I originally wrote this as a newsletter draw for the separate The Unity Wars newsletter. Since I’m folding the series into my main author “brand,” I’m going to serialize it here.
4,400 hours since the fall of Oram Prime
Seventy-five starships hung in the black, only the faint starlight reflecting off their hulls. Ahead, the star designated Trakan on most starmaps was little more than a slightly brighter pinpoint of light amid dazzling myriads.
The largest formation of ships was made up of angular, chisel-nosed battlecruisers, painted a bright blue, with the wreathed Sigma emblem of the Sparatan Space Force only dimly visible in the star glow.
Nearby floated two dozen broad, dumbbell-shaped star cruisers, their hulls a deep red that almost looked black in the dimness of deep space. The characters etched on their flanks were alien; tehud symbols spelled out each ship’s name and its place in the Vergsegeilith Task Fleet, out of Bilbissari.
Two ships didn’t fit with either group. The three-sided, coppery arrowhead bore no markings whatsoever, but was immediately identifiable as belonging to the Order of Shufa, one of the most secretive and rarely seen of the galaxy’s Military Brotherhoods. The silvery spindle-shape of the Reliant bore the four-pointed star and crossed beam rifles on a blue shield of the Caractacan Brotherhood.
Aboard the largest of the Sparatan battlecruisers, the Ollianus, the command deck was a bustle of activity. It looked calm, with each of the command officers strapped into his acceleration couch set around the central holo tank, but each man was absorbed in his tasks, preparing the mighty ship for combat.
An extra such couch was placed just behind the ship’s captain’s, where the task force’s strategos could observe the command deck and the holo tank where it hung from the overhead.
“Status?” the olive-skinned man in the strategos’ chair asked. He was young, visibly younger than the thickset man in the captain’s chair, his lean, bullet head shaved bald and gleaming in the multicolored glow from the holo tank. Most of the rest of the command deck lighting, a soft yellow, had been muted to allow clear visibility of the holographic symbols.
“All ships report vector-matching maneuvers completed, weapons checks hot, and green across the board to attack, Strategos Vakolo,” the comm officer reported.
“Good,” Geretesk Vakolo replied. He looked up at the holo. “Open a channel to the Sengseighelith Vallosgiath.” He had no idea which of the two sounds was the Bilbissarii commander’s name and which was her rank. So, he just used them both.
A window opened in the holo tank, revealing the long-nosed, horned visage of a tehud. He was fairly sure she was the commander. “All Sparatan ships report ready, Sengseighelith Vallosgiath,” he said. “What is the Bilbissarii’s status?”
“The Gestiaaghieth is reporting a minor fault in its point-defense system,” the Bilbissarii commander said. The tehud’s voice was strangely musical. It was a sound that would have been soothing to anyone but Vakolo at that moment.
“Estimated time to correct it?” he asked tightly.
“Unknown,” she replied. Her calmness grated on his nerves.
Trakan was deep in the only sketchily-explored parts of the Tyrus Cluster. And it was smack-dab in the middle of the sphere that loosely circumscribed the last six M’tait attacks, which had been mounting in savagery since they’d appeared out of nowhere to ravage Oram Prime.
Oram Prime had not been the first appearance of the mysterious, powerful raiders in their strange, stone-like ships. But it had been the first attack in this part of the galaxy. And things were only getting worse.
Vakolo drummed his fingers on the armrest of his acceleration couch. He’d had to spend thousands of hours traveling from system to system, planet to planet, arguing with other strategoi, generals, admirals, and other alien and offworlder ranks he couldn’t even pronounce, not to mention diplomats, politicians, and even interstellar traders, to put this attack together. And now that they were staged, it seemed that delay after delay was leaving them sitting still, twenty AU out from their target, while their emissions raced inward at the speed of light.
“Please inform me when you and your task force are ready,” he said stiffly. “Vakolo out.” He blew out an angry sigh.
“Such mechanical problems are common, Strategos,” Captain Doran Koillako said from his own acceleration couch. He did not look back at Vakolo, but kept his own eyes on the holo tank. “We are a great distance from the target, yet, which means that there is a great deal of space for our emissions to attenuate.” The Ollianos’ captain kept his voice low, intended only for his strategos. He was repeating what Vakolo already knew, but the two of them had already served together long enough that he knew he could do so, when his strategos needed the reminder.
Vakolo, however, wasn’t convinced he did at that point. “The M’tait are not likely to miss the neutrino signatures of seventy-five warships,” he retorted, “no matter how far out we are. Time is running out quickly. If we don’t launch soon, we will lose the element of surprise, and then the attack may as well be suicide.”
“We don’t actually know anything about the M’tait’s detection capabilities,” Koillako replied. And he was right. In fact, what was unknown about the M’tait composed a far longer list than what was known. “M’tait” was not even their name for themselves; no one knew what they called themselves. It was a sefkhit Jaihenese word, meaning “unreasoning predators.”
“Hail the Reliant,” Vakolo said.
Captain Samuel Redding was already in his armor, his face hidden behind the ridged visor of his helmet. Unlike the Caractacan Infantry Brothers, his armor did not have the chameleonic coating, and was a spotless white. It did, however, bear several scars, visible even in the small window, that bore testament to combat that had seen the captain’s ship holed, possibly even clear to the command deck.
“Yes, Strategos?” Redding asked.
No report, simply a, “What do you want?” But I should have expected that; none of the Brotherhoods have yet accepted direct command from an outsider. “We are ready to launch, Captain,” he said. “Is the Reliant ready?”
“The Reliant and Century XVII are prepped and battle ready, Strategos,” Redding said blandly. “We can launch at any time.”
Vakolo’s lips thinned, but he nodded sharply. “We appear to be waiting on the Bilbissarii,” he said.
“Yes, I know,” Redding replied. “Sengseighelith Vallosgiath informed me of their technical difficulties.”
Vakolo briefly wondered if the Caractacan captain knew the difference between the tehud’s rank and her name. He dismissed the thought as irrelevant. He probably does. The oh-so-perfect Brotherhoods take such pride in knowing those sorts of things.
“We will be in contact again when everyone is ready,” he said. “Vakolo out.” He stabbed irritably at the control on his own armrest, and Redding’s helmeted head disappeared from the holo tank.
He hesitated to hail the Order of Shufa’s ship. He wasn’t even sure how they’d found out about the mission; he’d never communicated with any representatives of the Order; in fact, he didn’t know of anyone who had. They had simply arrived at the staging point, taken up station on the other side of the Reliant, and waited.
But he supposed he had better try. “Hail the…” he paused, staring at the readout. No, he had no idea how to pronounce that. “Hail the Order of Shufa ship.”
“Hailing,” the comms officer replied. After a few moments, he said, “No reply, sir.”
He heard Koillako grunt. Well, what does one really expect from them? If the Caractacans are aloof, the Order of Shufa is downright alien.
Wishing that they were under acceleration so that he could unstrap and pace, Vakolo settled back in his acceleration couch with a frustrated sigh and waited.
A surprisingly short time later, the Gestiaaghieth reported the fault corrected, or at least corrected for. It was hard to tell with the tehud. While the Bilbissarii included ekuz among them, as well, the majority were tehud, and thus their quirks tended to color whatever the Bilbissarii did.
Almost as one, the seventy-five disparate warships activated their Bergenholm fields, nullifying their inertia, and darted inward toward Trakan at a substantial fraction of the speed of light.
“Going inert in five, four, three, two…one.” There was little sensation when the Bergenholm switched off, and what there was had been roundly put down to psychosomatic effects. The crew had been in effective freefall during the inertialess approach, and they still were. But the star had seemingly rushed toward them as they’d raced into the system, along with the dark sphere of their target, that now hung bare light-seconds away.
The target was a planetoid about one thousand seven hundred fifty kilometers in radius, its size putting it somewhere in the classification charts between an asteroid and a rogue moon. It had an atmosphere, though a thin one, unbreathable by any known sapients.
There was also a source of low-level M’tait emissions somewhere on its surface. They’d picked that up from the edge of the system, and it had led them all the way in.
“Two starships in orbit,” the tactical officer snapped. “They are firing their drives and maneuvering.”
“Concentrate all fire on those ships,” Vakolo commanded. If they were Hunterships, they could be in trouble. Those monstrosities were terrifically hard to kill, and the few that had been destroyed had left dozens of destroyed ships in their wake before they’d finally been beaten into fragments.
Information flowed through the holo tank as the computer caught up with the sudden influx of emissions that had been picked up as they’d suddenly closed in. The deep thrum of the spinal mount particle beam cannon warming up was joined by the faint vibrations of the powergun turrets deploying and the deeper thunks of the missiles and X-ray laser pods deploying.
There was a fine line to be trod when deploying for space combat. All but directed energy weapons, such as the X-ray lasers, tended to be ineffective while inertialess; they reverted to their earlier vector as soon as they cleared the Bergenholm field, often leaving them far behind the ship that fired them. That counted for the X-ray laser pods, as well; since they were powered by thermonuclear explosions, they were deployed as far from the ship’s hull as possible, meaning they were subject to some of the same limitations as missiles.
Therefore, the trick lay in determining just how close to get before going inert and deploying weapons. Even over the vast distances involved, decision times measured in seconds—or less—could have lethal consequences.
“Higher ship is launching missiles,” the tactical officer reported, as a swarm of tiny red sparks appeared in the holo display. “Cascade launch; it looks like she’s emptied her launch cells. Count is…fifty five Mark V class ship-to-ship shots. And…she’s going inertialess.” The ship that had fired was suddenly accelerating away from the planet at hundreds of gees; without the Bergenholm, that kind of acceleration would have destroyed the ship, never mind crushing everyone aboard into a fine red paste.
“Deploy countermeasures,” Koillako snapped. “And make sure the point defense grid is up.”
Along four tracks that ran the length of the Ollianos’ hull, laser turrets opened fire, pulsing beams of coherent light at distant specks assigned by the computer. There were too many missiles in the sky for the individual tactical officers to pick out one by one, and they were closing at over fifty gees.
In the visual holo, tiny flares began to sparkle across the face of the planetoid as the point defense lasers found their marks. The task force had more ships than there were missiles in the sky, and against that concentrated web of point defenses, there was no chance of a shot getting through. The Sparatan ships had gone inert in a slightly concave formation facing the planetoid, and every single ship’s weapons were being brought to bear.
“Get an X-ray laser solution on that ship,” Vakolo snapped. “Before it’s out of range.”
“It’s accelerating awfully fast, Strategos,” Koillako said. “It will have to be a snap shot.”
“Do it,” Vakolo replied grimly. “I don’t want them escaping.”
By that time, it had become clear that the ships in orbit over the planetoid were no M’tait Hunterships. The fleeing lighter was a slightly convex cone, its hull scarred and scorched from too many hot atmospheric entries without refitting. The cruiser still in orbit was a long, segmented cylinder, even more battered and streaked, its hull pitted by decades of micrometeorite impacts.
Vakolo didn’t care. They had fired on his ships, so they would die. His own frustration at finding pirates or scavengers—whichever they were did not matter to him—instead of the enemy he’d come looking for only intensified his determination not to let them escape.
The tactical officer’s fingers danced over the controls, running the necessary calculations. Somewhere in the depths of the gap between the Ollianos and the Scarroko, one of the pods fired its attitude thrusters, turning and bringing its emitter to bear on the vector the tactical officer had input. With an actinic flash, the pod detonated its thermonuclear explosive, immolating itself and funneling most of the energy into a collimated beam of X-rays.
The target ship was already nearly a light minute away. Vakolo turned his attention back to the remaining ship.
Off in the distance, a brilliant flare announced the death of the fleeing pirate. It had taken nearly two minutes for the laser to strike, and another two for the light from the explosion to get back to the task force.
The cylindrical pirate ship had already cut its drive, even before the X-ray laser had struck its sister ship. It had still attained escape velocity, and was moving away from the planetoid, but not quickly. A surrender message was being blasted on every imaginable frequency in Trade Cant.
“Have the Drogonok rendezvous with that ship and put a prize crew aboard,” Vakolo ordered. The comms officer immediately moved to relay the message. Vakolo was watching the holo tank carefully; with the immediate danger presently averted, he could take a moment to develop a more detailed version of the situation on the target.
That they had miscalculated was clear. If the planetoid had been a M’tait base, there would not have been pirates anywhere near it. Even the most desperate stayed as clear of M’tait presence as possible.
And yet…there was that signal to consider.
The Sparatan ships were rapidly closing in on the planetoid and beginning to brake, turning their drives toward the darkened sphere with the yellow-orange star behind it, maneuvering for orbital insertion. The Bilbissarii ships had apparently gone inert before the Sparatans had; they were still several light seconds behind.
“Keep all weapons deployed and ready for action,” Vakolo finally ordered. “And commence a detailed scan of the planetoid’s surface. I want to know what’s down there, and I want to be prepared if this whole thing turns out to have been a M’tait trap.”