Black & White
"Thatís it. Now youíve got the hang of it."
Aeryn turned and grinned at Stammell from her position on the small arms firing range. At first she had found the human weapons awkward and unwieldy, but with time and practice she had come to love the weapons like her own. When Stammell had first explained their workings to her, they sounded horribly primitive, especially when she considered them against all the other obviously advanced weaponry she had seen the humans use. After all when you had energy weapons, why would choose to you arm yourself with a projectile weapon?
Her doubts had soon been wiped clear with their first demonstration. It seemed that there was a huge difference between what she perceived to be their limitations and their actual ones. When he had told her that they fired projectiles made up of a dense explosive material, he had left out the fact that they did so at speeds almost equal to that of light. The kinetic energy combined with the explosive properties of the projectile itself put even the largest infantry weapon the Peacekeepers regularly used to shame. Thus she was determined to master these weapons.
Lieutenant Greg Stammell was both a help and a distraction combined in one person. She felt comfortable around him, almost at easy with her current situation. Once more she was part of a group, a unit and she loved every microt of it. At the same time she was worried. Before John she had no idea what it was she was feeling, but now she knew. She was slowly falling for Greg Stammell.
She started, realizing that she had fallen into introspection of her rapidly changing relationship with Greg while staring at him. She yanked her head back around to the targets on the range but not, she was sure, before he noticed her face flush with embarrassment.
"Sorry to disturb you there, but you were looking at me in the oddest wayÖ" His voice trailed off, inviting comment from her. Instead she lined up on the target downrange and resumed firing.
John sat in the command chair on his flag bridge aboard the Warlock. He still felt numb and in shock, even now, days after Amy had dropped the bomb on him. He was to be a father, that he could live with, but to be having a child with someone like her? It was almost inconceivable. He chuckled dryly to himself over his own pun, causing his Flag Staff to shoot quick glances at each other. When she had told him the news he had almost fainted. She noticed his reaction and took this as a negative sign, which it was, so he had to convince her that he thought it was wonderful news and had only been shocked momentarily by the surprise of the announcement. He never thought he would be glad to be going to war but in this instance he was.
He shook his head and firmly displaced his concerns over having a child with Dietz, to the more important and pressing concerns of preparing his command for battle against an unknown enemy. Whoever it was had come from nowhere and gave no warning. So far they had overrun six planets, severing all communication with them. As a result intelligence was sketchy at best. They had also massacred the Sector Fleet in a fight only rivaled by those against the Cythags.
John glanced at the monitor and took in the Imperials response to this challenge. Twelve full carrier groups, each made up of a Fleet carrier, six Dreadnoughts and twelve Heavy Cruisers. In addition to them the Psyrix sector Fleet was adding a further ten normal Dreadnoughts plus Johns six Warlock class, the only ones of their kind, not to mention a further forty Heavy cruisers to help screen the carriers. Altogether they were sending in over two hundred and eighty of their most heavily armed ships into the disputed territory.
John had seen some of what the enemy was capable of and the Imperium's technological edge didnít seem that great to him, but the Arch-Strategos who had been given command seemed confident, overly so in John's opinion. Not only that but it seemed that he was playing politics with the fleet as well. John grimaced at the fleet dispositions that had his ships placed at the leading outer edge of the fleet. If they ran into trouble John would know it first, more than likely milliseconds before he was killed.
Of course John had absolutely no intention of dying in the up coming battle, or at any point for many years to come if he had his way. So he just had to think of a way to increase his chances of survival somehow. He knew the additional range of his scanners, his heavily upgraded and reinforced shields, not to mention the experimental composite armor his ships were built out of, gave him a tremendous advantage over any conventional ships he might come up against but not in the numbers observed to be deployed by this enemy. He had been staked out in front of the advancing fleet as a stalking goat, but he was determined to prove he was no goat, if he could only figure out a way of doing so.
This last thought kept repeating in his mind. There was something in it, he was sure there was, if he could only figure out what it was. Then revelation struck him. It was so obvious that he was shocked he hadnít thought of it before. One of the experimental systems built into his ships was an advanced electronic warfare suite. It was designed to mask his ship's emissions from detection by the enemy, a trick that this enemy had obviously perfected, but he was sure that it could also be used to dampen down his ship's emissions. This would effectively turn a dreadnought onto a Heavy Cruiser and who in their right mind would was fire on heavy cruisers while there were carriers and dreadnoughts to kill first. He leaped from his command chair and rushed over to his electronic warfare specialist and explained his plan. At first they were skeptical of his idea but slowly as they began to experiment with the setting they warmed to it.
Hours later the fleet began its transfer through the Knossos portal to the Lambda Signus sectors outer reaches. Once the transfer was complete the ships of the fleet slid into their designated positions with Johns ships as the vanguard, doing the job a Heavy Cruiser was designed for and was better at. As Johnís ships slid into orbit around the latest world that had been attacked only the screech of static greeted his opening hail. The screen displaying the slowly turning planet told the story far more eloquently than words ever could. The first Emperor had once commented that it was almost impossible to totally eradicate a planetary population without rendering the planet uninhabitable and it seemed these aliens agreed with him. The planet had been bathed in nuclear energy, huge fires swept across the planet at high speed, consuming everything in their path to feed themselves, where cities had once stood now only existed as huge glassy craters, even the smallest town had been hit by massive nuclear weapons. There was nothing left and nobody left alive to care.
John stood mutely in front of the massive holo image of the scarred and burning planet, drinking in all the detail he could. He was blamed for the deaths of thousands in an act of sheer barbarism, but this wasnít barbarism it wasnít even genocide. This was extermination, without even the smallest of considerations to the target. John felt sickly certain that this was what they were going to find on all the other planets.
Aeryn was standing talking to Master Sergeant Helena Troy when she felt a pair of arms slide around her waist and hug her. A smile flashed across her face before she could mask it with a stern frown. Aeryn slapped the now wandering hands away.
"Greg, stop that at once, or Iíll take you down to the gym and kick your ass a few times to teach you not to grope me in front of people."
Greg had an unrepentant grin on his face as he reluctantly released her and stepped around into her sight.
"So does that mean itís perfectly fine if nobody's watching?" He chuckled as he watched her try to frame some sort of response to this question. She glanced over at Helena and saw that she was chewing her bottom lip and her face was red as she struggled not to laugh.
"Your supposed to be on my side not his." Aeryn said pointedly, elbowing Greg gently in the stomach as he once again attempted to enfold her in his arms.
"Oh no. Not me," returned Helena. "I make it a rule not to notice fraternization among officers. It makes my life so much easier. Especially when I might need a favor or two."
"My what a cynical view you have of your superiors, Gunny." Greg, still grinning, finally succeeded in gaining a hold of Aeryn's waist, not that she had been trying too hard to stop him. He laughed quietly as she sighed dramatically and pretended to ignore his contact with her. Aeryn continued her conversation with Helena, only occasionally giving Greg a reminder not to get too friendly by putting her own arms back around him and pinching him not too gently on the bottom.
Days had passed from the initial shock of discovering a dead and burning planet, not once but twice. The fleet was now closing in on the planet of Ptath, the governing system of this part of the sector. It was from the encounters here that the most information had been garnered about the enemy's systems and tactics. It also had the largest populations of the six planets lost to the enemy. There was little doubt as to what they would find when they entered orbit of this planet.
Which was why shock abounded throughout the fleet when it was discovered that, not only hadnít this planet been destroyed like the two pervious, but there were also signs of human life upon it. It wasnít until a closer examination was made that it was noted that the cities were ruins, many of the buildings damaged by fire and explosions. Remnants of destroyed military vehicles littered the streets of the major settlement on the planet, many of them of human origin but quite a few obviously alien.
Johnís ships being the first into orbit immediately launched their small craft filled with infantry to the surface. They landed on the military field just outside of the city and encountered no resistance. In fact they encountered nothing at all. Slowly they made their way to the city sweeping each building in their path with care, looking for survivors or valuable clues to what had transpired here.
As more ships reached the planet, reinforcements were added to John's men on the surface. It became obvious that the fighting on the planet had been brutal. Bodies of the defenders lay scattered where they died, but there seemed to be few civilian casualties. For a city this size one would have expected many more bodies and at least a few survivors. But so far there were none. This was a mystery, because from orbit small fires had been clearly seen surrounded by humans, but when the troops reached those locations there was nothing to be found.
As is typical in these matters it was the very last section of the city to be explored that resolved one of the mysteries surrounding the events on his planet. It was in the commercial district where many huge warehouses stood close by the commercial spaceport that the bodies were found.
John by this time had joined the search parties on the planet and was one of the first to enter the warehouses. Inside he glimpsed a scene that would be replayed in his nightmares for the rest of his life. The enemy had gathered thousands, both living and the dead, together in these spaces for examination. John was sure that by when he survivors realized what was in store for them they envied the dead. Bodies were strewn about. Blood covered almost every surface inside even; John realized sickly as he glanced up, the roof.
It was obvious that these aliens felt nothing for their victims. Men, women and children died together after having many horrible things done to there bodies, ranging from amputation to vivisection obviously while they had still been alive. Their faces were twisted into portraits of pure agony.
John stood for hours, watching as more and more people came, to see this horror for themselves. Each as shocked and angered as the last at the sight they observed inside. Finally it took Haig's urgent call for him to return to the Warlock to break the spell of the dead.
"Third Oíaílack reports that a large fleet of vermin ships have entered the orbit of the fourth prise First Danítían." The junior twelfth made the ritualistic abasement to his superior with this report.
"Good, it is about time they reacted in force to our actions. How stands the readiness of the Fleet?"
"All is ready First. At your order we shall crush this vermin Fleet as we did the other."
At this news First Danítían allowed his body to relax. Soon another abomination of nature would fall before the true people. This species was even more disgusting than most. The First had felt his gorge rise when he had first observed the stiff and awkward gait of this species. It bore not even slightest resemblance to the People, having a ridged skeleton inside its body. This fact only served to prove that they were vermin. After all, only lower life forms possessed such structures. Still they were tastyÖ
"Sir?" Haig asked hesitantly. Ever since Crichton had come from the surface he had been distracted. This wasnít too surprising since he seen the reports of the horrible senseless mutilations to the civilians. It had taken him almost two hours to locate Crichton inside the largest warehouse where the worst atrocities had taken place. It was where the bodies had been piled systematically against the walls to make room for more.
The entire fleet was in shock. The burnt out remnant of the first two planets paled beside legacy of Ptath. Hope had been crushed in the cruelest way possible. The souls of the dead cried out for vengeance on their murderers. Again Haig looked at Crichton, whose eyes at first glance seemed empty of all emotion, but deep within them Haig saw the flicker of something terrible
"What is it Haig?" his voice matched his eyes, dead.
"We are getting an intermittent contact at extreme scanner range. Right now we canít confirm it's not a Ghost contact. But given the enemy's abilities to close range without being detected, I thought it best to inform you."
"Move our ships out to intercept. When we are within half a million kilometers go to active scanning. That should show us if there is anything out there or not." John leaned forward in his chair and felt a spark of something. He wasnít sure what it was and it made him feel uncomfortable but at the same time offered comfort. He grasped it with both hands and held on for dear life.
"Third, a squadron of the vermin Fleet is closing on our position." A junior twelfth reported from his station by the sensor panels.
"Could they have detected us?" The Third asked sharply, directing its question to a lower fifth of intelligence.
"No, sir. From the equipment we have taken from their wreaks their scanners are unable to penetrate our masque at such ranges." Was the confident reply.
"Very well, prepare the squadron for battle."
"But they canít have detected us!" Fifth of intelligence wailed, well knowing his fate if the vermin had indeed detected them.
"So you claim, but if you are wrong we shall be prepared and you shall die for your error." Third Oíaílack turned back to the screen, leaving the cowering Fifth to ruminate on his possible errors.
"What the hell do you think you are doing, Crichton? Return your ships to orbit at once."
"We have detected a sensor ghost at extreme range, sir. I am merely investigating it."
"Without my permission! Besides, there is nothing out there. My sensors would have detected it also."
"With all due respect, sir, thatís a load of shit, a bit like your sensors. My ships have the latest generation sensors tech and comp resolution. They have twice the range and three times the resolution of yours."
"Return your ships at once, or Iíll have you court marshaled for this."
"But I am simply obeying your standard orders for my squadron sir. You knowÖ the ones where I am to use my ships as bait for the enemy so that I get killed first?" Arch-Strategos Bryant's face paled as he realized that John had read between the lines of his orders. What made it worse was that all ship to ship communications were recorded. Even if Crichton were killed his accusations would have lasting effect on Bryant's career, if he still had one by then.
"This isnít over, Crichton. Iíll see you dead."
"Not if I see you first." And with that he cut the comm channel to the fleet command ship. "Go to active scanning."
"The closing vermin ships have detected us, sir. They are closing for battle." The junior twelfth reported.
"Very well. Drop the masque and power up the weapons. OhÖ and have someone eject the lower fifth of intelligence out the nearest airlock." Third ordered angrily. He had been failed. Fifth of intelligence should have anticipated this.
"At once, sir."
Orders were given and two battle forms came to take the unresisting lower fifth to his fate.
"We have a total of twenty ships on the scanners, sir. We are relaying that information to the Flag." The scanner tech reported.
"Good, take us in to engagement range and open fire as soon immediately." John ordered.
"Aye, sir. Firing in five, four, threeÖ"
"Vermin ships firing, sir."
"What? Impossible they are too far away, only their fixed defenses have had this range before."
"We have a total of six ships each has launched four missiles. They are larger than previously observed ship borne missiles but smaller than those of their fixed defenses sir. Upper sixth of intelligence is unsure of their warhead yield."
"It makes no difference. Close to our own engagement range and crush these upstarts, then prepare to withdraw along the designated route."
The missiles bore down on their targets, exploding in huge fireballs that inflicted massive damage upon the alien ships. These missiles were more powerful than any yet witnessed by Third Oíaílack. Their power shook him and caused panic to run riot throughout his ships. He knew he had no choice but to order the retreat before he could destroy these upstart vermin ships.
"Enemy is attempting to disengage, sir."
"Push them harder then, get us to energy range and show them what else these ships are capable of." A cold shark-like smile appeared on Johnís face. These ships would make a suitable down payment on the restitution he planned to wrest from these murderous bastards.
As the range closed the alien ships began to explode, damaged beyond their ability to withstand the constant pounding. The enemy ships formed a protective wall around the largest squadron as it tried to withdraw.
Finally range was reached and the terrible new Imperial weapons came into use. Great beams of energy lashed out from Johnís ships and struck the alien ships. Those ships that were struck died, their atomic bonds shattered, turning them into crude nuclear bombs. Ships died in twos and threes until there was only the large alien ship left. But its consorts had done their job. They delayed Johnís ships long enough to allow to charge its hyper generators and escape before John could stop it.
"Did you get a reading on the hyper field it generated?"
"Good." John relaxed into his command chair, knowing that the enemy's escape was only temporary. The reading of the ships hyper field let them know exactly where he would emerge from hyper
The Imperial fleet emerged from hyper ready for battle, but there was nothing on sensors.
"Orders from Command sir," Haig relayed to Crichton. "All ships are ordered to disperse in order to locate the enemy ship. We are ordered to investigate the asteroid belt in sector gamma delta three."
The Imperial fleet spread out over the system. Its sensors probed for the elusive enemy but found nothing. Johnís ships were at the very edge of the fleet, its more powerful sensor suite probing the innermost reaches of the systems asteroid belt.
"First, the vermin Fleet is in position." Upper fourth of Intelligence reported.
"Very well, signal the Fleet to drop the masque and attack." First Danítían gave his equivalent of a smile. His Fleet out numbered that of the vermin five to one. He anticipated a short battle. Once the attack had commenced, he would sever their communications and prevent the true extent of his Fleet being revealed to the vermin home worlds before it was too late. "Initiate harmonic jamming."
"Sir, we are detecting enemy ships all around us! They have the fleet surrounded and out numbered. Our comms crystals have been shattered. We have lost all long-range communications. The fleet is totally cut off." Haig's voice held an edge of panic, tempered with professionalism.
"Damn it, I knew this was a bad idea. That idiot has spread the fleet so thin there is almost no mutual support from other squadrons. Heís managed to lead the fleet into a death-trap." John felt sick to his soul, knowing that few, if any, were going to survive this coming battle. The Imperial Fleet was so dispersed across the system they had no chance of reforming before they were attacked and no time or space to run while they charged their jump engines. That only left one option, to stand and die.
"What do we do?" Haig asked.
"Whatever it takes to survive." John replied grimly.
"Have you heard the news, Aeryn?" Greg had just opened her door, using the code she had given him. She smiled at him. This was the first time he had used it.
"What news?" she asked, containing her laughter. He seemed to bounce on his heels with excitement.
"The imperials got their asses kicked by some alien fleet a month or so back. Lost a huge chunk of their fleet." A broad grin appeared on his face as he related this news, as if he expected her to be as excited by it as he was.
"Really?" she asked in a deliberately bland manner.
"Yes! They have even sent a delegation to start talks on a peace treaty." With this he threw himself down on her bed and laughed.
"I didnít realize we were actually at war with the Imperials."
"We've been at war for over a hundred years, so we donít tend to worry about it much." He waved this fact away as if it should be common knowledge, which it was, just not to Aeryn.
"Oh? I thought they had a much bigger fleet than we do. What stopped them from launching a full out attack on us?" she moved over to the bed and sat beside him as he sprawled over it.
"They have lots of enemies on their borders. If they took too big a loss taking us out, one of the other empires might take advantage of that."
"I see. Well that makes sense." Aeryn lay down beside him and made herself comfortable, resting her head on his chest. He wrapped one arm around her waist and began to stroke her hair with the other.
"Yes, anyway, a delegation has arrived on this ship from our government and the Imperial's."
"That's good news isnít it?"
Before Greg could reply, the door chimed. Aeryn sighed, stood and opened the door. She was immediately rooted to the spot with shock to see Amy Dietz standing in the doorway.
"Hello, Aeryn. How are you?" Amy was flanked by two suspicious Republic Marines as her escort.
"Amy." Aeryn breathed in shock.
"Arenít you going to invite me in?"
"Of course. Yes. Come in." Aeryn was non-plussed by Amyís sudden reappearance in her life.
Dietz regarded Stammell with a lascivious smile. "I didnít mean to interrupt anything," She drawled not even attempting to hide her reaction. "But I thought you might like to know John was part of the Fleet that was destroyed in Lambda Signus. As far as we know he was killed along with the rest of the fleet."
Aeryn went white at this news. She thought she had excised any emotions relating to John but the knowledge that he was gone from her life forever was a devastating blow. She sat heavily upon the nearby bed, ignoring Greg's concerned inquires as to what was wrong.
"His loss shocked us all, but we must go on. At least I have something to remember him by this time." Amy smiled and gently caressed her stomach. Aeryn slowly felt the realization move over her.
"Youíre having Johnís child?" she asked.