gemenez was hoping that they hadn’t been able to slip through the net and pick up Magpie One. Not yet. They just had to remain ignorant a little longer, get a little closer.
“I don’t know if they’re buying it,” Gettysburg’s CO, Hannah Alluet spoke up. “They’re not coming in as fast as they should be. It looks like they’re thinking us over.”
“I know,” Gemenez replied. “I’d hoped that they’d come in fat and happy, but we can’t always get what we want, can we? Still, we know what lures them in, don’t we?” He hesitated. “Go to Stage Two,” he ordered softly.
“Commander, we are detecting Enemy transmissions.”
“Show me,” Vualii ordered.
The officer dutifully complied, a new target glimmering to life on the main holo tank as Plotting locked the source of the transmissions down; the gas giant’s atmosphere. The Enemy’s halting, clicky tongue slipped over the command deck. It sounded like signal leakage from a lurking hiveship unit, one not yet in position. That had been why the Enemy Vessels hadn’t advanced; they were waiting for their hiveships to take up station. Kanis hadn’t thought that this system was of enough value to warrant the Enemy’s hives. That had been a mistaken assumption on his part. “Warhammer will deploy her Fire Knives to investigate. Severed Dream will launch hers in support. Shadow Hand and Void Dragon will defend our Aggressor Vessels. The rest of the element will advance: resume combat thrust.”
“There they go,” Hannah observed.
Gemenez nodded, watching the long red blurs of the enemy’s carrier squadrons break off from the rest of the fleet. The Lefu couldn’t take the chance on letting his ‘carriers’ launch on them; HAVOCs might not be good against Nephilim, but they’d proved that they could hurt Lefu capital ships and hurt them badly. He kept one eye on the plot; the lead elements of the hostile fleet were just now entering the kill zone, the rest of their task force picking up speed. They’d bought it.
“Acceleration to combat standard. Let’s make it look real, people.”
The commodore leaned forwards in his chair, every breath on the verge of catching in his throat. The cruisers were entering the kill zone now, and the battleships weren’t slowing down either. Soon, the carriers – damn. The carriers weren’t advancing with the rest of the fleet and they were holding a pair of BBs back with them, too. That wasn’t good.
He hadn’t expected to get the carriers, but the Lefu must be worried about a hyperspace ambush to leave two of their big guns behind. Could be a problem, but there was nothing to do for it. Besides, in the short term, it was actually a blessing. “Whisper to Magpie: you may fire once hostile fleet units are at PNR within kill zone.”
Blackwind Nine, Pilot Second Rank Favir Trelii, had his eyes closed as his Fire Knife sliced through the ether; he didn’t need them to pilot this course. Merged with his fighter, he could see everything that the machine did. Currently, he was flying the wing of Blackwind Eight, Pilot Third Rank Helia Darelii. The third rank was fresh from her ascension and was still a war-virgin; Dominator Canselii had assigned Favir to Blackwind’s newest sister to keep an eye on her. Until she was blooded, she’d need a shepherd. Trelii didn’t mind; though bubbly in personality, Helia had a ruthlessness about her that shone through in her combat trials. He was certain that she’d make Talon one day, or Aerie Executrix.
Not before him, though.
Favir frowned as he felt an excited mental pulse from his ward, mentally switching to a private comm channel. “Blackwind Nine to Eight; what do you have?”
“Eight here. I don’t know. I picked up an energy distortion near the moon. Feeding it to your system now.”
Fakir doubted it was anything special. Rath had reported that the moon was home to a derelict Enemy facility of some type. Once the Enemy Fleet was neutralized, it would be the facility’s turn. Most likely a comm spike or faulty… huh. The second rank frowned as his system processed the information. That was unusual. “Call it in, Eight. I’m your wing.”
“Blackwind Eight to Lead; have detected unknown emissions from Enemy planetary base. Eight and Nine moving to investigate.”
The first missiles were starting to land home; the destroyer Peregrine, screening for the battleship Tsushima, was blown into scrap as a Lefu shipkiller slipped through its bow shield wall. The frigate Recently, named for Newfounding’s largest freshwater lake, followed Peregrine moments later. The cruiser Ariadne was gutted when five Lefu missiles pounded its already weakened port wall down, the subsequent detonations stripping every line from the cruiser’s flank, secondary explosions and venting atmosphere sending what was left of Aridane spiraling helplessly off course.
TF 156 was circling towards Capsize, the Lefu fleet cutting towards them. The range between the two fleets was steadily dropping. If nothing intervened, the Lefu would pound the Concordat fleet into dust and then roll over onto Newfounding.
If nothing intervened. Commodore Gemenez bit his lips so hard that he felt blood run down his chin as his ships died, sucking the Lefu towards them… and the four hundred missile pods that lay in the shadow of Newfounding VIII’s largest moon.
“Sir, we have incoming.”
Captain Earl Smithy blinked at the unexpected announcement. Incoming? There shouldn’t be any incoming. “Confirm that,” he demanded, striding to the sensor officer’s station.
“Confirmed, sir. Two Nephilim hostiles have broken off from the main body and are on heading straight for us.”
“They must have picked up something,” Smithy mused. “Not enough to sniff us out, or they’d all be after us, but enough to make them curious.”
“Should we respond?” Commander Alain Juchy asked, biting his lip. “If they hold to that course, they’ll pass within 10,000 klicks of us.”
“No, not unless we know they’ve seen us. If we shoot them down, we’ll blow the ambush. Communications, see what you can do about jamming them, but don’t initiate until my order. Guns: stay on your count down to launch. Whatever happens, don’t abort. We have to get their big ships.”
The Enemy formation was trailing ruined and dying starships, but they kept advancing into the hail of the Fleet element’s fire, accepting the punishment as long it meant that they would be able to return fire. Kanis was tempted to compare that suicidal courage to the Prime Enemy, but the Mulkai did not fight in defence of their lands – they fought to destroy others. As one of the Enemy’s larger vessels vanished in a brilliant flare of superheated gases, he almost felt sorry for them.
“I don’t think there’s anything here, Eight,” Trelii commented. “There’s nothing on sensors.”
“Then what did I pick up?”
“I don’t know, Eight. Random energy spike, solar wind, even a system short in your processors. We’re almost right on top of these coordinates.”
Aboard Magpie One’s command, there wasn’t a single calm heartbeat. The hostile fighters were barely five thousand kilometers from their position. Painted with and made from light and sensor-absorbent materials, a Chameleon-class stealth station cost as much as a battleship. Thermal bafflers, emission dampeners – all the most expensive sensor-distorting and deceiving technology had gone into creating Chameleons. They weren’t infallible, though – active scanners could pick them up readily and if it had been a Lefu ship sniffing around Magpie One instead of a pair of fighters, they’d have been ferreted out long ago.
With the missile pods powered down, there wasn’t anything to detect on passives from them, either. Nothing to see here, move along.
Even though he knew he could scream at the top of his lungs and they’d never hear him, Captain Smithy felt his voice catching in his throat as looked over to one of his gunnery officers, the woman’s fingers on the PDL that was passively tracking the fighters. She saw him watching her and nodded; she was ready, but not nervous enough to start blasting away. Good woman, Smithy thought. It was too bad that Juchy couldn’t follow her example; the man was almost a wreck.
Ladybug, ladybug fly away home, Earl recited the children’s rhyme to himself as his gaze returned to the main display and the two red icons upon it. Apparently satisfied, the first fighter flipped end-for-end and moved off. The second hesitated for a moment longer before following suit.
“It’s no good, sir – our ships can’t repel firepower of this magnitude – they’re cutting through our screen like it’s not even there and they’re starting to land shots on our battleships!”
“Then we take it!” Gemenez shouted back over the wail of alarms as Gettysburg absorbed a hit through its shield walls. Dozens of cubic meters of armour were boiled away, two sensor towers and a counter-missile battery taken with it. “We’ve almost got them.” He tried to focus on that and not the flashing symbols of his dying command. As he watched, Rocroi signaled its Code Black, the battleship’s main power plant failing, armour breached in nearly two dozen places. Escape pods and evacuation shuttles fled from the dying ship as its fractured and weakened hull broke open with the strain of its final maneuvers.
Helia bit her lip. She’d been so sure. Maybe she was just too eager to prove herself, seeing things that weren’t there.
“Nine, Eight. Stand by a moment. I want to check something out.” There’d been something, a silhouette against the moon’s slate-grey surface.
There shouldn’t be any silhouettes.
“What’s he doing?” Smithy wondered.
“He’s spotted us. I told you, I told you,” Juchy whined, his lower lip quivering.
“Commander,” the captain reprimanded his underling gently. “Get a hold of yourself. He’s not spotted anything yet. And in another four minutes, it won’t matter what he’s seen.”
The Enemy had finally reached their own range and their battleships spewed forth salvo upon salvo, concentrating their fire on single ships in a desperate bid for… what? Survival? Kanis frowned. There was nothing they could do to assure victory here; why were they so intent on throwing their lives away?
He didn’t like not knowing the answer, but he was already committed to the attack.
The Enemy’s first kill, the cruiser Toxin, belched fire from its gaping wounds and fell out of the command link. They were the first, but they certainly wouldn’t be the last.
There! She could see it, black against the grey surface of the moon. Helia fired her thrusters, moving back and forth, mapping the unknown object, her implants processing the information and interrogating her Fire Knife’s databanks. It was too regular to be an asteroid or comet. That meant it was artificial. And that meant it was Enemy. Parasite pod! her senses screamed at her.
“Blackwind Eight to all fighters: Enemy defences encountered! Code Starscream! I say again: Starscream.”
All she got back was a squeal of static.
“Shit! He’s screaming his head off.”
“Jam him, shut him down. Defences go live – take him down, take them both down! Guns – activate the SLIPs. Take the shot now, take it now!”
Magpie One fired, lasers stitching across space towards their targets. Fakir Trelii never had a chance to react and was erased from the universe before he had time to understand what was happening. Helia threw her Fire Knife into evasive maneuvers the instant she banked away from the parasite pod, decoys spitting out and confusing Magpie’s sensors. The PDL turrets fired on their best-guess solutions, but the Lefu fighter was evading faster then their turrets could track her, the tiny fighter flashing through maneuvers that would have killed any Terran crew. They tried to box Blackwind Eight in, alarms ringing in her mind as each shot came closer, the Enemy tightening the cone of fire around her.
Her sensors shrilled with fresh alarm as all around her as a minefield came to life, hundreds of missile pods, each carrying dozens of missiles. It was worse then she’d thought. The Fleet had to be warned, even if she didn’t survive. Her mind pulsed with a single thought over and over again as she tried to reach her brothers and sisters, but she was alone and they were so far away.
Even without her comm, she had other ways of alerting her people. Arming her missiles, Pilot Third Rank Helia Darelii fired on the on the nearest parasite pod, wiping it from the universe – and creating a radiation signature that no one could miss.
She felt her craft buck once, felt the barest sensation of heat wash over her and then she felt nothing else.
“Enemy carriers launching their reserves! Escort forces shifting position – their battleships are breaking off, fighters are pulling back, one group heading right for Magpie!”
Gemenez gritted his teeth, trying to come up with something foul enough to adequately describe the situation. “How long until Magpie can fire?”
“Launchers still powering up, sir. Another three minutes.”
“We can’t give them that time – they’ll put a wall between themselves and our SLIPs. We have to hold them. Helm – give me everything you’ve got. Emergency power to the energy batteries. Take us right down their throats.”
There was only the barest hesitation. “Yes, sir.”