Authors: PP Corcoran
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The Saiph Series
Copyright 2015 PP Corcoran
Published by PP Corcoran Ltd
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2287 LIGHT YEARS FROM EARTH
The small ship reenters normal space and its sensors sweep the surrounding area. Penetrating the blackness of space, its systems register the nearby gas giant, invisible to the naked eye. More lifeless planetoids are detected at the very edges of the system by the astrogation computer, which compares the sensor readings to the data stored in its core. It confirms the ship has indeed reached the desired destination its makers programmed into it nearly ten centuries earlier. The ship adjusts its position and ignites its powerful intersystem engines, which come to life, pushing it toward the heart of the dark and lifeless system. Appearances, however, can be deceiving. No light reaches out from a central star to kiss the outer planets. No radiation is detected to hint at the presence of a hidden star at the center of the planetary system. The planets seem to have formed against all known theories of system formation. Where is the system’s star?
The engines power down and the ship coasts along its course, moving toward the center of the impossible planetary system. In the darkness the sensors pick something up, a very weak signal but definitely there, a latticework like a giant spider’s web which forms a complete globe at least two AUs in diameter and situated exactly where the system’s star should be.
As the spacecraft closes in, it becomes apparent there are small bulges at some of the junctions where the fine latticework meets.
Closer still and the true size of the bulges are revealed as the structures dwarf the ship. The seemingly smooth, seamless skin of one of these structures splits, and a brightly lit docking area is revealed. The ship enters and the structure’s skin closes behind it like the mouth of a shark.
The ship moves silently through the cavernous hangar passing the sleeping behemoths of kilometer-long warships. All were painted the same inky-black as the night sky. Flattened hulls with weapons’ pylons protruding above and below the main body like fins of some enormous deep sea predator. Gliding through another armored port, the ship passes yet more machines of war until it finally settles into a snug docking cradle. Powering down its engines, the onboard computers link with the overarching Artificial Intelligence. The AI receives the information the small ship brings, detailing the fate of the Chosen People at the hands of the Commonwealth forces. For what would be an eternity for any flesh-and-blood brain, but is in fact mere thousandths of a second, the AI ponders its next move until it finds the most compatible file. Instructions flash out to long-dormant equipment.
PLANET II - STAR SYSTEM 52980 - 107.3 LIGHT YEARS FROM EARTH
Planet II of System 52980 steadily orbited its G-type main sequence star. The planet consisted of six large continents, making up about one-third of its surface. The remainder was covered in liquid water, forming deep oceans.
Planet II was ideally located in its star system to be a viable life-bearing planet, but the ‘Others’ ensured whatever civilization may have sprung from its fertile ground would never have the chance to reach its peak.
According to the drone’s readings, the planet was subjected to an orbital bombardment sometime in the past four years. The bombardment had scoured the surface clear of life and plunged the planet’s ecology into a new Ice Age, brought about by the nuclear winter clouds that still blanketed the planet’s sky. Maybe in a few thousand years, when the ice began to recede and the radiation levels dropped, life would return to this dead world.
For what it was worth, the perpetrators of this destruction suffered the same fate. Second Fleet, under the command of Admiral Robert Lewis, descended on the Others’ final sector base like avenging angels. The sector base was built into a large asteroid circling a gas giant so massive it put Sol's own Jupiter to shame in a star system fifteen light years from its intended target.
If nothing else, the Others were consistent. They seemed only to build two types of base. The first was the sort the forces of Fifth Fleet encountered on 70 Ophiuchi: An orbiting facility designed to facilitate naval vessels, supported by a large ground installation. The second was of the type that faced Admiral Radford and Third Fleet out of Garunda: built into a large asteroid and surrounded by fire support bases mounted on smaller asteroids.
Whichever style of base, they were always located in an adjacent system to the intended target. Therefore, if one knew the location of the base, it was a relatively simple matter of scouting nearby systems to find a planet that piqued the Others’ interest and so must be slated for destruction.
Now, though, the fourteenth and last enemy base was neutralized. When the Others’ home on Narath was destroyed by its Artificial Intelligence, many thought it a simple matter of wiping up the remaining sector bases the enemy left behind. This cleanup operation took three years of hard fighting and cost the Commonwealth forces dearly in both ships and crew.
Following the battle around Earth and the destruction of Narath, only Second Fleet retained its full strength, so to Admiral Lewis fell the mission of taking down the surviving enemy bases until First and Third Fleets had licked their wounds and regained their former strength.
The first target of Second Fleet was the Others’ outpost in System 24901: A nondescript red giant star that had consumed the majority of the planets which once orbited it until what had probably been an icy moon of a now-vanished planet was its sole remaining satellite.
This dwarf planet had developed a thin but breathable atmosphere around which the Others built an orbital facility to support the two Buzzards and one Vulture that patrolled the system and the surrounding space. On the dwarf’s surface was a fortified complex exactly like the one on 70 Ophiuchi, which had cost the lives of so many marines in their futile attempt to capture it.
Many of the Commonwealth’s scientists and politicians refused to believe the detonation of nuclear weapons on 70 Ophiuchi and Narath was anything other than intentional. Lewis, however, was not one of them. He had read the paper written by now-Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Terrance Wilson, his wife’s nephew, and it left Lewis in no doubt that the Others, although not directly controlled by an artificial intelligence, certainly took direction from one. Lewis was determined that the waste of life, both friendly and enemy, would never be repeated.
His initial assault plan was almost identical to the one employed by the ill-fated Fifth Fleet. Second Fleet emerged from fold space and launched a merciless missile attack on the orbital base and its warships. In fewer than five minutes, the orbital works and enemy warships were nothing more than floating wreckage. With the space-borne threat neutralized, Second Fleet moved into low orbit, and as the rotation of the moon brought the surface base over the horizon, Lewis began his Kinetic Energy Missile bombardment. The missile strikes threw tonnes of debris into the air but ground-penetrating radar continued to identify targets for the fleet’s missiles. Anything and everything looking remotely like a weapon or command-and-control facility was targeted.
When the tactical officer was satisfied there were no viable targets left, Lewis ordered the deployment of the High Altitude Electro Magnetic Pulse (HEMP) weapons. Blinding flashes lit the night sky high above the Others’ base as the weapons detonated in the stratosphere and their gamma rays were converted into a prodigious electromagnetic pulse. Every piece of unprotected electronic equipment within 100 kilometers ceased to function.
Buried deep below the base, the artificial intelligence of the Coltus noted that all feeds from the surface had been lost. The “Self-Destruct” protocol was activated and the electronic signal triggering the ULF transmission and nuclear demolition charges was sent. It never reached its intended destination. Although the Coltus was housed in a hardened bunker, the cables and equipment it was trying to activate was not. The HEMP rendered the unprotected systems nothing more than expensive junk. When confirmation of the completion of its instructions was not received, the Coltus moved to the next step in the protocol and initiated the thermobaric explosives embedded in the walls of its own bunker. The AI ceased to exist, leaving the soldiers on the surface to fight on without its guidance.
The marines of Second Fleet dropped right on top of the base and no enemy fire rose to meet them. As they disembarked from the assault shuttles, they were met by enemy defenders, whose high-tech weapons were disabled by the HEMP pulse. But still they attacked. They were reduced to swinging their useless weapons like clubs. Picking up rubble and broken masonry to use as additional weapons, they flung themselves upon the marines.
As reports from the ground flooded into the flag bridge, Lewis came to a decision. He ordered his marines to switch to non-lethal weapons unless they were faced with no choice. Lewis understood this increased the risk of casualties among his marines but he refused to slaughter his enemy out of hand. On the surface, the marines slung their plasma rifles over their shoulders, pulled out their PEP pistols, and faced their charging enemy.
In the end, the marines managed to secure over 2500 prisoners. It was the largest number ever captured alive and Lewis was forced to request additional resources to help secure, house, and care for them. Units of the Garundan Army were shipped in and construction began of a vast prisoner-of-war camp. Their former enemy was now their responsibility.
Over three years of conflict, this method of neutralizing enemy surface bases had been successfully deployed on five occasions and netted the Commonwealth nearly 15,000 prisoners, spread over five different star systems. However, they had not devised a similar method of minimizing casualties on the two enemy bases housed within asteroids.
The Combined Joint Chiefs of Staff, given no choice, ordered the assault fleet to stand off at a safe distance and pulverize the asteroid until there was nothing left except dust if the enemy commander failed to signal his surrender. Enemy fatalities were inevitably total.
Images of the lifeless planets the Stealthy Reconnaissance Drone (SRD) returned to the fleet from the target planets of these enemy bases soon negated whatever pity was felt over the slaughter caused by the Others refusal to surrender.
With grim resolve, the sailors and marines went about their task of removing the threat the Others represented to innocent life in the galaxy.
Robert Lewis pushed himself back from the desk in his quarters on board the Bismarck class battleship TDF
musing over the report he’d been reading on the terminal while absently rubbing a hand over his tired face. The analysts had pored over the SRD's data and noticed an anomaly. It was certain that whatever life existed on Planet II was long gone, but as the SRD had egressed the system, it passed close to Planet II’s single moon. The compact electronic sniffer package on the probe, originally designed to detect stealthy enemy warships, had sniffed what the analysts were calling a “non-natural occurring power source.” So either the Others had left something on the small moon or there was some other party out there who was yet to reveal themselves. Well, there was only one way to find out. Some lucky soul was going to have to go and take a look.
The Tanto class shuttle lurched slightly as it moved clear of the marine assault ship
. The heads-up display on Philippa’s Wraith suit was configured to show the small ship’s approach profile. The
had come out of fold space on the dark side of the small moon, exactly 180 degrees opposite the location of the power reading the reconnaissance drones had sniffed when they passed the moon during their final sweep of the dead planet it silently orbited. The Tanto carrying Philippa and her platoon mates was to spiral down to a height of fifty meters from the surface of the moon and then approach the area flying ‘nap of the earth’. A quaint military phrase for flying as close to the ground as possible without running into the ground. The idea of which was to fly low enough to avoid enemy fire. It may have been uncomfortable for the passengers but Philippa was willing to sit through a bumpy ride if it increased the shuttles chances of making it to its target in one piece.
Unfortunately, the brief glimpse the SRD had gotten only allowed the analysts to narrow the search area down to a few square kilometers so the Tanto's crew was forced to fly a search pattern and use their more powerful equipment to localize the source.
Philippa and her fellow marines were there to baby-sit the scientists who would actually look at whatever was generating the power source.
If they ever find it and it wasn't just a glitch in the SRD's data,
Philippa thought. The blinking incoming message icon appeared in her HUD.
"Go for Papadomas." Said Philippa accepting the call.
The slightly nasal voice of Lieutenant Travis came through her ear bug. "Corporal, five mikes till we reach the search area. Give your big brain types a gentle reminder the initial pass will be on passives only. Let’s not go active on anything which may be mistaken for a fire control radar until we know more about what we're dealing with here, OK?"
"Understood, sir." A small sigh escaped Philippa as she cut the link. She’d been lumbered with the unenviable task of herding the small scientific tech team while the platoon commander coordinated with the crew of the Tanto and the marines under the first sergeant, who would deal with the security of the site when and if they needed to put boots on the ground.
Philippa turned her head slightly so she could see the displays of the tech team’s equipment and verify the systems were in passive mode. The senior scientists saw her and gave her a weak smile. Philippa's face, blank under her helmet, stared at him until he turned away in discomfort. Before leaving the
she had a quiet word with the senior scientist and made it plain to him that if he questioned her instructions in any shape or form, she would personally ensure he spent the next few weeks in the
sick bay. Now, the scientist wasn’t a small man by any means. He was proud of his near-daily workouts in the
small gym. But one glance into the diminutive marine corporal’s steely eyes convinced him that perhaps following her instructions was a good idea.
The Tanto slowed as it entered the search area and the scientists’ focused their full concentration on the search for the elusive power source. The Tanto crisscrossed the search grid for nearly half an hour before the lead scientist cried, "We've got it. 1300 meters at 168 degrees. Definitely not a naturally occurring source. If I were to hazard a guess, I’d say it’s a condensing nuclear reactor. Pretty old tech but if properly maintained it could run efficiently for decades."
Philippa only had one question. "Is it the Others?"
The scientist shook his head. "We've never come across them using this type of tech, so my money is on ‘no’."
Good enough for Philippa. Changing channels, she called Travis. "Lieutenant. The eggheads have a hit. 1300 meters at 168 degrees. They’re calling it a condensing nuclear reactor. Most likely not the Others."
"Understood, Corporal. Let’s firm up an exact location. Permission granted to go active on all sensors. Travis clear."
It took another ten minutes while the Tanto flew in a wide, sweeping circle, but eventually the senior scientist was satisfied his team had narrowed the location down to fifteen meters below the dwarf planet’s surface in an area maybe 100 meters squared. It was as good as he was going to get. Philippa relayed the message to Travis, who came to a quick decision.
"Corporal, tell the scientists to seal up. I think it’s time we stretched our legs. Between our suits’ sensors and their portable gear, we should be able to get an exact fix on this thing. If it’s buried, we need to know where to dig."
Travis had the Tanto set down a couple hundred meters from the source. As the dust settled, Travis’ marines disembarked and shook out into a skirmish line, while Philippa and her scientist charges, along with two more marines as escorts, followed close behind.