Hi This is the start of a new space opera. Regular updates will begin (I hope) on Monday, but I wrote this snippet today. If anyone wants to be redshirted (have a character named after them) please PM me or drop your name in this thread. Please comment if you enjoy the story or let me know how you think it could be improved. Chris Chapter One New Marseilles 23rd March 2435 “From up here,” Lieutenant Commander Sally Mínervudóttir said, as they sat together in the observation blister, “one could almost pretend that the planet is beautiful.” Commander Janine Herald had to smile. Sally was a RockRat from one of the older habitat clusters orbiting a dying red sun. Like all RockRats, she regarded planets as wild territory and – at worst – enemy targets that could neither run nor hide. RockRats were used to absolute control over their environment and found planets rather intimidating, even if they were safer than asteroid settlements in the middle of a war. But then, the RockRats weren’t competing with the UN to settle as many worlds as possible. Even the largest RockRat settlements outside the Sol System were tiny compared to planet-side populations. There were just so many of them. The two women were very different. Where Janine followed the standard human genotype, with black hair cut short to meet the demands of interstellar service and her body augmented by mechanical implants, Sally had been literally designed for life in space. She was so thin and slight that it seemed a mere hug would break her bones, giving her body a disturbingly young appearance, almost as if she had yet to hit puberty. But adapting themselves to space was the core of the RockRat creed and where they parted company with the United Nations of Sol. Sally wouldn't even have been onboard Rubicon if the General Assembly hadn't pushed for officers who could help prevent friction between the UN and the RockRats. “You should see it down below,” Janine said. She’d taken two days shore leave after Task Force 9.4 had arrived at New Marseilles, showing the flag to the local settlers and surveying the remainder of the planetary system for pirates, hidden settlements and alien artefacts. “I spent a day on the beach, relaxing as the sun poured its rays down on me. You should try it next time.” Sally shuddered. “None of us understand why you wish to live in such...uncontrolled environments,” she said, seriously. “An untamed wilderness where you can pick up disease, or be attacked by wild animals...how can that be safe? It’s much safer to live on an asteroid habitat where you control your own environment.” “Apart from the rats and roaches,” Janine said, ruefully. Rats, cockroaches and rabbits had accompanied humanity out to the stars, settling on more virgin worlds than human settlers. A number of worlds had even lost their native biology to the more vigorous plants and animals from Earth. The RockRats had problems with unwanted guests on their older habitats too. “And you’re still vulnerable to someone with a nuke and bad intentions.” They fell into a companionable silence as the planet turned below them. Captain Yu was down on the planet’s surface, attending yet another formal dinner with the planet’s governor and his council. New Marseilles hadn't been settled long enough to build space-based industries, let alone an orbital defence network and its own starships, leaving it vulnerable to pirates, black colonists and hostile aliens. The 9th Fleet was supposed to provide cover for the planet, but with the fleet so thinly spread it was rare for New Marseilles to see more than one starship per month. Task Force 9.4 wouldn't have visited at all if someone hadn't convinced the First Admiral to order a heavier patrol than usual along the boundaries of inhabited space. Janine had wondered – and knew that many of her fellows had wondered the same thing – just why anyone would want an assault carrier and its task force, including UNS Rubicon, patrolling along the edge of human-settled space. This wasn't the Triangle, the point where the Sutra Empire and the Polis Society intersected with human space; as far as anyone knew, there were no other intelligent races from here to the galactic rim. Human expansion had been concentrated in this sector for the last hundred years and, so far, no one had discovered anything more interesting than a handful of planet-bound life forms that might have developed intelligence, if they’d been left alone for a few million years. But the French bloc in the General Assembly had links to New Marseilles and they’d undoubtedly provided the political muscle to convince the First Admiral to show the flag along the edge of explored space. Not that it really mattered that much, Janine considered. The fleets were regularly rotated throughout human-settled space and their next destination might be along the Triangle. Her wristcom buzzed, warningly. “Commander Herald to the bridge,” the watch officer’s voice said. “I say again, Commander Herald to the bridge.” Janine tapped her wristcom as she stood up. “On my way,” she said. The settlers hadn't really had a chance to carry out a full survey of their star system, resulting in a handful of false alarms as the Navy’s explorers stumbled across RockRat installations in the system’s asteroid field. “Coming?” Sally followed her as she walked through the corridors, past the Marine guard and into Rubicon’s bridge. As always, it was dominated by a glowing holographic display of local space, showing the planet, the other starships in the task force and a handful of unidentified red blips heading towards the planet at an alarmingly high speed. Janine had been reading displays ever since she’d entered the Luna Academy, but she’d never seen anything, apart from a missile, that moved with such speed and grace. But they were well outside missile range... “Report,” she said, as she took the command chair. With the Captain down on the planet, it was her station. “What do we have?” “Perimeter drones picked up five starships of unknown configuration,” Lieutenant Commander John McLaughlin said. The tactical officer was young; Rubicon was his first combat assignment. But he showed definite promise, Janine had seen, and she’d taken it on herself to mentor the young man. “Admiral Hanson ordered Condition Two as a precautionary measure.” Janine nodded, gazing up at the incoming red icons. By definition, First Contact was always hazardous – and some had been traumatic. Even the relatively friendly contact with the Polis had nearly been derailed when the contact team had laid eyes upon the giant spider-like creatures for the first time. And if there was an alien race out in unexplored space, it already had one advantage; it knew where there was a human colony, while humanity knew nothing about its planets or starships. The standard set of First Contact directives – including the one about ensuring that no newcomer learned anything about the UN until the contact team were satisfied that the aliens weren't hostile – had already been jarred. “Set Condition Two throughout the ship,” she ordered. A moment later, the drumbeat echoed through the bridge as the crew raced to their combat stations. Condition Two would prepare the ship for battle without actually looking hostile to an outside observer. “Do we have a visual on the alien ships yet?” “They’re vectoring a drone in towards the aliens,” the tactical officer said. “There should be a visual in a few more seconds.” “Impressive drive system,” Sally murmured, in Janine’s ear. “I don’t know anything in human space that can move like that, apart from a starfighter – and those things are too large to be starfighters.” Janine couldn't disagree. The larger the ship, the more ungainly it was – with fleet and assault carriers being the largest and most ungainly of all. Even Rubicon, a mere two hundred meters long, wasn't remotely as manoeuvrable as a starfighter. But the aliens seemed to be moving in a pattern that suggested that their drives were far more advanced than anything the human race had developed – or stolen. “Visual,” McLaughlin announced. “Put it on the main display,” Janine ordered. The United Nations had never really escaped the early designs pioneered after the Traders had sold Earth the technology to establish a permanent foothold in outer space. UN starships were blocky, almost ugly, even though they were solid enough to stand up and exchange blows with their enemies in the field of battle. The aliens, on the other hand, seemed to have turned their starships into works of art. They were giant teardrop-shaped vessels, barely visible in the darkness of space, their hulls surrounded by a shimmer that made tracking them difficult, even for the most advanced sensor systems in the entire United Nations. Janine had been a tactical and sensor officer herself, on her climb up the ladder to command rank, and read the stream of data with a practiced eye. It was difficult to provide exact details on the alien ships because they were somehow shielded against sensor probes. “Beautiful,” Sally whispered. “The Admiral has started to transmit the First Contact package,” the tactical officer reported. “How long do you think it would take them to decipher the first section?” Janine shrugged. The Traders had provided humanity with the basic package – but they’d spent months studying Earth from a safe distance before introducing themselves. Apart from the WE WHO ARE, the enigmatic machine race that had been discovered in 2150, all of the other races humanity had encountered had had to work hard to decipher the package, although once they cracked the first section building a common language and shared understanding had been easy. The newcomers might crack it within minutes – assuming that their computer technology was as advanced as their starships – or it might take days or weeks, while the two squadrons stared at each other in orbit around a defenceless world. Minutes ticked by as the alien craft flew closer, entering missile range. “They’re not slowing down,” the tactical officer said. Janine heard the alarm in his voice and shared it. Showing off was one thing, but charging right at a group of UN starships was dangerous. Without any communications, it was easy to assume that the enemy was intent on attacking the squadron, prompting the Admiral to open fire first. “The Admiral has ordered Condition One.” Janine tapped her console. “Condition One,” she said. Condition One brought Rubicon and the rest of the squadron to battle stations. “I say again, set Condition One throughout the ship.” “Curious attack pattern,” Sally observed. “They’re already within missile range; you’d think they’d want to stand off until they knew how capable our systems were, if they wanted to attack.” “True,” Janine agreed. UN starships used missiles as their primary armament, allowing them to engage enemies further away than the mysterious dark ships. Firing from point-blank range would make it harder for the point defences to lock on, but the UN squadron would tear them apart if they opened fire within sprint mode range. “Tactical – do we have a threat analysis yet?” “Nothing definite,” McLaughlin reported. The Admiral had a full tactical staff on Invincible, trained analysts who would be picking at every scrap of data pulled off the unknown starships and trying to build up a picture of their capabilities. “We assume that their weapon systems are comparable to ours, but if they can operate their ships like that it’s quite possible that they have extended sprint mode missiles...” He broke off in alarm. “Energy surge,” he snapped. “It’s coming from the lead alien ship...” Janine watched in horror as the alien ship fired a beam of brilliant light directly towards the StarCom installation in orbit around New Marseilles. Energy weapons were rare, almost unknown, within the explored universe; building ones suitable for space combat had been beyond the UN’s researchers in a dozen hidden research installations. But the alien weapon, whatever it was, cut through the StarCom like a knife through butter, destroying the containment fields that kept the artificial micro-singularity in existence. A moment later, the entire installation vanished in a blinding flash of light. They’d be seeing it on the planet’s surface. “Put us back to cover Invincible,” Janine snapped. No wonder the aliens had come in so close before opening fire. Their weapons were configured to allow them to hammer the task force from close range, but not close enough for sprint-mode missiles to overwhelm their defences. “Activate missile tubes...” “Invincible is under attack,” McLaughlin snapped. “Jesus!” Janine would have reprimanded him if she hadn't felt the same way. The impossible alien beams had targeted the assault carrier’s two flight decks, hanging down from the main body of the starship, and were slowly and efficiently tearing them apart. Invincible was armoured to withstand multiple nuclear strikes – she was a veteran of the final bloody days of the Magana War – but no one had even considered the danger of such powerful energy weapons. A chain of explosions ran through her flight deck, obliterating her complement of Hawk fighters and Eagle torpedo-bombers, the only craft the task force had had that could have matched the alien speed and agility. “The datanet is flickering,” McLaughlin reported. “The Admiral is ordering all ships to open fire.” “Open fire,” Janine ordered. Rubicon shuddered as she unleashed her full broadside towards the enemy vessels, joined by the remaining ships in the task force. Invincible fired too, just before another alien energy beam – a death ray, her mind whispered – sliced into her forward hull and burned through her armour. The mighty assault carrier staggered under the blow, just before the remaining alien ships opened fire themselves. All five of them targeted their fire on the assault carrier and sliced her apart. Invincible exploded in a sheet of white-hot tearing fury, taking all hands with her into death. “Reroute the datanet through Hamlin and continue firing.” “The aliens are targeting our missiles,” McLaughlin said, grimly. Janine watched and cursed as alien energy weapons swept through space, blotting the missiles out of existence before they could home in on the alien hulls. Judging from the problems the seeker warheads had had in locking onto their targets, it was possible that the missiles would have missed even without the alien point defence. Between them, the ships of the task force had fired over a hundred nuclear-tipped missiles at five enemy ships. No missile reached its target. “Captain Slade is ordering a switch to tactical pattern beta nine.” “Make it so,” Janine ordered, tightly. The aliens had switched back to the UN starships, burning through the heavy cruisers Admiral Geary and Admiral Hipper with ease. This time, the cruisers managed to launch a handful of lifepods before their fusion plants blew, vaporising both starships. An instant later, the alien beams wiped the lifepods from existence. Janine couldn't tell if the unknowns had meant to vaporise helpless survivors or if they’d simply fired on radio beacons without realising that they were nothing more dangerous than lifepods, but it suggested that the aliens didn't intend to offer quarter. Even the Magana had been happy to take prisoners! “Pull us back from the alien ships; continue firing...” Something smashed right into Rubicon’s hull. The entire starship shuddered so violently that consoles exploded and the gravity field failed, leaving the crew drifting through the air until they strapped themselves down. Red icons flickered up on Janine’s display as the scale of the damage became clear; the aliens had blasted a hole right through the lower deck, crippling her starship. A few inches higher and they would probably have destroyed Rubicon with a single shot. “Pennsylvania is gone,” McLaughlin said, as he fought to recover the datalink to the rest of the squadron. “Vampire has taken heavy damage and is drifting towards the planet; Jude and Ruth have both lost their drive sections and are launching lifepods...correction, Jude has been destroyed. They’re wiping out the lifepods deliberately!” Janine saw blood droplets drifting through the air from where the sensor officer had been injured by her exploding console. “Engineering,” she snapped, slapping her console. “Can we use the flux drive?” There was a pause, long enough to leave her wondering if the internal communications net had been destroyed as well. On the display, the alien craft were advancing forward, finishing the task of destroying the human squadron. Vampire, powerless and helpless, was vaporised before she could fall into the planet’s atmosphere and strike the surface with all the force of a major asteroid impact. Moments later, the alien craft vaporised the lifepods as well, picking off the survivors. McLaughlin had been right. The aliens intended to completely obliterate the remains of the human force, maybe the settlers down on the planet as well. “I think so,” Chief Engineer George Phyllis said, finally. “The main core of the flux drive remains undamaged, but in our current state making an accurate jump might be tricky...” “It doesn't matter,” Janine said. Five minutes. That had all it had been since the alien craft had opened fire. Five minutes to obliterate a task force that would have given any other known race pause. “Prepare to jump us out on a random vector – don’t bother to pick a destination.” “Commander...” “Do it,” Janine snapped at him. A random jump might put them in a star, or too close to a planet’s gravity well to escape before it was too late, but focusing the jump might allow the unknowns to detect them. On the display, the alien starships were closing in, firing brief bursts at lifepods and pieces of wreckage large enough to harbour survivors. Two alien ships had broken off from the main squadron and were heading towards the planet itself. “Power up the drive, now!” “Drive online,” Sally said. The helmsman had been badly injured; Sally had taken over his console. “All systems report ready, but there are major power fluctuations in...” The alien ships obliterated the remains of Ruth and targeted Rubicon. “Jump now,” Janine ordered, and braced herself. Using the flux drive was an uncomfortable experience at the best of times. With so much damage, it was likely that it would be a great deal worse. “Now!” Sally pushed down on the jump key. A moment later, Rubicon, the last survivor of a once-powerful squadron, jumped and vanished from the New Marseilles system.