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Original Work Vendetta: Final Conflict

Discussion in 'Survival Reading Room' started by ChrisNuttall, Jul 18, 2012.


  1. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    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.
     
    STANGF150, Pezz and von bohmen like this.
  2. von bohmen

    von bohmen Monkey

    This is a good start for another great story.
     
  3. kom78

    kom78 OH NOES !!

    Great start looking forward to this one
     
  4. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Two



    New Marseilles

    23rd March 2435



    “I see them, Tomcat.”



    “Keep your mouth shut,” Master Sergeant Thomas Mandell – Tomcat - muttered back. “Subvocal only. The last thing we need is them hearing us.”



    “Fat chance of that,” Marine Rifleman Andrew Bergstresser subvocalised. “Those twits wouldn't notice if we danced naked in front of them – and they call themselves a militia.”



    Thomas scowled at him, but he had to admit that the Rifleman had a point. The New Marseilles militia had entered the killing zone without spotting the ambush up ahead, even though the Marines had deliberately refrained from using some of their more advanced equipment. With an entire platoon scattered over the valley, all in position to unleash a hail of fire upon their targets as soon as Thomas gave the order, the locals would be in deep shit, if any of them survived long enough to realise their mistake.



    New Marseilles wasn't old enough to have a proper army, let alone produce units to serve alongside the United Nations Marines on alien worlds. Instead, she had a militia, a semi-volunteer unit responsible for keeping order, hunting renegades and beating off pirate attacks, if New Marseilles had anything worth stealing. Militia units were sometimes commanded by veterans from more established military forces, sometimes making them more formidable than their limited equipment would suggest, but New Marseilles didn't seem to have anyone with true experience in command. He’d deliberately not looked in the records to ensure that he didn't underestimate his foe.



    He watched through his augmented eyes as the militia came closer, twenty-two men who were really too bunched up for safety. They knew that the Marines were somewhere in the wildness to the north of Paris, yet apart from glancing around nervously they didn't seem to be taking any precautions. It was possible that there was a second unit shadowing the first, intending to use their comrades to spring any ambush before the main body found itself stuck in a vice, but it didn't seem likely. There was certainly no evidence that anyone in the attacking force was cunning and ruthless enough to consider the plan and consider his subordinates expendable.



    “We could just fire when we see the whites of their eyes,” Rifleman John Stewart suggested. The platoon’s sniper was positioned some distance from the rest of the platoon, where he could eyeball both the oncoming enemy troops and watch for surprises from the rest of the militia. “Or maybe we could just film them in action and then withdraw.”



    “But that would count as a loss,” Thomas reminded him, dryly. He took a final look at the enemy, who had neatly trapped themselves. The moment he gave the order, they would practically find themselves surrounded by enemies who held the high ground, pouring fire into their position. There was nothing they could use for cover that would stand up to the weight of fire pouring into the trap. “Mark your men...”



    He took aim himself, quick microburst transmissions between the Marines confirming that they were aiming at different targets. “And fire!”



    Pulses of laser light, almost invisible in the bright sunlight, flashed towards their targets. The training armour the militia wore automatically locked up the moment it sensed a laser pulse, rendering the militia soldier effectively dead. Twelve locals dropped to the ground at once, the remainder staring around in horror before remembering their training and bringing up their own weapons to return fire, their eyes frantically searching for cover. It was already far too late. One by one, they were quickly zapped with the laser beams and sent falling to the ground.



    Yes,” Andrew Bergstresser said, out loud.



    “Like shooting fish in a barrel,” his brother Aiden said, more soberly. The exercise would be more informative for the militia than for the Marines; indeed, Thomas had already planned a series of intensive exercises for the next few days, once they returned to Rubicon. They couldn't pick up bad habits or the next competent enemy they encountered would clean their clocks. “They never stood a chance.”



    “They walked right into the trap,” John Stewart put in. “Hopefully, they’ll learn something from this before they have to fight real rebels.”



    Thomas nodded as he stood up, cancelling his armour’s camouflage field. To the locals, it would look as if he had appeared from nowhere. Thomas had a professional’s distrust of all technology – it had a habit of failing when it was most needed – but the locals hadn’t even bothered to run a sweep looking for oddities in the local environment. A good sensor tech might have noticed that half the Marines were right in the open, pretending to be empty air.



    “Let’s hope so,” he said, as he walked over to the locals. Their CO was glowering at him, although Thomas couldn't tell if he was angry about being trapped so easily or if he was angry at being humiliated in front of his men. “Exercise terminates...now.”



    The militia slowly climbed to their feet as their armour unlocked, many of them red-faced or otherwise embarrassed. A couple looked to have hurt themselves when they hit the ground, but neither of them were hurt badly enough to need a medic. Thomas had been shot in action several times and wouldn't have called a medic even if they’d felt they’d needed one. The worst that colonial militia had to face, normally, was debtors who didn't want to face failure or indentured colonists who had decided to rebel. They rarely had to face anyone with modern equipment and the training to use it. It tended to breed complacency among militiamen.



    “Congratulations, I suppose,” the colonial CO said. He’d led his men from the front, not something that Thomas could condemn, but he had been one of the first to be gunned down when the ambush had been sprung. “You got us.”



    “You got careless,” Thomas said. Diplomacy had never been his strong suit. “You should never have walked into the valley in the first place. You knew we were out here somewhere, so you should have climbed up to the high ground and then tried to flush us out.”



    “Save that for the self-criticism session,” the colonial CO said. He stuck out a hand. “Jean Perrine at your service, Marine.”



    “Thomas Mandell,” Thomas replied. Behind him, the other Marines were coming out of hiding and exchanging notes with their colonial counterparts. The process wouldn't be very comfortable for the locals, but at least they’d learn something from the experience. “We’ll be hunting you tomorrow so learn from what we did and adapt...”



    He glanced up sharply as his implants picked up an emergency signal from the orbiting squadron, followed by a blinding flash from high overhead. His augmented eyes compensated automatically, but several of the colonial militiamen started screaming in horror as they found themselves blinded. Perrine went to help his men as Thomas activated the Marine link to the squadron’s datanet, only to lose it a second later. It was impossible to be sure, but the only thing that could have produced that flash was the orbiting StarCom – and only then if the station had been destroyed. If someone had shut it down, the singularity would have been starved of energy and allowed to fall back into the quantum foam...



    ...And that meant that the planet was under attack.



    “Get a link to your local HQ,” he said, grabbing Perrine by the shoulder. “They should have a direct feed from the orbiting satellites. We need to know what’s going on before we move.”



    “They can’t be pirates,” Perrine protested. He sounded dazed, badly shaken. “We don’t have anything worth stealing.”



    Thomas agreed with him, but not for the same reason. Pirates were always cowards; they wanted to steal valuable cargoes, rape the women onboard the captured ships and then live to enjoy their ill-gotten gains. There was an entire squadron of UN starships in orbit, all with standing orders to eradicate pirate activity wherever they found it. The pirates would have to be insane to believe that their jury-rigged ships could stand up to an assault carrier and eight escorts. Even with half of the command team on the planet, enjoying dinner at the governor’s mansion, they’d be able to destroy the pirate ships with ease. That meant a Rogue World – and Rogues would have to be insane to provoke the UN in such a manner – or unknown aliens. The latter was somewhat more likely.



    “Worse than pirates,” he snapped. Aliens...just how aliens treated civilian populations varied from race to race. The Magana had regarded humans – and everyone else – as potential slaves, a direct result of their warrior society. At least that had left human populations to liberate when the tide turned. But the Sutra rebels had devastated a couple of human colonies in the hopes of deterring humanity from supporting their enemies. “Get onto the link and...”



    There was another blinding flash to the south, followed by a colossal mushroom cloud rising up into the atmosphere. It seemed to glare evilly at the puny humans below, a mocking reminder that weapons designed for starships could inflict vast amounts of damage on helpless planetary populations. Thomas didn't need to access any of his stored datafiles to know that the nuke had been dropped on Paris, the largest city on the planet’s surface. Two million humans had just been killed, or blown straight into a hellish nightmare of trying to survive in the rubble left by the nuke. There was no way to tell if the weapon had been designed, like most modern warheads, to avoid producing radioactive contamination – or if the enemy had deliberately made the warhead as dirty as possible to ensure that its human targets died. Their implants would be able to warn them if they got nearer to the city, or if the wind changed enough to blow radioactive dust towards their position.



    Perrine was staring at the cloud, tears forming in his eyes. “My wife is in there,” he said, numbly. Thomas winced; the Marines normally had the advantage of not having to fight in their backyard. Colonial militias knew that their families were on the firing line as well as themselves if war ever swept over their world. “I...”



    Thomas slapped him. “Pull yourself together,” he snapped. High overhead, he could see streaks of light as debris fell into the planet’s atmosphere. It could be the remains of the planet’s satellite network, but he knew that that was wishful thinking. If the unknown enemy had managed to nuke the planet’s surface, the UN squadron had almost certainly been destroyed. Bare minutes had passed since the emergency signal and the destruction of the StarCom. He couldn't remember any modern battle that had been decided so quickly. “Does your planet have emergency procedures for outside attack?”



    “Just...just a secondary HQ,” Perrine gasped, finally. Thomas scowled in dismay; of course, so far from any of the dangerous borders, the locals wouldn't have bothered to establish any emergency procedures. Too expensive, they’d say, and too pointless. It wasn't as if New Marseilles was close to any of the known alien races. “It’s in the hill near the city and...”



    He hesitated. “I could call in on the emergency transmitter...”



    “Bad idea,” Thomas said, sharply. The enemy almost certainly had command of the orbitals surrounding the planet. An undirected radio transmission would be detected and then the aliens would drop a KEW on their heads. It was standard procedure for invading a planet and he dared not assume that alien doctrine would be any less vigorous. If they were bent on settlement rather than conquest, they would definitely seek to obliterate all traces of human life. “Leave the transmitter here.”



    He called up the maps stored in his implants and ran through possible routes, seeking one that would keep them as far from the farms and small villages surrounding Paris as possible. It wouldn't be more than ten kilometres before they reached the hill, assuming that the aliens didn't start landing ground troops on the planet, forcing him to choose between engaging them and breaking off and hiding. The Marines had all walked much further than ten kilometres to complete their training. If the locals couldn’t keep up, they would just have to be left behind.



    “This way,” he said, finally. “Andrew and Aiden; take point. John, Rupert; stay where you are and watch for incoming enemy landing craft. Ping us if you see anything and then shift position.”



    A standard Marine platoon consisted of eleven men; leaving two behind weakened his force, even though there was little choice. They’d picked the ambush site with malice aforethought; Stewart was positioned on the highest hilltop in the area, with a sniper’s scope to back up his augmented eyes. A tiny insect couldn't move without John Stewart tracking it, targeting it and – if necessary – shooting it. Even Thomas couldn't match the ability of a trained sniper, with the most advanced sniper rifle the UN Marines had been able to design.



    He brought his environmental sensors into primary mode as they started to walk, doglegging down into the valleys they’d explored earlier to keep them out of sight as much as possible. If the aliens had intended to spread radioactivity everywhere, the sensors would give them some warning before they walked into a cloud radioactive enough to overwhelm their augmented bodies and kill them, or so he hoped. All of the Marines had basic genotype improvements spliced into their genes, but outside the RockRat Clans humans simply weren't very resistant to radiation. It was why some human factions had created weapons intended to use radiation as a weapon, killing vehicle crews while leaving the vehicles themselves intact. There were treaties banning their use on civilised planets, but the unknown aliens – and they had to be aliens – hadn't signed the treaties. And there were other weapons they could use; it would be relatively easy to create something that would be instantly lethal to humanity, at least on a small – already battered – planet. The UN’s medical nanites and other precautions should prevent a biological attack from wiping out much of the human population.



    Andrew Bergstresser buzzed him through the Marine-only communications network. “I think the locals are taking it hard,” he said. “Maybe we should leave them here.”



    “No point,” Thomas said. The Marines might have been better-trained and far more experienced than the locals, but they didn't know the area around Paris as well as anyone who had actually been born on the colony. Besides, unless they linked up with what remained of the militia, they would run out of supplies quickly. His augments were automatically scanning the wavelengths for alien broadcasts, but there was nothing. They hadn’t even bothered to demand the planet’s surrender. That was a worrying sign. “We need them with us.”



    The Marines could have completed the walk in less than an hour, but with the locals slowing them down it was nearly two hours before they started to climb the hillside towards the hidden command base. Silence had fallen as they'd concentrated on the climb, or staring at the plumes of smoke rising up from the other side of the hill, where Paris had once been. The planners who had established the command base on the hill, at least, had known what they were doing; given the right weapons and equipment, someone on the hill could dominate Paris and the surrounding area for miles around. Thomas didn't find the thought very reassuring as they walked around the hill, following a path that didn't seem very well hidden, and finally saw what had become of Paris. It was like staring into hell.



    Paris’s leaders had made a deliberate decision to escape the standard appearance of a world that hadn’t even seen its first century. They’d built their buildings out of stone and dismantled the conical landing pods they’d turned into housing as soon as possible, creating a city that had looked as though it belonged on Old Earth. And they’d even built a massive harbour for sailing ships and the hundreds of fishing boats that set out to catch fish to feed the population. New Marseilles might have been poor – certainly compared to the older worlds – but it had had an excellent trade balance through selling its unique fish to the rest of the United Nations. Now, it’s capital city was a burning wreck, half-hidden beneath a smoky cloud, and its government had been destroyed.



    “There are survivors,” Aiden said, grimly. Thomas followed his gaze and nodded. People – civilians – were trying to make their way south, heading towards the farms that supplied the city with food and crops. Standard procedures called for the farms to keep a surplus of food, in case of emergency, but Thomas suspected that the procedures had been neglected. It was quite possible that the exodus from the city would overwhelm what remained of the planet’s society.



    “No radiation that I can detect,” Andrew added. They’d all studied the effects of Weapons of Mass Destruction. “If there was, we’d surely have picked something up by now.”



    Thomas nodded, gazing down into the burning hell that had once been a human city. The nuke would have ignited anything that could burn, transforming the city’s handful of vehicles into death traps and creating a series of fires that would sweep through everything. Anyone caught in the open would have been blinded, and burned, and then picked up by the shockwave and thrown across the city. The aliens who had did this, who had obliterated a human population as if it was nothing more than a minor nuisance, would have to pay.



    “We’re going to find the command base, then we’re going to prepare,” he said, savagely. “I don’t know what these aliens want, or why they’re so willing to open the war with genocide, but we are going to destroy them. We are going to teach them that human lives don’t come cheap!”
     
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  5. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Three



    Luna, Sol System

    23rd March 2435



    “Admiral,” Captain Shelia Morrison’s voice said, “Lady Maria sends her apologies, but she is going to be late for her scheduled meeting with you.”



    Grand Admiral Anton Ivanovo fought – unsuccessfully – to avoid rolling his eyes. Lady Maria was the de facto leader of the Latin American bloc in the General Assembly, one that protested what it saw as the permanent domination of the United Nations by the richer countries and planets. They were right, in a sense; the richer countries and planets paid for most of the United Nations, so they had the right to dominate the United Nations. Indeed, back when the Traders had first given humanity the keys to the stars, Latin America had demanded a share in the wealth without contributing to the early expansion into space. It had resulted in the first Latin American colonies being placed on Mars-like worlds that had required a major terraforming investment before they became habitable. Some of them were still largely uninhabitable because of political corruption, leaving the populace squatting in massive domes, growing increasingly angry at the universe. Lady Maria and her fellow upper-class families were sitting on a time bomb.



    It would have been nice if he’d been able to tell her where to go, but the annual funding debates in the General Assembly were coming up and the Latin American bloc could tip the balance against providing the funding the United Nations Naval Service needed to patrol the borders and guarantee humanity’s safety in a hostile universe. Humanity’s golden age had resulted in a massive expansion of colony worlds, which meant that the UNNS had to expand to provide security – but the politicians didn't see it that way. At best, they saw their votes as something to use as bargaining counters; at worst, they feared that the UNNS would be used against one of the major worlds. It wasn't likely – ninety percent of the senior officers in the UNNS came from the major worlds – but logic and reason had no place in the world of politics.



    Lady Maria thought that the Latin American bloc was underrepresented in the UNNS. She was right; they were underrepresented, for the same reason they didn't have the clout enjoyed by the richer and more powerful worlds. They didn't pay, so they couldn't play – and the only way that they’d manage to get their own people into more prestigious positions was by actually contributing to the budget. If he put her candidates forward, assuming that there were any who were qualified for high office, he would run into an instant veto from the major powers. None of them would give up their clout for a bloc that contributed almost nothing.



    “Thank you,” he said, finally. He had four other meetings scheduled in the next two hours; there were times when he thought that all he ever did was sit in meetings. At least he took most of the political flack himself, allowing the junior officers to handle their fleets and squadrons without political interference. How long had it been, he asked himself dryly, since he’d commanded a starship? Had it really been nineteen years since he’d enjoyed squadron command? “Inform her that I will endeavour to accommodate her, but as my next meeting is with the Russian delegates from New Moscow it may be impossible.”



    He allowed himself a smile at the thought. The Latin American bloc had allies among the Russian bloc, but that wouldn't last if the Latin Americans managed to alienate some of the Russian representatives. He doubted that the Russians would give up a prospective alliance just because one of their people felt slighted, yet Lady Marie wouldn't want to take the chance that they would. Losing one of their few ties to the great powers would cost her everything.



    Shaking his head, he turned back to his personal computer and started to read through the next report. Paperwork was the bane of his existence; there were times when he felt that the entire Admiralty existed to generate paperwork and nothing else. And everything had to be read by the senior uniformed official in the UNNS, the Grand Admiral himself. It wouldn't do to be caught unawares by some new problem that had been glossed over in the files. He was halfway through a report on missile production in the orbital facilities orbiting Nova Scotia when his intercom buzzed.



    “Admiral, this is Commander Weaver, down in Communications,” a voice said. It had to be important if a mere Commander was disturbing him. Anton had tried to keep an open door policy, but it hadn't worked out in the long run. “We may have a Code Black-Red.”



    Anton sat upright, pushing the paperwork aside. Code Black referred to first contact with a new spacefaring race, a contact that couldn't be delayed while the UN’s researchers studied the newcomers carefully to determine how they would react when the UN contacted them formally. A Code Red meant that there had been a clash between the UNNS and an alien race. And a Code Black-Red meant that first contact had turned hostile right from the start; for whatever reason, the aliens had started shooting.



    “I’m on my way,” he said, picking up his jacket. Even if it was a misunderstanding, the UNNS would have to be alerted. “Dispatch a FLASH message to all fleet commands; warn them that we may have a war on our hands.”



    He walked quickly through the massive installation into the Communications section, the linchpin of the StarCom network binding the United Nations into a single entity, all the while mulling over humanity’s past first contacts. First Contact with the Sutra had been...rocky right from the start; the race had been in the middle of a civil war that had spilled over into human space. Eventually, the UNNS had intervened and helped one side to win the war, but it hadn't made the other side very fond of humanity. There were even reports that some elements within the Sutra Government had their own problems with the United Nations.



    Commander Weaver was a young officer, so young that Anton wondered if he had even started to shave, but there was no doubting his competence, not if he had been assigned to the StarCom network. Maintaining the FTL links, as imperfect as they were, was too important to use as a political battlefield. It didn't stop planets, corporations and even individuals from complaining that they didn't get all the bandwidth they needed. Maybe one day the system could be made less cumbersome, but for the moment they were stuck.



    “Admiral Hanson transmitted a standard Code Black message two hours ago,” Weaver said, as Anton studied the console. Admiral Hanson was one of Admiral Davidson’s subordinates, Anton recalled, his task force part of the 9th Fleet. “Apparently, his sensors detected unidentified alien craft in the New Marseilles system” – he brought up a stellar display and pointed to the system – “here. The alien craft closed in on the system and then...”



    Anton scowled at him. “And then?”



    “We lost the StarCom,” Weaver said. “There was a report of an energy surge on one of the alien ships, and then the StarCom vanishes completely. Even the standard zero-info channel, the one that maintains the system, is gone. I believe that the StarCom installation was destroyed.”



    Anton nodded. StarCom units were expensive, even by the standards of the rich and powerful planets that provided most of the UN’s funding. Getting the network extended out that far from Earth had been a political nightmare, one that had ensured that many newly-settled worlds were burdened with a debt that would take them years to pay off, but there had been no choice. It took upwards of three months to get a starship from New Marseilles to Earth, far too slowly for any proper fleet coordination. By the time Earth received its first warning of trouble, the unknowns would have had three months to make the situation far worse.



    And Admiral Hanson wouldn't have simply shut down the installation either. Quite apart from the fact that he would have known to keep Earth informed on the progress of a new contact with a spacefaring race – one that posed a potential threat to humanity – he couldn't have shut down the StarCom without triggering an automatic message to Earth, informing them that he had shut down the system. No, Weaver was almost certainly correct; the StarCom had been destroyed...and that didn't bode well for the United Nations squadron in orbit around New Marseilles.



    A nasty thought struck him and he cursed under his breath. “Show me the timescale,” he ordered. Weaver tapped his console – the thought had probably occurred to him too – and brought up the event sequence. Time from first contact to the aliens opening fire, if they had opened fire, had been less than seven minutes. “What happened? Did they think they were being attacked?”



    “Unknown,” Weaver said, seriously. A post-battle analysis team would go through everything with a fine-toothed comb, trying to understand why First Contact had gone so horrifically wrong. “The only thing the squadron did was transmit the First Contact package to the alien ships. As far as I can tell, they simply ignored it.”



    He hesitated. “Sir...there wasn't any update on alien weapons, either,” he added. “If they took out the StarCom...”



    Anton followed his logic. The fastest weapon known to the United Nations was sprint-mode missiles, missiles configured to throw themselves at enemy ships quickly enough to overwhelm any point defence system. But they were short-ranged weapons – their drives burned out within minutes – and even if the aliens had fired such missiles at the StarCom, there should have been enough time to warn Earth that the aliens possessed longer-range sprint-mode missiles. The fact that there hadn't been any data on alien weapons was more than a little worrying.



    “Check with the other planets in the sector,” Anton ordered. If the aliens had hit New Marseilles, they might well have hit other worlds in the same general area. “Admiral Davidson should have started recalling the 9th Fleet’s units by now; inform him that I have authorised deployment under standard protocols. ROE are Alpha-Three.”



    Weaver was too junior an officer to argue that point, even though Anton could tell that the young man did want to object. Alpha-Three ROE allowed the commander on the spot to open fire if he believed that his squadron was about to be attacked, but they specifically forbade him to open fire unless the aliens looked hostile. Whatever had happened at New Marseilles might be a horrific mistake, after all, and in that case the diplomats would find it easier to sort out the mess if there was only one clash between humanity and the unknown aliens.



    “Aye, Admiral,” Weaver said. He hesitated. “Assuming that some of Admiral Hanson’s units survived, they should make it to Capricorn in two to three days.”



    Anton nodded. The UN needed data – and even a single surviving starship should have picked up enough sensor readings to allow the analysts a chance to start picking apart the alien technology. Who knew how advanced this new race actually was? The UN had been the most advanced military force in the galaxy for the last century. They’d gotten out of the habit of worrying about more advanced aliens.



    He keyed his wristcom. “Shelia, contact the Security Council and tell them that I need to address them as soon as possible,” he ordered. It would take several days for the Security Council to assemble on Luna, particularly if they needed to seek direction from their homeworlds before proceeding. “And then pass on my apologies to Lady Maria and everyone else on my appointments list. Something urgent has come up and it needs my personal attention.”



    Clicking off the wristcom, he looked down at Weaver. “Transmit everything we have to Alien Analysis and then consider yourself assigned to them,” he added. Weaver had done well, for someone whose main position had been in Communications. “Tell them I want a full breakdown on everything that happened from the moment the alien ships jumped in to the destruction of the StarCom. If they can tease anything from the final pieces of data, I want to be informed immediately.”



    He looked up at the final picture of the alien starships. They were alien, all right; very alien. Apart from the Traders, he couldn't think of any race that created starships that were also works of art in their own right, even the RockRats. The technology to completely defy the laws of science simply wasn't there yet.



    But why had they opened fire? Humanity had been careful with the handful of first contacts it had made, knowing that the dangers of interstellar war were too great. First Contact with the Polis had been difficult, even though the aliens themselves had been surprisingly friendly; their hideous appearance touched the deepest phobias in the human soul. Did these aliens find humanity too appalling to be allowed to exist? Or did they feel that humanity had started the war? Or were they simply another Magana Empire, a barbaric race that had stolen more advanced technology from a different race and set out to conquer the universe?



    Or were they completely incomprehensible? So far, humanity had been able to talk to every race it had encountered and find common ground. But an alien race might be truly alien, so alien that communications and compromise were impossible. And if that was the case, the UN might have no choice, but to destroy its new enemy utterly. Peace talks might be impossible.



    There was no way to know. All he knew was that the golden age had just come to a screeching halt.



    ***

    The Galactic News Network had thought ahead when it established its headquarters on Earth’s moon. Luna served as the base for the General Assembly – and the Security Council, when it was summoned into existence – and ever since humanity had started meeting alien races, the aliens had established their own embassies on Luna. Besides, Earth was growing increasingly irreverent these days as the power shifted to the major colony worlds, leaving behind the separate nations on Earth. Even the nations that had seeded powerful colonies were falling behind their children. No one expected them to peacefully accept irrelevance when they finally realised that their power had waned completely, although the four orbital towers and the constant exodus from Earth limited the power of national governments.



    At twenty-seven years old, Hind Valhi had already had a number of scoops to her name, giving her a growing reputation for ferreting out the truth and embarrassing government officials. She had broken the story about the collaboration between certain governments on Earth with the less democratic planets in the United Nations to reshape the political boundaries, perhaps even use the UNNS as a tool against the colony worlds. It might not have succeeded, but it had caused a political crisis and propelled Hind’s star into orbit. But what could she do to beat it? They saw her coming these days.



    “I have a friend in the Admiralty,” her editor said. Carl Jones was a RockRat, one of the handful who had left the asteroid-based society and come to live on Luna. “He said that the Navy might have run into Newcomers.”



    Hind lifted an eyebrow. Newcomers was a slang expression for a newly-discovered alien race, one already capable of space travel. Such contacts were always worrying; if the newcomers happened to be in a position to block further expansion and settlement, it would kick off a political crisis in the General Assembly. And that assumed that the aliens weren’t hostile. Hind’s grandfather had served in the Magana War, losing a leg during the storming of one of the alien orbital fortresses. His stories hadn't made her feel any better about her brother entering the military.



    Jones smiled, smoothly. “And the Newcomers are apparently hostile,” he added. “There’s little hard data yet, but I couldn't raise New Marseilles when I tried to send them a message. We could be at war, Hind.”



    Hind shivered. “And what are we going to do with the news?”



    “Well, we can’t publish it just yet, or they’ll know they have a leak,” Jones said. “What we are going to do is position ourselves to take best advantage of the situation. I understand that you completed your embedding course with the military?”



    “Yes...” Hind said, slowly.



    “We’ll get a couple of others into the course; they’ll have an advantage over the other networks when the news finally breaks,” Jones said. He rubbed his hands together as he spoke. “We may even run a speculative article or two, something that will suggest that something is wrong in the direction of New Marseilles. And then we will have the excuse to pressure them into revealing the truth.”



    “That might get us into trouble,” Hind reminded him. The early days of the Magana War had been bad for reporters, with a handful arrested for broadcasting military secrets to the enemy. Even the discovery that the Magana had never tried spying on human civilian broadcasts hadn't saved the reputation of reporters from being savaged by military officials. “I would prefer not to end my days in jail.”



    “Ah, don’t worry about it,” Jones assured her. His face twisted into a mischievous smile. He lived for outwitting government censors. “There won’t be anything, but speculation in our reports. The truth won’t come out unless they choose to let it out. And they can't blame that on us. How can they when they made it public themselves?”



    Hind frowned. “But what if the aliens hear the broadcasts?”



    “I don’t think it will matter,” Jones said. Aliens were rarely interested in human entertainment, let alone news reports. “They already know that they hit New Marseilles, after all. And besides, what can we have run into that the Navy can’t handle?”
     
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  6. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Four



    Deep Space

    24th March 2435



    “Commander?”



    Janine opened her eyes, feeling the queasiness of floating in zero-gravity merging with the queasiness of an unplanned jump through Flux Space. She fought down the urge to throw up, even when she realised that several of her crew had lost that battle and their vomit – and blood from the wounded – was floating through the air. Doctor Martha Noble was floating next to her, having injected her with a stimulant that had shocked her out of the jump shock.



    “I'm fine,” she said, groggily. Maybe she wasn't fine, but it was unlikely that they’d jumped into an inhabited system with starships ready and able to provide assistance. An unplanned jump could have landed them anywhere within five light years of New Marseilles. “How...”



    She coughed and started again. “How many did we lose?”



    “Twenty-two crewmembers are reported dead,” the Doctor said. “Thirty-seven are wounded, nine critically; I’ve drafted crewmen to get them into the stasis tubes. The remainder are suffering from minor wounds or jump shock.”



    There was no condemnation in her dark eyes, but Janine felt responsible for all of the deaths. If she’d jumped out earlier... Angrily, she pushed the thought aside. There had been no reason to assume that the aliens were hostile, or that they would simply open fire without even an attempt to evaluate their opposition. And no one in the United Nations had imagined death rays capable of slicing through an assault carrier as though it were made of paper, at least not outside a bad movie set in the far future. The aliens had pulled off a surprise and ripped the squadron apart. She had to assume that Rubicon and her crew were the last survivors.



    “Keep working on them,” she ordered, finally. Her senses felt scrambled and she had to force herself to concentrate to regain her bearings. It had been far too long since the zero-g exercises they’d carried out in the Luna Academy. “Sally” – the RockRat was not, naturally, affected by the absence of gravity – “where the hell are we?”



    “About two light years from where we were,” Sally said, slowly. “I don’t think that the navigation system is badly scrambled, but some of the internal datanet has been hammered and it could have disrupted the navigation systems. I could try to get a fix on our position manually.”



    “Do it,” Janine ordered. If they didn't know precisely where they were, calculating the next jump would be almost impossible. A single star that hadn't been included in the calculations could cause them to jump light years off course. “Any sign of the enemy?”



    “Negative,” McLaughlin reported. “If they tracked us through the jump, they didn't bother to give chase.”



    “They probably thought that we wouldn’t survive the jump,” George Phyllis said. The Chief Engineer looked rather battered as he pulled himself out of the Jeffries Tube. “We were spraying out debris and some of it got caught up in the flux field. If we’d been less lucky, the debris would have been slammed against an already weakened hull and probably torn us apart. As it is, we’re surprisingly intact.”



    “Surprisingly,” Janine repeated. “Just how bad is it?”



    The Chief Engineer glanced down at a datapad in his hand. “The internal communications network has been shot to hell,” he said, flatly, “so we’ve had to press datapads into service as routers for internal messages. Our forward lower hull has been breached; the section has currently been sealed off, thankfully. The entire ship might have vented if the emergency systems hadn't come online. Everyone in that compartment died, Commander.”



    Janine nodded. There would be time to mourn later. “Apart from that, we’re in surprisingly good shape,” he added. “The flux drive is still active, although I want to run a series of diagnostics before we risk another jump; the thrusters are still active, even though we lost Fusion Two. I think the core overloaded and the emergency systems shut it down before it exploded, but there’s no way to be sure until we pull it out of the hull and get it inspected at a proper shipyard.”



    “Tactical systems have taken a battering,” McLaughlin added. “Right now, we have only rear weapons; our point defence system had been completely fried.”



    “It doesn't matter,” Janine said. The UNNS had designed its ships to deal with missiles, not death rays that cut through solid hulls like they were made of paper. Their point defence systems would be useless against such weapons. “We can't go into a fight like this until we’ve been in a shipyard and had some emergency repairs carried out.”



    McLaughlin blinked. “But the Captain...?”



    “There's nothing we can do for him,” Janine said, harshly. Jumping back to New Marseilles would just be another form of committing suicide. “We have to assume that the pickets didn't make it to Capricorn before the aliens destroyed them. The sensor records on this ship might make the difference between the next squadron managing to hurt the aliens or being wiped out as efficiently as Admiral Hanson and our comrades on the task force.”



    Silence fell as they considered the implications. The squadron had called upwards of twenty thousand officers, crewmen and support personnel. Invincible alone had accounted for half of that number. And the aliens had simply wiped them out without even bothering to demand surrender, without provocation or threat. If the aliens had wiped out the pickets with the same cold efficiency they’d shown to the StarCom, it was quite possible that the 9th Fleet’s base at Capricorn, under Admiral Davidson, wouldn't know what had happened in more than vague detail. Rubicon was the only ship they knew to have survived.



    Janine knew the standard procedure for hostile alien contact. The 9th Fleet would secure its base, dispatch pickets to other threatened star systems and then prepare to advance on the aliens, sending diplomats ahead in the hopes that the conflict could be resolved. But they wouldn’t know what they were facing – and that ignorance would doom them. 9th Fleet had trained to cope with aliens who fired missiles, just like the human ships, not aliens with powerful death rays. And if 9th Fleet was destroyed, it would be months before the UNNS could assemble another fleet to hold the line...



    ...If holding the line was even possible...she pushed that thought aside too and looked around at her crew. They had to get to Capricorn before it was too late.



    “McLaughlin, you did a year at Tactical Analysis,” she said. “I want you to concentrate on studying the sensor records, everything we took from the battle. If these bastards have any weaknesses, I want you to spot them and prepare a preliminary report for the Admiral.”



    “Commander...” McLaughlin said, slowly. “What about my tactical duties...?”



    “I can handle a tactical console,” Janine said, dryly. He flushed, embarrassed. “Besides, if they do manage to track us down, we’re fucked anyway. We’re in no state for a fight.”



    She looked over at the Chief Engineer. “Get the ship ready to jump as quickly as possible,” she ordered. “Pull crewmen away from any other duties if necessary; just get us ready to jump. Sally will verify the data on our current location, then work up a least-time course to Capricorn. As long as we get there, we’re fine.



    “Doctor, we will hold a remembrance ceremony at” – she glanced at her wristcom – “1930,” she continued. “Have the bodies prepped and then moved to the shuttlebay; we’ll bury them in space before we leave. If any of them wanted to be returned home, place them in a space stasis tube – if there are spare stasis tubes.”



    “There aren’t,” the Doctor said, quietly. “I’ve had to double people up just to get them to a proper medical base.”



    Janine shook her head, grimly. “Have all the bodies moved to the shuttlebay then, my authority,” she ordered. There would be complaints from the next-of-kin that bodies hadn't been returned home, but there was little choice. The stasis tubes had to be reserved for the living. “We’ll bury them all in space.”



    The Chief Engineer leaned forward. “We could flash-freeze them in space and then keep them preserved that way,” he suggested. “It wouldn't take more than a few minutes...”



    “Make it so,” Janine ordered. She looked around the small group. “Any questions?”



    There were none. “Then I need to check the Captain’s Log,” she added. “Report in if there are problems we need to tackle before we jump.”



    Once the crew had dispersed, she pulled herself over to the Captain’s stateroom and pressed her hand against the sensor. As XO, she had standing permission to go anywhere on the ship unless the Captain had specifically forbidden it – and Captain Yu had never denied her permission to enter his quarters. Besides, with his absence – capture or death; there was no way to know – she would have to check his logbook to assume formal command.



    The stateroom was dark and silent, sending a chill through her bones as she unhooked a flashlight from the emergency compartment and turned it on, sweeping the light over the Captain’s desk, the golden model of his first command – the traditional gift from his crew when he moved on to a bigger ship – and the ‘I Love Me’ wall in the far corner. Like all officers, Yu had collected his awards and displayed them for his guests to see. Janine’s first CO had pointed out that someone could always be counted upon to produce an award, even if the recipient had been a lousy commander. But Captain Yu had been a good officer and Janine had learned a great deal from him.



    She winced as she caught sight of the photographs the Captain had placed on his desk, now floating through the air as the life support system stuttered back into life. Yu had had a wife back on Chui Khan, she recalled, and three daughters. There was no room for families on a military starship and so he only saw them once or twice a year, but he’d loved them and sent them gifts and seen them whenever he could. Janine had even met his wife once, a slight woman with a deceptive inner strength that allowed her to bring up three children on her own. And Janine would have to write the letter informing the Captain’s wife that her husband was probably dead.



    The Captain’s Log was a completely separate computer system from the remainder of the ship, stored in one of the desk drawers. Janine opened the drawer, found the case and pulled it out, opening it with her thumbprint. By tradition, no one was allowed to enter the case and read the log unless the Captain was dead, or gave up his command, whereupon it became part of the public record. The log clicked on and displayed the Captain’s last entry, a brief outline of the arrival at New Marseilles and his impressions of the Governor. He hadn’t been very flattering. It also included his notes on his crew, particularly the ones whose promotion depended upon a favourable report from the Captain himself. Resisting the temptation to read her own file, Janine looked back at the Captain’s original orders from higher authority, searching for something – anything – that might have warned the Captain about an alien threat.



    There was nothing. The UN spent vast sums of money on maintaining survey ships, long-range probes and listening posts watching for signs of alien communications, but there hadn't even been a hint that something had been threatening New Marseilles. For all that money, they had been caught flatfooted, blindsided by a powerful threat they never saw coming. And what if the aliens were too powerful to stop? They could be at Earth within months, tearing the Home Fleet apart. It would be the beginning of the rout of civilisation, of the massacre of mankind.



    Her wristcom buzzed. “Commander, this is Sally,” Sally said. “I’ve managed to triangulate our position. The navigational computer isn't wrong.”



    Janine let out a sigh of relief she hadn't realised she’d been holding. “Good,” she said, bringing the log back up to the present day and making a note that she’d assumed command of the ship. “How long will it take us to get to Capricorn?”



    “Three days, probably four,” Sally said. There was a pause. The RockRats didn't have hierarchy as the UNNS understood the term, but Sally had spent enough time on the ship to know that the UNNS had its way of doing things, no matter how inefficient it was to the RockRat eye. “We could jump to Casanova in a single jump, or Ramadan in two.”



    “I thought of that,” Janine said. It had been wishful thinking, she knew; one glance at the records had confirmed that her first decision had been correct. “Neither of those worlds have any real defences protecting them. The aliens could have overrun them within minutes of arriving there. Hell, they may even be there now. But if they’ve managed to overrun Capricorn...the war is already over. The base there is armed to the teeth.”



    Apart from the early encounters with the Sutra, the UN had always been on the offensive. But if someone wanted to cripple the UN, with the patience to scout out weak points and prepare fleets to attack them, New Marseilles wouldn't be their only target. Fleets of eerie teardrop-shaped ships might already be attacking Capricorn and other major bases within the human sphere. And if the aliens were powerful enough to do that, the war was within shouting distance of being lost along with the bases and their defending fleets.



    Shaking her head, she sealed the log and left the Captain’s stateroom. There would be time to clear it up later, once they had reached Capricorn. The shipyards there would be able to repair the ship, allowing her to rejoin the line of battle. And then...the next time, at least humanity wouldn't be taken by surprise.



    ***

    By tradition, every crewmember who wasn't in a vitally important post was expected to attend funeral ceremonies, even if they were forced to watch through the monitors as they couldn't all fit into the shuttlebay. The doctor had sealed twenty bodies in coffins that would slowly drift through space, eventually intersecting with a star and burning to ash. It was the favoured burial method for spacers, even the ones on loan from a planet’s self-defence force.



    Janine watched grimly as the honour guard – a handful of crewmen chosen by lot – walked to the first coffin and lifted it up. The gravity generator was still balky, but at least they’d been able to ensure that the funeral would be carried out properly. Doing it without gravity would have been a great deal harder. Composing herself as best as she could, she read the words of the ceremony from memory.



    “They left their worlds and walked into space, to join those who stand between humanity and its many enemies,” she said. The words had been written by the UN’s first Grand Admiral, rather than drawing on a specific funeral tradition. “They were our comrades in war and peace, our friends and allies; today, we gather to bid them farewell. They died in the manner that they lived, working and fighting to ensure that humanity would survive. Lieutenant Sandra Martinez, we bid you farewell.”



    “We bid you farewell,” the crew echoed, as the first coffin was launched into interstellar space.



    Janine felt her voice catch and swallowed hard as she read the names, one after the other. Three of the bodies had been almost intact; the remainder had been shredded, some so badly torn apart that the only way to be sure that they were properly identified had been a DNA test. And at least one crewwoman had been completely vaporised by the alien death rays. Her body might have been blown out into space during the battle, but no one would ever know for sure. The only way they’d known that she was missing was when they’d counted heads.



    “Our comrades died in a treacherous assault,” she said, gathering herself. “They were the first victims of a new war, one mounted by a race that thought nothing of opening fire before even attempting to make contact with us. We do not know what we are fighting, but we do know why we are fighting. We are fighting to protect our homes and our families from an alien menace that may already have killed seven million humans on New Marseilles.



    “This war is going to be different. They fired on lifepods; they may have bombarded an entire planetary population on New Marseilles. We already know that the aliens have more advanced weapons than our own. They know where some of our worlds are located; we know nothing about theirs. But I do know, I have faith, that humanity’s stubbornness and ingenuity will come to the fore and we will defeat this new foe. There will be many dark days ahead, many dark moments when we will stare into the spectre of defeat, but we will find a way to overcome the aliens and strike back. And if they wish to exterminate the human race, if they wish to eradicate us from the galaxy, I swear to you that they will not succeed. We will fight, we will win and we will teach them that humans are not helpless targets. They will know that they have been in a fight!”



    She looked from face to face, willing them to understand. “We will not give up,” she whispered. “We will not go quietly into the night. We will gather our full strength and fight like mad bastards to hold the line against these people. And we will find ways to beat them and we will beat them. We will not surrender.”



    Two hours later, they made their first jump on the route to Capricorn.
     
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  7. Pezz

    Pezz Monkey+

    This seems to be the start to another great story. Thanks for entertaining us.
     
  8. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    You're welcome - just keep commenting...


    Chapter Five



    Haven/New Texas System

    24th March 2435



    “I have a sensor lock on target now,” Flight Captain Connie Chung said, as the Dragon starfighter closed in on its target. “One Magana dreadnaught and three light cruisers.”



    “Copy that, Demon,” Flight Lieutenant Luke Falk said. “Remember to leave some for the rest of us.”



    Connie allowed herself a grin as her wingman pushed up behind her. “You snooze, you lose,” she said. “Go evasive...now.”



    The enemy target opened fire with its point defence, attempting to target the starfighters with close-in railgun projectiles. Connie led the starfighters into an evasive pattern that looked complete chaotic, and should have been completely unpredictable, and closed in on the massive dreadnaught. She armed her torpedoes as they neared sprint-mode range, ready to fire the first set of missiles directly into the enemy hull at point-blank range. Nothing in the known universe could intercept missiles fired from starfighters, even the point defence the UN had built to protect fleet carriers.



    “On my mark,” she ordered, “fire at will; I say again, fire at will...”



    “Attention,” a new voice said, cutting into the channel. “Exercise terminated; I say again, exercise terminated. All units, return to Triumphant. This exercise is hereby terminated.”



    Connie blinked in surprise. Exercises were rarely terminated before they were completed, even if there had been an accident that cost lives. Regular battles against enemy ships never ended just because someone wanted to call a halt. The only thing that could convince Vice Admiral Howard to cancel the exercise ahead of schedule was an emergency somewhere in the sector. Or maybe the New Texans had decided to rattle their sabres at the task force and Howard had decided to prepare for war.



    “You heard the man, children,” she said, reluctantly. On the screen, the Magana dreadnaught had vanished, replaced with an old freighter they were using for target practice. “Blue squadron, return to the barn; I say again, return to the barn.”



    The Haven/New Texas system was unusual; it was politically divided between Haven, which was a member of the United Nations, and New Texas, which was not. From the briefing, Connie had gathered that the New Texans had set out to escape the rest of the human race completely and set up a colony buried under New Texas’s surface, hiding so well that the United Nations Survey Command starship that had mapped the system had completely missed the fact that it was already colonised. Haven had been settled before the New Texans had revealed themselves and demanded that the newcomers be removed. As there were few precedents for abandoning a colony, particularly when the New Texans could have prevented the settlement simply by identifying themselves when the survey ship passed through their system, the General Assembly had been reluctant to force the Haven settlers to leave. The result had been a minor cold war and threats of violence from both sides.



    Connie pushed the thought out of her mind as Blue Squadron returned to their mothership, UNS Triumphant. Triumphant was the latest fleet carrier to come out of the UN’s yards in the Sol System, five kilometres of starfighter bays, heavy weapons and the most advanced armour composites the UN had been able to produce. In theory, a fleet carrier needed no escorts, although it would be a long time before the UN took the risk of sending such a ship out alone. The six wings of starfighters they carried should be more than enough to provide protection.



    The main hull of the carrier was a long cylinder, surrounded by six massive flight tubes for the carrier’s starfighters. Connie carefully angled her starfighter towards the uppermost deck and braced herself as the carrier burst into visual range. It was a point of honour among starfighter pilots never to let automated systems handle the landing, even though it was alarmingly easy to make a slight mistake that could prove disastrous in the flight tube. The starfighter shuddered as gravity latched on and pulled it to the deck, skidding down towards the crash webbing at the end of the landing bay. Connie allowed herself a sigh of relief as the automated system picked up the starfighter and transported it through the tube into the maintenance bay. A pair of deck crewmen ran forward, placed a ladder beside her starfighter, and offered to help her out of the craft. Connie shook her head and jumped down herself, feeling suddenly heavy as the carrier’s gravity field asserted itself properly. There was no such thing as a gravity field generator on a starfighter.



    She walked across the yellow line on the deck and removed her helmet, placing it and her outer flight suit in the compartment where they would be stored until her next flight – or QRA duty. Half of Red Squadron would already be suited up, she knew, cursing their luck as Blue Squadron and the rest of the carrier’s wings carried out exercises all across the system, partly to keep their skills honed and partly to remind the New Texans that violence against Haven would not be tolerated. The remainder of Blue Squadron came in behind her, removing their flight suits to reveal the shipsuits underneath. They looked just as puzzled and annoyed as she felt.



    Her wristcom buzzed as she removed it from her locker and snapped it back around her wrist, linking back into the carrier’s communications network. “All pilots, report to briefing compartments at 1630,” it said. “I say again; 1630.”



    Connie glanced at the time and shook her head. There was barely time to freshen up before the briefing, let alone catch something to eat. She walked into the washroom, splashed water on her face and hands, and then glanced at herself in the mirror. Her dark eyes looked tired, her dark skin carrying the signs of too much high acceleration at low compensator settings, just like any other starfighter pilot. There were times when she envied the RockRats for all the modifications they were allowed to splice into their DNA. Improved resistance to high gravities would come in very handy for a starfighter pilot. But New Kinshasa was a very conservative planet and the UN frowned on genetic modifications, whatever the reasoning. It would have cost her everything – her career, at least - if she’d had it done illegally.



    “You heard the man,” she said, as Blue Squadron lined up behind her. “Briefing at 1630; try not to be late.”



    She was still smiling at the thought when they walked into the briefing compartment assigned to Blue Squadron, one of many such compartments throughout the ship. It made sense to have the pilots report to different rooms, she’d been told; besides, there wasn’t a compartment on the starship large enough to hold all of the pilots at once. It seemed to be a law of military affairs that the larger the starship, the smaller the volume assigned to the junior crew and the starfighter pilots – and the Marines, of course. Vice Admiral Howard’s face could be seen in the holographic representation of the main briefing compartment, in the main hull. If the Admiral was briefing them personally, or even attending the briefing, it had to be serious. Either war was about to break out somewhere – or the incident when they’d been on shore leave had finally worked its way through the military chain of command and the Admiral was about to chew them all new assholes personally. But he wouldn't have needed to summon every starfighter pilot in the ship to that briefing, would he?



    “Attention on deck,” the CAG said. Connie thought she detected a pained expression on his face at Blue Squadron’s appearance, but they’d just come from a major exercise and they hadn't been given time to shower, let alone get some rest. “Admiral, if you would...?”



    Vice Admiral Paul Howard was a brown-haired man with a reputation for not suffering fools gladly, an officer from the United Stars of America. That political connection explained why he had been promoted so high at such a young age, but Connie had served under him long enough to know that he wasn't an incompetent officer promoted above his ability. He’d seen active service during the pacification campaign on Coral Reef and anti-piracy operations in several sectors, as well as the Dispute with the RockRats. That had been a pointless war if anything had been, but at least it had ensured that some officers were blooded. It had also ensured that a number of others ended up dead.



    “We have a Code Black-Red on our hands,” Howard said, shortly. There was a pause while the starfighter pilots worked out that that meant hostile alien contact. All the theorists had once claimed that there was no such thing as a hostile alien race, but humanity’s experience proved that the opposite, if anything, was true. Any race that wanted to reach the stars had to be capable of defending itself – and rationalising away launching invasions of other worlds, if they were advanced enough to need rationalisms. “Yesterday, the colony on New Marseilles was attacked by an unknown alien race. Admiral Hanson’s squadron, on duty around the colony world, was attacked and presumably destroyed. So far, no survivors have reached Capricorn or any other colony world.”



    There was another pause as that sank in. The starfighter pilots were absolutely confident in themselves and their equipment – and in their ability to hold the line against hostile alien forces. If an entire task force had been destroyed, and the task force had to have been destroyed quickly enough to prevent Admiral Hanson from ordering an emergency jump out of the system, it suggested worrying things about alien firepower. Or perhaps the aliens had simply gotten lucky. They might have crippled the squadron’s flux drives before they could jump out of the firing line, then obliterated them at leisure.



    “Worse, the colony worlds of Cartage and Ramadan have also gone silent.” Howard continued. “There were no UN starships on duty at either world, but Ramadan possessed a small self-defence force consisting of seven destroyers and one patrol frigate, as well as a handful of merchant vessels. None of those ships have reached Capricorn Base. We must assume that our unknown enemy has entered both systems, destroyed their orbiting StarCom units and then occupied the worlds below. And we must also assume that the self-defence forces were wiped out too.”



    Connie accessed her implants and pulled out a star chart, studying it in her mind. New Marseilles was the outermost world in the sector, but Cartage and Ramadan were only two light years further into the United Nations. The Haven/New Texas system was on the other side of Capricorn Base, nineteen light years from New Marseilles, yet that didn't mean that it was out of danger. It was quite possible that their unknown enemies had decided to destroy as much of 9th Fleet as they could before it could concentrate under Admiral Davidson. If Connie had been planning a surprise attack against something the size of the United Nations, it was what she would have done.



    “We will be jumping to Capricorn Base within the hour and linking up with Admiral Davidson and the remainder of the 9th Fleet,” Howard concluded. “Assuming that Capricorn itself has not been attacked, I believe our immediate priority would be to prevent the aliens from hitting any other worlds in the sector. Three attacks suggest quite strongly that the original attack was no accident. The United Nations is at war.”



    Connie couldn't disagree with any of his points. One attack might have been an accident, three of them was a declaration of war. And the aliens clearly understood human weaknesses; they’d targeted the StarCom installations first, preventing the colonies from sending out a call for help. There was no way to know how the aliens would treat human civilians, but it was easy to imagine them simply being exterminated if the aliens wanted humanity’s worlds for themselves. And yet there were plenty of habitable worlds in space, just waiting to be discovered. Why did the aliens hate humanity enough to risk all-out war with the United Nations?



    “From this moment, we are on full combat alert,” Howard said. “The aliens caught Admiral Hanson by surprise. We will not make the same mistake.”



    He allowed his voice to darken. “Blood has already been shred,” he reminded them. “From this moment on, we are going to make them bleed.”



    ***

    Vice Admiral Paul Howard braced himself as Triumphant jumped through Flux Space, materialising in the Capricorn System. It was the largest and most populated world in the sector, a bulwark intended to provide shelter and support for the human colonists – and he’d been forced to assume that the aliens had already entered the system and engaged 9th Fleet. But as the display lit up with green icons, it became reassuringly clear that 9th Fleet was still intact and the base was active.



    “Transmit our IFF until they acknowledge,” he ordered. The entire system was on alert, with clouds of starfighters patrolling the space around the planets – and the massive base the UNNS had established in a free-floating orbit around the primary star. It was quite possible that someone would get jumpy and accidentally fire on a friendly starship. “And then get me a direct link to Admiral Davidson.”



    “Aye, sir,” the communications officer said. The CIC’s display grew more crowded as dozens of additional starships were picked up. Almost all of the 9th Fleet would be concentrated at Capricorn, apart from Admiral Hanson’s ill-fated squadron. God alone knew what the aliens used for weapons, but if they’d wiped out a task force centred on an assault carrier they were clearly armed with something formidable. The tactical staff on Capricorn would probably already have a working theory about what the aliens used and how it could best be countered. “Link established.”



    Paul put on his headphones as the face of Admiral Davidson appeared in front of him. “Paul,” the Admiral said, “good to see you.”



    “And you, Admiral,” Paul said. Davidson might have been more of a bureaucrat than a warrior, but at least he had a backbone. It was something he feared would be needed in the coming months before the UN managed to defeat their mysterious new enemy. “Triumphant and her task force stand ready to join the line of battle.”



    “You will have to jump out to Cadiz,” Admiral Davidson said. The orders weren't exactly a surprise. There were nearly a billion colonists on Cadiz, along with a RockRat colony and several industrial installations. Losing the planet would be...irritating. “I intended to direct Commodore Shane to cover that world, but Shane and his squadron are...overdue.”



    They shared a look. Commodore Shane had been assigned to cover Casanova, one of the weirder colony worlds based around an artificial social matrix. And it was right in the path of the unknown enemy’s route into the United Nations. The aliens were getting better, Paul thought sourly, and they didn't even know what the aliens looked like, let alone what they wanted. If Shane had been obliterated along with his squadron, the aliens would have wiped out two squadrons – and no one knew how many losses, if any, the aliens had suffered.



    “I’m dispatching pickets to all the threatened systems, as well as flythrough deployments through the occupied systems,” Davidson added. “We need intelligence on our foe, Paul, and we don’t have much of anything.” There was a pause. “In the event of them engaging you, you are ordered to fall back and withdraw rather than risk losses. We cannot afford to lose more ships.”



    Paul nodded. There was another good reason for assigning a fleet carrier to defend Cadiz; Triumphant carried a StarCom, allowing her to send messages right across the United Nations if necessary. Admiral Davidson would get to watch as Triumphant engaged the mystery foe and hopefully knocked them back, hard. If they could just burn through a fleet carrier and her squadron as effectively as they’d taken out an assault carrier, the United Nations might be in some trouble.



    “I don’t need to warn you of just how vital it is to preserve our operating capability,” Davidson added, “so I want you to understand this. If it is impossible to hold the system or inflict significant losses on the enemy, you are to jump out and abandon the colony worlds to their fate. Do you understand me?”



    Paul stared at him. The United Nations Naval Service existed to protect the human race. It’s officers and crew put aside their nationalist beliefs and worked together to safeguard the entire human race. The Navy’s honour depended upon protecting as many worlds as possible, rather than unthinking service to the largest and most powerful worlds in the United Nations. To be ordered to withdraw, to abandon citizens to the hands of an unknown enemy, went against the Navy’s entire ethos. And yet there was no choice. It took a year to build an assault carrier, thirteen months to produce a fleet carrier. Davidson was right. They didn't dare take additional losses.



    “I understand, Admiral,” Paul said. It left a bad taste in his mouth to accept those orders, without even logging a protest, but he understood. “Has there been any word on reinforcements?”



    “The Grand Admiral has promised us everything he can scrape up, but right now every planetary government is screaming for protection,” Davidson said, sourly. “It’s going to be worse when the news breaks openly – people are already asking questions in the media. You know how those vultures take something and blow it up out of all proportion.”



    He shook his head. “Good luck, Paul,” he concluded. “And remember what I said.”



    Paul nodded and closed the channel. “Order the CAG and the Operations Officer to my stateroom,” he ordered, “and then order the squadron to prepare for a jump to Cadiz. We have an operation to plan.”
     
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  9. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Six



    New Marseilles

    24th March 2435



    The refugee camp was about as well organised as a refugee camp could be, which wasn't very much at all. Most of the refugees wanted to flee further from Paris, while the farmers – who made up much of the militia – were equally determined not to let them devastate their fields and crops in a desperate search for food. The wounded were being treated, but the medical supplies had run out long ago, leaving the wounded to suffer and die – or heal – on their own.



    Thomas watched from his position on the hilltop as the militia struggled to remain in control, shaking his head bitterly. Such scenes weren't supposed to exist in the United Nations, not now that the UNNS provided peace and security to the human race. Natural disasters could be avoided, or if necessary supplies and assistance could be flown in from other star systems – but as far as they could tell the aliens had taken out all of the other cities on New Marseilles as well. If they had managed to wipe out the fishing boats as well, feeding the refugees would have become a great deal harder. As it was, the only thing preventing a full-scale collapse was the food from the fishing boats, who were docking at a secluded cove down from the city. Paris itself was still a burning wreck.



    He looked up into the darkening sky and wondered just what – if anything – the aliens were doing. They’d seen pieces of debris falling into the planet’s atmosphere ever since the first attack, but try as he might he had been unable to convince himself that the aliens had taken heavy losses in the fighting. Where were the aliens? New Marseilles was a big planet and it was quite possible that they’d landed on the other side of the globe, yet Thomas was fairly sure that they would have to deal with the remainder of the human population sooner or later. And if he’d been invading an alien world, he’d have moved as quickly as possible.



    They'd picked up nothing on their sensors and the planet’s communications network was completely down. If the aliens were exchanging messages, they hadn't been able to pick them up, suggesting that they used laser communication exclusively. Or maybe they had moved on, heading further into the United Nations. His mind insisted on producing pictures of the aliens hammering Capricorn or Washington, Britannia or Edo...or even Earth herself. Who knew just how powerful the aliens were? Maybe they had enough ships to hit all of the major fleet bases at once. And if they were that powerful, they wouldn’t even need to start mopping up the smaller colonies until they had finished with Earth and the older colonies.



    He hissed suddenly as his audio processors picked up a faint noise in the distance, heading towards the refugee camp. A faint hum, like the noise of a vehicle – and there were few vehicles left on New Marseilles. Few human vehicles, at least...he shunted an audio-discrimination program into priority mode as he woke the other Marines, motioning for them to take up watch positions around the hilltop. The alien craft was coming in over the ocean...



    “There,” Stewart hissed. Thomas followed the sniper’s finger and saw...something moving against the darkening sky. It was hard to be sure, even with his enhanced eyesight, but it looked around the same size as a standard landing craft, like the ones the Marines used when they wanted to drop straight into hostile territory. But every Marine landing was escorted by missiles, sensor jammers and countless other tricks to make detecting and destroying the actual landing craft a difficult task. The aliens seemed to be coming in fat and happy, secure in the knowledge that there was little the human race could do to stop them. They were probably right, he knew, and cursed them under his breath.



    “There’s two of them,” Andrew muttered. “Both of them are heading right for the refugee camp.”



    Thomas looked down towards the colonial militia positions around the camp. Perrine had insisted on helping his people and Thomas hadn't been able to convince him otherwise, even though a cold calculation suggested that most of the refugees would die within the week. Some of the wounded were so badly hurt that the doctors had been forced to end their suffering by killing them, something that would have shocked Thomas if there had been any other choice. No, the militia were unlikely to deter the aliens – and committing the Marines to the defence of the refugee camp would only cause their deaths too. His duty to the UN was to remain alive and free, observing the alien activities on the planet until the Navy organised a relief force and liberated the planet. The information they would pick up might just provide the key to defeating the aliens. It was a thought that didn't provide any comfort at all.



    The alien craft closed in rapidly, their antigravity fields clearly a generation or two more advanced than the best the UN could produce. They were surprisingly beautiful, looking almost like silver fish hanging in the air rather than the blocky, functional appearance of UN landing craft. Just for a moment, he cursed the fact that they had met humanity as enemies, rather than friends. There was a great deal the human race could learn from these creatures.



    He looked back at the refugee camp as the refugees started to panic, scattering in all directions in the hopes of finding safety. Most people were sheep in disasters, he reminded himself as he shook his head; they wouldn't think logically, but run around like headless chickens. One of the RockRats he’d met had once pointed out that this produced useless bags of flesh, but almost all of the RockRats grew up in asteroid colonies, where a single mistake could mean instant death. Their children learned responsibility right from birth and never stopped learning. Space was utterly unforgiving to those who made mistakes. So was the military life, at least for junior officers and their men.



    “They’re just hanging there,” Aiden said, puzzled. “What on Earth do they want?”



    The alien craft seemed to drift back slightly...and then a brilliant beam of light stabbed down from the lead craft, almost blinding Thomas before his augmented eyes adapted to the sudden light. It struck the ground in the middle of the refugee camp and vaporised a dozen humans who had been wounded and waiting to see the doctors. A moment later, the beam began to slice across the ground, ripping the camp and its inhabitants to shreds. The other alien craft opened fire a second later, pummelling the militia positions on the outskirts of the camp. Thomas watched as the militia opened fire on the craft, knowing that it wouldn't be enough to save their people. Two minutes after the aliens had opened fire, the refugee camp was nothing more than ashes on the ground and the militia had been completely wiped out.



    “Those...murdering...bastards,” Andrew said. He sounded shocked; they were all shocked. Outside of the most unpleasant pirates and some of the Magana Warlords, no one had carried out such an atrocity for centuries. Nearly five hundred humans had been wiped out by the aliens, who chose to remain unseen. “Those fucking...”



    “That will do,” Thomas said, sharply. Right now, there was no way to know what the aliens were going to do next, but if total extermination was their goal he suspected that they would head towards the farms and obliterate them. Even if the farmers had the sense to abandon their fields and hide in the countryside, the aliens wouldn't have much difficulty wiping out the crops and starving most of the remaining colonists. “Keep recording the scene and let me know if they start advancing towards us.”



    “We should stop them,” Aiden said, just loud enough to verge on insubordination. “We have the HVMs...”



    “And they have the orbiting starships,” Thomas snapped. It was hard to blame Aiden and his brother for wanting to hit back at the aliens, but launching a single HVM would announce their presence for all to see. They might as well don red shirts and invite the aliens to kill them all at once. “We watch, we record – and we get revenge later.”



    The first alien craft was drifting down towards the ground, finally landing on the burned remains of the refugee camp and hundreds of humans. Thomas watched carefully as a piece of the hull seemed to melt open, revealing a stream of light spilling out onto the ground before the first alien trooper stepped out of the craft. The Marines leaned forwards, their augmented eyes penetrating the darkness to get their first look at the aliens who had casually eliminated so many humans. Four more aliens appeared and surrounded their craft, an obvious security precaution. Thomas, who had carried out similar patrols himself, felt an odd moment of kinship with the aliens. He banished it a moment later. Whatever else could be said about the aliens, they were murderers who had killed millions of humans.



    They were short, squat humanoids, carrying large weapons that looked larger than they were. At first, Thomas wondered if they were naked, before realising that the pinkish matter he had mistaken for flesh was actually some form of biological armour. Below it, he caught glimpses of darker skin and dark eyes that seemed to flicker from side to side, never stopping for a second. The aliens were shorter than the average human, with stumpy legs that suggested that they were slower than any human, but judging by their arms they were quite possibly stronger. Thomas was hardly a weakling, yet those alien weapons looked too heavy for a single Marine to carry.



    “They look like heavy-worlders,” Andrew said. Thomas couldn't disagree. A handful of human worlds had significantly heavier gravity fields, enough to require the population to genetically alter themselves so they could live there safely. They’d undergone the modifications before the United Nations had banned large-scale genetic engineering, but that didn't stop them facing a considerable amount of discrimination on the lighter worlds. “You think that their gravity field is higher than ours?”



    “No way to know,” Thomas muttered back. More and more aliens were emerging from the craft, falling into patterns that suggested that they operated in groups of nine. It was difficult to tell which of them was in charge as they started to spread out, heading towards the remains of the militia positions, weapons at the ready. And then he spotted the alien commander, the person who had to be the alien commander. “I think that one there is the boss.”



    The alien was indistinguishable from his fellows – Thomas would assume that the aliens were all males until proven differently – but he carried no weapon and was surrounded by a dozen other alien soldiers, all carrying weapons of their own. Instead of a weapon, he had something that reassembled a computer terminal in one thuggish hand, tapping away at it to issue orders. It suggested that the aliens didn't use implants, unlike the human race, but he reminded himself not to take it for granted. The Sutra didn't use implants either, outside of their aristocratic bloodlines. They put too much power into the hands of the common man.



    They watched grimly as the aliens swept through the remains of the refugee camp and then headed down towards the city. Parts of Paris were still burning, but the aliens seemed to ignore the heat and just keep walking, poking their guns into every darkened corner. From time to time, shots rang out as the aliens located human survivors and ruthlessly eradicated them, cleansing the planet of its human population. Smaller groups walked along the coastline, supported by the hovering landing craft; every fishing boat they saw was simply wiped out by alien energy weapons. Thomas had no doubts about what they would do once they’d swept the entire city. They’d head inland to the farms and exterminate the farmers too.



    “I think we have trouble,” Stewart snapped, suddenly. “A group of bastards are trying to climb the hill.”



    Thomas nodded. The aliens didn't seem built for climbing the relatively easy hill that was sheltering the Marines, but they were advancing slowly with grim determination. It was impossible to tell if they had caught a sniff of the Marines or if they were simply searching the entire area, yet it didn't matter. The Marines could wipe out the alien patrol – they didn't seem anything like as capable as human forces on the ground – but the alien landing craft would simply wipe them out with its energy weapons, or call in a KEW strike from orbit. There was no way the aliens wouldn't have that technology. They were advanced enough to have been in space for hundreds of years.



    “We move down the far side of the hill and head north,” he ordered. They hadn't wasted the day, unlike the militia forces; they’d walked over the hill and the surrounding area long enough to know the ground fairly well. “And then we try and reach the farms to warn the population.”



    “We could leave the aliens a surprise,” Andrew suggested. “I could rig a grenade...”



    Thomas had already considered that possibility. “I think that that would betray our presence,” he said. Once the aliens knew that there was a military team observing them, they would hunt that team down ruthlessly – or call in saturation bombardment from their ships overhead. If they were detected, they’d make damn sure the aliens knew that they had been kissed, but it would be nothing more than kicking and scratching on the way to the gallows. “Let’s move.”



    One by one, the Marines slipped around the hill and down to a gully that had been carved out hundreds of years ago by rainfall. It provided shelter as the Marines scrambled down, watching carefully for alien troopers as they hunted for stragglers, but as far as Thomas could tell the aliens simply weren’t as good as humans on the ground. Or maybe they were just on a butcher and bolt mission, slaughtering as many humans as they could before leaving to the next world. There was no way to know just what was going through their alien minds.



    The territory beyond the hill was a swampy forest, one that Perrine had warned them was dangerous and normally off-limits. Thomas had surveyed it carefully and discovered that there were paths through it, as long as they walked single-file and kept a careful eye on where they put their feet. If the aliens followed them into the swamp, chances were that some of them would bog down and force their comrades to rescue them, rather than hunting human survivors. He looked up as he heard the sound of another alien craft slicing through the air and wondered, grimly, if it was going to the farms. There was nothing standing in their way.



    “I think they’ve reached the edges of their patrol pattern,” Stewart said, when they reached the far edge of the swamp. Peering back towards the aliens, Thomas suspected that Stewart was right; the aliens didn't seem interested in advancing more than a handful of kilometres past the city. Instead, they were merely setting up sensor nodes that would have to be disable or avoided if the Marines wanted to return to Paris. “You want to grab one of those things?”



    “Not yet,” Thomas said. The team caught their breath, wiped off the rest of the mud, and then followed him up another hidden path. There were roads between Paris and the farmland, but the aliens would probably be watching them – and using them for their own deployments. Or maybe they intended to use their command of the air to land forces ahead of the Marines, coming down on the farmers like the hammer of God. They might not be experienced now, but they’d learn. Human forces learned quickly and they dared not assume that the aliens would be any slower. “We’ll try to hack it later.”



    An hour later, they reached the first of the farms – and discovered that it was in ruins. The aliens had blasted the farmhouse and all five barns from the air, leaving the fields and crops untouched. Perhaps that suggested that they could eat the human crops – it wasn't impossible that their biochemistry might be similar to humanity’s – or perhaps they were reluctant to wreck more damage on the world than strictly necessary. Thomas slipped forward and studied the ruins, deciding that no one could have survived. But maybe they’d been smart enough to escape...



    He saw someone moving at the corner of his eye and spun around, lifting his rifle, only to see a young girl staring back at him. She couldn't have been more than fifteen years old, staring at him as if she expected the worst. Judging from her clothes, she was a farmer, probably the daughter of the man who had owned the wrecked farm.



    “It’s all right,” Thomas hissed. “I'm from the United Nations Marines. Are your parents still alive?”



    The girl pointed towards the orchards – and Thomas saw, with a smile, the concealed hatch hidden under the trees. Inside, he saw an older man watching him nervously, carrying a shotgun in one hand that wasn’t – quite – pointed in Thomas’s direction. Thomas shouldered his rifle and smiled tiredly at the man.



    “They’re going to be coming for you,” he said, once he’d outlined everything they’d seen since the destruction of the StarCom. The farmers had weapons, but he doubted that they could punch through the armour the aliens wore. They needed heavier weapons, like the railgun rifles the Marines carried. “You need to hide.”



    “Let them come,” the farmer said. “We hid under here when they attacked – but we won’t let them destroy the farm without a fight.”

     
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  10. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Six



    New Marseilles

    24th March 2435



    The refugee camp was about as well organised as a refugee camp could be, which wasn't very much at all. Most of the refugees wanted to flee further from Paris, while the farmers – who made up much of the militia – were equally determined not to let them devastate their fields and crops in a desperate search for food. The wounded were being treated, but the medical supplies had run out long ago, leaving the wounded to suffer and die – or heal – on their own.



    Thomas watched from his position on the hilltop as the militia struggled to remain in control, shaking his head bitterly. Such scenes weren't supposed to exist in the United Nations, not now that the UNNS provided peace and security to the human race. Natural disasters could be avoided, or if necessary supplies and assistance could be flown in from other star systems – but as far as they could tell the aliens had taken out all of the other cities on New Marseilles as well. If they had managed to wipe out the fishing boats as well, feeding the refugees would have become a great deal harder. As it was, the only thing preventing a full-scale collapse was the food from the fishing boats, who were docking at a secluded cove down from the city. Paris itself was still a burning wreck.



    He looked up into the darkening sky and wondered just what – if anything – the aliens were doing. They’d seen pieces of debris falling into the planet’s atmosphere ever since the first attack, but try as he might he had been unable to convince himself that the aliens had taken heavy losses in the fighting. Where were the aliens? New Marseilles was a big planet and it was quite possible that they’d landed on the other side of the globe, yet Thomas was fairly sure that they would have to deal with the remainder of the human population sooner or later. And if he’d been invading an alien world, he’d have moved as quickly as possible.



    They'd picked up nothing on their sensors and the planet’s communications network was completely down. If the aliens were exchanging messages, they hadn't been able to pick them up, suggesting that they used laser communication exclusively. Or maybe they had moved on, heading further into the United Nations. His mind insisted on producing pictures of the aliens hammering Capricorn or Washington, Britannia or Edo...or even Earth herself. Who knew just how powerful the aliens were? Maybe they had enough ships to hit all of the major fleet bases at once. And if they were that powerful, they wouldn’t even need to start mopping up the smaller colonies until they had finished with Earth and the older colonies.



    He hissed suddenly as his audio processors picked up a faint noise in the distance, heading towards the refugee camp. A faint hum, like the noise of a vehicle – and there were few vehicles left on New Marseilles. Few human vehicles, at least...he shunted an audio-discrimination program into priority mode as he woke the other Marines, motioning for them to take up watch positions around the hilltop. The alien craft was coming in over the ocean...



    “There,” Stewart hissed. Thomas followed the sniper’s finger and saw...something moving against the darkening sky. It was hard to be sure, even with his enhanced eyesight, but it looked around the same size as a standard landing craft, like the ones the Marines used when they wanted to drop straight into hostile territory. But every Marine landing was escorted by missiles, sensor jammers and countless other tricks to make detecting and destroying the actual landing craft a difficult task. The aliens seemed to be coming in fat and happy, secure in the knowledge that there was little the human race could do to stop them. They were probably right, he knew, and cursed them under his breath.



    “There’s two of them,” Andrew muttered. “Both of them are heading right for the refugee camp.”



    Thomas looked down towards the colonial militia positions around the camp. Perrine had insisted on helping his people and Thomas hadn't been able to convince him otherwise, even though a cold calculation suggested that most of the refugees would die within the week. Some of the wounded were so badly hurt that the doctors had been forced to end their suffering by killing them, something that would have shocked Thomas if there had been any other choice. No, the militia were unlikely to deter the aliens – and committing the Marines to the defence of the refugee camp would only cause their deaths too. His duty to the UN was to remain alive and free, observing the alien activities on the planet until the Navy organised a relief force and liberated the planet. The information they would pick up might just provide the key to defeating the aliens. It was a thought that didn't provide any comfort at all.



    The alien craft closed in rapidly, their antigravity fields clearly a generation or two more advanced than the best the UN could produce. They were surprisingly beautiful, looking almost like silver fish hanging in the air rather than the blocky, functional appearance of UN landing craft. Just for a moment, he cursed the fact that they had met humanity as enemies, rather than friends. There was a great deal the human race could learn from these creatures.



    He looked back at the refugee camp as the refugees started to panic, scattering in all directions in the hopes of finding safety. Most people were sheep in disasters, he reminded himself as he shook his head; they wouldn't think logically, but run around like headless chickens. One of the RockRats he’d met had once pointed out that this produced useless bags of flesh, but almost all of the RockRats grew up in asteroid colonies, where a single mistake could mean instant death. Their children learned responsibility right from birth and never stopped learning. Space was utterly unforgiving to those who made mistakes. So was the military life, at least for junior officers and their men.



    “They’re just hanging there,” Aiden said, puzzled. “What on Earth do they want?”



    The alien craft seemed to drift back slightly...and then a brilliant beam of light stabbed down from the lead craft, almost blinding Thomas before his augmented eyes adapted to the sudden light. It struck the ground in the middle of the refugee camp and vaporised a dozen humans who had been wounded and waiting to see the doctors. A moment later, the beam began to slice across the ground, ripping the camp and its inhabitants to shreds. The other alien craft opened fire a second later, pummelling the militia positions on the outskirts of the camp. Thomas watched as the militia opened fire on the craft, knowing that it wouldn't be enough to save their people. Two minutes after the aliens had opened fire, the refugee camp was nothing more than ashes on the ground and the militia had been completely wiped out.



    “Those...murdering...bastards,” Andrew said. He sounded shocked; they were all shocked. Outside of the most unpleasant pirates and some of the Magana Warlords, no one had carried out such an atrocity for centuries. Nearly five hundred humans had been wiped out by the aliens, who chose to remain unseen. “Those fucking...”



    “That will do,” Thomas said, sharply. Right now, there was no way to know what the aliens were going to do next, but if total extermination was their goal he suspected that they would head towards the farms and obliterate them. Even if the farmers had the sense to abandon their fields and hide in the countryside, the aliens wouldn't have much difficulty wiping out the crops and starving most of the remaining colonists. “Keep recording the scene and let me know if they start advancing towards us.”



    “We should stop them,” Aiden said, just loud enough to verge on insubordination. “We have the HVMs...”



    “And they have the orbiting starships,” Thomas snapped. It was hard to blame Aiden and his brother for wanting to hit back at the aliens, but launching a single HVM would announce their presence for all to see. They might as well don red shirts and invite the aliens to kill them all at once. “We watch, we record – and we get revenge later.”



    The first alien craft was drifting down towards the ground, finally landing on the burned remains of the refugee camp and hundreds of humans. Thomas watched carefully as a piece of the hull seemed to melt open, revealing a stream of light spilling out onto the ground before the first alien trooper stepped out of the craft. The Marines leaned forwards, their augmented eyes penetrating the darkness to get their first look at the aliens who had casually eliminated so many humans. Four more aliens appeared and surrounded their craft, an obvious security precaution. Thomas, who had carried out similar patrols himself, felt an odd moment of kinship with the aliens. He banished it a moment later. Whatever else could be said about the aliens, they were murderers who had killed millions of humans.



    They were short, squat humanoids, carrying large weapons that looked larger than they were. At first, Thomas wondered if they were naked, before realising that the pinkish matter he had mistaken for flesh was actually some form of biological armour. Below it, he caught glimpses of darker skin and dark eyes that seemed to flicker from side to side, never stopping for a second. The aliens were shorter than the average human, with stumpy legs that suggested that they were slower than any human, but judging by their arms they were quite possibly stronger. Thomas was hardly a weakling, yet those alien weapons looked too heavy for a single Marine to carry.



    “They look like heavy-worlders,” Andrew said. Thomas couldn't disagree. A handful of human worlds had significantly heavier gravity fields, enough to require the population to genetically alter themselves so they could live there safely. They’d undergone the modifications before the United Nations had banned large-scale genetic engineering, but that didn't stop them facing a considerable amount of discrimination on the lighter worlds. “You think that their gravity field is higher than ours?”



    “No way to know,” Thomas muttered back. More and more aliens were emerging from the craft, falling into patterns that suggested that they operated in groups of nine. It was difficult to tell which of them was in charge as they started to spread out, heading towards the remains of the militia positions, weapons at the ready. And then he spotted the alien commander, the person who had to be the alien commander. “I think that one there is the boss.”



    The alien was indistinguishable from his fellows – Thomas would assume that the aliens were all males until proven differently – but he carried no weapon and was surrounded by a dozen other alien soldiers, all carrying weapons of their own. Instead of a weapon, he had something that reassembled a computer terminal in one thuggish hand, tapping away at it to issue orders. It suggested that the aliens didn't use implants, unlike the human race, but he reminded himself not to take it for granted. The Sutra didn't use implants either, outside of their aristocratic bloodlines. They put too much power into the hands of the common man.



    They watched grimly as the aliens swept through the remains of the refugee camp and then headed down towards the city. Parts of Paris were still burning, but the aliens seemed to ignore the heat and just keep walking, poking their guns into every darkened corner. From time to time, shots rang out as the aliens located human survivors and ruthlessly eradicated them, cleansing the planet of its human population. Smaller groups walked along the coastline, supported by the hovering landing craft; every fishing boat they saw was simply wiped out by alien energy weapons. Thomas had no doubts about what they would do once they’d swept the entire city. They’d head inland to the farms and exterminate the farmers too.



    “I think we have trouble,” Stewart snapped, suddenly. “A group of bastards are trying to climb the hill.”



    Thomas nodded. The aliens didn't seem built for climbing the relatively easy hill that was sheltering the Marines, but they were advancing slowly with grim determination. It was impossible to tell if they had caught a sniff of the Marines or if they were simply searching the entire area, yet it didn't matter. The Marines could wipe out the alien patrol – they didn't seem anything like as capable as human forces on the ground – but the alien landing craft would simply wipe them out with its energy weapons, or call in a KEW strike from orbit. There was no way the aliens wouldn't have that technology. They were advanced enough to have been in space for hundreds of years.



    “We move down the far side of the hill and head north,” he ordered. They hadn't wasted the day, unlike the militia forces; they’d walked over the hill and the surrounding area long enough to know the ground fairly well. “And then we try and reach the farms to warn the population.”



    “We could leave the aliens a surprise,” Andrew suggested. “I could rig a grenade...”



    Thomas had already considered that possibility. “I think that that would betray our presence,” he said. Once the aliens knew that there was a military team observing them, they would hunt that team down ruthlessly – or call in saturation bombardment from their ships overhead. If they were detected, they’d make damn sure the aliens knew that they had been kissed, but it would be nothing more than kicking and scratching on the way to the gallows. “Let’s move.”



    One by one, the Marines slipped around the hill and down to a gully that had been carved out hundreds of years ago by rainfall. It provided shelter as the Marines scrambled down, watching carefully for alien troopers as they hunted for stragglers, but as far as Thomas could tell the aliens simply weren’t as good as humans on the ground. Or maybe they were just on a butcher and bolt mission, slaughtering as many humans as they could before leaving to the next world. There was no way to know just what was going through their alien minds.



    The territory beyond the hill was a swampy forest, one that Perrine had warned them was dangerous and normally off-limits. Thomas had surveyed it carefully and discovered that there were paths through it, as long as they walked single-file and kept a careful eye on where they put their feet. If the aliens followed them into the swamp, chances were that some of them would bog down and force their comrades to rescue them, rather than hunting human survivors. He looked up as he heard the sound of another alien craft slicing through the air and wondered, grimly, if it was going to the farms. There was nothing standing in their way.



    “I think they’ve reached the edges of their patrol pattern,” Stewart said, when they reached the far edge of the swamp. Peering back towards the aliens, Thomas suspected that Stewart was right; the aliens didn't seem interested in advancing more than a handful of kilometres past the city. Instead, they were merely setting up sensor nodes that would have to be disable or avoided if the Marines wanted to return to Paris. “You want to grab one of those things?”



    “Not yet,” Thomas said. The team caught their breath, wiped off the rest of the mud, and then followed him up another hidden path. There were roads between Paris and the farmland, but the aliens would probably be watching them – and using them for their own deployments. Or maybe they intended to use their command of the air to land forces ahead of the Marines, coming down on the farmers like the hammer of God. They might not be experienced now, but they’d learn. Human forces learned quickly and they dared not assume that the aliens would be any slower. “We’ll try to hack it later.”



    An hour later, they reached the first of the farms – and discovered that it was in ruins. The aliens had blasted the farmhouse and all five barns from the air, leaving the fields and crops untouched. Perhaps that suggested that they could eat the human crops – it wasn't impossible that their biochemistry might be similar to humanity’s – or perhaps they were reluctant to wreck more damage on the world than strictly necessary. Thomas slipped forward and studied the ruins, deciding that no one could have survived. But maybe they’d been smart enough to escape...



    He saw someone moving at the corner of his eye and spun around, lifting his rifle, only to see a young girl staring back at him. She couldn't have been more than fifteen years old, staring at him as if she expected the worst. Judging from her clothes, she was a farmer, probably the daughter of the man who had owned the wrecked farm.



    “It’s all right,” Thomas hissed. “I'm from the United Nations Marines. Are your parents still alive?”



    The girl pointed towards the orchards – and Thomas saw, with a smile, the concealed hatch hidden under the trees. Inside, he saw an older man watching him nervously, carrying a shotgun in one hand that wasn’t – quite – pointed in Thomas’s direction. Thomas shouldered his rifle and smiled tiredly at the man.



    “They’re going to be coming for you,” he said, once he’d outlined everything they’d seen since the destruction of the StarCom. The farmers had weapons, but he doubted that they could punch through the armour the aliens wore. They needed heavier weapons, like the railgun rifles the Marines carried. “You need to hide.”



    “Let them come,” the farmer said. “We hid under here when they attacked – but we won’t let them destroy the farm without a fight.”

     
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  11. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Seven



    Capricorn

    27th March 2435



    “Jump!”



    Rubicon seemed to shudder wildly, before jumping through flux space and materialising on the outskirts of the Capricorn system. Janine clung to the command chair as the secondary shudders ran through the ship, biting her lip to stop herself from throwing up. The wear and tear on the flux drive had only grown worse in the three days they’d spent jumping to Capricorn, reaching the point where the Chief Engineer had strongly suggested simply removing and replacing the drive once they reached a shipyard. Janine couldn't disagree with his suggestion, even though the beancounters at the Admiralty probably would. Flux drives were expensive.



    “Status report,” she snapped. Her worst nightmare, the one that had haunted her sleep ever since escaping New Marseilles, was that the aliens would have beaten them to the Capricorn system. With Rubicon in such poor condition, it was unlikely that they would escape a second time. “Who holds this system?”



    There was a pause as the tactical systems, such as they were, scanned for IFF codes. “The UN is still in control here,” McLaughlin reported. “I’m picking up automated challenges from observation platforms, demanding our ID codes. They know they’re at war.”



    “Send them our codes and request immediate assistance,” Janine ordered, flatly. Standard operations procedures dictated that assistance was to be sent to any ship that declared an emergency, but this was wartime. The UNNS ships in the system would be suspicious of any starship that purported to come from an occupied system. “And then dump the tactical recordings to the analysts, along with your conclusions. They need that data ASAP.”



    “Aye, Commander,” McLaughlin said. “I’m transmitting the data now.”



    Janine nodded, forcing herself to relax. Flux drives emitted a splash of flux particles, which travelled at FTL speeds; the planet and the orbiting fleet would have detected Rubicon’s arrival, even if they didn't know who was in command. They should have dispatched starships to investigate at once, just to ensure that the newcomer wasn't an alien spy. But this was wartime...



    The tactical console sounded an alert. “Five starships just jumped in, right on top of us,” McLaughlin reported. “Their IFF codes mark their leader as Beagle.”



    “Get me a private link to her Captain,” Janine said. Captain Lafarge and her had been in the same class at the Luna Academy. They might be suspicious of a single ship escaping an alien-held system, but she knew things that would prove that she wasn't in alien hands. “Harvey – long time no see.”



    “Janine,” Captain Lafarge said. “What the hell happened to you?”



    “Alien attack,” Janine said, shortly. “Rubicon is falling apart at the seams; we need aid and assistance right this minute.”



    “Right,” Lafarge said. “And what happened on the last night of the proms?”



    Janine had to smile. “We fell asleep halfway through the performance because we were exhausted after our exams,” she said. It hadn't been funny at the time, but in hindsight it had had its amusing side. “And then we were woken up by one of the janitors, who made a dozen snide remarks about us making love in a private box.”



    “Welcome home, Janine,” Lafarge said. He sounded relieved. If Rubicon had been a Trojan horse, his ships were well within engagement range. “I believe that the Admiral will want to see you as soon as possible.”



    “Send my ship the aid I need and then I can take one of the ships to the base,” Janine said. Lafarge was right, but she wasn't going to abandon Rubicon until she was sure that her crew had the aid they needed. “It was hellish back there, Captain. Did the picket ships make it?”



    “You’re the first survivor to reach Capricorn,” Lafarge admitted. “And we know they took Cartage, Casanova and Ramadan too. Your ship is the only known surviving ship.”



    Janine blanched. The aliens were advancing fast – and the UN had had no warning of what it was facing, at least until Rubicon had arrived. “Take a look at our tactical records,” she said. “That should tell you just what is in store for all of us.”



    ***

    Janine had met Admiral Davidson twice, but there was no reason to expect that he would remember a mere Commander at the two annual dinners he’d held for his subordinates. He was a short man, going bald despite access to longevity treatments that would prolong his life to around two hundred years old, with impressive political contacts. Some rumours suggested that he would be rotated back to the Admiralty, perhaps to the Grand Admiralship itself, but no one knew for sure. The political catfight over who would succeed Grand Admiral Ivanovo was sure to be intense.



    “Welcome home,” Davidson said, as soon as she was escorted into his office. At least he seemed to be taking the alien attack seriously. “I understand that it was bad...?”



    “They opened fire,” Janine said. Now she was at Capricorn, she felt almost weak at the knees, giddy with relief. “Completely without provocation, they opened fire and tore our ships apart.”



    She cleared her throat, forcing herself to concentrate. “We were completely unprepared for their weapons, Admiral,” she added, grimly. “My tactical officer did a basic analysis; he believes that the aliens will seek to close the range as much as possible, forcing us to face them where their energy weapons can burn through our hulls. And if we fire missiles from long range, they can just burn them out of space.”



    “My analysis team is running through the records now,” Davidson said. He looked over at her, studying her thoughtfully. “I’ve taken the liberty of putting you and your crew in for the Medal of Honour, a medal you thoroughly deserve after making it here. We had no idea what we were facing until now.”



    He smiled at her expression. “For what it’s worth, I don’t believe that you had any choice, but to jump out and run,” he added. “Some people will probably accuse you of lacking moral fibre in leaving the battle...just ignore them. They weren't there and they probably didn't even bother to access the basic report. The media will probably want to talk to you, but you can tell them where to go if you want.



    “With the presumed death of Captain Yu, I am confirming your command of Rubicon and promoting you to Captain. I know, Rubicon is in bad shape at the moment, but my yardmaster tells me that he thinks he can simply swap out most of the bad components and repair the damage to your ship. One advantage of facing the alien weapons is that damage was limited outside the targeted zone. Most of our ships are modular to allow such swapping out to actually work...”



    “I’m glad to hear it,” Janine mumbled. In truth, she had expected Rubicon to be scrapped – but if the yardmaster thought he could repair the cruiser, she would be glad to let him. Rubicon had saved their lives and she didn't want to lose the cruiser so quickly. “I...I don’t know what happened to the Captain.”



    Davidson frowned. “I dispatched picket ships to all of the targeted systems,” he said. “It’s confirmed; they used nukes on Casanova, obliterating the settlements from orbit. We must assume that they did the same to New Marseilles. So far, they haven’t used anything beyond KEW weapons against Cartage and Ramadan, but that may change.”



    Janine shook her head, puzzled. “Why use nukes on one world – perhaps two – and not on all of them?”



    “Unknown,” Davidson said. “I don’t think it’s a population question. Casanova’s population was greater than Cartage, but lesser than Ramadan. The best guess is that they want to settle Casanova themselves and don’t really care about the other worlds, apart from making sure that they can't threaten their rear.”



    “They must be confident of victory,” Janine said, bitterly. Back on Earth, there had been another regime that had been so confident of victory that it had started to commit genocide without actually winning the ear first. But they’d lost the war and now everyone knew their crimes. “Or maybe they are just trying to provoke us.”



    “It’s possible,” Davidson agreed. He glanced down at a datapad. “I have a tactical briefing in two hours for senior officers – you’re welcome to attend. You’re also invited to dinner tonight – my officers will want to pick your brains.”



    Janine nodded. Any invitation from a senior officer was a command, however it was phrased. Dinner seemed absurd after everything she’d been through, but it wasn't as if she could do anything else until Rubicon was repaired, ready to return to battle. If the Admiral thought that his officers would benefit from hearing the news directly from her, who was she to disagree?



    “Yes, sir,” she said, recognising the dismissal. “Does Earth know about the crisis by now?”



    “The Grand Admiral has put the entire Navy on alert,” Davidson confirmed. “So far, the media has only picked up hints, but it won’t be long before those vultures know everything. And then the feeding frenzy will really start.”



    He shrugged. “See to your ship and crew, Captain,” he added. “It won’t be long before the aliens come for us.”



    ***

    The tactical briefing compartment was large enough to hold nearly a thousand officers – and, the last time she’d visited Capricorn, it had been full to bursting. Now, most of the officers were attending via hologram, unwilling to leave their ships in case the enemy – the unnamed enemy – decided to attack the Capricorn system. It was only two jumps from Ramadan or Casanova to Capricorn; there was no reason why the enemy would delay their advance longer than a few days. The longer they waited, the better-prepared the UN would be.



    “Attention on deck,” Davidson snapped, and the chatter died down. “Commander Parkinson of Tactical Analysis will present the results of her department’s studies.”



    Commander Gillian Parkinson was a young girl, sidelined into Tactical Analysis – according to her file – because she might have been a genius, but she lacked the discipline to live on a starship as a line officer. There was no questioning her genius, however, and she had a growing reputation as a superb analyst. If anyone could study the files and parse out an alien weakness, it was her.



    “Principle analysis noted that the alien weapons appear to be incredibly powerful energy beams, termed ‘death rays’ by Commander McLaughlin,” Gillian said. That, at least, was obvious from the records. “Studies of Rubicon’s hull suggest that the weapons burn through hull metal with terrifying speed, but don’t seem to induce fission or anything that causes the effect to spread. The destruction of Invincible, at least in part, suggests that the beams detonated supplies of starfighter weapons and caused one of the fusion plants to blow. These weapons are astonishingly powerful, but survivable.



    “Judging from the range they chose to engage Admiral Hanson and his task force, the weapons are also surprisingly short-ranged. Our best guess is that the energy fields they use to generate the weapons fade fairly quickly, which indicates that the aliens have to close to mid-range missile range to engage our ships. On the downside, they can use their weapons as a form of point defence, sweeping our missiles out of the sky with ease. There are no indications that any of the alien ships were damaged during the engagement at New Marseilles.”



    Janine felt the rustle that ran through the compartment. They had all grown up in a universe where the United Nations Naval Service was the most powerful military force in the known galaxy, yet five alien craft of unknown origin had ripped apart an assault carrier and its escorts within minutes. Invincible hadn't even had a chance to launch her fighters before the aliens took out the launch bays, which was interesting. It suggested that they had some reason to fear fighters.



    “What we have determined is that the alien craft appear to have a weak spot,” Gillian continued. “They appear to be capable of firing from any point on their hull, apart from the very rear. We don't know for sure, because they never needed to fire from the rear, but looking at their formation it suggests that they intended to cover each other in case we got into a position to take advantage of their weakness. It seems likely that starfighters can slip into the blind spot and engage an enemy vessel from the rear.”



    There was a long pause. “To complicate matters, it appears that the aliens possess superior stealth technology and drive technology. Their drive system is considerably more advanced than our own, suggesting that it may not be possible to prevent the aliens from closing into firing range, should they decide to press the issue. We saw no sign of starfighters, but they should certainly possess the technology to produce them; we have to warn that it is quite likely that they will deploy them in later battles.”



    “But the Polis can't have starfighters,” one of the Captains – a man Janine didn't know – pointed out. The spider-like aliens were simply too large to fit into a standard starfighter cockpit; besides, they were intensely social beings and hated being alone. “Maybe these aliens are the same.”



    “There’s no way to know,” Gillian admitted. “All we can really do is warn that they may have starfighters, ones more advanced than our own. Given their technology, we cannot assume that we have seen all of their surprises. Their flux drives may be more capable than ours, allowing them to break the five light year limit. They may have weapons that work at longer ranges than we’ve seen. There’s no way to know until we encounter them.”



    And whoever encounters them may not last long enough to return home, Janine thought, coldly. Admiral Davidson took the stand and looked around, grimly.



    “You’ve all seen the records from New Marseilles,” he said, flatly. “Admiral Hanson and his task force were caught by surprise – and almost wiped out. But now we know what the aliens can do and we intend to take advantage of our starfighters – which may be our sole advantage – and other technology to convince the aliens that they have messed with the wrong race. We will stop them. We have to stop them.”



    He tapped a control and the images from Casanova appeared in front of them. “This was once a proud colony, home to five million humans,” he said. “Now, the unknowns have targeted human cities and destroyed them. They have almost completely wiped out the human population on Casanova – and there is nothing stopping them from doing the same to Cartage or Ramadan. We do not know what conditions on the surface are like; we don't know if they have landed an occupation force, or if they have simply decided to ignore the humans until they have won the war. We do know that they have murdered five million human civilians, people who could not hope to defend themselves.



    “I don't know why this war started. I don't know if they intend to conquer us, or if they have been given offense in some manner. And I don’t care. Whatever the origin of this war, they have made it clear that human populations are expendable, to be eradicated whenever they choose. There is no way to surrender – and even if we did surrender, what guarantee would we have that the surrender would be honoured?



    “It's been nearly forty-five years since we defeated the Magana and reduced their empire to a single world. Since then, we have enjoyed the luxury of peace and power, the freedom to decide matters carefully, calmly – and morally. That luxury ended when the aliens attacked New Marseilles; right now, we are in a war for survival. We have no choice, but to assume the worst – and fight until we beat them or they beat us. There are no signs that we can share the same universe with them.



    “This is going to be bad. Worse than the Dispute, worse than the Magana War, worse even than the Wrecker War before we made it out of our own star system. But we are going to keep fighting, we are going to hold the line against these bastards and we are going to win. Never doubt that we will win.”



    The compartment erupted into cheers. Janine was surprised; she wouldn't have expected such a speech from Admiral Davidson. But he was right; this was going to be a bitter war, no matter the cause. She’d admitted as much to her own crew.



    She watched as the Admiral briefly discussed command assignments. Small units would be dispatched to cover the other systems in the sector, while the main body of the fleet would remain concentrated at Capricorn, ready to advance forward to meet the enemy or stand off an assault on Capricorn itself. She had no illusions – and none of the other officers had them any longer – about how hard it would be to stop an alien offensive. Those fearsome energy weapons would tear human ships apart like paper, if they got into range. And remaining outside the alien range might be impossible.



    Shaking her head, she pulled her datapad out of her pocket and checked on the yardmaster’s report. Rubicon would be in the yard for two weeks, but she could be repaired and put back on the front line. The Admiral had apparently already authorised the work, either out of a sense that allowing Rubicon to be scrapped would be another alien victory, or out of a belief that he needed as many starships as possible.



    The Admiral strode out of the compartment, followed by the holograms flickering out of existence. Janine watched them go, wondering – grimly – just how many of them would be alive by the end of the week. Admiral Hanson’s force had been wiped out – and few task forces were more powerful. Forewarned might not be forearmed when the aliens were so terrifyingly advanced.
     
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  12. kom78

    kom78 OH NOES !!

    Thankfully Im back at work today and was able to catch up, home sux without an internet connection, really enjoying this one
     
  13. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Eight



    Luna

    28th March 2435



    The United Nations Security Council met in an isolated chamber buried under the lunar soil, several kilometres from the General Assembly. It’s precise location was classified, which was all that had stopped the peace protesters from gathering outside it – as they had outside the General Assembly, the Admiralty and a dozen other buildings. Enough had leaked out over the past few days to convince the public that the United Nations was going to war, even though no one outside the military fully understood just how dire the situation was. Nor, Ivanovo reflected, did they realise that the UNNS didn't want the war. No one who had seen war wanted to see more of it.



    He glanced around the chamber at the ambassadors from a dozen different worlds and political blocs; between them, they paid nearly eighty percent of the UN’s running costs. The other sources of funds – the limited taxes on interstellar shipping and the StarCom network – simply didn't provide enough to keep the institution running, although they did provide a limited stability if one or more of the great powers chose to withhold funds for several months. Between them, they effectively ran the United Nations, something that the smaller blocs and planets resented hugely. But they wouldn't share power unless the costs were also shared. Humanity had learned that bitter lesson before the Traders had arrived at Earth to offer humanity the keys to the stars.



    “The chamber is sealed,” the Secretary-General announced. Like all of the major posts, it rotated between the great powers, even though it was little more than a sinecure for a major Ambassador. The Secretary-General chaired the meetings and little else. He didn’t even get a vote. “This meeting of the United Nations Security Council is hereby called to order.”



    There was a pause. Most of the representatives would have heard rumours as well as the terse official war warning from the UNNS, but they wouldn’t know everything. The UNNS had refrained from broadcasting anything while the Ambassadors gathered in the chamber, a tradition that the Ambassadors resented, but refused to alter. It would have given those who lived closer to Earth a major advantage in the political struggles to determine the course of the war – if they could determine the course of the war. Very little from the analysts have been reassuring. In fact, the reports had been downright terrifying.



    “Grand Admiral Ivanovo has the stand,” the Secretary-General continued. “Admiral, if you would...?”



    Ivanovo stepped forward. “As you were informed, there was a hostile alien contact five days ago at New Marseilles,” he said. “The contact was only briefly reported before we lost contact, indicating that the StarCom in orbit around the planet was destroyed – along with the entire squadron. Since then, three more worlds have been attacked – and one of the starships from the original squadron has returned to Capricorn. We now know that the situation has become graver than the attack on Shepherd’s Folly or the Battle of New Tyson.”



    He watched as the Ambassadors exchanged glances. Shepherd’s Folly had been destroyed by the Communist faction in the Sutra Civil War, caught in the crossfire between the two forces. It had convinced the UN to offer its support to the Royalists in the Sutra Empire. And New Tyson had been a joint colony world with the Polis before the Magana had bombarded it from orbit before landing to exterminate the remaining colonists. It had dragged the United Nations into the longest and bloodiest war in its history.



    “The aliens posses technology significantly more advanced than our own,” he continued. “They were able to destroy two squadrons before their commanders were able to withdraw or adapt to face the alien technology. Only one ship survived to return to Capricorn. I should not have to remind you that that indicates that the aliens are vastly more powerful and dangerous than our previous threats. Observe.”



    He used his implants to activate the room’s automated processor and the holographic image of the Battle of New Marseilles appeared in front of them. The Ambassadors watched in horror as the alien ships arrived, destroyed the StarCom and then wiped out the entire UN squadron in orbit around the planet. By the time UNS Rubicon jumped out, the remainder of the squadron had been destroyed. The UNNS had lost smaller ships in the golden age between the Magana War and the present day, but no carrier had been lost in combat since the final battles around the Magana homeworld. And the analysts had suggested that the aliens, even if they didn't deploy starfighters themselves, were well aware of what they could do. They’d certainly acted quickly to prevent Invincible from deploying her birds.



    “The time between firing the first shot and the destruction of the squadron was five minutes, seventeen seconds,” Ivanovo said. The Ambassadors looked deeply shocked. They’d all grown up in a universe where they were the lords and masters of creation. No other race could match the UN’s weapons and fleets, not until now. Even the WE WHO ARE would have thought twice about picking a fight with the human race. But the newcomers hadn't even hesitated before engaging the UN squadron at New Marseilles. “That battle was considerably shorter than any other engagement involving a comparable squadron.”



    The Ambassador from Ego broke the silence. “But why?” He demanded. “What do they want?”



    “Unknown,” Ivanovo admitted. The analysts hadn’t been able to offer any suggestions either, apart from the vague possibility that they’d found the First Contact package insulting somehow. Ivanovo didn't find that too likely; logically, the aliens should share humanity’s understanding of mathematics and the surrounding physical laws, even if they were too alien to recognise humanity as an intelligent race. “As far as we can tell, they simply jumped in, closed to engagement range and opened fire, without provocation.”



    “It is possible that they were attacked by a Rogue World or a Sooner colony,” the Ambassador from New Paris suggested. He looked deeply shocked; New Marseilles had been founded by the French bloc and would have eventually given them more influence in the General Assembly. They’d been careful to ensure that even formal internal independence wouldn't cut the ties between New Marseilles and the older French-ethnic worlds. “They might have believed the human race to be monsters if their first contact was with a bunch of pirates.”



    “It’s possible,” Ivanovo agreed. Personally, he would have thought that the aliens would at least have tried to make contact first, just to confirm that the entire United Nations was as evil as any pirate crew. If they thought that something the size of the UN was governed by pirates, they might be justified in launching a preemptive strike. But there was no way to know for sure. “I believe that we will certainly attempt to establish communications, but we cannot count on coming to terms with them.”



    He hesitated. “Admiral Davidson ordered pickets to carry out fly-through missions,” he added. “They confirm that both New Marseilles and Casanova were nuked from orbit by the aliens, exterminating most of their civilian population. The pickets were unable to establish any links with the remainder of human forces on the surface. We may have to assume that the populations of both worlds have been completely eradicated by the aliens.”



    There was a long moment as that sunk in. “Both Ramadan and Cartage haven’t been nuked, but at the last report the aliens were still holding positions in orbit and all planetary defence centres – along with spaceports and communicators – have been destroyed. We must assume that those worlds are being preserved as hostages, although we don't understand why – if that is the case – the aliens struck either of the depopulated worlds.”



    “Maybe they want the worlds themselves,” the Ambassador from New Moscow grated. “Admiral, we need a honest opinion. Can we beat these aliens?”



    “Maybe,” Ivanovo admitted. “Their death rays – as the analysts have started to call them – give them a considerable advantage against our capital ships. In order to launch missiles at their hulls, we would have to close to ranges that would allow them to burn our ships out of the sky. On the other hand, we have no idea how well they will be able to cope with starfighters – and now we know that they can do something, we can work on duplicating their technology for ourselves. Knowing that something is possible is half the battle of duplicating it.



    “I’ve ordered the Navy to concentrate on reinforcing Admiral Davidson and setting up fallback lines along the direct route to Earth. In two weeks, an additional two thousand starships and hundreds of thousands of starfighters will be on their way to the border. At the same time, Survey Command has been ordered to start probing the area of space we believe the aliens to originate. Once we locate some of their worlds, we will be in a better position to take the fight to them. Until then, we must stand on the defensive.



    “The real problem is that the aliens may have captured copies of interstellar navigational charts from the occupied worlds,” he concluded. “Standard procedure is to wipe and then destroy computer cores on military starships, but it is possible that the aliens have recovered interstellar charts from civilian facilities on the ground. If that is the case, they know the location of our major worlds and military installations. They can use that data to determine when and where to hit next.”



    There was a long silence. “But surely that wouldn't be enough to allow them to invade the core worlds,” the Ambassador from Britannia said. “And the UN is huge. They’d realise just how large a civilisation they were fighting.”



    “They’d know where to start looking for our worlds,” Ivanovo said, grimly. And if they thought about the underpinnings of the human economy, he added in the privacy of his own mind, they might realise where to hit to cause maximum pain. “And we know nothing about the size of their empire. We might be fighting an enemy race that spans half the galaxy.”



    It wasn't too likely, he knew, but the thought had concentrated a few minds. “I would like to declare a formal state of military emergency across the entire United Nations and start commandeering civilian shipping to evacuate threatened worlds,” he concluded. “Right now, there are millions of humans on the front line who we cannot protect, not without exposing limited forces to superior alien ships. I want to evacuate most of those worlds, allowing us to concentrate our forces on the more important systems.”



    The debate raged for nearly an hour. Ivanovo listened, without saying anything, as the politicians argued, trying to put together a compromise they could take to the General Assembly and stuff down its collective throat. Some of them were worried that granting the UNNS blanket powers – as laid down in the procedures for a state of emergency – would come back to haunt them, others worried that pulling freighters off the interstellar trade routes would cause a major economic depression. That was a more significant concern, Ivanovo had to admit, but once the United Nations realised that the first clashes between humanity and its newest foe had been utter defeats, there was likely to be an economic depression anyway. The first rumblings could already be seen as rumours spread across the UN, rumours that were nowhere near as bad as the truth.



    Eventually, they put together a compromise. “You will have your state of emergency, Admiral,” the Ambassador from New Washington stated, “but you will only have limited powers to commandeer shipping, mainly in the threatened regions of space. We cannot offer you anything else.”



    “I understand,” Ivanovo said. It was stupid, but politics took precedence over everything, even fighting a war against an alien race that seemed to be bent on genocide. “It will have to be announced in the General Assembly, of course.”



    “We have already summoned the General Assembly to meet in two hours,” the Ambassador said, grimly. He wasn’t looking forward to the coming catfight either. The Security Council might have the collective power to ride roughshod over the rest of the General Assembly, but it wouldn’t stop the weaker powers from complaining, filibustering and otherwise delaying matters for several hours. “After that, the footage from New Marseilles can be formally released.”



    “Of course,” Ivanovo agreed, dryly. “You may also wish to notify your worlds that we might have to call up the self-defence forces. This war is going to be long and nasty.”



    He watched the politicians as they filed out of the chamber, heading to the interstellar communications node so they could pass on the information to their homeworlds before anything else. Once, it would have bothered him to watch them taking political advantage of the most disastrous military encounter in the United Nation’s long history, but he was more cynical these days. Besides, he needed to keep them all focused on the threat. No matter what he’d said to them, and what the analysts had suggested, he knew that the next encounter between humanity and the unknowns was likely to be just as bad. At some point, the disparity in technology would be so insurmountable that all the lesser race could do was die bravely. He couldn't avoid wondering if humanity had finally encountered someone so much more advanced than themselves that the entire race was doomed.



    Shaking his head, he stood up and headed to the fresher. He’d be needed in the General Assembly, once the lesser politicians realised what had happened. Maybe they’d take the threat more seriously. Most of them only had one world to lose.



    ***

    The media had been, technically, barred from the emergency session of the General Assembly, but Hind had managed to call in a couple of favours and accompany the Ambassador from Medina as he walked into the chamber. Each of the Ambassadors was entitled to bring two assistants with him and none of the guards questioned why he’d chosen to bring a woman they hadn't seen before to the session. Inside the vast chamber, she sat down behind the Ambassador and watched as it filled up with the representatives of humanity’s worlds and nations. The thought had once thrilled her before she realised that the General Assembly was dominated by a set of power blocs that could force whatever they wanted through the Assembly, if they saw fit to exercise their power. But even with their vast power, there were limits; there were times when she wondered if the General Assembly was little more than a rubber stamp for planetary politics.



    In the centre of the room, the Secretary-General gavelled for silence and activated the holographic display. Hind watched in horror as alien starships – strikingly advanced alien starships, shaped like massive teardrops – systematically tore a UN squadron apart. The Grand Admiral’s brief announcement that two worlds had been nuked, effectively depopulated, by the aliens fell on a terrified chamber. Quite a few of the Ambassadors represented worlds that might be under threat.



    Pushed by the Security Council, the declaration of a state of emergency went through the chamber in record time, with only a handful of Ambassadors rising to declare their opposition to the declaration. Hind rolled her eyes at some of their objections, wondering just how they hoped to get re-elected by their people. The media’s rumours would turn to cold dispassionate facts once the footage from New Marseilles had been released, prompting panic all over the United Nations. If the aliens could obliterate a UN task force in five minutes, how long would it take them to penetrate the inner colonies and reach Earth? Logically, it would take them upwards of three months to reach the core worlds, but what if they had a better flux drive than humanity?



    The only measure that showed promise was a suggestion from the Ambassador from Terra Nova to send a diplomatic mission to the aliens. Perhaps the first contact had gone horrifically wrong, he suggested, somehow managing to imply that corporate interests had managed to deliberately trigger a war with the aliens. He might have had a point, Hind suspected, except that the corporations would have to be insane. Starting a fight with an alien race as an excuse to tighten control over the United Nations would only work if the aliens could actually be beaten by the United Nations. Added to the outraged shock from Pacifica, whose delegate loudly proclaimed that all thinking beings must want peace, the motion passed through the General Assembly without major opposition. Hint just hoped that the aliens would listen to the diplomats rather than simply blowing them out of space.



    She thanked the Ambassador as the session ended and headed off to call her editor. “They’re making the formal announcement now,” he confirmed. Unsurprisingly; the General Assemblymen would probably have started talking to their tame reporters already, even if she had been the only reporter in the chamber. “We’ll get in the request for you to be embedded right now.”



    “Thanks,” Hind said, sardonically. After watching the footage from New Marseilles, she was having second thoughts about the wisdom of embedding with the military. But she couldn't back out now. “Let me know when you want my report on the session.”



    “And then go talk to the RockRats,” her editor suggested. “If anyone has explored far enough into interstellar space to find the aliens, it’s them. And you know that the General Assembly isn't likely to send them a formal request for information.”



    Hind nodded. The RockRats refused to be cowed by the General Assembly, which was part of the reason they had never been invited to send their own delegates. That, and the fear that they were rich enough to become an instant superpower in the political field.



    “I’ll do it,” she said. “You just watch the screens.”
     
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  14. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Nine



    Cadiz System

    13th April 2435



    “Keep in line,” Sergeant Jackson King bellowed. “Keep in line; leave everything behind unless it is essential!”



    He scowled at the long line of refugees as they made their way to the light freighter and the shuttles on the ground. Cadiz had over three million civilians on the ground and he doubted that the UNNS would succeed in lifting them all out of the system before the aliens attacked, even though the aliens hadn't shown themselves since the attack on Casanova. But Cadiz was on a direct line from New Marseilles to Capricorn and everyone knew that it was just a matter of time before the aliens attacked, punched out the orbital industrial nodes and bombarded the planet into submission.



    The long line of refugees were mainly women and children – and a number of elderly citizens. After what had happened to Casanova and New Marseilles, the local government had declared martial law and conscripted every able-bodied man on the planet, sending them to makeshift training camps well away from the cities. Children – and their mothers – were being prioritised for evacuation, splitting up families as they departed their former homeworld. Jackson had already watched a number of agonising moments as parents said goodbye to their children, if they were unlucky and they hadn't been allocated shared space on a shuttle or one of the light freighters. There was no way to know just what would happen once the freighters reached Capricorn; Jackson had an uneasy feeling that preparations to receive the refugees would be utterly shambolic.



    At least they had the authority to use stunners if necessary. He didn't mind the women saying goodbye to their children, but some of the others were completely insane. One woman had turned up with a massive pile bags she expected to be carried to orbit, as if the Marines could spare a couple of shuttles from the massive evacuation. The woman had been the wife of one of the planet’s senior officials and she’d protested loudly, threatening the Marines with every punishment in the book, before she’d been stunned and dropped in the makeshift prison camp they’d had to establish for rioters. No doubt it would return to haunt them, Jackson had thought at the time, but for the moment it would keep her away from the Marines. Her bags had been abandoned with the other bags, added to the growing mountain of stuff people had tried to bring with them. The stragglers who had refused to leave their world would probably end up looting it.



    A dull hum rose up as one of the shuttles lifted off the ground and headed for orbit, followed by another. There were nearly seventy bulk freighters in orbit around Cadiz, their life support systems hastily jury-rigged to take as many passengers in their cargo holds as possible. Once full, they would jump out to Capricorn and deposit the refugees there – and God alone knew what would happen to them next. Rumour had it that a Marine team had had to be assigned to each of the freighters, just to ensure that the refugees didn't riot or that the freighter commanders didn't take them to a hidden pirate base and sell them into slavery. The grapevine was notoriously inaccurate, but this was one rumour Jackson was prepared to believe. Given the way some of the refugees had bitched and moaned to the Marines, it was quite likely that some freighter crews would be tempted to open their hulls and space the lot of them.



    “Got a prospective riot here,” Lieutenant Singh sent. The Marines had established a defence line around the spaceport, trying to discourage the population from trying to board the shuttles until it was their turn to be taken off the planet. But – naturally – most of the city’s population had started to camp outside the spaceport, hoping – praying – that there would be a chance to leave earlier. “Platoons two and three; move to backup one.”



    Jackson nodded as he jogged away from the shuttles, followed by the remainder of platoon two. The planners hadn't assigned more than five Marine companies – five hundred Marines – to the evacuation team, leaving them thinly spread all over the planet. Forty Marines could hold the spaceport against all threats, if they opened fire on civilians – and he knew that no one, from Major Vander on down, wanted to cause a massacre. Like most frontier worlds, Cadiz had a very relaxed attitude to civilian weapons, which meant that the refugees were likely to be armed to the teeth. The Marines had already confiscated vast amounts of weapons from refugees before allowing them to board the shuttles.



    He heard the sound as they approached the barrier the Marines had set up to keep people from swarming onto the landing field. Thousands of women were pressing against the barrier, ignoring the electric shocks that were meant to discourage people from trying to knock it down by force. Or, more likely, those touching the barrier were being pushed against it by their fellows. The Marines didn't get much training in how to deal with riots on Mars, but their brief refresher course had given Jackson nightmares. It only needed one scared PFC to open fire and slaughter dozens of helpless civilians.



    Lieutenant Singh was a dark-skinned man wearing standard combat uniform and carrying knife at his belt. Platoon one was deployed in front of him, trying to keep the civilians from rushing through the spaceport terminal and onto the landing field. It didn't look as though they were going to be able to hold the line much longer, even though they held their weapons at the ready. The crowd had started to panic and their panic would drive them onwards, even if some of them were smart enough to realise that charging armed Marines was not a good idea.



    “Get ready to deploy the riot form,” Singh ordered, as Jackson stopped in front of him. “We’re going to need it – and the water.”



    Jackson directed a pair of Marines to the hose and led the remainder over to where they’d stocked the riot form blasters. Using them was technically illegal unless authorised by superior officers, because targets had been known to choke and suffocate to death during previous riots, but Singh didn’t seem to have much choice. He picked up a blaster and its tank just as the barrier finally collapsed and the crowd surged forward, heading for the two shuttles that were just landing. Jackson cursed as he saw that several of them were carrying weapons. The last thing anyone needed was a gunfight in the spaceport. It was all too possible that innocent people would be hurt.



    He pointed the blaster at the crowd and opened fire, spraying their legs with riot form. The foam hardened with astonishing speed, sticking the crowd to the ground and trapping their arms and legs. A handful fell to the ground, their faces buried in the foam, and he cursed, directing the backup team to pull them out before they suffocated. The remainder were either stuck or pushed back as the Marines with the water cannon turned them on the rioters.



    “Damn it,” he muttered, as the riot died away. Now they would have to effectively arrest the entire crowd. No doubt the ones who had started the riot would complain that they had been mistreated. “Why didn’t they just listen to instructions?”



    He glanced up as another flight of shuttles came in to land. Maybe they could get everyone out in time, just maybe. If the aliens held off long enough...



    ***

    “There was a brief riot down at the main spaceport,” the liaison officer said. “The Marines have it under control, but it’s delayed the evacuation schedule by at least forty minutes.”



    “Tell them to expedite if possible,” Paul ordered. They’d worked out a schedule for moving as many colonists as possible from Cadiz, along with the other threatened worlds, but the most optimistic estimate was that it would take two to three months to evacuate the entire planet. And that rather assumed that the UN would have the shipping to move them out. Triumphant and her task force had a vast amount of tonnage at their disposal, but it wasn't configured for moving people around the universe. Besides, putting civilian refuges on the fleet carrier would make it harder for them to carry out their mission. “And send out another set of recon fighters. I don’t want anything sniffing around this system.”



    He looked over at the main display and shook his head. Triumphant had been reinforced, to the tune of three escort carriers and a handful of light cruisers, but after seeing the footage from New Marseilles he would have preferred the entire Home Fleet. The task force was exercising heavily when it wasn't involved in supervising the evacuation, yet the footage suggested that if the starfighters couldn't hold the aliens, they would have no choice, but to abandon the planet and jump out to Capricorn.



    “Director Carrere reports that the production of mines and missiles has been expanded,” the liaison officer added. “He would like permission to start deploying mines into high orbit.”



    “Granted,” Paul said, “but tell him to make damn sure that his mines have our IFF codes in their databanks. I don’t want to accidentally lose a ship to our own mines.”



    The thought made him snort. Mines were rarely useful in interstellar combat, if only because covering all of the possible angles of approach would require millions of Marines. But if they were deployed in orbit around Cadiz, it was just possible that the aliens would run into them as they entered orbit. Just possible...but was it enough to justify the resources being poured into mine production? Ideally, he would have preferred to dismantle the industrial nodes and move them away from Cadiz, yet that would have delayed the main evacuation effort. Besides, as the director had pointed out, if everything went well they could leave the mines behind as a nasty surprise for the aliens.



    Shaking his head, he turned back to the console that linked to the Marine team that had deployed with Cadiz’s militia. Unsurprisingly, in light of the reports from Casanova and New Marseilles, the local government was trying to arm everyone and scatter them around the planet, enough to make it tricky for the enemy to destroy them all from orbit. The Marine report stated that the makeshift military course was working out about as well as could be expected, but it would be a long time before the government made soldiers out of its conscripts. Paul privately doubted that it would have any effect on the war – standard doctrine was to blast anything even remotely threatening from orbit – yet it was the only thing the government could do. And besides, it might just tie up the aliens if invasion and settlement was their goal.



    The puzzle kept nagging at him as he waited for something to happen. If the aliens had used nukes on two planets, why hadn't they used them on four? They couldn't be squeamish about wiping out vast numbers of humans, could they? Or was there some particular reason why they’d singled out New Marseilles and Casanova for special attention? Could it be that they’d assumed that the four worlds they’d invaded were all that humanity possessed? But that didn't make sense either. If they had counted the number of humans in the four star systems, they were unlikely to believe that one of them was humanity’s homeworld. Earth’s population, despite everything the UN could do to discourage it, was over nine billion humans. The entire population of all four worlds would vanish like a drop in a bucket compared to Earth.



    But the enemy were aliens – and yet humanity had managed to understand the spider-like Polis, or even the machine race of WE WHO ARE. Surely their thought processes couldn't be that alien, could they?



    ***

    “Your mission is to maintain a CSP around the freighters as they reach safe distance from the planet for jumping out,” the CAG announced. Flight Captain Connie Chung nodded impatiently as they endured the briefing, which was largely identical to the last five briefings they’d sat through. “In the event of any trouble, you are to provide support to the evacuation coordinators as the situation dictates.”



    There were some uncomfortable looks at that order. So far, the evacuation had proceeded smoothly, but herding freighter pilots was like herding cats. Some of them had balked at the thought of loading their freighters with refugees, even though the UNNS would be picking up the tab and bringing pressure to bear on insurers and banks. It was hard to blame some of the freighter crews – if they didn't make their payments on schedule, they were likely to lose their ships to the bankers – but there was no time for it. If worst came to worst, the starfighters would have to fire into a freighter to prevent it from jumping out, followed by the Marines boarding her. And if that happened, the rest of the freighter crews were likely to panic and jump out themselves.



    “Launch in ten minutes,” she ordered, once the CAG had finished his briefing. At least flight duties would take them away from the rumour mill – and the speculation about what would happen when the mysterious aliens finally showed themselves. They’d all seen the footage from New Marseilles, and endured the constant barrage of ill-informed speculation from the media. No doubt their investors profited by the panic the media had caused on nearly a hundred threatened worlds. “Try not to be late.”



    She was still smiling at the thought as she led the way down to the launch tubes and climbed into her starfighter. The flight crew had armed the Dragon with antishipping missiles, a reflection of the belief that the aliens didn't have starfighters themselves – but then, with their powerful weapons, did they need starfighters? Connie and her squadron had run through a dozen simulations of battles with the aliens, yet there were so many unanswered questions that she knew that it would be impossible to know what it would be like until they fought the aliens for real. And how many of her squadron mates would survive their first encounter?



    “Decks clear,” the launch bay officer said. “Launch in five, four, three...”



    Connie braced herself as the Dragon rocketed out of the launch tube and into open space, angling away from the massive fleet carrier. The remainder of the squadron followed her as they plunged into the endless darkness of space, before turning and heading down towards the planet. She kept one eye on the live feed from the starships and orbital sensor probes in orbit around the planet, tracking the freighters and warships as they continued the evacuation. A dozen shuttles were rising up towards a large freighter, one whose commander had already nearly jumped the gun twice. There was a reason a pair of Marine gunboats were position nearby.



    “Form up on me,” she ordered. Two other freighters were heading away from the planet, out to a safe distance where they could jump without the planet’s gravity well screwing up the calculations. The starfighters angled closer, then split up into three formations as they passed the freighters, before settling down into escort formation. Both of the freighters seemed to be wallowing, their drives red-lined by the mass of so many additional passengers in hulls. Connie could only hope that the life support would last long enough to get them to Capricorn or another habitable world. The average freighter was always pushing the margins of life support, no matter what regulations said. Replacing a life support unit was expensive and the cost had been known to ruin spacers. “And...”



    Her voice broke off as they received an emergency message. “Attention, we are picking up unidentified contacts entering the system,” the CAG said. “I say again, we are picking up unidentified contacts entering the system.”



    Connie swallowed hard as she glanced down at her HUD. Red icons were jumping into the system, several hundred thousand kilometres from Cadiz itself. They could be freighters coming to aid the evacuation, but somehow she doubted it, not in that formation. That formation suggested a group of spacecraft intent on invading the system.



    “Understood,” she said. By now, the picket ships would be on their way to intercept the intruders. They would get a visual of their hulls before they were forced to retreat. “Blue squadron, prepare to alter course and engage the enemy.”



    “This is the Admiral,” a new voice said. “All freighters, jump out and scatter; I say again, jump out and scatter.”



    Connie’s starfighter shook as the gravity waves from the freighters struck her hull, just as they jumped out to Capricorn. Hopefully, they would be far enough from the planet not to wind up somewhere unexpected. The other freighters in orbit were also abandoning Cadiz, even as the remaining shuttles altered course towards the fleet carrier. Triumphant would be able to carry them out of the system, assuming that she wasn't ripped apart like Invincible. The refuges might have jumped from the frying pan into the fire.



    “I have a visual,” the picket ship commander snapped. “I confirm alien contact; I say again, I confirm...”



    His voice vanished; a moment later, the sensor network confirmed his craft’s destruction. The remaining picket ships were pulling back as the starfighters formed up, ready to engage the aliens. Connie winced as she studied the alien formation, realising just how fast they were in normal space. Starfighters were faster, but the aliens could run down any capital ship they chose – and they were on a direct course for Triumphant.



    “This system is under attack,” the Admiral said. “All starfighters, break and attack; I say again, all starfighters break and attack.”



    “Understood,” Connie said. “Blue squadron, form up on me and prepare to kick some alien butt!”
     
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  15. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Ten



    Cadiz System

    13th April 2435



    “Pull the Marines off the planet,” Paul ordered, as the alien craft came into view on the main display. The task force was already accelerating away from Cadiz, ready to engage the enemy in open space – and jump out if the aliens proved too much for them. There were only five alien ships, compared to the seventeen he had under his command, but he couldn't assume that numbers alone would give him an advantage. “Warn the local government to abandon the cities now.”



    “The Marines are reporting a second round of riots,” the liaison officer said. “The cities are collapsing into chaos.”



    With everyone who remained now convinced that they made a deadly mistake, Paul thought, sourly. Civilians! “Order them to pull out,” he said, flatly. “I don’t want to leave a single Marine on the planet if we cannot hold the orbitals.”



    He looked back at the image of the alien ships – and the starfighters racing towards them. Five ships...was that the size of a standard alien squadron, or was it all the aliens believed they needed to take out Cadiz? Given what they’d done to Invincible and her squadron, they might well be right.



    “And then evacuate the orbital installations, setting the self-destruct systems as we go,” he added. The aliens probably didn't need a look at humanity’s tech, but there was no point in taking the chance. “I want all of those personnel pulled out of the system before we go.”



    ***

    “I can't get a good lock on the bastards,” one of the starfighter pilots said, as they closed to engagement range. “I think they’re scattering our sensors somehow.”



    “Just aim for where they have to be,” Connie advised, dryly. Standard starfighter doctrine involved closing to point-blank range before launching torpedoes, but the aliens possessed enough firepower to make that a dicey proposition. God alone knew how their weapons would fare against the starfighters, yet everyone agreed that it was going to be bad. “Besides...”



    “This is Ivan,” the strike commander said. “On my mark, break and enter chaotic formation; I say again, break and enter chaotic formation. Mark!”



    Connie threw the starfighter into a random spin as they entered the enemy’s engagement range. A moment later, a streak of brilliant yellow light shot past her starfighter, missing by only a handful of metres. The alien craft were firing rapidly, their beams swinging around to catch the starfighters as they ducked and weaved desperately – and every hit wiped a starfighter out of existence. At least they didn't seem to be prepared for starfighters, or they might have obliterated the entire wing as the starfighters closed to engagement range. But they’d already done enough damage to significantly weaken the starfighter attack. Over two hundred pilots had been picked off before they could escape.



    “Entering engagement range now,” she reported. “Fox two; I say again, fox two!”



    There was an answering rumble from the other pilots as they fired their torpedoes towards the alien craft. The alien craft desperately tried to wipe out the torpedoes, scything through them with their deadly energy weapons, but a handful of torpedoes survived to crash into their hull. Connie whooped with delight as the alien craft staggered, clearly wounded, before a second set of torpedoes detonated inside their hull. A series of explosions ran through the alien craft and blew it apart into space debris.



    “We got one,” she yelled, in delight. Another alien craft had been damaged, but the remaining craft were still advancing on the planet. Now alive to the threat that the starfighters represented, the aliens were firing madly, blazing them out of the sky as they tried to close in for another attack run. “Form up on me and prepare to engage the lead alien craft.”



    The strike commander was dead, along with two other squadron commanders. It struck her, suddenly, that she was the senior officer in command of what remained of three entire wings of starfighters, which had been so badly decimated that all of the pre-war formations had been destroyed. Starfighter pilots were flying with whatever wingmen they could find, no matter which wing or squadron they belonged to. All of their organisation had been effectively shattered.



    “Group one, distract them from the front,” she ordered, using her HUD to designate starfighters. It was a desperate strategy, barely enough to get a coherent attack out of what remained of the once-proud starfighters from Triumphant. “Group two, attempt to slip into their blind spot and engage their rears.”



    The Dragon seemed to shudder as they lanced ahead, trying to come up on the aliens from behind. If she was reading the data right, Connie told herself, the aliens did have a blind spot to their rear. Unfortunately, the aliens seemed to know it and had positioned themselves so that one craft could cover another’s blind spot. At least their weapons didn't seem to be so precise against starfighters, thankfully, or perhaps the constant evasion was making it impossible for them to target the tiny craft. The starfighters slid into the blind spot, locked their weapons on target and opened fire. A second alien craft died in a brilliant fireball.



    “Two down, one crippled,” a pilot cheered. “We can do this!”



    Connie shuddered at the thought. There were barely forty starfighters left – and they had shot all of their torpedoes. “Return to the barn,” she ordered, bluntly. The railgun cannons they used for antifighter missions wouldn't even scratch the paint on the alien ships. “We need to reload and get back out here.”



    They’d drilled, time and time again, rearming the starfighters and getting back out into interplanetary space. This time, at least there wouldn't be so many starfighters demanding instant rearming, she told herself. It wasn't any consolation. They’d taken out two alien ships and crippled a third, in exchange for losing almost four-fifths of their strength. How long could anyone sustain such a loss rate?



    ***

    “The aliens are approaching the cruisers,” the tactical officer reported. “Captain Hobbes reports that he intends to open fire at medium range.”



    “Tell him to keep his flux drives spun up,” Paul ordered, grimly. Two alien craft had been destroyed, but the other three were still advancing – and his remaining starfighters were rearming. At least they’d proved that the alien craft could be destroyed. Some of the more alarmist media reports had claimed that they were invincible. “He is not to attempt to seek a close-quarter engagement.”



    He watched, as dispassionately as he could, as the cruisers opened fire. Some of the missile seeker heads had been modified to make it easier for them to track the alien craft, but it proved not to matter. Unsurprisingly, the missiles were scythed out of space before they could reached their targets. A moment later, the aliens reached their own engagement range and opened fire on the cruisers. Their death rays – no other name seemed to fit – tore through the cruisers at terrifying speed. Only one cruiser survived to jump out into flux space and escape.



    “The fighters have completed their rearming, sir,” the CAG informed him. “They are ready to launch and reengage the enemy.”



    “Order them to launch and target the two intact alien craft,” Paul ordered. The third craft was definitely falling behind; in fact, he rather expected the aliens to jump that craft out of the system. There was little point in having it remain where it could be destroyed. “Analysis – do we have any analysis of the alien tactical stance?”



    “Alarmingly good at dealing with starfighters,” the analyst said. “Worse, they appear to be able to fire their weapons from any point on their hull. We don't even have a working theory as to how they can do that. It could be that everywhere apart from their drive system is a potential muzzle for their weapons.”



    Paul nodded, sourly. At this rate, they would have to expend all of their starfighters in beating off this attack, which would leave them effectively naked for when the aliens returned to assault the system for a second time. The direct link to Capricorn was sending data to Admiral Davidson – humanity would learn that it could beat the aliens, if at a terrifying price – but he had orders not to lose his entire task force if it could be avoided.



    He watched, shaking his head grimly, as the starfighters made their second attack run on the alien craft. This time, the aliens were ready, firing burst after burst of deadly light towards the starfighters, scattering them when they failed to destroy them. But the starfighters pressed in, picking off another alien craft and damaging the final ship. Paul looked at the battered teardrop hull and knew that he could win the battle...



    “New contacts,” the tactical officer snapped. “I make...seven...no, ten new alien craft. They’re heading towards us on attack vector.”



    Paul cursed, angrily. “Pull the starfighters back,” he ordered, “and then prepare to jump.”



    The two damaged alien craft jumped out, leaving the starfighters to return to the fleet carrier as she pulled away from the planet. Behind them, the alien craft accelerated towards the human squadron, neatly skimming around the planet and avoiding the minefield the local industrial nodes had left in orbit around Cadiz. Paul tapped a key on his console, sending the self-destruct command to the orbiting industries, praying that everyone had managed to get off the platforms before it was too late. Below, the planet’s defenders would be left on their own; hopefully, whatever had stopped the aliens from nuking Ramadan or Cartage would save their planet from being wiped out from orbit.



    “All starfighters have returned to their carriers,” the CAG reported. Just in time, Paul realised; the aliens were closing into engagement range and engaging the outermost UN starships. A light cruiser was blown to vapour, followed rapidly by one of the escort carriers, but the aliens kept coming, ignoring the missiles launched from the other human craft. Alien they might have been, yet their doctrine made perfect sense. Pick off the carriers before they could launch more hornets to sting them to death.



    “Jump us out,” Paul snapped. The UNNS hadn’t had to run from the battlefield for over fifty years, even during the Dispute with the RockRats, but there was no choice. Close-quarter engagements with the alien craft would be suicide. “Jump; jump now!”



    His stomach twisted as the fleet carrier jumped away, leaving the aliens in command of the system...



    ***

    “The squares fled,” Damien Jonson said. “They just fled.”



    “Not that they had much choice,” Helen Jónsdóttir pointed out. The two RockRats had volunteered to observe the Cadiz system after the RockRat habitats had either been evacuated or gone silent in the hopes of avoiding this strange new foe. “What would have happened if they had faced the enemy at point-blank range?”



    Damien shrugged, unwilling to admit that anything the UNNS did was smart. His faction among the RockRats believed that the Dispute was only the beginning of a struggle between a society that embraced freedom in space and a far more restrictive society that claimed countless inhabited worlds for itself. The prospect of a war that would sap the UN’s strength had been greeted with enthusiasm by his faction, although they had been more than a little concerned after the aliens had nuked two planets. Anyone who was prepared to do that would have little compunction about blasting asteroid habitats into rubble.



    The alien craft’s drive system made them harder to track than he would have preferred, but thankfully they still emitted faint gravity emissions when they travelled at high speed. It was easy to watch them heading back to the planet, one ship running afoul of a nuclear-tipped mine and staggering out of formation while belching air. Their amusement didn't last as the aliens simply blasted every piece of space junk out of the sky, vaporising anything that could be a deadly threat. There was no fire from the planet below, Damien noted without surprise. The planet-dwellers might have decided that revealing their weapons would get them targeted from orbit. They were probably right.



    Long moments passed...and then the aliens opened fire on the planet’s surface. Beams of deadly power sliced down through the planet’s atmosphere, targeting the cities on the planet below. Damian watched in growing horror as they kept firing, bombarding the planet’s surface with deadly precision. A moment later, the alien craft launched what had to be landing craft, heading down to the planet with armoured soldiers. The alien starships, completing their deadly bombardment, slid back into high orbit and waited.



    “I think we have to take this to the Gathering,” Helen said, grimly. The Gathering had been called to decide what, if anything, the RockRats would do about the new alien threat. A day ago, Damien would have suggested leaving the aliens and the UN to fight it out. Now...now he suspected that the two strands of humanity would have to make common cause against a threat that would destroy the RockRats as easily as the UNNS. “Those filthy murdering bastards have to be stopped.”



    Damian frowned. Both of them were the product of genetic engineering – and neither of them would be particularly welcome on a UN member world. Prejudice against genies was at an all-time high, even if most genies – particularly the ones that were created illegally – were largely impossible to pick out from the rest of the human population. The thought of something that might convince the UN that they were wrong in dismissing genetic engineering...he doubted, somehow, that the war would be enough to convince them otherwise.



    “True enough,” he agreed, finally. He started keying the flex drive for an immediate jump. There were no alien craft close enough to intercept them, but there was no point in taking risks when they could be avoided. “Let’s just hope that the Gathering doesn't surrender everything to the UN.”



    ***

    Connie found herself staring around the flight deck in horror as she realised just how many starfighter pilots had been killed in the battle. Blue Squadron had been relatively lucky; only five pilots out of twelve had been killed, vaporised by the alien death rays. Others had been wiped out completely, or only one or two pilots had survived the ill-fated battle. God alone knew what would happen once the CAG had finished counting the losses. Standard procedure was to slot new pilots into a pre-existing squadron, but most of the carrier’s squadrons had been destroyed. They’d have to rebuild from scratch.



    One of the other pilots threw his helmet across the compartment in anger, two others were muttering in frustration as they checked and rechecked the list of the dead. They’d all had friends in the other squadrons – and anyone who hadn’t checked in by now was almost certainly dead. Connie knew it was her duty to write the letters that would be mailed to the families of the dead, but she couldn't face the thought right now. They’d trained to fight aliens flying starfighters comparable to the ones humanity flew, not nightmarish alien ships firing death rays with such abandon. How many had died before Triumphant fled the system?



    “Flight Captain Chung,” the CAG called. He was the last person Connie wanted to see right now, but there was no choice. “I’m folding Gold Squadron’s five remaining pilots into Blue Squadron, with you remaining as their commander. We should be able to reconstitute two wings before we return to Cadiz and take on new pilots.”



    If they have new pilots, Connie thought. Anyone with starfighters under their command probably wouldn't want to let go of them, certainly not after once they heard what had happened at Cadiz. Starfighters were the only weapon humanity had against the mysterious aliens, even if they did take horrendous losses just closing to attack range.



    “Understood,” she said, dully. Once, the challenge would have excited her. Folding the remains of one squadron into another was tricky, a task that would be made worse by the fact that some of the newcomers would have seniority over the old sweats. “I’ll take care of it.”



    The CAG had been a starfighter pilot himself before he’d been promoted into a desk job. “It’s never easy to lose someone,” he said. Connie scowled at him. The last thing she wanted was a comforting lecture. “But at least we gave them a bloody nose.”



    “Yeah,” Connie heard herself snarl. “We gave them a bloody nose – and they kicked our asses right out of the system. What the fuck are they going to do for an encore?”



    The thought was terrifying. Capricorn Base was large enough to give the aliens pause, but then...they might bring a much larger fleet to bear against the base. And then they would have to fall back on the inner worlds, and then the core worlds, and then Earth itself. How long would it be before they were fighting a desperate struggle in the Sol System?



    “Don’t worry about it right now,” the CAG said, firmly. “I want you to concentrate on getting your new squadron back up to trim. This isn't going to be the last battle we have to fight.”



    Connie nodded, grimly. “I know,” she said. “But if we don’t find a counter to their weapons, sir, we’re going to lose damn near everything just holding the line.”



    ***

    “I’ve endorsed your decision to retreat, Admiral,” Admiral Davidson said. “I feel confident that Admiral Ivanovo will support you in front of the General Assembly. At least they got hurt this time.”



    “We hurt them, but not enough,” Paul said. “I need as many extra starfighters as you can scrape up. We need to take the war to their flanks.”



    “I've already dispatched one task force to New Marseilles,” Admiral Davidson said. “Maybe they can give the enemy a bloody nose too.”



    “Maybe,” Paul agreed, “but if it costs us upwards of three hundred starfighters to give them a bloody nose...”



    He left the rest of the sentence unspoken. They both knew what he meant.
     
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  16. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Eleven



    New Marseilles

    15th April 2435



    “Jump completed, Captain,” Lieutenant Gayle Anderson said.



    “There’s no sign that we have been detected,” McLaughlin added, a moment later. “No enemy ships within sensor range.”



    Janine nodded, tightly. The UN could pick up jump signatures up to around five light hours from the starship’s arrival point, but she’d decided to assume that the enemy sensors were better and brought Rubicon into the New Marseilles system at ten light hours from the planet, where she believed that the enemy ships were based. There wasn't anything else in the system worth guarding.



    “Cloak us and then take us into the inner system,” she ordered, after the flux drive had powered up again. Keeping the drive active would shorten the time before they had to replace it, but it would allow them to jump out the moment the enemy landed on top of them. She had no illusions about Rubicon’s chances in a straight fight with the aliens, even if they had had a complete overhaul at Capricorn. “And inform me as soon as you pick up any sign of the enemy’s presence.”



    “Aye, Captain,” Gayle said. The starship hummed slightly as the main drive came online, propelling her into the inner system. “Time to New Marseilles; thirty-seven hours from now.”



    Janine sat back in her chair and waited, studying the live feed from the starship’s passive sensors. New Marseilles hadn't been a very developed star system by the time the aliens attacked, which meant that anything they picked up had to be from the alien fleet. But nothing appeared on the display, even when they started launching passive sensor platforms into the inner system. If the aliens had sensors right out of science-fantasy, they might still fail to detect the mothership, even if they did pick up on the platforms.



    It was an alarming thought. The UN couldn't pick up its own platforms unless they brought their active sensors online, emitting radar and radio pulses that would be picked up by other passive sensors. In theory, it was easy for someone with hostile intentions to sneak platforms into a star system and assume that they would never be detected, allowing them to monitor activity around the target planet. But no one knew just how capable the alien sensor systems actually were. If they could pick up on something as stealthy as a sensor platform, the UN would be in serious trouble.



    As if we’re not already, she thought, grimly. During Rubicon’s refit, she’d studied the tactical data from all of the encounters with the alien ships, encounters that had invariably been alien victories. There was still no reason why the aliens had attacked the human ships on sight – more and more analysts were leaning towards the theory that the aliens had a repressive and acquisitive government, even through such a government had obvious flaws when it came to developing high technology – but it hardly mattered. If humanity didn't manage to develop countermeasures for the alien technology, the UN was doomed.



    The hours ticked away as the starship crept further and further into the occupied system. Janine went for a rest in the Captain’s stateroom, leaving orders that she was to be woken the moment the sensors picked up any artificial signature. The other crewmen rotated their positions too, ensuring that they all had a chance to rest. They’d need to be fresh when they finally reached New Marseilles.



    It still felt odd to sleep in the Captain’s stateroom, even if she was the Captain now. Janine hadn't shared a cabin with anyone since she’d been promoted to Lieutenant-Commander, but the Captain’s stateroom still felt lonely and cold. Or perhaps it made perfect sense; even when she’d been the XO, it had been Captain Yu who had had the final responsibility for the ship’s safety. Now she was the Captain and the responsibility fell on her shoulders. She was responsible for all two hundred crew and officers on her ship – and if they died, it would be her who would bear the blame.



    Unable to sleep, she lay in the bunk, silently counting down the moments until they reached the planet. The Admiral’s orders had been vague, simply because they had no idea what they were likely to find when they reached New Marseilles. Humanity’s history of interstellar wars with other races suggested a great many possibilities, from a dead world to a planet being reconfigured to serve as an alien advance base for a drive into the United Nations. The aliens had to have a logistics chain of their own, even if they did have death rays instead of missiles and close-in railgun point defence. But their problems might be simplified if they didn't have to have missiles shipped in from their pre-war bases. Logistics was one of the reasons why the UN had poured so many resources into Capricorn and the other fleet bases; losing one of them would make it harder to hold the line against the aliens without falling back into the inner worlds.



    Apart from their attack on Cadiz, the aliens had raided a dozen other star systems; jumping in, firing at everything within range and then jumping out again. The most significant target had been Beta Nine, a major RockRat colony orbiting a dying red star, enough to bring the RockRats firmly into the war on the UN’s side. But those targets weren't important in the long run, not as long as Capricorn remained intact. The aliens couldn’t afford to bypass it; they would have no choice, but to hit the system as soon as possible. The only question was how long it would take before they massed the forces necessary to take it.



    She must have dozed off, for the next thing she heard was her wristcom buzzing, waking her from a fitful sleep. “Captain,” McLaughlin said, “we’re picking up limited radio transmissions from the planet. Analysis says that they’re alien.”



    “Understood,” Janine said, as she pulled herself off the bunk and splashed water on her face. “I’m on my way.”



    New Marseilles was a bare three light minutes away as she came out onto the bridge. The handful of sensor platforms were creeping closer, flying on a ballistic course that would allow them to fly past the planet and relay what they saw to Rubicon via laser links that should be completely undetectable. A set of tactical icons started to flicker into existence as the passive sensors picked up other radio sources, including seven in orbit around the planet itself. She smiled as another icon blinked into existence; another alien craft jumping into the system. At least the aliens didn't seem to be capable of baffling their drives to prevent their jump signatures from being detected.



    “The sensor platforms are being redirected towards the planet,” McLaughlin explained. Janine took her seat and studied the live feed from the platforms. “We should have visual contact within the next ten to fifteen minutes.”



    “Good,” Janine said. “Let’s see what they’ve done to the planet.”



    The feed from one of the platforms altered as one of the alien ships came into view. It was a fuzzy image, but there was no mistaking the familiar profile of a ship that had dealt so much death and destruction to the UNNS. Janine felt her fists clench in hatred as the alien ship drifted around the planet, seemingly unconcerned with the possibility that prying eyes might be watching from the inky blackness of space. It was emitting short bursts of radio transmissions that were probably aimed at the other ships in orbit, although if so Janine was surprised that they didn't use communications lasers. They were practically giving their watching foes targeting data! Or maybe they simply didn't care. Or they thought that they were invincible.



    “I’ve got three Alpha-class starships in orbit,” McLaughlin said. The UN’s analysts had termed the teardrop-shaped alien starships the Alpha class, at least until they knew what the aliens actually called them. “I’ve also got two other classes of starship, ones we have not encountered before.”



    “Show me,” Janine said. The UN built squadrons out of various different classes of starship, but the aliens – for reasons of their own – had only used the Alphas to attack human worlds. It suggested that they saw little need for various different ship classes, until now. “And then see if you can determine their function.”



    The display altered as the first of the new classes came into view. Janine caught her breath as she studied the whale-shaped ship, floating in orbit in a manner that reminded her of UN-designed freighters. A handful of smaller craft were buzzing around the whale, convincing her that her first guess was right and that the alien design was a freighter. It was also oddly beautiful – and deadly. The alien hull was covered in the same material the Alphas used to focus their death rays. UN freighters were rarely armed, outside wartime, but the aliens evidently had their own way of doing things. Or maybe she was wrong and it wasn't the same kind of material at all. There was no way to know without firing on the alien ship and seeing what the aliens did in response.



    “Coming up on the second newcomer right now,” McLaughlin said, into the silence. The entire crew had been speaking in hushed voices, as if their words could carry across the soundless vacuum of space to alien ears. “This one is smaller, Captain; barely larger than the average light cruiser.”



    Janine nodded. This alien craft looked like a giant starfish, with five legs radiating out from a central core. The aliens had definitely developed a more advanced drive system than humanity, if only because humanity’s drives would tear such a craft apart if it attempted to accelerate at a reasonable pace. Studying the ship, Janine realised that the starfish wouldn't have any blind spot, unlike the Alpha cruisers. Once they sent them into battle against humanity’s starfighters, they might tip the balance and prevent humanity from crippling or destroying other cruisers.



    It was odd that the aliens hadn't deployed them already, but perhaps they had underestimated the destructive power of a flight of starfighters. That would make sense; they were evidently unfamiliar with the concept of starfighters, so they’d simply underestimated what the starfighters could do to them. If so, they’d developed a counter in record time – or maybe they’d just realised that some of their smaller ships could provide cover to their cruisers. It wouldn't be that unlike the UN’s own concept of using smaller ships to escort the giant fleet or assault carriers.



    “Hold us here,” she said. Without any forward motion, Rubicon would be nothing more than a hole in space, without even a hint of turbulence that might betray a cloaked ship’s presence. “And then start routing the platforms down into planetary orbit. I want to attempt to establish communications with the Marines.”



    It was a long shot, but the UN needed data on what the aliens did once they’d landed on a planet and New Marseilles had been playing host to a platoon of Marines from Rubicon before the aliens had invaded the planet and destroyed the Invincible task force. The Marines, unlike Captain Yu and some of the Admiral’s officers, should definitely have been outside the city when the aliens nuked it. They would presumably be careful about using their communicators with an alien fleet in orbit, but they should be scanning for hidden transmissions from cloaked recon ships.



    And besides, they didn't even know what the aliens looked like. That was surprisingly galling; the aliens had torn human fleets apart with their death rays and no one knew what they looked like. Presumably, anyone on the planets the aliens had occupied had died before being able to pass on the intelligence to anyone else. But if the Marines were still alive – a big if, but Marines were survivors – they would have carried out their standing orders and worked to gather what intelligence they could on the new foe.



    She watched grimly as the platforms sank into low orbit, scanning for traces of human transmissions from the planet below. It was clear that the aliens had wiped out all traces of Invincible and the remainder of her task force, probably by targeting the debris and blowing it into the planet’s atmosphere. If the UN had captured an alien world, post-battle assessment teams would have been sifting through any alien wreckage, but the aliens didn't seem to want anything from human debris. Their overconfidence would have been amusing if they didn't have so much to be overconfident about.



    Two more alien craft appeared from flux space, jumping into the space near the planet and heading down towards the Alphas in orbit. The platforms recorded the brief messages they exchanged with the occupation force, relaying them to Rubicon for the analysis team to study and attempt to decipher. Unlocking an alien language was a complicated task, even with the most advanced computers that humanity had been able to develop, but the more samples they had of alien conversations the easier it would be. Or so she had been told. The UN habitably encrypted its radio transmissions and she assumed that the aliens would do the same. They wouldn’t want to give any watching spies a primer on their own language.



    And they have enough human prisoners to unlock our languages, she thought, sourly. The aliens had access to libraries and databanks on the planet’s surface, enough to make it really easy for them to learn standard English. They could presumably talk to the human race, assuming that they wanted to talk to the human race. But surely they’d want to demand surrender, if nothing else. What sort of hostile alien race wouldn't want to make it easier by convincing its target to surrender? Humanity was ingenious – and had plenty of space to trade for time. The UN might come up with something that would even the balance between the aliens and the UNNS.



    But even if they did, they knew nothing about where the aliens had come from – or why they had attacked. Driving the aliens out of UN space would be the first step; the second would be locating the alien homeworlds and launching a counterattack – and that would be difficult. Civilians had no idea just how vast space was, or how easy it was to hide an entire planetary population somewhere in the endless darkness of space. Given enough time, the aliens could conceal much of their population from prying UN starships. Survey Command would have to locate an alien world for the UNNS to attack, yet what if the aliens drove them so far back that direct attack was no longer possible?



    She looked over at the alien ships, feeling cold hatred crystallising around her heart. They’d attacked, without provocation, and obliterated the task force and its lifepods within seconds. There was no way she could forgive the aliens for firing on helpless lifepods, slaughtering the last survivors of the fleet; even the Magana, barbarians through they had been, had hesitated to slaughter the last survivors of destroyed fleets. They’d wanted prisoners for interrogation – and later transport to the slave camps – and most of those prisoners had been rescued in the final days of the war.



    We’re going to beat you, you bastards, she thought, coldly. One day, you will be dead and gone and we will live on.



    There was a chime from the sensor console. “We're in position to start attempting to contact the Marines,” McLaughlin said. “Captain?”



    Janine nodded. This would be the most dangerous part of the mission. In theory, the microburst transmissions that would inform the Marines that someone was in orbit, ready to contact them, were undetectable. Or, rather, they were very difficult to pick out from the background noise unless one knew to look for them. There was no way to know if the aliens would realise that they were real signals and start to track down their source. If they did, they would locate the sensor platform, deduce the presence of a mothership and start scanning for it with active sensors. Janine would have no choice, but to jump out of the system, leaving the Marines behind for a second time.



    “Start transmitting,” she ordered, “and keep an eye on those alien craft. I want to know the moment one of them starts to move.”



    The seconds ticked by as the remote platform started its transmission cycle. If the Marines were still alive – if – they would be watching for the platform’s signature, but if they were dead or prisoners they wouldn't be doing either. And if the aliens had captured the Marines alive, they would presumably have interrogated them and discovered all of the procedures for operations in hostile territory. The Marines were trained to resist interrogation, but everyone knew that everyone broke eventually. For all they knew, the aliens had technology that allowed them to look right into a suspect’s mind and pull information out of it.



    “I’ve got a response,” McLaughlin snapped. “Standard Marine-issue laser communicator; it's locked onto the platform. IFF codes identify it as assigned to Master Sergeant Mandell.”



    Janine allowed herself a sigh of relief. “Tell them to upload their contact report and then that we have a mission for them,” she ordered. The third part of the operation was going to be tricky, very tricky. If the aliens were on their toes, it was almost certain that they wouldn't get away with it. But the aliens were orbiting a dead world, confident in their vast firepower and bad intentions. “And then prepare the picket for immediate launch.”



    She settled back in her chair and started to skim through the report from the planet’s surface. As expected, none of it was good. The aliens had wiped out most of the human population, leaving the few survivors hiding in the mountains. It was all too likely that the remainder would be wiped out by the end of the month.



    Janine nodded, bitterly. Now they could do nothing, but wait.
     
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  17. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Twelve



    New Marseilles

    16th April 2435



    “You see them?”



    “I see them,” Thomas muttered back. “Jesus; what a bunch of incompetent sacks.”



    The Marines had spent the last three weeks watching the aliens as they expanded their area of control out from what remained of Paris – and the base they’d built near the waterfront. It was impossible to escape the feeling that the aliens hadn't actually had to fight a ground campaign against another race before, or even that they hadn't had to fight each other as well. That wasn't just odd; it was unthinkable. Every known race had fought wars before making contact with other forms of intelligent life. But the alien troopers were surprisingly incompetent.



    What remained of New Marseilles population had hidden in the mountains and scavenged whatever supplies they could to wage an insurgency against the aliens. With some help from the Marines, they had planted IEDs and booby-traps along all the roads and farmland, deducing that the aliens would want to use the roads for transport and the farmland to grow their own crops. They’d successfully killed a dozen or more aliens, but the aliens had just kept coming, almost as if they were willing to accept a limited number of casualties to stick to a pre-planned operation. Thomas had heard of Generals who showed little regard for their men – as long as The Plan was followed, it was good in their eyes – but those Generals had been part of military organisations that had eventually decayed and vanished. The aliens just seemed to keep coming, heedless of their own safety.



    It was maddening. Given a complete Marine division, and no starships overhead, he knew that he could have obliterated the alien landing force, no matter how large it was. Yet every time they lured the aliens into a killing zone, the aliens called in fire from orbit and pressed onwards. Sheer firepower allowed them to burst out of traps that should have stopped them in their tracks. The aliens were clumsy, almost uncoordinated, and yet they kept coming. No one had fought a war of attrition for centuries, but that was what they were doing. And they were winning.



    He peered through the scope at a fifteen-strong alien force as it advanced into the mountains. It was impossible to escape the sense that the aliens were unused to walking in gravity, or even walking at all. Thomas, like all other prospective Marines, had been exposed to neural shockers during training and had staggered around like a drunken idiot before collapsing and hitting the ground. They’d effectively forgotten how to walk. Looking at the aliens, he was convinced that they had never known how to walk – and that made absolutely no sense at all.



    “They’re on the verge of reaching the fire zone,” Aiden said. “You want us to trigger the bomb as soon as they’re in the trap?”



    “Yep,” Thomas said. They’d used mortars they’d recovered from the militia in their first ambushes, only to discover that the aliens were quite capable of tracking the shells back to their launchers and firing on them from orbit. Now, they had to rely on snipers and pre-positioned IEDs, which was yet another reason to be frustrated with the aliens. There were times that they ignored lures that would have pulled a human squad to its doom and times when they just walked into the trap and kept going. “And then hold on the second bomb. We don’t want to wipe them out just yet.”



    He smiled, rather grimly. The aliens had shown their willingness to fire down at presumed insurgent strongholds, but they were reluctant to fire on their own people. Danger close, the Marines called it, and the words never failed to worry them. The prospect of being blown up by aliens was bad enough, but being blown up by friendly fire was much worse. If Thomas was lucky, they could use the aliens as a shield to deter their orbital escorts from pouring fire down onto the Marine position.



    At least they weren't alone any longer. The message from Rubicon had relieved them all; the aliens weren't in the process of bombarding Earth or New Washington into submission. And if they managed to carry out the first part of the plan, they might even manage to get off the planet before the aliens managed to exterminate them all. The thought of leaving the planet’ resistance wasn't pleasant, but there was no choice. Half of the platoon would remain behind to ensure that the resistance had some experienced men.



    “They’re in the trap,” Aiden said. “Detonating...now!”



    Thomas smiled as the IED exploded, catching the first set of aliens and blowing them into bloody chunks. Their fellows were knocked backwards, falling over themselves in their determination to escape, before they recovered and started to push forward again. Thomas sent a single command through his augments and watched as the snipers picked off the alien weapons, one by one. At least the aliens had some survival instincts. The moment the snipers had opened fire, they’d taken what cover they could and were frantically calling for help from the main alien base.



    “The spotters just called in,” Andrew said, through the microburst transmitters. “The aliens are launching their ground-attack craft from the base.”



    “Good thinking on their part,” Thomas muttered, grudgingly. The aliens were learning, even if the learning process was thoroughly alien. But even if the aliens looked humanoid, there was no guarantee that they thought like humans. Maybe they were willing to kill their own people, yet unwilling to allow others to kill their own people. Or maybe he was just missing the clue that would move the alien behaviour from incomprehensible to understandable. “Order the HVM teams to activate their weapons and then start running.”



    He motioned to the team beside him and they ran forward, while behind them the snipers poured a hail of fire onto the rocks the aliens were using for cover. It should force them to keep their heads down long enough for the Marines to get over the rock and into position. Normally, Thomas would have tossed a grenade into the alien position and eliminated them all, but this time he wanted prisoners. At least the aliens didn't seem to be as confident in the mountains as humans, for some reason. He would have thought that they’d find the mountains no real challenge at all.



    “Don’t move,” he bellowed, as he came around the rock and pointed his weapons right at the alien mass. The aliens seemed to freeze, just for a second, and then started to bring their weapons around with terrifying speed. Thomas shot two of them before they could fire on him and the remainder dropped their weapons. Three aliens were still alive, only one of them unwounded. Bright purple blood was dripping from his fellows, staining the ground an unnatural shade. “You! Get over here!”



    The alien didn't seem to understand him, unsurprisingly. If what they’d seen of the alien tactics suggested how their leaders thought, they would hardly want their soldiers to understand the human language. They might be talked into turning their guns on their former leaders instead. He reached for the alien, yanked him out into the open, and removed anything that could be a weapon from the alien’s belt. Up close, it was apparent that the armour the alien wore was actually part of his skin. They would be tougher than an unaugmented human, he realised, and probably faster too. Down where his butt would have been there was a mass of scar tissue, as if something had been cut off. Instinctively, he wondered if the aliens had all been castrated before they’d been sent out to the wars. Maybe that explained their willingness to follow suicidal orders. They had nothing left to live for.



    Aiden pulled out the bag and slammed it down over the alien’s head. They had had no time to invent proper restraints for the aliens, so they’d been forced to improvise. Thomas glanced back at the two wounded aliens, and then shook his head. The plan had called for leaving no survivors, apart from their prisoner, but he refused to go through with it. Besides, if he left them alive, perhaps the aliens would realise that humanity wasn't composed of mindless brutes.



    “Get him on his way,” he ordered. They’d be walking up isolated paths that – he suspected – would have been difficult for the alien to walk, without humans guiding and supporting him. “Contact the snipers and tell them...”



    The streak of light from the HVM launchers lanced up in the distance, automatically firing on the alien ground-attack craft as they raced towards the mountains. Both craft were taken by surprise and blown out of the air; their human enemies had never used such weapons before. Thomas had recovered them from one of the militia arms dumps and saved them for when they would be most effective. A moment later, streaks of light fell down from the sky, obliterating the launchers and the land around them. Thomas allowed himself a quick prayer that the operators – two volunteers from the militia – had made it out before the aliens had dropped a hammer from orbit on their heads, and then concentrated on following the Marines up into the mountain. The aliens would be after them with everything they had.



    His augments picked up two more microbursts from the spotters. “Sir, they’re launching additional ground-attack craft,” one said. “I think they're going to be coming after you.”



    “No shit, Sherlock,” Aiden said, dryly. “We have a prisoner – they’re going to want him back.”



    Thomas nodded, remembering how the Marines had fought desperately to recover captured Marines during the deployment to Eden, one of the more misnamed worlds in the outer sectors. It struck him, suddenly, that Eden was likely to be under threat as well from the mysterious aliens; maybe, if the Marines hadn't done so good a job at beating and disarming the various rebel factions, they would be better prepared for the aliens. But there hadn't been any other choice. Maybe the revolt had begun as an uprising against a corrupt governor and several corporations intent on stripping the planet bare, but it had broken down into faction fighting and mass slaughter before the Marines arrived...



    He pushed the thought aside angrily as they scrambled up the path, heading for the hidden shuttle. God knew why the local militia had decided to conceal an assault shuttle in a hidden location – everyone they might have asked was dead now, as the aliens didn't seem to take prisoners – but it would work out in their favour, assuming that the rest of the plan worked. If not, they would have to take their prisoner to one of the insurgency’s underground bases and pray that the aliens didn't have some way of tracking their own people. The Marines had speculated endlessly about what kind of technology the aliens might deploy against humanity, few of their speculations had been very reassuring.



    The alien stumbled twice, almost falling down the mountainside to certain death in a rocky stream. Aiden rammed his rifle barrel into the alien’s back, forcing him forward as the Marines climbed higher. Their augments allowed them to cope with the thinning air, but the alien had no such protection. In fact, he seemed to be more vulnerable to changes in air pressure than humanity, suggesting that the aliens lived on flatter land. Perhaps the reason they were less sure of themselves in the mountains was that they were strictly lowland dwellers back home. Once the researchers got their hands on a captured alien, they would probably be able to deduce just where the aliens had evolved and send the UNNS to blast their homeworld to rubble. At least they’d be able to remove countless stars from the list of possible suspects.



    Thomas glanced upwards as a pair of alien ground-attack craft flew through the air, heading towards the Marines. He hadn't seen any signs that the craft could hover, like the helicopters the Marines deployed in happier times, but it probably wouldn't matter. The Marines bunched up around their prisoner, daring the aliens to open fire and take out their own comrade as well as the human Marines. There was a long pause and then the aliens drew back, watching from a distance. A human CO would probably have landed ground troops to engage the prisoner’s escorts directly, but the aliens seemed reluctant to risk deploying his men. Humans had the advantage up high in the mountains and they knew it.



    His augments buzzed. “Sergeant, there are several alien shuttles landing on the far side of the mountain range,” one of the other spotters reported. “I count upwards of three hundred enemy soldiers; I say again, three hundred enemy soldiers.”



    “Understood,” Thomas said. The aliens might have a point; if they couldn't face the humans on equal terms in the mountains, they would prevent the humans from coming down and engaging their bases. If they were determined to turn New Marseilles into a colony world...



    ...He shivered, remembering watching as the aliens waded into the sea and swam under the waves. Planets were big, with wide ranges of terrain, but some were more suitable for colonisation than others. If they regarded New Marseilles as prime territory, they wouldn't give it up without a fight. No doubt the aliens could eat fish from the sea, just as the human settlers had done in the first few years of settlement. And then they could start seeding their own farms on the ruins of humanity’s settlements.



    “We’re making the final climb now,” he added. “I want you and your fellows to pull back, but stay under cover. You don’t want to give them a clear shot at you.”



    The uttermost layers of the mountain were honeycombed with caves, some large enough to conceal an entire Marine division. Over the last two weeks, the Marines had explored the caves, suspecting that they would have to use them to store weapons and equipment. More importantly, unless the aliens had technology that the Marines didn't expect, they couldn’t hope to track them once they got under a shield of rock. He paused outside a gash in the rock that led into the cave network and stared up at the alien craft, watching as they orbited the Marine position. They might not intend to move, but it no longer mattered. As far as he was concerned, they could watch the gash in the rock for the rest of eternity.



    He smiled as they walked further into the caves, relying on their augmented eyes to see in the darkness. The caves were host to all manner of strange creatures, including some that were deadly poisonous to humans, but they generally stayed out of humanity’s way. He watched as the alien was bundled up a rock face that looked sheer, at least to the unknowing eye. The hidden handholds would allow the Marines to climb up without delay and make their way along a series of barely-charted tunnels until they reached the hidden shuttle. They’d already checked it and confirmed that it was still in working order.



    “Send the signal,” he ordered. They’d positioned their laser communicator outside, concealing it from all, but random chance detection. But as long as the aliens were reluctant to start exploring the mountains on the ground, they were unlikely ever to detect its presence. Unless they had something that could actually pick up on laser communications...he pushed the thought aside, angrily. They didn't have time to worry. All they could do was pray. “Tell the Captain that we will be ready to move in twenty minutes.”



    The assault shuttle was an older design than the Raptors the Marines used for landing on hostile planets, but like most UN-produced shuttles it was easy to fly if one already had some flight training. Thomas nodded for Andrew and Aiden to take care of the alien as he walked forward into the cabin, bringing the shuttle’s systems online. He rather doubted that the aliens would remain reluctant to open fire on the shuttle if they believed that there was a reasonable chance that the humans would actually get their captive off-planet. There were Marines who would order one of their own killed to save him from interrogation and death; he dared not assume that the aliens would be any different. He ran through the complete series of pre-flight checks, ensuring that the shuttle’s weapons were online and functioning. Whoever had hidden the shuttle, and ensured that the secret was passed on to a handful of farmers who doubled as militiamen, had done the Marines a vast favour. It was a shame that he had probably died along with Paris when the aliens nuked the city.



    “We're ready,” he said, finally. Now, all they could do was wait – and hope that the spacers managed to complete their part of the plan. They’d had weeks to prepare while the Marines had had bare hours, but somehow that wasn't very reassuring. If the aliens had wiped out Invincible and her task force quickly enough to prevent most of the ships from escaping, the spacers would be in serious trouble. “Are you all buttoned down back there?”



    “Yes, father,” Andrew called. He sounded stressed – and trying to joke around to conceal his stress. Not that Thomas could blame him. They might take the aliens on even terms on the planet, but flying up to orbit would expose them to the alien starships. A single shot from the alien weapons was all it would take to vaporise the shuttle and its passengers. “We’re all strapped in and ready to go.”



    “Good,” Thomas said. He brought the shuttle’s drives online and settled back to wait. “Just keep one eye on our guest. We don't want him dead before the researchers get their hands on him.”
     
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  18. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Thirteen



    New Marseilles

    16th April 2435



    “The Marines are signalling,” McLaughlin reported. “They’re ready to go.”



    Janine nodded. Finding an intact shuttle on the planet below had been a lucky break, one that might make the difference between success and failure. “Order the picket to jump,” she ordered. “And then prepare to bring up our weapons and active sensors.”



    Picket ships were the smallest jump-capable ships in existence, small enough to fit comfortably into Rubicon’s shuttlebay. It was incredibly difficult to coordinate an offensive operation across light years, but using pickets to carry messages from one fleet to the other made it a little easier – not that any tactician worth her salt would try to coordinate a two-pronged offensive unless there was any other choice. Too much could go wrong, leaving both halves of the offensive vulnerable to defeat in detail. But this time there was only one prong of any significance.



    “The picket has gone,” McLaughlin said. His voice hardened suddenly. “I’m getting active sensor sweeps off the two closest Alphas, Captain. They must have detected the picket’s departure.”



    “Unsurprisingly,” Janine said. The aliens would probably have detected the pickets that Admiral Davidson had sent to fly through the system, even if they hadn't managed to intercept them. Chances were that they would consider the pickets scouts for an attack force, even if one hadn't materialised before. It was what the UNNS would have done in their position. “Keep us here, but get ready to bring up the flux drive if they start advancing towards us.”



    She watched the aliens as they slowly came alive, active sensors scanning for any threats within engagement ranges. The surveillance platforms should have been undetectable, but there was no way of knowing just how capable the alien active sensor sweeps actually were – at least not until now. If nothing else, this mission would provide valuable data on the alien sensor arrays.



    “Two of the Alphas seem to be preparing to leave orbit, Captain,” McLaughlin said. “I think they’re flash-waking their systems.”



    “Keep an eye on them,” Janine ordered. Down on the planet, the Marines were preparing to fly to orbit – but they wouldn't stand a chance unless the aliens were drawn out of position. The data from Cadiz revealed that their planetary bombardment weapons actually had a longer range than their standard death rays. “And...”



    “Multiple new contacts,” McLaughlin snapped. “I read eleven contacts, all friendly; I say again, eleven contacts, all friendly.”



    Janine smiled as blue icons appeared on the screen, heading down towards the planet at considerable speed. One assault carrier, three escort carriers and seven freighters, modified according to one of the tactical plans for evening the odds against alien death rays. Down below, all of the alien craft were coming to life, bringing up their weapons and sensors, probing the oncoming fleet. If they were lucky, the aliens would conclude that there was no other starships hiding in the system; the picket had merely slipped in, scanned the system and jumped out again to the waiting fleet. One by one, the alien warships slipped out of orbit, concentrating their forces against the oncoming fleet. The craft that Janine’s crew had provisionally classed as freighters remained in orbit, waiting.



    “Slip us down into orbit,” she ordered, calmly. “And then send the signal to the Marines. It's time to go.”



    ***

    “That's the signal,” Stewart snapped. “The alien craft are out of position. It's time to go.”



    Thomas tapped a command and pre-positioned explosives detonated, shattering the sheer rock face in front of the hidden hanger. He had no idea how the militia had managed to get the shuttle up into the hanger, but right now it hardly mattered. The shuttle came to life as the alien craft swooped upwards, coming to investigate the explosion they’d seen while they waited for the Marines to slip out of their holes. Thomas gunned the shuttle’s drives and the craft leapt forward, out into the open air. There was a heart-stopping moment when the shuttle dipped sharply as soon as it emerged from the hanger, just before it shuddered and started to climb upwards towards orbit – and the waiting starship.



    “Get a lock on those two craft,” Thomas ordered. At such close range, it would be almost impossible to miss. “Fire!”



    The shuttle launched two missiles directly towards the alien craft, blowing both of them into fiery debris. Thomas whooped and pushed the shuttle further upwards, climbing towards orbit and watching carefully for other signs of alien aircraft. Seeing none, he launched a pair of missiles on a trajectory that should bring them down on top of the alien troopers looking for their prisoner, before concentrating on getting to orbit. New Marseilles didn't have any atmospheric tricks that would make it difficult, if not impossible, to reach orbit, but there were still those alien ships ready to intercept him. If they could intercept him...



    “I have a direct link to Rubicon,” Stewart said. “Captain Herald is moving towards us on intercept vector, but so are the alien craft.”



    Thomas winced. In theory, a starship could jump out of high orbit – but in practice, it could end up almost anywhere. If Rubicon didn’t have time to reach a safe distance from the planet, they would have to take the risk and pray that they survived. After everything they’d done on the planet since the invasion, it seemed that they’d expended all of their luck.



    “And the main body of alien ships is engaging the oncoming fleet,” Stewart added. “This doesn't look good, Sergeant.”



    “No argument there,” Thomas agreed. Outside, the blue sky was giving way to the inky blackness of space. The display showed the two massive alien ships as they closed in for the kill, clearly expecting a clean shot at the shuttle’s hull. They were probably right, Thomas realised, unless Rubicon could scare them off. And if the aliens had shattered an entire task force, they might just manage to destroy Rubicon as well as the shuttle. “Just pray...”



    ***

    Janine watched grimly as the alien ships engaged the task force. The freighters that had accompanied the warships had crammed their hulls with missies, offloading them into space as the task force slowed and began to retreat, drawing the aliens after them like flies to honey. A moment later, the aliens got a nasty surprise as the missiles came to life, raging towards them in sprint-mode. Their death rays wiped most of the missiles out of the sky, but the remainder survived to slam home into a trio of alien ships, all Alphas. One of them was blown into flaming debris; the other two fell back, trailing plasma. They jumped out before the remaining warships and starfighters could press their advantage and destroy them.



    “Captain,” McLaughlin said, “the two enemy freighters are approaching the shuttle.”



    “Drop the cloak,” Janine ordered. There was no longer any point in trying to hide. “Launch missiles towards the freighters, maximum spread. Configure them for proximity detonation.”



    Rubicon shuddered as she unleashed a spread of missiles, heading right towards the alien craft. The aliens seemed to hesitate, then bring up their drives and jump out, leaving Rubicon to pick up the shuttle without attempting to stop them any longer, Janine heard McLaughlin whoop with delight as the aliens fled, even though they were only freighters; for the first time, the UNNS had forced the aliens to retreat.



    “Pick up the shuttle,” she ordered, quickly. The remainder of the alien ships in the system were warships. “And then prepare to jump us out of here...”



    “Shit,” McLaughlin said. “They jumped...”



    Janine watched the disaster unfold, unable to look away from the screen. One of the alien craft had micro-jumped through space, appearing within point-blank range of the assault carrier. Its death rays had rapidly burned into the assault carrier’s hull and torn it apart, before any of its escorts could open fire on the alien ship. It was already too late; the assault carrier shuddered and exploded into flaming plasma, taking her entire crew into death with her. The remainder of the task force scattered, attempting to recover the starfighters before jumping out of the system, while the aliens calmly wiped out every starfighter within range.



    I hope that a live alien is worth it, she thought. Admiral Davidson hadn't expected the enemy to be capable of such accurate micro-jumps, proving that – once again – they’re underestimated their enemy. But why were they their enemy? What had happened to make humanity so loathed by the alien race?



    “The shuttle is preparing to dock,” McLaughlin informed her.



    “Jump us out as soon as the shuttle is latched onto our hull securely,” Janine ordered. The aliens would have a chance to intercept Rubicon as well, before she could escape with her prisoner. On the screen, the last escort carrier had jumped out, leaving a handful of starfighters to their fate. It was sickening, but her commander had had no choice. “Don’t worry about calculating the jump, just get us out of here.”



    There was a long pause, just before the shuttle docked. “Jumping now,” Gayle reported. Janine’s chest clenched savagely as Rubicon folded space around her hull, before they rematerialised somewhere else. “Jump completed, Captain. We are 2.7 light years from the planet. The flux drive requires a complete shutdown and rebooting before we attempt to jump again.”



    “Understood,” Janine said. At least there hadn't been any alien ships within range to track their jump – unless, of course, the alien sensors were a lot better than humanity’s. Why shouldn't they be? Everything else they had seemed to be more advanced than the best the UN could offer. “Put us on a course that will take us well away from the jump coordinate, then start rebooting the drive. We’ll complete the trip back to Capricorn as soon as we can.”



    ***

    “Something’s wrong!”



    Thomas pulled himself out of the pilot’s chair and ran into the shuttle’s rear compartment as the airlock opened, revealing another Marine security team. The alien was thrashing about madly, powerful legs tearing through the bag they had used to secure him; hands pushing at the side of the bag as it was torn apart. Andrew and Aiden were trying to hold the alien still and not succeeding; the alien seemed utterly unconcerned about its own safety. Thomas tore the rest of the back off to see the alien’s face – if it was the alien’s face – contorted in agony.



    “He can't have reacted badly to the jump,” Stewart said, grimly. The security team grabbed the alien and tried to secure him to a stretcher. He was thrashing around so hard that it was almost impossible, kicking one Marine in the jaw and sending him crumpling to the deck. “He’s from a fucking spacefaring race, for crying out loud.”



    Finally, the Marines managed to tie the alien down and carry him off the shuttle. The alien started to howl in pain, finally straightening up...and then collapsing onto the stretcher. A doctor with experience in alien medicine arrived and started to poke away at the corpse, but Thomas already knew the answer. The alien they had risked so much to capture was dead.



    ***

    “I’m not interested in placing blame,” Janine said, two hours later. “I just want to know what went wrong.”



    “As far as I can tell – and bear in mind that this is a completely new alien race – the alien’s cells were literally ripped apart by a concealed implant,” Doctor Li said. The Sino-born doctor had been one of Capricorn’s experts on alien medicine before he’d been assigned to Rubicon to carry out the first examination of the alien prisoner. “Essentially, the alien developed a supercharged version of cancer that not only killed him, but made it very difficult to create a model of the alien’s genetic code. My best guess is that the implant was triggered when the starship jumped, preventing the alien from telling us anything after his capture.”



    Janine nodded, slowly. “Could you duplicate the effects?”



    “Maybe,” Li said, thoughtfully. “But these aliens clearly know much more about their own biology than we do. We might be able to duplicate it in a human...”



    The Marine Sergeant leaned forward. “Could we trick their implants into thinking that they’ve made an unplanned jump and kill them that way?”



    “Perhaps,” Li said. “I'm a doctor, not an engineer. I wouldn't know how to create a flux field that might appear to be an unscheduled jump.”



    Janine held up a hand. “Leave that for the moment,” she said. Maybe it was possible; attached a picket to the hull of an alien craft and then trigger the picket’s flux drive. But the picket would have to survive reaching the alien ship first and that wouldn't be easy. “What can you tell us about this race?”



    “A lot of things that don't seem to make sense,” Li said. He keyed a switch and brought up an image of the alien in front of them. “First, he appears to be male – I’ve found something that passes for testes and sperm. The penis is between the legs, but unlike a human penis it appears to stab downwards, while the legs can move upwards to allow penetration. I have not yet been able to come up with a model as to how they might mate – or, for that matter, just what one of their females would look like.



    “Second, he had something removed from here” – he tapped the image – “where a human would have his behind. Given the way the aliens walk, I am half-inclined to believe that the aliens actually had three legs before one of them was removed. There’s a great deal of hackwork in the alien body – in truth, I think this alien was actually produced from alien DNA, but heavily altered. We could be looking at an expendable soldier drone rather than a real alien.”



    “That doesn't sound good,” Janine said, thoughtfully. “Are you suggesting that they grow their warriors in a tank and then send them out to die?”



    “It's certainly within their technological level,” Li said. “I’m afraid that the suicide implant caused too much damage to the cranial area for me to make any guesses about how smart this particular alien actually was. It may have been nothing more than a drone, or it may have been a great deal smarter than us.”



    He shook his head. “I will tell you one interesting thing,” he added. “Apart from the suicide implant, there were no traces of any other implants or augmentations in its body. These aliens may not believe in implanting themselves...”



    “Or they might have saved their implants for someone a little more important,” the Marine said. “Can you at least tell us if we have encountered this race before?”



    “No,” Li admitted. “The DNA is completely scrambled. However, I would say that it is unlikely that we have previously encountered this race. There’s nothing on file that remotely reassembles it.



    “However, I would say that they would probably find all of humanity’s world’s habitable, as long as they remained in the lowlands. I think that this race remained in the sea longer than we did before we started crawling out onto the land. They may have evolved from something reassembling lobsters – the natural armour they have certainly reassembles a lobsters shell. But without a live specimen and an unaltered sample of their DNA, it is impossible to be sure. I could be completely wrong.”



    “They could live on our worlds,” Sergeant Mandell said. He snorted, bitterly. “There’s their motive for conquest right there. Worlds we have spent years making habitable, just ripe for the plucking.”



    “Or they could be fleeing a greater threat,” Li said. “We’ve seen very little of them, Sergeant. We may be missing the key to understanding their behaviour.”



    “But then they would have done better to ask us for help,” Mandell pointed out. Janine nodded. The idea that the aliens might be fleeing from someone else made no sense. “Why would they just open fire on us at first contact? They’d wind up at war with two powers, one of which must be formidable enough to make them flee.”



    He shook his head. “Maybe they are completely alien after all.”



    “Put the body in stasis and it can wait until we get back to Capricorn,” Janine ordered. The operation had effectively failed, although she suspected that Admiral Davidson and the PR officers would attempt to portray it as a victory. But an assault carrier had been lost with all hands, along with a pair of freighters, and all they had to show for it was one destroyed alien craft and an alien body that was effectively useless. At least they’d proved that nuclear-tipped missiles could damage the alien ships. “Sergeant, I’d suggest that you and your men get some downtime. The spooks on Capricorn will want to hear every detail of your engagements with the aliens on the ground.”



    “Aye, Captain,” Mandell said. Unlike some people, he didn't bother to congratulate her on succeeding to command. It had come at too high a price. “And then we can return to the war?”



    “I fear so,” Janine said. Her face tightened as she remembered the holocaust that had overwhelmed Invincible and her task force. And then a second assault carrier had been lost, in the same system. “It won’t be long before they come after Capricorn and then...God knows what will happen then.”



    There were hundreds of warships and thousands of starfighters in the Capricorn system, but would they be enough to stand off the aliens? Janine found it hard to believe that anything could just punch its way through the fleet guarding the planet, yet the aliens had shown a remarkable capability for neutralising humanity’s best weapons. Who knew what they would bring to bear against Capricorn?



    “Get some rest, Sergeant,” she said, again. “I don’t know how long it will be before any of us can rest again.”
     
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  19. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Fourteen



    Capricorn Base

    21st April 2435



    “I’m afraid the recordings from New Marseilles didn't do the peace party any good,” Grand Admiral Ivanovo’s image said. He sounded wryly amused. “The scenes of aliens slaughtering human refugees have convinced most of the swingers in the General Assembly that we have to fight to the death.”



    “Which may be what we have to do,” Admiral Davidson said, tartly. “Have the analysts produced anything actually useful?”



    “Very little,” Ivanovo admitted. “They don’t have any idea how the aliens manage to create their death rays – all of our experiments with energy weapons are several orders of magnitude less powerful than their weapons. The best they have been able to suggest is coordinating starfighter and missile strikes to force them to deal with multiple targets at once, but they’re still better at that than we are. They do have some ideas about mass drives and railgun systems being used to hit the alien craft...”



    “But the aliens are very good at dodging,” Admiral Davidson said, in some irritation. Human ships wallowed; it was possible to slam a ballistic projectile into a fleet carrier with a little luck. But the alien craft were so much more manoeuvrable that the tactic seemed unlikely to work, at least not more than once. At least it would give the aliens something else to worry about as they closed in on human fleets. “What they did to Illustrious certainly suggests that they can recharge their jump engines faster than us too.”



    “Maybe,” Ivanovo said. he shook his head. “The General Assembly is panicking – at least those who understand the realities of space combat are panicking. Those who don’t are more worried about what we’re going to do with the refugees than anything else. They are quite happy to evacuate dozens of worlds, but rather less happy about the prospect of having the refugees dumped on them. But where is the safe territory in this war?”



    Admiral Davidson nodded, sourly. The aliens – the Trolls, as they were being called after visuals of their bodies had been recovered from New Marseilles – had raided several worlds near Capricorn; jumping in, blasting everything within range and then jumping out again. Their attacks made little sense; three more planets had had their population centres nuked, while the remainder had only lost their space-based industry, spaceports and military bases. But it wasn't helping the evacuation effort; one convoy had escaped Cadiz, only to be caught and wiped out when the Trolls raided Sandoval Junction. Thousands of people had died when the Trolls pounded their ships into scrap.



    “Tell them that we may be forced to start evacuating inner worlds next,” he said, although he knew that it was likely to be impossible. The UN simply didn't have enough ships to evacuate one of the major worlds, let alone have anywhere to put the refugees afterwards. Earth had been encouraging people to leave for centuries, including deporting people for almost any crime, yet the population was still rising. “Is there any chance of support from our allies?”



    “The Polis claim to be occupied with watching the remains of the Magana,” Ivanovo said. They shared a long glance; watching the Magana was hardly a task for anything larger than a light cruiser squadron. The Magana were trapped on their homeworld, watched by a blockade force with standing orders to obliterate anything that might get them back up into space. “The Sutra are...more open about being reluctant to assist. They don’t want to pick a fight with an alien race that might be able to wipe them out.”



    We don’t want to pick a fight with them either,” Admiral Davidson nodded. “I see that gratitude isn't one of their personality traits.”



    “I’m not sure I would trust the Sutra to help, even if they were willing,” Ivanovo admitted. “God knows they’d certainly extract a price for their assistance, perhaps us looking the other way when they start raiding the Triangle. Their current Monarch is under a great deal of pressure to prove his independence from the United Nations; after all, it was us who propped up his great-grandfather. And you know that their dissident factions have never loved us.”



    It took Davidson a moment to put the pieces together. “You think that they might join the Trolls in waging war on us?”



    “It’s a possibility,” Ivanovo agreed. “So far, of course, no one has managed to communicate with the Trolls, so they may not want to expend their strength in fighting humanity when they might have to fight the Trolls next. As far as we can tell, they don’t know anything more about the Trolls than we do; they certainly don’t know how to duplicate their weapons and starship drives. They may just want to take advantage of the situation to push their own agenda forward.”



    “Taking advantage of our weakness,” Admiral Davidson said. “With friends like those, who needs enemies?”



    “That’s what the General Assembly said,” Ivanovo observed. “Some of the worlds that are likely to be in the path of the Trolls as they advance towards Earth have called for a high-level peace mission to their leaders – as if we knew where to find their leaders. The proposal seems to have stalled because there is a slight shortage of volunteers among the diplomatic corps to approach the Trolls.”



    Admiral Davidson had to smile. Ever since First Contact, the Trolls had demonstrated nothing more than unthinking hostility towards the human race. It was quite likely that any peace mission would be rapidly destroyed by the Trolls, even if they came in an unarmed ship. He wouldn't waste time feeling sorry for the politicians who refused to realise that the truth seemed to be that the Trolls weren't interested in communicating, but the starships would have crews who would be helpless if – when – the Trolls opened fire.



    “I’m still trying to scrape up as many reinforcements as I can for you,” Ivanovo continued. “The problem is that anyone who has any firepower is reluctant to let go of it right now. Two self-defence forces have flatly refused to send units to support 9th Fleet and several others are stalling. They’re also distributing weapons to civilian militias and doing what they can to evacuate their cities before the Trolls reach their territories...assuming that they do.”



    Davidson scowled. There were over a thousand warships in orbit around Capricorn, the largest and most powerful fleet the United Nations had assembled since the Magana War – and they were accompanied by nearly nine thousand starfighters. If nothing else, sheer numbers would give them an advantage against the Trolls, but the Troll death rays would ensure that his fleet took staggering losses. They might manage to beat off one attack only to be pushed out of the system by a second attack. His men had managed to scrape up several hundred shuttles and other STL ships to serve as decoys, but he knew that the Trolls wouldn’t be fooled for very long, if at all. Hundreds of thousands of lives would be lost when – if – the Trolls arrived to challenge his defences.



    “We have to assume the worst,” he said. “Thank you for your support, Admiral.”



    Ivanovo nodded, ruefully. “You’ll have everything else I can forward to you,” he said. “5th Fleet is on the way and we’re calling up the reserves right now. The General Assembly is stalling over a general declaration of martial law and the shift of all production facilities to military hardware, but we have managed to push starfighter production forward at high speed. We may end up with more starfighters than we have pilots to fly them.”



    “We should be so lucky,” Admiral Davidson said. It took six months to train a starfighter pilot, in one of the five training facilities scattered around the United Nations. There was no shortage of volunteers to fly starfighters, allowing the UNNS to pick the best and direct the others into different positions in the military. Now, standards might be allowed to slip as the UNNS grew more desperate for pilots, any pilots. “What about military conscription?”



    “They’re still stalling on that too,” Ivanovo said. “I can see their point – conscription will cause one hell of an economic earthquake – but we need that manpower.”



    He shook his head. “Let me worry about that, Admiral,” he concluded. “Take care of your ships and men.”



    Admiral Davidson nodded as Ivanovo’s image vanished. Projecting a real-time conversation through the StarCom network was always expensive, but the Grand Admiral had the authority to make a call if necessary. And it did help if his subordinates heard his updates directly from his mouth...shaking his head, Davidson looked up at the chart showing alien attacks on humanity’s settled worlds. It wouldn't be long before the Trolls came to Capricorn.



    He tapped a switch. “Send in Captain Herald,” he ordered.



    ***

    Janine had been waiting outside the Admiral’s office, feeling unaccountably nervous at the unexpected summons to face Admiral Davidson in his own territory. Normally, someone so high-ranking wouldn't want to meet a subordinate directly – but Janine had been under Admiral Hanson’s command and Admiral Hanson was dead. She wasn't sure if she was in trouble, or if the Admiral wished to commend her in person. The medals she and her crew had been given for their part in the rescue mission to New Marseilles didn't protect them from a chewing out if the Admiral felt that they had screwed up in some way.



    She walked into the Admiral’s office and snapped to attention, saluting him properly. His office was unsurprisingly large, with a big holographic display showing the fleet base and the thousands of starships surrounding the planets. Unlike a starship, there was plenty of room on a command base – although the cynic in her suspected that the junior officers and enlisted crew had much smaller quarters. Admiral Davidson returned her salute and then waved for her to take a seat. Janine sat, still unsure of what was happening.



    “At ease, Captain,” the Admiral said. “I trust that the media vultures weren't too much of a problem?”



    Janine winced. Capricorn Base was playing host to hundreds of reporters, including some who had been evacuated from threatened worlds and brought to the base, probably because nowhere else was willing to take them. The Admiral’s PR staff had suggested that Janine and her crew should make time to speak with them, just to convince the reporters that the human race might be technologically inferior to this new foe, but they could still produce victories. Calling their rescue mission to New Marseilles a victory was stretching the truth a little, Janine felt, but she understood the value of good media relations. The last thing they needed was for the inner worlds to become defeatist.



    “They sucked us dry,” Janine said, finally. The Admiral smiled at her remark. At least the media reports would go through the censors first, just to make sure that any sensitive data was edited out before the Trolls picked up on it. There had been nothing to suggest that the Trolls were interested in monitoring human transmissions, but there was no point in taking unnecessary risks. “I...”



    The Admiral spoke over her. “It has been decided that the alien corpse will be transported to a secret base near Earth,” he said. “I have assigned you and Rubicon to transport the corpse to the base, at which point you will be assigned to assist the analysis team as they study the alien technology and attempt to devise countermeasures. You and your crew have more experience facing the aliens than anyone else; you’ll take a couple of analysts from my base on your ship as well before you depart.”



    “Yes, sir,” Janine said, unable to hide her surprise. There were officers who would have welcomed a chance to escape Capricorn before the Trolls landed on top of it, but she had expected to fight and die beside her comrades. “With all due respect, sir...why us?”



    Admiral Davidson looked up at her. “Because you do have the experience – and you have a growing reputation,” he said. He smiled, rather thinly. “You have been keeping up with the media reports, haven’t you?”



    “No, sir,” Janine admitted. She hadn't had the time; Rubicon had lost a third of her crew during the refit and no one had been able to dig up replacements before they set out for new Marseilles. Janine had effectively been serving as her own XO as well as Captain; she was uncomfortably aware that if they ran into real trouble they were dangerously undermanned. Damage control would be a real problem if the alien weapons had been less effective. “What have they been saying about me?”



    “They’re calling you a hero for your brave escape from New Marseilles,” the Admiral informed her. Janine found herself blushing in horror. “Right now, the media thinks that you walk on water and can kill with a glance. If you happen to want to retire, you could go on the lecture service and enjoy more clout than most of the ex-Admirals the media has dragged up to provide commentary on the war.”



    Janine swallowed the response that came to mind. “Sir...”



    “Enjoy it while it lasts,” Admiral Davidson said. “The media are vultures – and once they’ve built you up they will be happy to tear you down. However, it does give us a problem – and an opportunity. Sending you to Earth might give us a chance to use your fame to boost civilian morale...”



    “Sir,” Janine said, slowly, “permission to speak freely?”



    “Granted,” the Admiral said, “although I think I can guess what you want to say.”



    Janine scowled. “I didn't join the Navy to be a media hero,” she protested. “I can’t just leave everyone else behind and run off to Earth...”



    “Your duty is to go where the Navy needs you to go,” Davidson said, flatly. He looked down at the desk for a long moment, and then back up at her. “I won’t lie to you, Captain. Right now, the inner worlds are in a state of complacency and the outer worlds are in a state of terror. The inner worlds have been safe for so long that the idea that something – anything – might be able to threaten them is beyond their ability to grasp. Why shouldn't it be? They’re protected by the all-powerful United Nations Naval Service, which they pay for and effectively control. But that also means that they are reluctant to make sacrifices and that they are willing to give up something that doesn't belong to them to ensure peace.



    “The outer worlds are far too aware that alien threats can destroy them, but they don’t have the political clout to convince the inner worlds that that is true. They’re also suspicious of the inner worlds, particularly the homeworlds that seed colonies out along the edge of explored space and the corporations that can muscle their way into a position of power and then start raping the colonies to death. Right now, they need support from the inner worlds and that support isn't going to be coming unless we manage to convince the inner worlds that our backs are pushed against the wall.”



    Janine blinked in surprise. “But they have to know just how badly the Trolls hammered us in the early engagements...”



    “But they don’t really grasp it,” the Admiral said. “The inner worlds are separated from New Marseilles by hundreds of light years. They don’t really believe that the Trolls can reach their worlds to threaten them – the all-powerful Navy will stop them long before the Trolls can get anywhere near the inner worlds. And I wish that that was true, but looking at the records it’s easy to tell that we’re going to take a beating when the Trolls finally come for Capricorn. The Navy needs you to help convince the inner worlds that we have to make serious preparations for war.”



    Janine looked up at the holographic star chart and shook her head. The Admiral was right; the Trolls were a long way from the inner worlds...but they wouldn't stay a long way from the inner worlds. Unless their tactical doctrine was radically different from humanity’s, they would have to punch out Capricorn before advancing further into human space, if only to prevent Capricorn from raiding the occupied planets and their supply lines at will. No, they’d engage Capricorn as soon as they could – and God alone knew what they’d bring to bear against an entire base. The Admiral might find himself fighting a losing battle.



    “I understand, sir,” she said. “I won’t let you down.”



    “Thank you, Captain,” the Admiral said. “I’m having the alien body and the analysts transferred to your ship now, following which you can depart as soon as possible. The analysis team will continue to study the body, but I doubt they will find anything new...”



    Janine nodded, sourly. The analysis team had largely agreed with Doctor Li; the alien corpse had been an engineered creature, rather than something that had evolved naturally. It was a chilling thought; they might not have seen the real aliens at all, even on occupied worlds. What they needed, desperately, was an intact alien craft to study – and, so far, they had been driven away from all battlefields. Holding Capricorn might just give them the chance to capture an alien craft reasonably intact.



    “Good luck, Admiral,” she said, as she stood up. Her crew had been granted liberty, but they’d been warned not to go too far from the airlock where Rubicon was docked. If the aliens turned up, they'd have to cast off from the command station as quickly as possible, before the aliens had a chance to start firing on the base. “Is there anything else you wish us to transport to Earth?”



    “I would feel bad about using your ship to convoy a personal letter from me,” Davidson said. “I just hope that your luck holds out, Captain. We’re going to need it.”
     
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  20. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Chapter Fifteen



    Capricorn Base

    21st April 2435



    Flight Captain Connie Chung woke up as the alarms sounded throughout the fleet carrier, calling the crew to battlestations. There was someone else in bed with her...for a moment, her memory failed her and then she remembered meeting a transfer Flight Captain from Capricorn in the Officer’s Mess. One drink had led to another and then she’d found herself inviting him back to her cabin for the night, if only because she had been thoroughly stressed trying to train up five maggots – new pilots – to standards that would render them actually fit for combat.



    “Get up,” she snapped at the man, as she slapped his ass. “Move, you stupid bastard!”



    He started awake and then started grabbing for his shipsuit. Connie would have laughed if she hadn't been so busy pulling her suit over her body and then donning her helmet and running out of the hatch. The starfighter pilots were racing to their craft, while the carrier’s support personnel hastily powered them up for immediate launch. Either the Captain or the CAG had decided to order a drill, or the Trolls had entered the system, bent on shredding 9th Fleet before it grew any stronger. She felt uncomfortably dirty as she entered the tubes and ran across to her fighter, but there was no time for a shower. If the fleet was under attack, they had to be out in space as quickly as possible or they’d die when the Trolls blasted the fleet carrier with their death rays.



    “I’ve fixed the additional torpedoes to your rack,” one of the flight deck staff bellowed. Connie barely heard him over the racket of a dozen starfighters powering up for launch. “You should be able to fire them all through the main firing control.”



    Connie nodded as she scrambled up the ladder and clambered down into the cockpit. The general consensus was that the aliens simply didn't have starfighters of their own, which meant that all of the starfighters could concentrate on launching torpedoes against the enemy craft rather than half of them providing cover to the other half, keeping enemy starfighters off their backs. There was no logical reason why the enemy couldn't have starfighters – they were certainly humanoid, unlike the Polis – but Connie wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth. Humanity had so few advantages in this war that they needed to make the most of what they had.



    “All fighters, this is the CAG,” a voice said, as she linked into the starfighter’s computer system. “The Trolls have entered the system in force; I say again, the Trolls have entered the system in force. Prepare for immediate launch.”



    Connie ran her hand down the set of switches, confirming that the starfighter was manned, powered up and ready to go. A moment later, the craft slid forward into the launch tubes and there was a clunk as the blast doors came up to protect the deck staff. Her HUD came to life in front of her eyes, displaying a swarm of red icons approaching the system from on a vector that suggested they came from the direction of Cadiz. It was hard to be sure, but they seemed almost determined to hang back, rather than simply charging the human starships. After the micro-jumping tactic they’d shown at New Marseilles, Connie was rather surprised. Or maybe it wasn't such a surprise; there were so many human ships near the command base that they might intersect with a human ship and both starships would be blown into flaming debris. The Admiral had been scattering debris around in the hopes that the aliens would do just that.



    “Blue Squadron,” the CAG said, “launch!”



    Connie winced as the force of the launch pushed her back into her chair. The starfighter was boosted out of the carrier and into open space, with hundreds of other starfighters forming up into attack wings. There was a brief exchange of signals between the various squadron commanders and then Blue Squadron fell into position behind Red and White Squadrons. They had a higher percentage of veterans than Blue Squadron and therefore had been given the rather dubious honour of leading the first assault. Connie had heard that their CO had suggested sending the maggots in first, a suggestion that had resulted in him nearly being punched by the CAG. But they were all stressed out, knowing that they be swatted out of existence the next time they encountered the alien ships.



    “This is System Command,” a new voice said. “I make the enemy fleet as being thirty-seven Alphas, fifty-two Betas. Watch the Betas, pilots; we believe that they have no blind spot to use against them.”



    Connie nodded, sourly. The starfish-shaped alien craft had enough firepower to pick off hundreds of starfighters – they might be the alien version of an antifighter cruiser – and, lacking a blind spot, the pilots would be exposed all the way into their attack runs. Tactical analysts had suggested that the aliens might not have armed them with the truly formidable death rays the larger cruisers used against human starships, but Connie suspected that it didn't matter. The alien weapons were formidable enough to take out entire starships even when not on the highest possible settling.



    The alien craft were getting closer, fanning out into a formation that looked vaguely familiar, not unlike a standard UNNS formation for beating off starfighter attacks. Connie gritted her teeth as she saw the Betas moving into covering position, ready to intercept any human starfighter that dared try to make a run on the larger ships. But the Betas were less of a problem than the cruisers; they already knew that they didn't dare allow the Alphas into firing range of the fleet if it was at all possible to keep them away. A great many pilots were about to die today.



    “Starships firing...now,” System Command said. On the HUD, the human starships had launched over a thousand missiles, aimed directly at the alien craft. Chances were that they would try to jump away from the missiles, Connie had been warned, but it would still force them to react to something the human race did rather than the other way around. “Prepare to enter chaotic formation as soon as the missiles shoot past you.”



    Connie nodded, feeling tension gripping at her chest. According to the tactical analysts, combining missile and starfighter strikes would force the aliens to divert their firepower to deal with the missiles while the starfighters got close enough to unload their torpedoes into the alien craft at point-blank range. Connie was rather less sanguine about their chances of success – the aliens had already displayed a remarkable ability to swing their weapons from target to target – but anything that gave them a fighting chance wasn't to be sneered at. They’d also launched ECM warheads and other surprises, hoping that they would deny the aliens the use of at least some of their tricks. But then, Connie reflected, the aliens probably had plenty of other tricks the human race hadn't seen yet.



    “Missiles coming up our butts,” one of the other squadron commanders said. “Watch your backs.”



    Connie nodded, grimly. The seeker heads were supposed to know the difference between a human starfighter and an alien target, but it wouldn't be the first time technology had failed in the field, no matter what the technicians claimed. She adjusted course slightly to allow one of the missiles to rage past her, its drive lancing it directly towards one of the alien cruisers. A moment more and it would be in firing range.



    “Chaotic formation, now,” she ordered. The starfighters slid into their new formation, ducking and weaving as they charged towards the alien fleet. Ahead of them, the alien craft were already beginning to blaze with light as their point defence fired on the missiles – and proving, in passing, that the Betas were devilishly effective platforms for antifighter fire. Only a handful of missiles survived to enter terminal attack phase and slam into the alien craft, destroying two of the Betas and damaging one of the Alphas. A moment later, the damaged Alpha jumped out and vanished, prompting a cheer from the fighter pilots. They’d forced an enemy craft to retreat. “And engage!”



    Space seemed to light up with flickers of light as the alien craft opened fire on the starfighters, attempting to pick them off before they got into firing range. Connie threw her fighter through a series of evasive manoeuvres as they closed in on the alien ships, finally entering engagement range just after a bolt of light nearly vaporised her starfighter and herself. There was no time for organised strikes – post-battle analysis of the Battle of Cadiz had suggested that the aliens used those brief moments to concentrate their fire and pick off additional starfighters – but there were so many starfighters in the assault force that several others would follow her in. She unleashed three of her torpedoes into the alien craft’s hull and then pulled away, spinning the craft through a random evasive pattern as the aliens concentrated on burning her torpedoes out of space. They were effectively sprint-mode missiles, fired at nearly point-blank range, but the aliens still managed to pick off two of them before the third slammed into their hull. The detonation shredded some of the alien armour, creating a blind spot in their defences. Another flight of starfighters would be able to take advantage of it if they realised it was there.



    She glanced down at her HUD as she pulled away from the alien craft, attempting to round up what remained of Blue Squadron. Four pilots – all maggots – had died, picked off by the alien craft; the survivors had managed to unload their torpedoes and escape the aliens before they were obliterated too. But they might have been the lucky ones. Nearly a thousand starfighters had been wiped out of existence by the aliens before they managed to launch their torpedoes and escape.



    The aliens had taken a pounding, thankfully. Five Alphas had been destroyed outright, with two more damaged, forced to jump out and escape. Nine Betas had been picked off, although assaulting those starships was even more dangerous than assaulting the Alphas. Very few of the pilots who slipped into attack position managed to survive long enough to launch their torpedoes and escape. But they were still coming, racing towards the base at terrifying speed. The human starships were still launching missiles, yet it wouldn't be long before they had to jump out themselves or face the alien death rays at close range. And then they’d be unable to return to the battle...



    “Form up on me,” she ordered. At least they’d drilled forming impromptu squadrons from the remainder of pre-battle squadrons. White Squadron had been effectively wiped out, leaving only one pilot alive to return to the fight. Several other squadrons had been obliterated right down to the last pilot. “Prepare to return to the attack.”



    ***

    “Alien craft will be within attack range in one minute, Admiral,” the tactical officer said. “Should I signal the cruisers to withdraw?”



    “Not yet,” Admiral Davidson said, calmly. The cruisers were in position to intercept the alien craft, which was a laughable preposition considering the firepower the aliens could bring to bear. “Tell them to continue firing and prepare to trigger the laser warheads on my command.”



    The alien craft sliced closer to the cruisers, their weapons blazing as they wiped the human missiles out of space before they could get into attack range. It would only be a few seconds before they could start targeting the launch platforms directly, but there would be a slight window of opportunity...the seconds ticked away, right until the very last moment...



    “Fire,” Davidson ordered. A hundred nuclear warheads, their power channelled into high-energy gamma-ray laser beams, fired as one. The concept of laser heads had been dreamed up in the days before First Contact, but they had generally been dismissed as ineffective and wasteful. But there was no way that the alien death rays could block a laser beam and prevent it striking alien hulls. “The cruisers are to jump as soon as they come under attack.”



    The alien craft seemed to stagger as the laser beams dug into their hulls. Whatever they used to produce their craft was at least as tough as standard hullmetal, but the analysts had deduced that they needed the hull relatively intact to channel the power of their death rays. The bomb-pumped lasers swept across the alien hulls, melting the armour and slicing into the interior before the bombs destroyed themselves. A moment later, the shocked alien craft returned to the attack, firing at everything that might pose a threat. Nearly a dozen cruisers died before the remainder jumped out and vanished, leaving the alien craft tormented by starfighters and out of position to engage the cruisers.



    For a moment, everything seemed to come to a halt, leaving Davidson wondering if the aliens would fall back and retreat. They’d certainly been given a bloody nose. But instead the aliens started moving again; ignoring the command base, they headed directly for the carriers and their escorts, aware that without the carriers the starfighters would be crippled and effectively rendered helpless. Once the starfighters were gone, they could wipe out the remainder of the fleet and the command base at leisure.



    “Order the starfighters to return to the attack,” he ordered. The carriers were already launching the rearmed starfighters and directing them to cover their motherships. If worst came to worst, the carriers would have to jump out and return to pick up the starfighters once the battle was over, assuming that the aliens didn't follow the carriers and wipe them out before it was too late. “We have got to protect those ships!”



    ***

    “Our target is Beta-nine,” Connie said, as the remains of Blue Squadron followed her back into the fire. The aliens had taken a nasty blow; the updates from the combat analysis team suggested that some of their ships had lost their ability to fire their weapons in any direction. If the bomb-pumped lasers had actually worked, it was quite possible that they could win this battle. “Form up on me and prepare to engage the enemy.”



    The aliens were blazing away furiously, blasting anything that could be a threat. Connie watched helplessly as they picked off a pair of lifepods from the damaged cruisers, followed by sweeping their weapons over the cruiser debris so ferociously that the remains were wiped out of existence. Their tactics didn't make any sense to her, unless they believed that the debris was being used to conceal other weapons. It would have been true if there had been time to prepare the entire system and turn it into a death trap. Rumour had it that the RockRats were doing just that after Beta Nine – the irony wasn't lost on her – had been hit by the trolls.



    They raced closer to the alien ships, slipping into chaotic formation just before they entered the enemy’s engagement range. The aliens had to be feeling a little harassed; the fleet carriers had launched the rearmed starfighters from the other direction, trapping them between two waves of starfighter attacks. But then, they were effectively able to fire in any direction; their blasts lanced out and lashed into the starfighters, forcing them to scatter and therefore dilute their attack. It wasn't as effective as picking off the starfighters one by one, but it was effective enough to disrupt the attack patterns that gave them their best chance of inflicting serious damage.



    Beta-nine twisted in front of the squadron, spitting fire in all directions. Connie braced herself as another burst of light shot past her starfighter, just before she saw two of Blue Squadron simply wink out of existence as the aliens scored two direct hits. She activated her targeting systems, armed her remaining torpedoes and fired them directly towards the alien craft. As always, the aliens swept their fire back towards the torpedoes, hoping to wipe them out before they could strike home. Connie cursed out loud as all three torpedoes were vaporised and destroyed, just before the aliens resumed firing at Blue Squadron. They were less lucky with the next starfighter, which accidentally rammed right into the alien craft. The resulting explosion created a blind spot which allowed the remainder of the squadron to fire their missiles directly into the starship, blowing it away in a series of brilliant explosions.



    “Target destroyed,” she reported, with some relief. Thirty-seven starfighters had accompanied her on her attack run, nine survived to break away from the remains of the alien craft. They would have to link up with other shattered formations...no, they would have to return to the carriers and rearm before they returned to the fight. There was no point in challenging the enemy without weapons. “Prepare to...”



    Something slammed into the rear of her starfighter; the entire craft shuddered violently and threatened to break apart. Connie didn't hesitate; she grabbed the ejector level, braced herself and exploded outwards into the inky darkness of space. A moment later, the remains of her starfighter exploded underneath her, leaving her alone in space. The battle, as far as she was concerned, was over.



    Carefully, she checked her life support and realised that she had enough air to survive for another hour. The emergency beacon had already been disabled; it wasn't something that any of the pilots found comforting, but the Trolls had already demonstrated their willingness to fire on lifepods. She shook her head as she settled into the chair, hoping – praying – that another human ship would be able to recover her before she ran out of life support. At least, she told herself, if the aliens saw her and fired on her she wouldn't know it before it was too late.



    In the distance, she could see brief flashes of light. The battle was, if anything, far from over.
     
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