Black & White
The cruiser floated deathly silent in space. Its sensors probing into the furthest reaches of the dark. Watching. Observing the comings and goings of many ships from this planet. It was clear this was not an important planet and must simply lie on the edge of this species of vermin's space, but it would make a good test subject. Many of the ships currently in orbit of the planet were ships of war; they radiated too much energy to be anything else. Obviously they believed in protecting what was theirs, which was good. It meant they would stand and fight so that their capabilities could be fully assessed. The enemy had come close to discovering them earlier but had ultimately failed to pierce the stealth masque.
"Damn," Monitor Vanessa Phelps swore. "Another bloody sensor ghost. That makes the fifth in my shift alone."
"Maybe it's not a sensor ghost? Maybe it's a stealthed ship?"
"Oh and just who in their right mind would have a stealthed ship at the arse end of the Imperium?"
"It was just a thought, no need to get all shitty about it"
"Well, I mean, we have thought of that you know. We sent out a couple of ships to where the first few contacts were, but they found nothing so the Centurion ordered me to stop logging them. I think he was afraid he would run out of ships and have to send the Apollo which would mean he missed his 'meeting' with Madam Colony Director." Vanessa held only contempt for the Centurion in charge. In her opinion he was an overbearing inbred pompous ass.
This was a new sector and for now it had been decided the Fleet must act slowly. New threats flourished here while they had been eradicated in the Home Systems, but now, finally, the Fleet was ready. Ship after ship began to move, first individually then as groups, squadrons and finally a Fleet. Like an intricately choreographed dance all the ships dropped from stealth as one. Let the enemy see them approach. The more time they had to prepare, the better picture the Fleet would garner as to their capabilities.
"Oh my god." Vanessa gasped. It wasn't exactly the proper way to report an unknown contact but the shock of its sudden appearance overloaded her ability to think for several seconds. On her plot hundreds of ships had appeared, apparently from nowhere. One second all was calm and right with the universe, next all she knew was brought into question. She heard a sharp order directed at her but it needed to be repeated before her stunned senses caught up with the rest of the universe.
"Report, damn you." Centurion Blane Christoff, Captain of the Apollo and senior officer of the Ptath Picket repeated.
"Sir, there are more than two hundred ships closing on the planet. They will be within extreme weapons range in less than fifteen minutes." Vanessa's voice held a quaver as she spoke. "Ship configurations have no correlation in the datastores."
"How the hell did they get so close before being detected?" Blane's voice was shrill, filled with panic and blame.
"Unknown, but they appeared in the region of the latest cluster of ghost contacts we picked up." Vanessa knew this would irk him. He was the one who had ordered them to stop logging the ghost contacts, placing his own interests over standing orders.
"Who the hell do you think you are to question me?" Vanessa was suddenly spun around as someone grabbed her chair and she found herself face to pasty face with her commanding officer. His eyes were wide and constantly in motion, his skin shiny with sweat. Vanessa felt sure he was about to cause her harm when a new report sounded out across the bridge.
"Sir, we have more contacts on our scan sats. They show even more ships holding position around the system primary." This report came from the Monitor who was assigned to the shell of scanner satellites deployed throughout the system, supposedly to provide early warning of approaching ships.
"In a perfect position to cut us off if we attempt to run. Any sign of communication from them?" Tetrarch David Williams, Blane's second in command and the person who was really in charge of the picket, asked. He walked over and pulled Blane away from Vanessa letting her catch a shaky breath before turning back to her post.
"No sir." was the report to his inquiry.
"Hail them then."
"How dare you! I am in charge here." Blane's whiney voice shrilled as the crew worked around him under David's orders. "You stop what you're doing," he directed to the comm. officer. "I am in charge here."
"Aye sir, hailing," was the response he got. Blane's face turned puce and if anyone watching had cared in the slightest they would have feared for his heart. However, since those watching knew him they hoped he would die on the spot, knowing that under his leadership or rather the lack of it they had little or no chance of survival.
"Well no response is a response of sorts. Bring all ships to full alert status, cycle all weapons to primary firing positions and get me the colony leader on comms." David's decisiveness carried the crew along with it. They moved like a finely oiled machine under the direction of a master of his trade.
On the main screen a haughty, petulant looking woman appeared. "How dare you summon me, I was about to have a massage."
"I have little time to explain and less patience so shut up and listen." John took more than a little satisfaction from the shocked expression that imprinted itself upon her features. "A large number of ships have appeared and are closing on this planet. More ships are standing by to prevent any escape and they don't seem willing to talk. Ship configurations are completely unknown, as is their level of tech. But in this case I fear it makes little difference. Their numbers are too large. I would suggest you do what you can to prepare the colony for invasion." He cut the channel and turned to the marine officer who was currently patiently ignoring Blane's demands and threats that he should arrest or shoot David for mutiny.
"Get that worm off my ship." Was all David said, but the marine grabbed Blane by the neck and dragged him out the bridge. Less than a minute later an escape pod was launched from a nearby port.
John watched with pride as his ships formed up and went to meet the vastly superior numbers of the invading fleet.
It took longer to destroy the enemy than the plan had laid out, their shields and defensive technologies were better than the Fleet's but the offensive weaponry used was comparable to that of the Fleet. Now that a measure of their ships had been taken it was time to turn the Fleet's attention to the species itself. On the world turning slowly below the Fleet were more test subjects than required, unless of course they turned out to be particularly useful.
John exited his shuttle to be greeted by waves of almost palpable hatred from the gathered ranks of Republican prisoners as well as many of his own people. It had been over a day since anyone had seen him, which he now knew had been a mistake. He had allowed himself to hide away and fall apart while letting stories rage and mutate about him. Haig had come to see him earlier and told him about the rumours that he had intentionally sabotaged the systems to create the failure and how they continued to persist even though the fault had been identified and pronounced a freakish coincidence of failures in completely unrelated equipment.
The strain had finally grown too much for John. It had been hard pretending to be something he wasn't but he found that he had started to react unconsciously in his adopted manner and John found that the scariest thing of all. He was pretending to be something he wasn't and was slowly turning into it. When he had first opened his eyes on Gemmell's ship after the procedure he had been lost in his own mind. New horrifying memories crowded out the old, but even then he knew he was still himself and that if things had gone to plan he shouldn't be. Whatever it was that Scorpius had done to him had saved his mind, somehow.
He felt as if his mind were stuffed full, ready to explode at the slightest thing. The pain he felt radiated from his soul. He wept for the loss of innocence he didn't know he had. In all his time in the Uncharted Territories he had never killed for pleasure or on a whim. Now residing in his memories were many occasions he had done just that. The worst was the sheer exultation he had felt when he had ordered the destruction of an entire world for no reason other than they had insulted him.
It had taken him hours to carefully separate himself from those dark deeds lurking in his mind. To accept the fact that he bore no guilt over the actions of another. He simply remembered them and how he felt. He was the villain of this story, not John. None of this had been made easier by having that bitch Amy watching his ever move. When he had first awoke he had been full of confusion and panic and there she was watching him, it had taken him sometime to calm down and pretend to fall asleep again while he dealt with his new memories, if dealt was the word. Perhaps deny would be more appropriate. Finally he had to come to the realisation that he was in deep trouble, if they found out that the procedure hadn't worked he would most likely be killed or worse examined. So he grabbed onto the one thing he had in the universe, Aeryn.
At first he was anxious to see Aeryn but after careful thought knew that he couldn't, because he shouldn't care at all what happened to her now. She was just another inferior alien to him. This was the decision that set him down this path, it seemed the old axiom was true, those that don't know the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them.
What he had found hardest was Dietz. He knew her, hell he had been married to her, or at least he had been married to her. She had come onto him and to his eternal shame found himself reacting and taking what was offered, even as Aeryn languished somewhere on the ship. When he had finally seen her, he had waved to her in what he had hoped was a reassuring fashion but he could tell that it didn't go over as such when he saw Aeryn's face blanch with shock and betrayal.
He had done what he could by calling on his uncle for a favour to have her moved to more comfortable quarters even if they were still a prison cell. He had gone to talk to her but that was one of the most painful experiences of his life. He had to fight the urge to take her in his arms when he first saw her but he couldn't. That would be out of character for him. So instead he had one of the most torturous conversations he had ever dreamed of. He had tried to drop her hints but she had her armour firmly in place and refused to follow his verbal leads. He had managed to secure a device that would have disabled the watching cameras but in the end he realised it would only draw suspicions down upon him. He had to protect her no matter the cost.
When he had discovered that Gemmell had rescued her and taken the other prisoners as well to the Republic it was all he could do not to dance for joy. She would be safe there, he knew. The Republic was all the Imperium once was and more. They held no unreasoning hatred of all things alien even though they more than the rest of the human race had reason. Instead they respected and treated them as equals, which was one of the reasons the Republic held against the might of the Imperium. They were a nation made wealthy upon trade with aliens and they used that wealth wisely to protect themselves and their interests by building themselves a powerful fleet of ships. Too powerful for the Imperium to conquer easily or economically. So instead they simply sparred with each other over the exact placement of their respective borders. Now John's task was to get himself into the Republic and find Aeryn.
The attack deep in the heart of the Republic was a totally unknown and previously unthinkable act of aggression by the Imperium. John found it a sick joke that he should be the one chosen to lead an attack on a nation that he was desperately trying to devise a method to reach and now knew that he could never reach. Here he was on the landing field of a world he had just invaded facing the hatred of not only the people he had invaded but that of his own troops. All for an act he had no control over but had stained his soul with the blood of thousands. The Butcher they had started to call him, the people of the Republic to his face, his own crew behind his back. Even the proof that it had been a terrible accident lent no weight to their opinion of him. They were all sure he had either fabricated the evidence or set up the chain of events knowing what the end result would be.
Now he had to face their commander to formalise her surrender. The ground car he was now travelling in sped through the streets of this city. On both sides of the road stood its populace, silently watching him speed by them. The anger and hatred he had felt on the landing field had been replaced by shock and fear here. The people's faces were pale and drawn, many wept, but still they stood to witness his passing. To see the man who was willing to murder thousands of people to attain his goal.
John's own mind was in turmoil but he knew that he couldn't allow himself to break down like he had done the day before in his cabin. The quicker he could get all this formalised the faster he could start to make restitution to these people, if that was even possible. Finally the car stopped outside a building and John exited the car and entered the former Governor's residence.
Inside were the important people of this world along with Admiral Gabrielle Benson plus a few of her more senior officers. The mood in the room was dark and subdued, but as soon as John's presence was noted even the small amount of chatter that had been there vanished. The mood had turned to a dangerous mix of anger and fear. The slightest misstep on John's part could ignite a bloodbath.
"Let us finish this. I doubt any of us wish to be in each others presence too long." His voice echoed in the silence of the large room.
"How can you sleep?" Gabrielle asked loudly.
"I sleep fine. What happened was a tragic combination of system failures and human error. I had no part in it, other than taking the opportunity it afforded me to save many of my own people's lives. I am sure under the circumstances you would have acted in a similar fashion Gabrielle." She hissed at his use of her first name and the muscles of her neck bulged in indignation
"You don't expect us to believe that do you?" she spat.
"No, but that's not important now. We are here. You have surrendered. All you have to do is sign this to formalise that and we can all go on about our business as best we can under the circumstances." John walked over to a table and sat a flimsy upon it before turning and holding a stylus out to Benson. She sneered at him before walking forward and yanking the stylus out of his hand.
"Give me the damn thing, I want to get as far away from you as I can." She paused before adding, "I can almost smell the stink of blood from you."
"I know many of you are confused about what has been happening these last few weeks. First you are attacked and captured by me, transferred to a station where you are, for lack of more apt words, tortured. Then you are herded once again onto my ship and now after a week of being confined aboard, you are being apologised to." Gemmell was silent for several seconds letting this sink in. "you were caught up in a brutal struggle …"
Aeryn, sitting on the edge of one of the rows let his voice wash over her. Standing a few meters away from her was Stammell the man who had led the squad that rescued her. He had stopped by to visit her a few times in the last week and she had found that she liked him. He had a dry sense of humour and an easy smile. In many ways he reminded her of John. For a moment her mind clouded as she thought of him but she soon shook herself loose. It had become easier over the last few weeks to put him behind her. He was gone and there was nothing she could do about it. She had grieved and still did but her life was ahead of her and she owed it to his memory to go on. She found herself continuously glancing at Stammell until he noticed what she was doing and winked at her. She immediately flushed and turned back to Gemmell.
She listened carefully as Gemmell outlined his offer to them. They could accept commissions into the Republican Navy and help back-engineer the tech taken from the base and then help upgrade and update the technology using the humans' equipment. Or if they preferred they could be become ordinary citizens of the Republic and strike out on their own. Gemmell admitted that it wasn't much of a choice, working for them or being cut loose in an alien society but it was all he could offer them.
Once more she found her eyes drifting away from Gemmell and back towards Stammell. She found him attractive, from his soft looking brown hair to his easy smile and burnished eyes. He held all the qualities she used to like in a male, he was strong and an accomplished fighter. What was more he held all the qualities she now liked in a male, compassion, humour and the ability to make her laugh. He was for her the best possible combination. She found these thoughts flashing through her mind and felt a stab of guilt for thinking of another man like that when she had lost John barely a monen before.
He obviously felt her eyes upon him again for he turned slightly and looked directly at her. This time she didn't look away and a small smile appeared upon his face and Aeryn felt one appear unbidden on her own. In the background she was barely aware of the continuing drone from Gemmell as he talked to the others. For her all that existed was Stammell and his warm, warm grey eyes. Suddenly she realised that the drone had ceased and jerked around to face the podium and found Gemmell standing watching her, she covertly glanced around and discovered to her chagrin that everybody seemed to be staring at her. If she had flushed in embarrassment before this time she felt as if she were in danger of heat delirium from the warmth of her cheeks.
"May I continue now?" Gemmell said, not even attempting to hide his amusement.
"Sir, I have Arch-Strategeos Werber on the comm for you from High Command." Winkler grunted acknowledgement and touched a control on his desk and the image of a man in the same uniform as he, only with the black and silver tabs on the shoulders of Fleet intelligence, appeared above his desk.
"Jozhan, to what do I owe this pleasure?" he asked pleasantly, leaning back in his chair and calmly regarding his friend.
"Two things." Jozhan had a dry emotionless quality to his voice, as if he had seen everything the universe had to offer and wasn't at all impressed. "First is a word of warning, people are starting to ask questions about your recent actions and acquisitions. They get uncomfortable when the military start messing around in politics. Understandably so in my opinion." A shark like grin stole over his face and was echoed in Winkler's.
"Well it had to happen sooner or later. As long as they don't piece it all together then we should be fine. Of course if they do we will never know, they'll kill us before we can take another breath." His tone was dry and filled with amusement as he said this. Since he knew that the people who were being made nervous couldn't find their own arse with detailed anatomical descriptions, experienced help and an audience.
"Somehow I find that thought less than comforting."
"So what's this second thing?" curiosity laced Winkler's voice, as he knew this was the real reason for the call.
"We have lost a fourth planet in the outlying regions of Lambda Signus. To make things worse we have now lost the fleet we sent to find out what the hell was happening out there. The last report we got was that they were under attack by the same ships that took out Ptath. People are starting to get worried."
"Send another fleet then, a bigger one." Even as he was saying this Winkler had a horrible feeling he knew what was coming next.
"We are, that why I am contacting you. We are withdrawing from Hell." Jozhan shrugged apologetically
"But we just got it. Our techs are still extracting the data cores. Besides, I need those ships. Find another fleet." Winkler was now leaning forward heavily on his desk as he glared at Jozhan.
"Those ships represent an eighth of the entire fire power the Imperium can raise. They are also the largest body of ships accustomed to operating together." He said patiently. "This decision comes direct from the council. We have no choice but to obey, we aren't ready yet."
"Why on earth do you think you need to send twelve carrier groups to deal with some piddling problem on our frontiers?" Winkler asked, resignation colouring his voice as he slowly sank back into his chair.
"Because we sent six carrier groups in plus a reinforced escort and lost them. Those ships of yours represent the last uncommitted space force we have available."
Another planet lay before the ships of the Fleet. This one had fixed orbital defences around it as well as planetary defence centres. From this it could be deduced this was one of the enemy's older worlds. The electronic and neutrino signatures that led to it were too young for it to be anything else. But it would make a good choice to bait the trap.
"Intermittent sensor contact. Sector twelve by four by nine."
"Oh shit." Strategos Bryant said. Sensor ghost or not, they had learned the hard way not to dismiss this type of occurrence as a sensor glitch. Not after all that had happened.
Alarms howled throughout the defence centres for the planet. In the ODC's weapons were brought on line and missiles were slid into the firing ports ready to be launched at a target as soon as it appeared. On the planet sirens howled throughout the populated areas, but the civilians paid little attention to them anymore. After weeks of false alarms they blended into the background for the majority of the populace. For most it was life as usual and damn the military for trying to disrupt their lives with their stupid games. After all what enemy would be foolish enough to take on a planet with such heavy fixed defences.
"Send out a drone, and pray it's just another sensor ghost." Bryant sat feeling curiously naked as he watched the drone's progress on the holo map. He wished he still had some mobile units available, beyond the fighter craft embarked upon the main station. But he didn't, they had stripped this entire sector bare to form up the Relief Fleet that had travelled so ignominiously to it's death at the hands of some unknown inferior race.
Energy reading had spiked upon the enemies orbital weapon platforms. Obviously they had detected the Fleet's presence in their space. The readings produced a formidable image of the inner defences of this planet. Still that had been allowed for in the plan. Losses would be greater than first estimated but still well within acceptable limits.
Strategos Bryant felt sick to the stomach when the sensor drone finally closed on the location of the suspected enemy ships. They were suspected no longer. As he watched more and more ships appeared within the envelope of the drone's sensors. So far they had counted what would be considered by the Imperium six full carrier groups. Fighters frosted the sensor readings as they wove in and out of their motherships. They had to have detected the drone by now but they were making no effort to intercept it and that made the rattlers in his stomach go into overdrive.
Mechanically he issued the orders required of him. Time passed quickly and with grinding slowness for him. He knew his chances of defending the planet were minimal at best. Still there was always a chance and where that failed blind luck. Finally the enemy reached the firing range of the heavy missiles of the ODC's. They were twice as massive as anything carried shipboard and consequently had twice the range.
He could feel the slight shudder pass through the station as missiles roared from their launching platforms aimed at the heart of the enemy fleet. The launch of the missiles seemed to be signal to the enemy. The fighters surged forward forming wave after wave of ships. They spiralled in to take on the actively attacking ODC's only to be met by Bryant's own fighters, carefully horded for this moment. They leaped from their catapult launchers and smashed headlong into the enemy. The fight was brutal and intense. The Imperial fighters had been configured solely to combat the enemy's. As such they had a great initial advantage as the heavy ordinance carried by the hostiles slowed them down and made them less manoeuvrable. They died by the hundreds but still that was not enough to prevent them launching on the stations. Small though the warheads might have been there were thousands of them launched from hundred of fighters that were now freed to avenge the deaths of their brothers. The fighter missiles took a terrible toll on the long ranged launchers, knocking most of them out before they had the chance to empty their magazines, but enough had survived to make the journey to conventional firing ranges hell for the enemy.
The enemy had produced yet another technological surprise and it had cost the fleet many ships. Once again the loss estimates had to be revised upwards, but with the successful attack by the fighters on the launchers the odds were still in the Fleet's favour. It was clear that these missiles were intended only for planetary defence. They were far too large for use on a ship, which meant that all the Fleet had to do was stay out with their range and destroy their launchers with fighters before closing. This would be useful information for later in the campaign. Finally the Fleet had reached firing range and could reply in kind to the enemy.
Admiral Gabrielle Benson was more than curious as to why she had been brought to his office, and if she were to be truthful with herself she also felt scared. She had been extremely vocal in her denouncement of Crichton, even knowing that he could arrange for her to disappear if he truly wished. She turned as the door to the office opened again and admitted Crichton. He smiled and nodded to her, seemingly amused by her sudden stiff posture and icy glare.
"Gabrielle lovely to see you once more. I just couldn't leave without telling you just how much I appreciated all your efforts to make me feel welcome here."
"Yes. We are pulling out of Hell. I have just received priority orders to facilitate a speedy withdrawal from this system." John could almost feel the delight mixed with anxiety emanating from her. He felt bad taking this line with her, but once again he was trapped and had no other choice. "In three standard hours there won't be a single Imperial soldier, tech or shuttle on this planet. In four standard hours there won't be a single Imperial Ship in this system."
"So you're running are you? You won't escape you know. They will hunt you down and kill you like the animal you are."
"Who will? I doubt there is more than a single Republican scout within ten light years. No Admiral Benson, I am afraid we have what we want from this planet, and personally I would say you're welcome to it. I for one won't miss this humidity." John sighed dramatically and sat. To be truthful this planet, hellhole that it was, reminded him of home, well what he thought was his home.
"You won't escape."
"I thought we had already covered this?"
"You know what I mean. Even if you get away from here, no matter where you go people will know what you have done. Even in the Imperium, there are people who won't condone your actions here. As for the Republic I can guarantee you they won't rest until they have justice for the souls of the people you have murdered." She hissed.
John said nothing. He simply sat and watched as her escorts took her out the room. When the door closed he sighed and rested his head on the cool surface of the desk. Pain and guilt overwhelmed him. Slowly the tide of emotions receded. He had a job to do, he had to survive and find Aeryn somehow. And now he had to find some way to make restitution to the dead. How can you apologise to the dead?
The evacuation took place smoothly. Even as the last shuttle landed and the final ship broke orbit, the first ship entered the Knossos portal and travelled to the Psyrix sector. An hour later John found himself once more sitting in the office of Arch-Strategos Winkler, only this time there was no friendly welcome.
"Haven't you learned anything boy? You can't just go around nuking worlds and expect to get away with it."
"It was an accident. A freak occurrence. The fault has been fully documented and disclosed." Johns voice was toneless as he repeated this. He felt like he had said it over and over again. Even as he was saying it, knowing it was the truth, he could feel the sense of falsehood in his statement, almost as if everyone else's doubts had altered the truth.
"I know. I am glad to see you have finally learned to cover your ass boy. Still don't you think you couldn't have come up with a less… showy method?"
"It worked didn't it?"
"Yes I suppose so." A sinister little smile settled on Winkler's face. "A most unfortunate fault." A wry chuckle escaped him. "Well consider yourself reprimanded for what happened and go see that pretty filly of yours. She has something she wants to tell you." And with that the deaths of thousands of civilians was dismissed with no more than a casual wave of an arm.
With trepidation John approached the quarters assigned to him and Dietz. Right now she was the last person he want to see, but he knew he couldn't avoid her. So he went, and with every step he took his mind ranged over what it could be that she wanted to tell him. He hoped that it was that she was going to be reassigned someplace far from him. He paused before the door to their quarters before opening it and finding Amy sprawled out on the couch in the living area. She leapt up and straight into his arms. A wave of revulsion washed over him but was suppressed with the practised ease he had acquired through close contact with her.
"You're back." She said, her head buried in his shoulder.
"I have some wonderful news!" John sighed and manoeuvred them both to the couch and sat, Amy making herself comfortable on his lap. Obviously if she thought it was good news, it wasn't that she was being reassigned someplace far from him.
"Oh?" he said cautiously.
"I'm pregnant." She beamed.