Admiral Marie Collot gazed out the frosty viewport at the hull plates as they caught the first rays to reach them from Wolf-489. For maybe the thousandth time she said a silent thanks to the person who had decided that the 3rd fleet of the L'Astromarine Des FSE would not fly into space in dull greys and insipid whites. Every time they entered a system and the strengthening light began to play across the hull, picking up slivers of blue, flashes of red and glowing tendrils of white, she was struck by how the colours lancing through the deep dark of the void reminded her of the great windows in the cathedral of Chatre. She shivered then. And despite the fact that they were on alert with gravity and heating at minimal levels, their precious energy diverted to weaponry and sensors, she shivered not because she was cold, but because she had ceased to think of Earth as home. She had been in command of the VFE Richelieu, a Chirac class dreadnought, for the last five of the seventeen years since she made Captain. Seventeen years of long patrols and alien vistas, countless jumps, harrowing isolation, and war. Seventeen years whose honorarium had been the knowledge that she had more in common with her adversaries in this shadow world than she did with those in whose name she toiled.
Marie forced herself to turn from the window. There was no place for such thoughts today. She had a job to do and right now that was to make sure that UNSC Intendant Henri Zidane made it back to Earth. She would normally have riled at such a lame assignment as conveying a dignitary back to Earth, especially one who laboured under the belief humanity would unite. The First Intersentient War was not going well. The Kra'vak were seemingly ruthless and it was taking time for the human commanders to familiarise and anticipate the alien ways of their new opponents. The Sa'Vasku were an arcanum, their motivations and intentions beyond human comprehension, and though their interventions had been helpful, it was felt they had not been completely forthcoming. As for the human alliance, they were opposing sides of an unresolved war and little had really changed. Each reversal, each mistake saw the tensions rise, saw the blame laid and allegations fly, opportunism and even blatant piracy was rife. Since the Caleb incident, and the consolidation of fleets by the major powers for the current offensive against the Ka'Vak, the UNSC had been frugal with its fleet deployment information and had kept most commanders on short leashes and a need to know basis. It did not engender particularly satisfying feelings amongst those who had been working off personal initiative during much of the later stages of the Third Solar War. However, apparently the UNSC's actions were more than justified. The report Marie had read a week ago was disturbing, it was also the reason she had agreed to lead the convoy taking Intendant Zidane back to Earth.
The jump series out to the rim worlds, where the forces of humanity had gathered to prosecute the first major human offensive of the InterSentient War, is a long and arduous one. Crews could burn out easily and so the UNSC had negotiated 'resting rights' on the outer edges of many of the systems along the way. Thus, fleets from the major and minor powers alike had become a common sight on the outer edges of these systems. During the final month of the offensive's build-up traffic flow through the 'rest systems' had been particularly hectic with fleets passing through every few days. This had been particularly true for the inhabitants of the Inner Colony system of Sirius, the system the Independent Antarctic States, the IAS, call home. It was a fairly important jump node as FSE and NSL and even some ESU vessels had to pass through there to reach the areas being harassed by the Kra'Vak. Traffic had been at peak levels there for well over six weeks before it had quietened down again, with most of the fleets finally well on to their way to the rim. The Richelieu had been a part of the final FSE and NSL contingents that had jumped out from Sirius 3 weeks ago. The force was actually supposed to be a tri-nation force heading off to act as reserves for the assault on the Kra'Vak strongholds around Beta Trianguli Australis , but they'd had been forced to leave their ESU counterparts still sitting on the system's edge as a jump engine malfunction in the superdreadnought had delayed their scheduled departure. However the Eurasian fleet's subsequent actions and its Admiral's logs had shown these mechanical difficulties to be nothing more than the opening ruse of yet another pathetic betrayal...
"The IAS have hailed three times now inquiring about whether our engines are cycling properly and asking to be notified if we're preparing to jump. Their forward observation drones have obviously detected that we've been powering up, but I'm confident that they won't guess our true intentions until we're well underway into their system. It's been 6 days now since the other fleets left, long enough from them to be far away, and nothing more powerful than a cargo hauler is officially scheduled to come in for weeks. The IAS worlds will make a perfect jumping off platform for our Inner Systems Campaign. With most of the fleets out fighting the Kra'Vak it shouldn't take much to clear the other forces out of this system and by the time anyone can do anything about it, we'll be entrenched...
...I don't know how they found us out, but we've just detected the entire IAS Warforce on an intercept course. We should meet them in 2.3 hours, just off their science stations around Ronne. No matter though they will stand little chance against our best. They're little more than a ragtag bunch of scientists and UNSC lapdogs playing soldiers. We will be all but unopposed..."
They weren't, for there is only one thing more committed than a cornered, or desperate, man and that's one whose protecting his family. With just over 1.5 hours to contact, the IAS fleet commander hailed the ESU requesting updates on status and intentions. The silence which greeted their efforts was obviously answer enough as neither fleet hesitated when they eventually entered weapons range. The IAS Warforce suffered extensive casualties at the hand of the more experienced, more powerful and numerically superior ESU force, but they did not budge. As ship after ship fell more stepped up to fill the line, they could do nothing more because falling back meant losing their home. Even the sublight boats and lightly armed explorers stationed at Ronne joined the affray. However, for all their tenacity, the IAS were doing little beyond moderate damage to the invasion fleet and ultimately they could do little more than slow the force down. After two hours of such carnage even Admiral Zermansky was unsettled by the loss of life and offered the IAS forces an honourable surrender, they did not accept...
"... These stubborn dogs refuse to see reason. How can sublight boats hope to do little more than clog up our jets when their carrier and battleships already lie wrecked about us? I must admit their courage impresses me, they have a spirit I did not expect of such cowering intellectuals. However, their efforts will all be in vain. We should be in ortillery range of Adelie within 5.4 hours..."
Less than half of an hour after these words were logged the ESU Inner Systems Campaign was over and the Admiral was dead. At a little after midnight Adelie time the largest UNSC fleet ever formed jumped into the Sirius system just spinward of Ronne's orbital path. At the core of the armada was a force of ships, their like never seen before, they were of the highest technology and sleekest design. Commissioned within hours of the initial reports of first contact, these vessels were not subject to the whim of any nation state, these belonged to the UNSC alone. Around this flock of silent raptors hovered a bizarre flotilla of mixed designs and clashing colours. Not as arresting technologically, these vessels were astounding for what they represented. The smallest of nations who had spent over half a century chopping and changing sides in the Solar Wars as often as they changed governments had finally thrown their lot behind one goal and had ratified this act by sending all that they had. The IAS command had only received word of the fleet's impending arrival by fast courier boat that morning. The IAS force that had met the ESU off Ronne hadn't been sent to investigate the ESU, rather it had been on its way to rendezvous with the UNSC forces. The vessels of the IAS navy, headed up by their new Battleship fresh from its shakedown cruise, were to be the leadships of the left wing of this new multipartite fleet. The ESU forces themselves would have been notified by the IAS command of the imminent arrival if they hadn't already broken off communications. The variegated armada must have been a commanding sight, it proved to be a decisive one. Literally moments before jumpspace had birthed this juxtaposition of humanity the IAS had launched its largest and final assault. Fighters, torpedos, missiles and beams arrowing through space as if they were the coordinated limbs of some nightmarish chimera. To the IAS's horror the ESU superdreadnought did not react, it was as if it were some skittish fox held rigid by the glare of oncoming lights. The IAS fleet commander couldn't know whether Zermansky was distracted or cowered by the UNSC's arrival, either way it was going to be slaughter. He barked orders to try and divert the barrage, see it harmlessly pass its mark and then he prayed the ESU would do something to protect themselves. In answer, as if it were Gulliver shaking himself free from the Lilliputian's bindings, the superdreadnought did finally swing into action. PDS blazed and escort ships flew in to draw fire, but all for naught. The superdreadnought 's nose crumpled and implosions dominoed from bulk head to bulk head along its spine until finally the core breached and the hulk tore itself apart, showering its brood of escorts with glowing debris. Under threat of facing the prodigious and untouched fleet of the UNSC, and stunned by the sudden and spectacular loss of their supposedly indestructible centrepiece, the remnants of the ESU fleet capitulated.
Now Marie was carrying Intendant Zidane back to Earth, back to the inevitable inquiries and diplomatic negotiations. A unified alliance was his idea and now he had to save it, again. That was why Marie had agreed to the assignment. She knew Zidane had to meld the whole sorry lot back together before they lost the arse of their trousers and the Kra'Vak capitalised upon their disunity all the way to Earth. She also knew it wouldn't be easy. The FSE and ESU were still nominally allies and the Third Solar War had never officially ended. She expected reprisals to occur at anytime. Furthermore, the 'Intersentient Offensive' couldn't spare many vessels, not even to save the political will which had set it in motion. The taskforce she'd chosen for the job was an unusual mix, but she knew each of the Captains well, they were all experienced and sharp, more importantly she knew she could trust them. Sforza, the son of a close friend, commanded the Ibiza class frigate, VFE Ribas, while his elder brother was in charge of a Milan class escort cruiser, the VFE Veneto. Hernando Pizzarro captained the Suffren class light cruiser VFE Gravina, he had been her third officer on her first command. Her nephew Collot commanded the Trieste class heavy destroyer VFE De La Vega and the attack carrier VFE Clemenceau was headed by her cherished mentor Louis Talleyrand. The ships were all of older classes, classes she had fought beside many times during the course of her career. She was not as enamoured as others with the new monster ships being commissioned by the L'Astromarine, in her opinion they were overrated and yet to prove themselves. She knew command claimed they had corrected the weaknesses which had lead to two of the gargantuan Jeanne D'Arcs being destroyed by the NSL at Neu Bremen, yet she still distrusted the neoteric designs and much preferred their forerunners, the Picasso CVAs and Chirac DNs, which were long tested and didn't call undue attention to themselves.
The taskforce was currently sub-lighting across the edge of the Wolf-489 system, making good time to their next jump point. The Gravina, De La Vega and Ribas were out in front, the Clemenceau was keeping pace to the Richelieu's starboard and the Veneto was to the rear. Marie had them running under high alert. Until recently this system had been under NAC control, now it nominally belonged to the NARC, yet another of those NAC breakaway groups - Marie was often at a loss to understand how the NAC survived at all, with colonies erratically dropping in and out of the confederation. Nevertheless the NAC remained an power of awesome influence and even though Marie did not expect to see any official RNS activity here, this system's isolated aspect seemed to make it a tempting site for an opportunistic, or retaliatory, strike by an infant power keen to appease its parent state.
As the ships cleared the debris cloud that marked the rim of the system Marie was called to the bridge, her officers had detected a number of emission signatures heading their way. They were on a bearing of 60 degrees to them and if they were warships they could potentially be within weapons range in less than 15 minutes.
"Nerais, whose are they?" Marie inquired, lowering herself into her chair, her gut tightening. Though she was prepared for action and was not shy of what may be to come, right now she had to be cautious, get some idea of what they were facing. She had anticipated a strike from some disaffected human quarter, but before she reacted she had to be sure she hadn't actually stumbled upon a Kra'Vak incursion. Words spoken and orders given to abate one situation would only inflame the other. After thirty-two years of military service, seventeen years of command and a million years of evolution Marie instinctively knew that to remove uncertainty was to survive.
"Can't say which power, but they're definitely human Admiral" came the sensor officer Armand Nerais' studied reply as he turned to Marie, subconsciously supporting his statement with a nod of his head.
"Good, I want to know when they sneeze." Marie shot back. Her countenance easing, an uncertainty removed.
Marie instructed her communications officer to put out a wide band hail stating their identities and current UNSC mission. Whoever those emissions belonged to, she wanted them to know what they were facing, she didn't want to leave any room for misunderstandings. Marie realised that the knowledge that these FSE ships currently flew under the UNSC flag may just stay a potential attacker's hand, though behind these clinical thoughts a small, cynical, war hardened voice warned that it probably wouldn't.
Suddenly the sensor boards lit up as if they were a part of some earthbound fairground attraction.
"Admiral, they've gone active." Nerais calmly stated as he shifted round to focus his attention on some more detailed readings.
"Fire control?" Marie asked with icy calm.
"Yes, Admiral. I'd say they're attempting a targeting solution."
"Hail them again. Make it VERY clear what our mission is and who we've got on board. Helm roll so they can see our silhouette, I don't want them claiming they thought we were Kra'Vak at the end of all this." Marie knew such a manoeuvre would increase the chance of a targeting lock on them. On its edge like that her Richelieu would have an even bigger sensor return than those blasted NSL monstrosities with those huge fins of theirs. However the NSL's heavy armour meant they could face down the results of a weapons lock with some confidence, a luxury she didn't share. She knew she was putting her ship in danger, but she was obliged to remove every opportunity for doubt. She had to make sure who ever attacked her couldn't claim that they'd made a mistake. Then as they were in some surreal opera the air was split by a series of klaxons and staccato reports.
"They're not responding to the hails Admiral."
"They've increased speed and are powering up."
"They have weapons lock Admiral."
Marie accepted the inevitable and ordered her command ahead at half speed, she wanted to close to her weapons range quickly, but not so fast that she didn't have time to evaluate her opponents first. And though the respective forces remained out of weapons range composition reports were flooding in. These were definitely NARC vessels. The hulls were superficially NAC, but there was evidence of extensive modifications. There were two frigates, flanked on either side by a light cruiser, in a row behind them were an escort cruiser, heavy cruiser and a battleship and at the rear there appeared to be some form of light or escort carrier. Marie ordered Talleyrand to send his pentad of fighter groups against the larger ships, she wanted the firepower that those larger vessels probably carried reduced quickly. Marie couldn't believe her luck, as the heavy fighters and interceptors headed out, the oppositions' standard fighter groups broke off from screening their carrier and intercepted the FSE groups. Coruscating lances of fire, and balls of exploding gas and melting metal illuminated the umbral battlefield. The dogfight saw ten FSE fighters, five heavies and five interceptors, dispatched, but it had been at the cost of two of the three NARC fighter groups. With the fighters almost free to move to their primary targets Marie knew she had to get to SM range quickly to capitalise on any opportunities for simultaneous missile-fighter strikes.
Expecting the NARC vessels to drive along their current heading, almost perpendicular to her course, she called for full ahead and a maximum starboard push. To her horror the NARC came straight for her and the vessels found themselves head to head and at only 8 mu by the time the weapons were brought to bear. In one heartbeat she saw her fighters remove the remaining NARC group and in the next she saw the entire NARC force concentrate its pulse-torpedo and beam fire first on the Gravina and then the De La Vega. The Gravina managed to inflict minor damage to the antithetic frigates before it succumbed, the force of its internal explosions transforming it into a fiery cloud of microdebris. Marie's chest tightened and she felt as if she stood exposed to the flailing storm of debris. Pizzaro had been a good friend, a brave man. That was the down side to involving those she trusted, it meant she had to watch them die. However, she knew that now was not the time to grieve, that would come later. Now she had to resist succumbing to the anger, using it instead to hone her responses. With her sense heightened by Pizzarro's death, Marie watched as the De La Vega failed to manage any effective fire and took heavy damage. In the same measured tone that seemingly possessed her every time she came under fire, Marie asked as to the status of her nephew's ship. "She's venting atmospheric gases and there are heavy casualties on all the lower decks and 3 aft sections, but her Captain is confirming that he can still participate in a coordinated SM launch." Marie was grateful the communications officer had made a point of saying "her Captain", thereby efficiently, but subtly, informing her that her nephew was still alive and in command. It was courtesies such as that which marked crews long used to each other from ones newly formed. So despite the pounding the De La Vega's essential weapons and critical systems had survived the initial onslaught.
During all this the rest of the FSE's beam fire was doing some damage, taking down armour here and there, but they really needed to get those SMs launched.
As their respective courses saw the fleets streak past each other all but on the perpendicular, Marie realised she couldn't let them get on her tail, equally she couldn't let them drift too far away if she was going to make coordinated SM launches really count. She called for the fleet to swing around 180 degrees, push to the starboard and head back at two thirds speed along the way they'd come. She also called for the fighters to attack the escort cruiser and for the fleet to launch a full salvo spread targeted on two locations. As the ships roared along their programmed paths it became clear that she'd not only crossed the NARC's T she had dropped the SMs straight onto their battleship and escort cruiser just as the fighters reached the cruiser. Marie's pulse quickened and a heady surge of adrenalin kicked through her as Nerais reported their targets' condition... "The battlship's been hulled, its weaponry, screen, bridge and life support systems are offline. The escort cruiser has taken heavy damage, over half its PDS are down, as is its ADFC, FTL and screen."
"d'Tournay, status of the Clemenceau's fighters?" asked Marie, swinging her attention to her tactical officer. Had the missile barrage been enough to save the pilots from fire?
"I'm having trouble picking up group beta's signatures... no they're still there! As are the rest, though group alpha has taken another casualty..." Therese d'Tournay returned, her attention remaining firmly fixed on her panels, her face a mask of concentration, as her hands danced across them, playing them as expertly as she had caressed the keys of the ship's pianoforte the previous evening.
"Well we'll see what we can do for them then, open fire on the escort cruiser." Marie enjoined.
The extra pounding the cruiser took from the Richelieu's attention saw it slip towards oblivion and its Captain struck its colours. Seeing that target removed the Clemenceau swung its guns toward the wounded light cruiser and opened fire knocking out the forward beams and pulse torpedo. Under heavy fire itself the Ribas concentrated on making sure the light cruiser was little more than a drifting hulk. Unfortunately the Ribas ended up in the same condition and in its already critically weakened state it didn't take long for the De La Vega to follow suit. Marie felt chilled by the sight of the ships listing through space. The arcing flares of short circuiting power conduits briefly illuminating twisted metal and dull panes were there should have been windows vibrant with the light of a working vessel. The usually sapphirine patchwork of panels and rubicund markings, which so closely matched those she'd been admiring on her Richelieu only a short while before, were now tarnished by burns and rent by gaping, moribund maws. Just as in life the colours of her fleet conjured unbidden images from her childhood of the great windows from Chatre and Notre Dame, so in death they summoned thoughts of dead birds, their grace sullied by their mortality and their fragility laid bare to worldly ridicule.
Yet again Marie, resisted the temptation to embrace the melancholy capering at the edges of her consciousness. Instead she focused on the pain of seeing her nephew's ship dark and lifeless and made it a wet stone upon which to sharpen her determination. Keen to capitalise on her adversaries loss of their greatest sources of fire power, Marie ordered her remaining forces to drive at three quarter speed straight ahead and drop another full salvo spread. At the same time the remaining heavy fighters turned their attention to the heavy cruiser. As the swarming fighters began pounding their target, the missiles caught a frigate and the remaining light cruiser. The frigate was lost, but the light cruiser only took damage to its armour, its PDS and counter measures ensuring few missiles actually got in.
"Minor damage to its forward section, we've knocked out her forward battery and one of her fire control systems Admiral, but she's still pretty healthy" Nerias pronounced.
Nevertheless, that proved to be enough and the concentrated firepower of the Richelieu and Clemenceau saw the cruiser's hull quickly crumple. It was not all one way though and it wasn't until the Veneto cleared the erupting bursts of fire from the remaining NARC that Marie realised that she had been holding her breath.
"Status of the Veneto?" Richelieu's commander asked, needing to know how her forces stood, the calm eloquence of her tone the epitome of cool professionalism.
"She reports light damage only."
Now Marie knew victory was close, but she had to make this final salvo count. She gave the order to fire every remaining missile, the fighters were told to break off from the heavy cruiser and concentrate on the opposing carrier and she instructed the fleet to drive full ahead and do a 30 degree turn to starboard. The missiles went in, but she had misjudged the turn, not badly, but enough to make sure not all her beams would have easy targets. Luckily the missiles removed the frigate and heavy cruiser before they had an opportunity to fire and the fighters crippled the carrier, dancing about it like insects about a carcass. The fight was over. Expressions of relief and notes of triumph swept across the bridge, the crescendo of exultation swelling around Marie just as her inner tempest of emotion and visceral reactions, spawned by the confrontation, began to ebb away. As peace slowly returned to those around her, as they bent to the new tasks that came with a battle's end, Marie became aware of a body by her shoulder. She looked up and around into the wide, open face of her second in command, Antonie Bruix.
"It's Zidane, he insists on speaking with you", Bruix surrendered apologetically.
"That's OK Antonie, I'll speak to him." Marie responded, smiling lightly and reaching up to pat Bruix on the shoulder as she slipped past him and headed for her rooms. Zidane was waiting for her, staring out her view port at the desolation that drifted there. Out of habit Marie glanced out the port over Zidane's shoulder, but quickly diverted her eyes and moved past Zidane to sit with her back to the scene. For all the cruelness of the interstellar landscape, for all the ferocity of the acts of creation and extinction it witnessed, for all its ineffable emptiness, only sentient life forms had ever brought such pitiful desolation to reside there. It was a panorama Marie did not wish to partake of.
"How may I help you Intendant?" Marie inquired, adopting the same calm tone that descended upon her during battle.
"I think you know why I'm here Admiral." Zidane responded, his tone equally calm. Marie was impressed, most politicians she'd encountered would have been bellowing.
"We should still reach Sol within 3 days, may be as little as 7 hours behind our intended ETA." Marie commented neutrally, her eyes never leaving Zidane's face.
"Admiral..." Zidane insisted, his tone a blend of amusement, frustration and warning.
"They were NARC, no official NAC sanction I'd say, but I doubt they discouraged it either," Marie offered critically.
"Why didn't you tell them this was a UNSC mission?" Zidane pressed.
"We did," Marie paused, "they didn't seem to care".
A shadow fell across Zidane's face, the substantial weight of the spectre creasing his brow. He straightened and in a tone low and quiet continued his questioning "What were you losses?"
"We lost the Gravina with all hands, the Ribas and De La Vega are hulks, the status of the crews are at present unknown, and the Veneto has light damage, minimal loss of life." Marie intoned, her dispassionate choice of words at odds with the sigh that accompanied her shifting in the chair.
"A high price. It won't be forgotten." Zidane directed as he stood, preparing to leave. Marie nodded in solemn confirmation as she rose and quietly accompanied him to the door. She watched him move off down the corridor, sliding unruffled past busy work details, before returning to her desk. Any guilt at not remaining with him, to ease the burden of his thoughts, was banished by the knowledge that he was man enough to reject such platitudes for what they were, compassionate, but pointless.
At the sacrifice of half the ships in her taskforce Marie had gotten Zidane through the last of the potentially hostile systems. The Core was only a stone's throw away now, in galactic terms. As the engineers spent the next few hours cycling the engines and preparing to jump, salvage crews would collect survivors, evaluate the hulks and activate location beacons so they could send a tender to come back and pick up the pieces. Marie would spend those hours finding the words to tell the siblings, the spouses, the children and parents of yet more effectives who had given up their ebullience, and joined the ever growing train of cadaverous hajji, so others wouldn't have to.
Return to Bri's Science Fiction Collection