The Dark Sun Crisis

Denizens of the Night – a story of the TA’AK
A Time for Heroes – a story of the IAF

Some notes: Combat as described here is not precisely as in the game. Dramatic licence has been taken. Also, some chapters do, indeed, overlap with future ones. Reading individual chapters is likely to cause confusion.


The Stellar Commonwealth was one of the premier governments in the loose Interstellar Federation of it’s day. The old Interstellar Federation was mainly a trading agreement, encompassing nine sectors bounded mainly by starless voids, dangerous nebulas and several somewhat-Xenophobic race’s spheres of influence. It had no military as such, but the Stellar Commonwealth’s military – the Interstellar Armed Forces – were by far the most powerful in the IF, and were hired by most of the powers therein for various jobs.

The IAF itself was a relatively large and powerful operation, and it’s supporters dominated the Stellar Commonwealth’s government because of it’s poor positioning. It occupied a good deal of habitable worlds, but only one (Cromnar) was mineral rich and only a few of the barren systems within their borders had large mineral reserves.

Hence the IAF, in both Space and Ground branches, was the Stellar Commonwealth’s largest income source (the only other major export being food, and only to a few local trade partners such as the K’Kree Confederation). The shipyards of the IAF were, by necessity, located well outside the Stellar Commonwealth’s core worlds, close to the Wayline-sector’s major trade routes and the supplies of exotic materials needed for the manufacturing of Starships.

The first contact with the Technological Alliance of Aliens Kossavus, the TA’AK, was perilously close to this region, and although local hyperspace conditions made it very difficult for IAF ships to move from the shipyards direct to the borders the TA’AK’s more efficient warp drives (while slow) seemed to deal with this kind of phenomena far better than ours.

It was the fact that they did not even try to take advantage of this which gave the IAF the first solid clue that they were dealing with invaders from a truly different place. While overwhelming in force, the requirements for mapping local hyperspace truly slowed the TAAK navy down and at least one TAAK taskforce was destroyed blind-jumping during the war.

The aftermath of the initial conflict was inevitable, and lead to today’s Interstellar Federation. But that story is truly for another day - this document details, from a dramatic perspective, the major occurrences of the first TAAK-IAF war. It is pieced together on one side in great detail from IAF bridge recorders and datanet, and from the other in somewhat hazy detail from prisoners subjected to Lii memory singing and later communications between the TAAK and the Starjumpers.

And where to begin but the beginning.

Even as the TA’AK created a new Path through time-space from the Homeworlds to the “Gateway Sector”, the IAF was hard pushed by it’s current requirements – several long patrol missions, a heavy taskforce detached to protect a trade mission to the Avalonese, four heavy taskforces tied down on the Rh’zaa border, and perhaps the most importantly for this story, a light taskforce detailed to – quickly – suppress a rebellion on a world in the K’Kree Federation close to the Stellar Commonwealth’s border.

The harsh, desert world is now named Tzais, but then it was called Nveran
I call it home.

Rebecca Morgan, Human Female
K’Kree Confederation Citizen

Chapter 1 Into the Path

TA’AKAlmighty-Class Command Ship Wind of Flame

Warleader K’Vrin raised his head-crests, and stepped onto the bridge. His subordinate Sri, at their stations around the bridge, bowed deeply to him with their head-crests laid back tight against their rounded skulls. His Ysla tacticians, on the other hand, never as much as turned for their tasks, their tentacles flitting quickly across their datascapes they could they only see projected into their minds an eerie site K’Vrin would never get used to. He was not offended the Ysla’s task-focus had simply not encompassed him, and would not until it needed to.

At a wave of his hand, his bridge crew settled back at their stations, monitoring the fleet forming above Daiosi. Two Monitors floated amid a virtual sea of spaceships dozens of constructors, cruisers and supply ships and hundreds of frigates and corvettes. An invasion force poised to unleash mayhem on their target. And floating in front of the fleet, the generators of a Path.

Vast, the sixty-four gigantic spindle generators each over five kilometres long they glinted in the red sunlight of Daiosi’s feeble star. Technicians swarmed over them mostly S’ri and Kaythen preparing them for the immense load they would take. The anti-matter plants to power them were stationed in clusters well away, preparing the relays which would allow them to supply the immense load of the Path.

The chair stood proud in the bridge and he gratefully sunk into it, pulling the light acceleration harness into place and locking it with long-practised ease. His fingers danced across his console, and data blossomed into view from the projector in front of him. He tapped commands into his console, and ship status displays for the Wind of Flame flashed past each displaying a department’s reports. He paused as they ended, satisfied his ship was ready.

And then he grunted and punched up a display he knew would disappoint him. While he had a powerful force, he was lacking the third monitor and almost a quarter of his assigned cruisers and frigates thanks to unexpected resistance from two minor races in the sectors reached by the previous Path. The foresight of the races there in establishing hidden backups in barren systems was paying off with a heavy diversion of TAAK ships this Path was already five month-cycles late.

The data appeared, and K’Vrin blinked his third eyelids a few times. Many of the ships which had been diverted were marked as not diverted, but destroyed. He tapped a key, and more data started to appear, then froze. Passwords were tapped to overcome the security lockouts, but to no avail. A Warleader’s security clearance was massive indeed, and K’Vrin could not think of any reason why it should be locked away which did not disturb him.

Suddenly decisive, he tapped a command into the console, clearing the locked data, then unlocked the frame and strode over to the Ysla’s stations. A smell reminiscent of Marshberry surrounded him as he did so, and he snorted, clearing his nose. He wondered, briefly, why the Ysla was pleased but shrugged it away as a fan set in the ceiling above the Ysla sped up, sucking the scent away.

Within minutes, he was engrossed in a detail conversation with the senior Ysla, discussing reasons why ships expected to spend time tracking down a few destroyers and frigates in low-value systems and around nebulas might have been destroyed. In fact, he was so engrossed he missed the arrival of his nephew and deputy K’Yis, with news.

K’Vrin started briefly at the tap on his shoulder, but his mild annoyance at the interruption vanished when he say the young S’ri. By far the most talented of the brood, his head-carapace not yet fully settled into adult colouration but he was still a reliable fighter and deputy. And, he saw, K’Yis was carrying a secure datapad. He turned briefly to the Ysla, and then stepped away, turning his full attention to K’Yis.

“War Leader,” K’Yis said, bowing formally, “I bring you a message from the council.”
“You’re little senior to be a message carrier”, K’Vrin replied, another little insult from them he thought.

K’Vrin huffed. Certainly they acknowledged that the Paths must continue - it was more than their lives were worth to deny the Books of Kossavus - but they consistently under-supplied forces with ships, were slow building new paths and refused time and again to allocate enough funding to research. And now they were using a highblood S’ri for a messenger, when a lowblood S’ri or even a Runner would be appropriate.

K’Yis coloured a little, but said nothing and extended the pad. K’Vrin smiled at a display of restraint few S’ri would of even tried to impose on themselves and took the pad. He murmured a thanks and settled back into his command chair, K’Yis standing politely three paces to the right and waiting as he plugged the secure datapad into his computer and started tapping passwords.

As it acknowledged his identity, it flashed up the glyph for secure data. Snarling a little to himself, he leaned back, closed his eyes and willed the data to appear. Flooding along the wireless datajack, data unfolded into his mind. It wasn’t as bad as he thought…it was worse. There would certainly be no reinforcements, and N’Vary had been executed for incompetence after losing nine-tenths of his fleet because he had been too eager to catch a cruiser and had lost many ships to a blind jump…and it had proven to be a lot more than a single cruiser.

And it ordered him to proceed…logical, if one assumed that the forces he had at his command would be enough. True, they would probable be so the hyperspace emanations from the sector seemed to indicate a mostly-peaceful society, but the risks to him and his under-strength command were still considerable. Orders, however, were orders.

He turned to K’Yis, We move in five hours. Signal the fleet to prepare to move out, and the Path technicians that they need to begin wormhole formation in two hours thirty minutes.

Sir, replied K’Yis, bowing and moving to his own station at the edge of the bridge, where he began entering orders and sending messages.

K’Vrin closed his eyes, and hoped – almost desperately - that the conquest through this path, to this Gateway sector, would be an easy one. And then he opened his eyes and turned to his communications officer, a S’ri named V’Gris.

“A message to the fleet,” K’Vrin said, pausing to allow V’Gris to set up the link.
V’Gris’s hands flew across his console, tapping keys, “Ready, sir”, he replied.

“All units, be prepared to move in four hours. We have our orders. We shall enter the Path, and take the Gateway sector. We are assured by the High Council that the spirits of the Kossavus are with us”

V’Gris looked at him, and at his nod ended the transmission. Aboard the ships of the fleet, final checks began for the departure. And on the control platform for the vast Path, they prepared the massive generators for their part – for they, too, had received the orders.

The fleet surged forwards, as the generators powered up. Space flicked at the centre of the vast generators. And then a distortion formed at the centre, through which other stars could be seen. And the distortion grew….over the course of several minutes, it grew to become over five kilometres across.

And then ships began passing through. Each ship, as it passed, seemed to twist, slipping out of normal space and through the distorted space of the Path, the great wormhole to the Gateway sector. As each did, energy charges flowed over the massive generators, top be absorbed harmlessly into buffers – the Path could pass over twice the size of even this powerful fleet in a single opening.

One by one, the ships vanished into the gateway. And then the distortion collapsed in a small burst of hard radiation, as it’s engineers shut it down. Until the next opening – in several weeks, for reinforcements – the fleet was cut off from its home. News of its battles would have to wait.
Chapter 2 – The Nveran Suppression

IAF Destiny-class Flagship, Halberd

Drifting wreckage marked the location of the single destroyer which the Nveran rebels had been able to build before the IAF light taskforce swooped down on the planet. While the taskforce only had it’s flagship capable of taking the destroyer on one-to-one, it had not needed to – a bomber wing had taken just two casualties doing the job.

The corvettes which had supported the destroyer were in full retreat back to the planet, harassed by heavy fighters. The few Nveran spacefighters were already gone, no match for the far faster and tougher Hammerhead and Nova fighters which had been deployed by the taskforce’s three carriers.

The main holo-tank was not concerning itself with the handful of corvettes, most of which would be damaged before they could retreat. No, it was centred on the real concern of the men standing around the tank – the orbital defences. And they were looking…annoyed.

“How did they build three orbital forts, even of this size, and deploy two dozen guardians in just five days,” asked the first, “The guardians will make cracking this with bombers….painful.” He was a short, dark man, with premature grey hair.

“Quite”, said the second man, he turned to the third man, whose rank showed him to be a commodore, “Martin, I know we’ve been trying to converse supplies and that the planet is the only decent source of building metals around here, but we do have the two freighter’s storage. I think we should build some artillery corvettes.” A true contrast to the first man, he was pale, tall and red haired.

Martin Tellmar stepped up to the holotank and gripped the rail. His advisor – Tal Benedict, the commander of his corvettes and escorts – had a point. But he was loathe to use the freighters, when their resources might be needed for the ground campaign. So he turned to the first man, Zaius, his Carrier commander.

“Do it”, he said, “We’d take fifty percent casualties taking out the forts, it’ll be cheaper on both lives, resources and time to smash them from range…and we’ll need the bombers for ground fire suppression.”

The freighter was smaller than those used by the merchant lines, but no merchant freighter could withstand a pounding from capital-class weapons either. Neither did they have a particle beam weapon which could beat off an attacking corvette. The Agincourt-class resource transports suited the IAF well.

It moved close to the Halberd, and as the Halberd poured resources through it’s nanoformer into a corvette shipyard, the freighter’s capacitors whined…the vast stores of metal and the capacitor banks of energy aboard the freighter vanished one after another, to reappear inside the Destiny’s resource storage. An expensive miracle of modern technology, almost taken for granted by the spaceships crews who used the system every day.

The second freighter moved up, and it too contributed. Within an hour, the yard was complete, and the first of five artillery corvettes began construction.

Hours later, it was done. Five new corvettes were parked alongside the IAF fleet, as fighters patrolled just outside the range of the Nveran defences, watching the frantic preparations on the planet’s surface. The yard, its task done, was unmade by the Halberd, it’s nanoformer reclaiming the metals used in it’s construction and pouring them back into the freighter.

Shuttles from the Halberd ran back and forth several to the corvettes, carrying personnel recently unfrozen from the vast cryogenic sleep tanks. And each of the corvettes came to life, in turn, powering their engines and testing their long ranged “contained plasma bolt bombardment arrays”. Able to throw unguided plasma bolts vast distances, they were space artillery, even if unable to penetrate a planet’s atmosphere.

The forts and the tiny guardian platforms died. Each plasma bolt wasn’t especially powerful, but they were far longer ranged than the fort’s weapons and the forts couldn’t dodge. Within twenty minutes of the bombardment starting, each of them had become flaming wreckage, falling towards the atmosphere of Nveran. Life pods dotted the display – a lot of pods. Most of the rebels hadn’t stayed in the forts after they realised they were doomed (and the guardian platforms were unmanned).

It was the moment Zaius had been waiting for. His bombers streaked towards the planet, intent on bombarding the ground defence installations hastily cut into several mountains with their fusion torpedoes, while the fighter and interceptor squadrons ranged around them, ready to intercept atmospheric fighters with their missiles and destroyed unhardened targets with their light lasers and plasma cannon.

Fire rose to reach them as they plunged into the atmosphere, and one bomber vanished as a particle beam struck it full-on. And then the bombers were in firing range, and torpedoes smashed over ninety percent of the launch sites in a single volley. Close-in defences hammered at the bombers, and another two went down in flames, but that was their last gasp. The fighters mercilessly swept away the lightly defended guns, and the few atmospheric fighters never stood a chance. Several scored hits with their missiles, but the chemical explosive warheads barely scratched their target’s armour. The return missiles, with micro-fusion warheads, had no such problem.

The scoutship sent to summon the troop carriers reappeared in the usual burst of energetic photons. Five far larger bursts behind it signalled the arrival of the Normandy-class troop carriers. The smallest IAF troop carriers, usually they would have been horribly inadequate for a planetary invasion. But, in this case they were perfectly sufficient. The planet’s population was just fifty thousand K’Kree, one and seventeen thousand lifespan-limited K’Kree clones and five thousand Humans and Lii. Ten thousand marines was more than enough to engage them.

The Normandy class were fast troop transports, and they burned for the planet faster than any combat frigate could manage, guarded by the escort each of them locked to their hull during warp transport. It took them just seven hours to reach Nveran, and they paused just inside the Halberd’s defensive perimeter.

And then they moved again. Two paused at the edge of the atmosphere, four thousand exo-armoured troopers plummeting downwards at high speed inside their pods, while the other three transports made directly for the ground.

Fire seemed to streak from the sky in and around the defence posts the rebels had set up, and each falling pod’s AI selected three targets and detached three tiny kinetic weapons. Impacts blossomed across the defences, as return fire struck a few pods, even before the pods opened and the troopers hurtled out of them, breaking with their grav drivers.

As they landed, the drivers – oversized backpacks – were discarded, and they opened fire with their suit’s flechette and plasma weapons. Rebels caught in the open died from tiny explosive darts pulping them, and those in cover or armour were cooked by plasma fire. Perimeters formed, and the three transports landed, deploying six thousand more troops – with semi-portable heavy weapons for cracking bunkers and fortified positions. The rebels tried to pull back, but few made it away, and the troops took control of the shocked, damaged towns.

While the troopers established garrisons, organised the imposition of martial law and set up heavy equipment, the fleet reorganised into a formation designed to protect, rather than threaten, the planet. The orbital shipyards had been crippled by the rebels as their first strike against the planetary government, but quick investigations showed technicians that they could be brought partly online, and soon they were able to help restock spares on the carriers, depleted by minor damage to quite a few of their brood.

The taskforce would remain there for at least a month, while their troops smashed the rebel retreats, and a K’Kree force could replace them – a governor, troops and some basic space defences, at the very least.
Chapter 3 – A Swarm of Demons

Assault Frigate Lancer

S’ri sat poised at consoles, as the semi-nothingness of warp space flowed outside the ship. On the viewscreen, glyphs flickered – a countdown for emergence. Groupleader N’Kell sat impassive in his command chair. An old, conservative S’ri, whose career had long stalled he was often used by his superiors for scouting assignments – his totally unflappable nature and skill at handling a small ship force were well known.

Seven frigates with over two dozen docked fighters and three corvettes dropped out of warp space. Their target was a small base – military by its commutation traffic – established on the far side of an asteroid belt. Within seconds of emergence, the fighters slipped loose of their docking points, immediately taking up positions around the frigates. The lone construction corvette, Hive, attached to the mission turned towards a small mineral-rich asteroid the tiny unmanned scout drone had discovered in the area, even as the Lancer fired scouts of it’s own – tiny devices intended simply to map enemy positions – into the asteroid belt.

Within seconds, they provided some data. There were channels cleared through the belt, and enemy readings surrounding them. As they continued onwards, they detected a cluster of enemy readings…and then one was swatted by a weapon. Within seconds, others were as well. Shock reigned on the Lancer’s bridge. The micro-tachyon communication links the scouts used were undetectable to TAAK technology.

N’Kell was the exception to the shock. Calm as ever, his voice quelled the speculation on the bridge, assigning it to anther time when the data could be examined. He gave orders in a measured voice, and one of the two anti-fighter corvettes and several of the fighters settled into position covering the Hive, while the other and the remaining fighters formed up around the frigates.

Even as they entered the channel through the asteroids, the first attack came in. Three scout fighters screamed towards them. One was struck by a missile and careened off course into the asteroids, blowing up spectacularly, but the other two flashed through the formation, scoring lines down the armour of the corvette as they did so. The three interceptors left to guard the Hive moved on the scouts, even as they drew away for what would likely be an inconclusive war of movement.

As they neared the end of the channel, scanners revealed a half-dozen small weapon platforms. The fighters hung back, as the frigates surged forwards. Three of the platforms opened fire with plasma guns, hammering into the armour of the lead frigate. Even as they did so, the pair of torpedo frigates opened fire, their projectiles arcing towards one of the platforms and smashing it into wreckage. The others suffered the same fate a moment later, as they came within range of the lasers and finally the electron whips of the other frigates.

Vengeance was swift. Bombers screamed down towards the lead frigate, an electron-class, and even it’s armour crumpled as fusion warheads slammed into it. The killing blow came from a pair of heavy fighters which screamed by a moment later, firing heavy plasma rounds and turning the wreckage into a tangled inferno. And then the moment of vulnerability was passed, as the other platforms – anti-fighter weapons which N’Kell had seen no reason to give targets – were also smashed and the fighter screen roared up from behind to shield the remaining frigates.

The tactical displays flickered repeated as data was fed to them by the computer network, organising itself over all the TA’AK ships. As it did so, N’Krell issued orders again. What he was faced with were three large asteroids, each with mineral extractors working on them, associated solar panels and defenders. There were also three small corvettes lurking close to the furthest asteroid, to which the bombers and heavy fighters were fleeing.

The closest asteroid suffered first. The Nightstar’s torpedos outranged the defensive platforms, and given the fully warned nature of the enemy N’Kell saw no need to rush. Not that he had long to wait, within minutes the few platforms had been smashed and the other frigates closed to demolish the extractors.

As they approached the second, the enemy forces tried a feint. The bombers moved towards the rearmost frigate, trying to see an opening in the fighter cover. N’Kell didn’t hesitate. All the fighters charged the bombers and their escorts, followed by the lone corvette. Caught a little by surprise, the bombers wheeled to flee, but the half-dozen fighters with them charged the TAAK forces back.

Missiles reached out, and three of the defenders died, as did two of the attackers. And then the range was close…and while the defenders bravely struck out with lasers and plasma guns, only one more fighter fell before they were overwhelmed. Still, the enemy fighters had – while slower than the TA’AK’s Shredder interceptors – considerably more armour and more potent guns.

The bombers might have escaped, but they were without a screen, now, and they dared not try and strike without one. They could only watch while the second asteroid’s automated extractors were smashed. The TAAK forces drifted towards the third asteroid, where the defenders prepared to sell their lives dearly. They knew they could take one, or perhaps even more of the enemy ships down with them. Except they didn’t. The tactical situation changed, again, as more interceptors and a half-dozen bombers screamed out of the same asteroid channel, built by the shipyard the Hive had established. They moved rapidly to join their compatriots, and the desperate IAF forces could only charge, before they were utterly overwhelmed.

The TAAK struck as they entered range, bombers exploding as missiles and lasers carves into them, and blazing away against fairly slow corvettes before their own particle beams entered effective range. Before they did, one of the corvettes was a wreck, but the other two peeled armour off the Lancer. It shuddered under the repeated hits, rolling to absorb the blows on undamaged armour…and then one and the other of the corvettes were silenced. The Lancer’s armour wad badly damaged, but its hull was intact.

The bombers had also tried to target lancer, but had bee forced to settle for attacking the corvette. It’s sides were marked with melted circles of armour, and it bled air from two minor wounds, but even as the bombers were pounded on and killed by the newly arriving fighters, the airflow stopped, and it signalled that it had taken no major damage.

N’Kell looked around the jubilant faces on his bridge and wished he could join them. To be true, he had smashed three asteroid bases – the torpedos were even now wrecking the third’s platforms, but the enemy had shown a technology level above his own in many ways and had fought with skill and determination, not fleeing although obviously overmatched.

That particular mystery would be solved soon afterwards, as it was discovered by the space suited crews of S’ri and Thoris engineers that the frigates had no independent warp capacity, only the capacitors and exit capacity required for travelling one-way through warp after being boosted there by a larger ship. While certainly a way of saving space, the TA’AK felt it cost tactical flexibility…as the three corvettes destruction had shown.

“Tough, but not unbeatable”, N’Kell said to himself; “Tough, but not unbeatable”.
Chapter 4 – Hunters Lantern

IAF Destiny-class Flagship, Halberd

Martin Tellmar was acutely aware of the exposed position of his Flagship. Unfortunately, he had to be there – organising an ambush with little time or heavy forces. Zaius had become tied down on Nveran, completing the work the Rebels had – ironically – started, converting the robotic factories which sprawled under the dunes to producing the old but still effective Hawk-class fighters.

Neither could Tal Benedict be spared from his task. While commander of the Commodore’s heavier forces, he had spent a long time in fortification command and he was better suited than his commander to the task of managing conversion of the few mineral-rich asteroids in Nveran local space into defences. And so, Martin Tellmar was on the spot.

Four corvettes trailed his flagship, as it burned very slowly through the thick dust cloud. Two to ward off fighters, and two with long range launchers to help fight the heavier escorts the convoy would inevitably have. And along with them, a cluster of fighters and bombers, including the only wing of the more advanced Mentor bombers available to the Commodore.

The small remote sensor drifted quietly, periodically pulsing data across its focused microwave link, showing the slowly approaching neutrino and tachyon emissions of what they sincerely hoped was a supply convoy. It was almost as if they enemy wanted to be detected – the warpspace scanners that all IAF warships and capital ships carried could pick them up at long distances, while the shield around their own reactors and use of maser and laser communications, which lowering their power output and limiting them to lightspeed communications, made them a lot harder to detect at longer ranges.

The ships drifted on, as the convoy came closer. And the first details could be made out.

“Six freighters, reported the scanner officer, studying his screen, and what appears to be a frigate at the front and rear. We can’t track fighter numbers, but perhaps ten.”

Martin nodded his thanks, and locked his shock frame into place. Across the bridge, his subordinates follow his example as they prepared to strike. Seconds ticked by, and then icons began to flash across the screen.

“Focused tachyon pulse” reported the scanner officer, even as Martin jerked his eyes, startled, to the screen; “threat sensor says it’s a detection scanner”

Now Martin Telmar was shocked, to the core. Artificially generating tachyons was tricky enough, but a focused pulse of that power was well beyond the technology of the IAF. But the range suggested that it was relatively short ranged, and perhaps the enemy tachyon sensors didn’t have much more range than that. He shook himself mentally, the science could come later.

“Ambush Beta” he said, his calm voice reaching across the bridge.
“Aye sir,” came the reply from several throats, and the ships of the IAF advanced on their targets.

The freighters were turning to flee, but they would take time – too much time – to complete the turn. Over two dozen IAF interceptors were swooping down on half their number of TAAK interceptors, some of which fired light missiles at long ranges. The unexpected volley smashed two fighters, but then the rest were in their own missile range, and only two more died before the fighters streaked past the convoy, arcing out in long turns – their lasers would do little to larger targets, but those targets could swat them easily.

Halberd surged forwards, even as the enemy lead frigate twisted in a skilled manoeuvre which sent both the plasma charges from the artillery frigates wide. It opened fire on the Halberd, slashing a laser across its flank and sending a burst of missiles across a minor sensor, sending tiny pieces of it across space. Not even shaken, the Halberd replied with its two twin particle guns. Powerful weapons, they tracked on the side of the enemy frigate’s distinctive bow, hammering away.

Laser light flashed several times more, but without any real effect on the dense armour of the Halberd before the particle guns broke through it’s armour and opened half of it’s side to space. Its laser was caught in the next particle blast, crumping under the impacts, and the frigate went dark as its reactors failed. The Halberd swung away, ready to engage the other frigate, but found that it was not even trying to engage the IAF forces.

Space bent and twisted as the frigate, far faster on the helm than the freighters, went into warp drive. While almost certainly still jumping somewhat blind, it would escape – something which the IAF corvettes couldn’t match – and even as it did, it’s laser slashed through a bomber. The other bombers attacking it veered off as the distortion prematurely detonated their weapons, and then it was gone.

Three of the freighters were already not so lucky. While armed with a laser, they were poor shots and the laser’s power was low. Two bombers had retreated, struck twice and somewhat damaged, but that left a dozen and the Mentors in particular were having a field day. Even as the Halberd moved to support them, the fourth freighter’s engines were hit, crippling it.

The fifth freighter suffered the same fate, even as the Halberd engaged the final, un-crippled, freighter which was closest to it. Particle bolts smashed it’s laser tower into wreckage, but the Halberd didn’t have the angle on the engines which the attacking fighters did. Instead, the Halberd simply send pulses of particle fire into the flank of the freighter, which suddenly seemed to collapse inwards then exploded in a massive pulse of radiation.

Several bombers were destroyed outright, and some of the other bomber’s crews died – immediately, or a little later – as radiation sleeted through them. The Halberd itself was untouched, its armour and particle screens warding off all but a tiny fraction of the blast. One of the artillery frigates also suffered a little. It had moved up to fire on the freighters, and many of it’s crew would be ill – although the swift action of their medic would prevent casualties. Two of the other freighters were also caught, and their power went out.

“Antimatter” said the sensor officer, “they had a large quantity of antimatter onboard.

Martin Telmar felt like he was in a bad dream. Anti-matter was fantastically expensive to produce – at least for the IAF, he reminded himself – and it’s dangers had just been amply demonstrated by that huge blast. He remembered that the initial area struck had reported the unusually potent torpedos of the invaders, but he pushed it aside.

“Pull everything else back”, he said; “we must assume they all carry anti-matter, so boarding them would be suicide. Halberd will destroy them with particle fire from maximum range”.

And it was done. The interceptors and bombers moved back, keeping well away from the suddenly hazardous zone around the freighters, as the Halberd opened fire. One, two, three died without any explosion, but then the fourth died in the vast conflagration of a matter-antimatter collision. The final freighter died without incident, and the Halberd paused only to transmit a brief report to the Wayline shipyards – the closest fixed base with an intelligence analysis division – before retreating back to Nveran and it’s growing defences.
Chapter 5 – Sons of the Dawn

TA’AK Core Worlds

Data flowed over in holo-tank. It flowed, showing events from the pat, as it always did. It was not the function of it, or the beings surrounding the tank, to worry about the now. No, they looked at what had been, and how it would affect the future. Even more than the strategic planners, always working with the data which only came back during the brief periods their Paths were open, the beings reacted rather than prempted.

Its name was strangely insignificant for its importance – the strategic oversight committee - although in truth it had been dominated by its Chairman for millennia. It did not set policy, as did the tactics board, or determine the overall strategy of wars fought through the paths as the Inner Council. No, its task was more fundamental and subtle than that.

Hundreds of years before, the prophets and seers of the now-extinct Kossavus had – during the Ravager Wars – written several books which would set the Technological Alliance of Aliens Kossavus on it’s path of conquest and cleansing. The four books had not – originally – been unchangeable. As the TA’AK conquered races, they took the best of the societies and incorporated them.

The TA’AK were not always easily successful, however, and before long a policy of eradicating – cleansing – races who resisted strongly had entered the books of Kossavus. From their ruins, artefacts were preserved to show future races the futility of resistance. The other major change was when the Ykair people almost destabilised the entire TA’AK by adding elements of democracy to the books as their “contribution” to TAAK society.

After this was discovered, the Ykair were “cleansed”, and a huge debate sprung up, the result of which caused a massive civil war. The winners, the “traditionalists” essentially said “enough”. They blocked off any changes to the Books, and said simply to the races they encountered, “join us”. And yet, some changes to the doctrine surrounding the books was needed, and it flowed through the hands of such bodies as the aforementioned strategic oversight committee.

They were shocked, and somewhat concerned at the rapid outbreak of war with the IAF, but only as far as they might have to change policy. They had allowed an experiment – no less than three Paths were open, one more than the traditional two. Given the resistance being encountered along all three, the policy seemed to fail…something which could have dire consequences for them.

What was, indeed, happening could be dire for more than a single committee. While the fleet kept its databases secure, the strategic oversight committee was essentially civilian, and used civilian – if good quality – encryption on the data the fleet gave them for review. Civilian encryption, as it happened, which could be easily cracked.

There were Slen, Marvii, N’reth, S’ri and others there. Almost a dozen species – joined by their hatred of the current order. They, too, were examining the data brought back from the “Gateway” sector, but they were exited rather than worried.

“Sso, thiss is an opportunityy which might nott come againn” came the drawn out, almost hissed words of a Marvii, it’s slim form towering to almost three meters tall.

“Agreed;” came from a S’ri. His markings were those of a minor house. While many S’ri did well, many more suffered. The vast minor houses had a fraction of the wealth of the high houses, and were numerous in the conspiracy.

“Blind man see, three paths at war bad” put in a Slen, biting off their words as always, “unlikely happen again soon, no”

“Or three paths at all”, mused the S’ri, “But they cannot close a path and retreat. Their books won’t let them”.

There was a shared moment of almost amusement between the conspirators. The movements of their enemies were predictable, but they were powerful indeed. But…stretched. One war had flared up down a Path thought settled, one was proving unexpectedly difficulty to hold and the new Path…had already cost the initial forces heavily, especially in hard-to-manufacture supplies and munitions.

The chamber was lone and underground, and so old that it’s roof was stone. Dehumidifiers sat at intervals, protecting the computer terminals scattered through the rooms. The entire complex was an ancient Kossavus base, “holy”, and thus completely abandoned. The conspirators had drilled a deep tap, and occupied the base in force.

The conspirators came from families who had fallen from favour from “the way”. Very few there did not have an ancestor who had not been a true believer in the Books of Kossavus, to find him/her/it/them selves thrown aside, almost casually, because of changes in doctrine. The bitterness had grown down the generations, as had the resources…

The group around the holo projector talked quietly to each other, formulating plans. They would only get one strike before the massive, entrenched forces would react against them, so it was critical that both the maximum amount of damage was done in that first strike, and that the massive response which was sure to follow either missed, or even better hit other parts of the infrastructure.

The S’ri, K’yar, was an almost infamous hacker who had reprogrammed the inner worlds kinetic defence satellite’s programming. When friendly and hostile targets were designated, and the satellites activated, they would lock off from outside input and fire on the “friendly” targets, defending themselves until they were destroyed or ran out of lances, when they would self-destruct.

The Marvii, on the other hand, was one of the few of its species to join the conspirators. Valued for their abilities as ground troops, it was a former marine and it’s carefully picked would cripple power and communication grids across the major planets. And the Slen, a high-grav species used mostly for grunt labour, was the leader of a manufacturing network which had produced tens of millions of cheap but effective weapons over the last decade.

The others around the projector had similar qualifications, for they were the “inner council” of the conspiracy to overthrow the “Book Order”, as they called the entrenched interests which held the true power in the TA’AK. They ranged from the obvious – K’yar – to the unlikely – a small female S’ri who wrote educational tapes, very subtly slanting the data on them to affect the youth against their rulers.

K’yar moved to the table, and tapped commands in. Data graphs flashed past, and simulation data filled it, in place of the tactical display. He studied them for a long moment, then spoke.

“I believe we should move in two months. If nothing major changes”

There was nodding and agreement. While some had been waiting the day for decades – centuries for the longer-lived species such as the Slen – they realised each passing year increased the changes of the ever-more-potent internal police rooting them out, and the fleet was stretched as it had not been in decades.

They turned away from the holo-table, and went to activate the initial plans. In two months, the Book Order – the order which had oppressed their people for centuries – would die, and it’s supporters with it. For the greater good of the greater masses of the TA’AK.
Chapter 6 – Citadel of Light

IAF High Command

The building was ablaze with activity. Already hard-pushed by its commitments, the IAF had just had a front open up against an unknown enemy, of unknown power, coming from a worthless piece of space with little except scattered, barren stars.

Forces were only just beginning to move, and the naval reserve was being activated – something not done since the Dioni invasion eighty years before, when the carnivorous Dioni literally ate their way through three planetary populations before the fleet had smashed them back, and fusion-bombed their homeworlds.

Other ships were being shifted from already unsteady borders, and man and materials were being unfrozen and used to create temporary replacements – light forces where in the long term capital ships would be necessary to keep the peace. But a expedient which would free forces almost immediately, and the IAF believed – strongly – that they would need them. Many of its admirals were downright scared by the analysis of the alien’s technologies recently sent out to them.

The High Commander of the IAF Forces, Lee de Cairo, was not an overly sociable man. Certainly he was dedicated, and certainly he was a career navy man, But he did not, as a rule, talk to the press. Given the reports which had somehow leaked to them – causing them to swarm like flies around the High Command, buzzing greedily over all who exited the building – something Had To Bo Done.

He had been talked into, reluctantly, agreeing to give a press conference to the major news organisations in the Interstellar Federation – some of them companies, some of them government organisations. All aware that the premier armed force in the area, the IAF, had a problem on its hands. And they wanted to know all. Things which Lee de Cairo bleakly pondered on and which would not be revealed – he hoped – until long afterwards.

A crowd of Humans, K’Kree and a scattering of other aliens – including, he noted to his surprise – two K’Kree limited lifespan clones. The clones, standing just half the K’Kree height of three meters, were only semi-intelligent, and did a lot of the K’Kree manual labour. They took a personality pattern from an adult K’Kree, which was paid for their work, and lasted about a year. They were not usually journalists.

He shrugged off the surprise before it could reach his face, and silently blessed the fact that light-adaptive lenses had made the flashbulbs some old flat-films showed obsolete. The lighting of the room swung towards his seat, and the noise level in the room suddenly plummeted. To his left, the head of publicity of the IAF – Rachel Arison – was saying a few words. Then it was his turn.

“Males, females and beings of the press;” he started, taking a deep breath, “I have the following statement to make, after which I will answer questions. Please save those questions for the end. The statement is as follows:

The Interstellar Armed Forces have encountered an unknown alien race in the Windscale sector, near Nveran. This is on the Stellar Commonwealth to K’Kree Federation border, and we had units in place due to the recent uprising against the legitimate government there.”

There was no surprise in the room. The Nveran suppression had been a surprise not because it had happened, but that a light IAF taskforce had been in place to stop the rebels before they could produce decent defences and turn the reconquest of the world into a bloodbath.

“Initial contacts with the aliens have not gone well. The IAF must thus consider itself, and the Stellar Commonwealth, at war”

Now there was surprise. While some of the members of the press had known things had gone badly, none had any idea what the IAF was truly up against. Nor was telling them precisely the order of the day.

“We are activating the material help clauses of other governments in the Interstellar Federation, and are recalling the reserves in preparation for the activation of the mothballed fleet. The forces currently holding Nveran should be heavily reinforced within ten days, and within two months we should be able to deploy significant forces to the area, to ensure the territorial integrity of both the Stellar Commonwealth and the K’Kree Federation”

Quiet mutters rose from the journalists, rippling back and forward. “Things were as serious as all that” was the essential – and expected message.

“The Interstellar Armed Forces will fulfil all it’s commitments. I can confirm that a strike against the aliens supply route has already began the process of defending our worlds. Thank you for your patience”

And the floor erupted with questions.

“What forces are…”
“Are they the N’Ga…”
“Can you tell us why you didn’t try and co…”

And then a trained voice cut through the confusion on the floor.

“Is there anything to the rumours of strange technology in the possession of these aliens”. The speaker was a tall, Human, his face known across most of the Interstellar Federation. One of the journalists who compiled the very popular Federation Wide News program, he awaited an answer.

“I cannot at this time com…”

It was as far as he got before the noise level surged again, with questions and a few jeers thrown in. Few of them seemed willing to take an evasive answer. And there were really no more answers he could give without compromising operational security. He stood up, and was turning to leave the stage when a boosted voice cut across the noise. Boosting was a serious breach of etiquette, and guards moved towards the offender, one of the two K’Kree limited lifespan clones he had noticed earlier.

Its voice was harsh. “And how do you justify the suppression of the people of Nveran by the Interstellar Armed Forces for the brutal K’Kree republic”. There was a shocked silence. It was not the sort of question which could be asked twice by a journalist – licences had been revoked for less. And yet it had been asked, and the images of the IAF High Commander spinning angrily towards the speaker would be played over and over.

The Nveran rebels had expected to have time, and they were desperate. Two limited lifespan clones and their maker had been dispatched on a mission, with a deadly threat they could use…and the rebellion had already been crushed. And so, the heavily shielded briefcase, which had been slipped into the chamber in the mass of press in the hands of the other clone had a concealed button pressed.

The explosion was a kiloton-range fusion blast weapon. It vaporised the interior of the building, but the hardened exterior mostly held, as did some of the armoured basements where laboratories were based. It vaporised the High Commander, much of the planning staff, scientists, intelligence analysts and thousands of others. And of course, the two clones and the remainder of the journalists. Over eight thousand died in under a second.

And in a single blow, the Interstellar Armed Forces had been thrown into chaos.
Chapter 7 – Day of Death

TA’AK Almighty-class Command Ship Voracious

Fleetleader I!erk#i was Kaythen. Most of his crew rendered his typically – for Kathen – unpronounceable name as Isiah. The Fleetleader was not offended. Kathen did not get offended by something as minor as a name. Kathen’s blunted emotional reactions made Isiah’s relatively high rank unusual.

Unemotional as all of his species, he was highly intelligent and his forces had – so far – made the greatest impact on the foe who called themselves the Interstellar Armed Forces. And so it was he who was contemplating the world directly in the TA’AK path of advance, and who had been tasked to take it. And he wondered where the defenders were.

If the IAF was a powerful, multi-system entity, as the prisoners pulled from the wreckage of their ships insisted, where were their heavy forces. Only a single capital ship had been so far discovered, and it was on his display, defending this world. And Isiah shrugged, setting aside the speculation and assigned two laser Cruisers to his attack force, in case the enemy had hidden forces.

The Voracious’s hull rang slightly as the last bomber docked to it’s hull, there was a significant force compliment besides the Cruisers attacking the world’s defences. And Isiah would be there personally, to oversee the operation and to coordinate a retreat if it was a trap. If it was, then the firepower of the heavy Anti-Matter torpedos the Voracious carried would help blow a hole for them to warp out.

Transit. Space slipped by the Voracious as she entered warp, and warp signatures bloomed as the frigates and cruisers followed. It would be fifty seven minutes from the staging area to their target…

Exit. The ship stepped sideways, the universe churned and real space was back. The shock of retuning to normal space- far more severe than the trauma going the other way - was virtually ignored by the Voracious’s highly trained crew, and data began flowing back almost instantly, even as the bombers docked to her hull broke away on chemical thrusters, then ignited their fusion jets and roared away to take up covering positions, joined by a small cloud of fighters.

The Voracious moved forwards, and began building extractors on a likely asteroid even as the scout fighters moves outwards, and the cruisers – along with most of the frigates – began advancing towards an outpost somewhat to the side of the planet, intent on neutralising its threat before they moved on the defences hovering just outside the planet’s atmosphere.

Fighters shifted as one of the small corvettes – escorts they were called, by the prisoners – hurtled towards the fighter perimeter. Missiles and laser beams made it’s path a pyre, although the plasma ball ir fired in reply slashed across an interceptor’s armour, scoring it badly. A construction fighter sidled up with a burst of it’s chemical jets, and it’s nanolathe began fixing the damaged armour.

Isiah took his eyes off this minor byplay as the cruisers came under attack by a bomber wing, two corvettes defending them with missiles. Their Cruiser’s own powerful lasers flashed, disintegrating two of the bombers, and several of the others missed as the cruisers turned sharply to face the attack. Six torpedos, however, slammed into the leading cruiser, which staggered but turned back and began thrusting towards the outpost again. The damage done was just a fraction of it’s thick armour – not even worth repairing at this stage.

Fighters clashed in the void, and as the Voracious built a factory and began enhancing the fighter screen, icons on the screen flashed and died. Always more of the TA’AK fighters dead, true, but not many more and the enemy fighters heavier construction and more advanced weaponry would have to be more expensive to build than the relatively simply TA’AK fighters. And that simplicity served them well, as fighter after fighter rose from the spaceyard to join the perimeter.

The Cruisers came in at full speed, thundering towards the outpost. It’s hopeless outmatched defenders fired as they came into their range, but they died. When the pass was over, three defence guns and two corvettes were twisted wrecks, and the frigates lingered to destroy the production facilities as the cruisers turned and waited for some of the newly produced fighters to reach them.

Even as they did, the enemy Destroyer made it’s move, lunging towards the Cruisers, with a small wave of bombers ahead of them. They had left it too late. As the Cruisers burned towards the fighters screen, which caught the bombers and smashed them short of the Cruisers, although one made it through, and got a single torpedo off before it’s death. And then the major engagement started.

The powerful lasers of the Cruisers slashed into the Destroyer – a ship perhaps 80% their size – and it returned fire with a powerful plasma cannon and a fusion missile launcher. The fight was a mismatch. While one of the Cruisers was damaged, spewing atmosphere into space from rents in it’s armour, the destroyer vanished in a ball of flame as a laser hammered into it’s primary fusion plant.

There was a delay, then, while construction fighters swarmed over the Cruiser, repairing it, and several new corvettes and frigates were constructed to support the Cruisers. But it was only a delay, and the other outpost, on the far side of the planet died – if anything more easily than the first. Several small transports rose from the far side of the planet from the Cruisers, and moving rapidly tried to escape. Fighters pounced on them, driving them away from the distance needed to enter warp, and then the bombers arrived and destroyed them.

The Cruisers moved into range, and began systematically destroying the planetary defences. Plasma bolts and torpedos tore back at them, but they were from relatively light weapons and the Cruisers armour bore it without much damage. Debris filled the planetary sky as the platforms fell into it, burning.

And then it was done, and silence reigned in local space. The TAAK forces spread out into a standard formation around the planet, and the construction fighters joined the Voracious in fortifying the outpost it had started to build. It would be adequate base, until replacement supplies and heavier construction ships could be brought up from the rear.

There was an almost-impasse now. While the atmospheric defences were shattered, the TA’AK fighters could not enter the atmosphere themselves. That of the things they sacrificed for simplicity and low cost. And so, the TAAK forces waited, hovering above the blue-green globe of the planet their enemies called Nveran.

Isiah took a deep breath. So where WAS the enemy Command Ship which had been spotted in the sector? He was still wondering three hours later when the first TAAK troop ships and atmospheric fighters arrived. After that, he was too busy to wonder.
Chapter 8 – Chaos Clouds

IAF Destiny-class Flagship, Halberd

The Caliban Clouds were the remnants of a rich, exotic mineral-rich nova, relatively close in spatial terms to Nveran. They had, unfortunately for the IAF, the wrong kinds of exotic minerals for their ship construction, so once they were mapped, they became just another sight which passenger ships deliberately flew by on their trips, to impress passengers.

Until now, anyway. It seems that the aliens – who called themselves the “Technological Alliance of Aliens Kossavus” according to one of the few deciphered broadcasts they had made – found a use for the Caliban Clouds minerals. They had established four absolutely huge mineral collectors there, and Martin Tellmar found himself with a problem.

An aggressive commander, the opportunity to strike against the enemy’s logistics once more was almost irresistible, especially given the fact that he had already received the pattern templates for the new, highly-advanced IAF fighters – faster, more heavily armed and with the plasma shields which made them tougher despite lighter armour. The problem was obvious.
For him to strike at the enemy, he would need to move ships from what had been made clear was his primary responsibility, Nveran. That had been clear in the last broadcast before the IAF High Command had been destroyed. For however long, though, until the Home situation had stabilised, he was on his own. And one Destroyer had already arrived…

In the end, his aggressiveness got the better of his caution. Taking only a few corvettes, and mainly scout fighters and escorts, he took the Halberd and warped for the Caliban Clouds. He targeted his exit on a known, if small, resource-rich asteroid belt on the edge of the Clouds. He intended to build an advanced fighter plant, to produce advanced fighters and bombers, to smash the four collectors and to warp back to Nveran before the TAAK even knew he had left it.

And so the Destiny and the corvettes pulled out of Nveran orbit. They were not to know that the reinforcements which should of arrived just after their warp entry had been diverted to fight a major fleet engagement around a fleet base, or that even as he left, a TA’AK force was already on it’s way to conquer Nveran. The fact he did not know these things, however, didn’t change the outcome of his strike.

Warp exit was rough, as always. And the scouts fanned out, destroying a TA’AK scout fighter which unfortunately had almost certainly reported the Halberd’s position. As the Halberd created a solar panel, and then two resource extractors, the single construction corvette Tellmar had brought along constructed a pair of missile launcher platforms. It was as well that it had.

The bomber wave flashed inwards, only one caught by the particle guns of the scouts, and fired on the Halberd. Its own particle guns and the platforms fired back, and bombers exploded as they flashed past. The torpedos struck, but did only minor armour damage. The bombers continued onwards, not risking a return engagement.

The massive nanolathes hummed as they moved onto yet another resource collector, and the construction corvette began work on another solar, then an advanced fighter yard. When the Commander had finished, it added it’s nanolathe to the corvettes. One, two, three labs were constructed, and as they were they began construction, sucking down the resources from the asteroids.

Hellcats, advanced fighters, and Mentors, advanced bombers, hurtled out of their bays as they were constructed, manned by skilled pilots. They swiftly formed a deadly cloud of light, their pulsed fusion drives weaving bright trails. Ten fighters, fifteen, twenty five…and fifteen bombers to support them. And the factories briefly fell silent, waiting for the raw materials which powered them time to accumulate in the Halberd’s tanks.

The bombers moved, burning towards the nearest collector and into the particle smog of the Caliban clouds, their plasma shields sparking occasionally at a particularly thick particle string. The fighters formed up around them, as they moved. Several almost immediately broke off, dogfighting with TA’AK interceptors. The Hellcat’s more powerful lasers and missiles hammered them a path, their plasma shields soaking much of the return damage. The advanced fighters had a crushing advantage, and used it well.

One pass was all it took. The torpedos slammed through the defences and turned the collector into a pyre. The bombers flipped end over end and burned away, the light defence lasers unable to do anything except light armour damage through their plasma fields. The second collector fell just as easily.

The third was a little more of a problem. The interceptors guarding it managed to destroy three of the hellcats before they were, in turn, destroyed and there was a heavier defence laser guarding it. The Mentor’s streaked in, and it vanished as the torpedos found their mark. One of the bombers, damaged, pulled out too late and one of the other defence lasers sent a pulse through the cockpit. It drifted on, silent, into the night.

The second pass dealt with the collector, and a further ten Hellcats streaked over from the plants to join the existing cover. They came in hard on the third collector, distracting the defences and the Mentors blew it to scrap. The fourth was dealt with in the same way, a single Hellcat being bracketed and destroyed by the lasers.

And then it was done. The fighter plants and their products were evacuated and destroyed by fire, as they could not be taken along and there was just too little time to build enough frigates to carry them all along. And then the Halberd was gone, into warp.

The display cleared. And then filled with hostile icons. Cruisers, fighters, transports…

“Contingency Withdrawal” snapped Martin Tellmar, ashes in his mouth. He had succeeded in his own, side mission, but lost the world he had been tasked to protect. Even though he could probably not of held it against the forces on his screen, the fact that he had not even been there to try was something he knew would haunt him. He acted with a kind of weary resolve, snapping other orders, recalling the few fighters which had been launched, and turning away.

The enemy response had been near-immediate. They were going to catch the Halberd far more quickly than he liked, and that left him only a narrow window of warp jumps available. Worse, they were likely going to be able to follow him. He looked at the narrow selection, and tapped one. Yes, that would have to do…

The Halberd vanished into warp in a flare of light. Pursuit was less then five minutes behind, and its jump was to a known dangerous area, the Parhennon Asteroids. Vast, low-mineral asteroids which were a bad jump hazard. Martin Tellmar hoped to escape through them, and hoped as well that the enemy forces would misjump into some of the asteroids. That would be a terminal experience.

All he could do though, until warp exit, was hope. His warp velocity was relatively low because of the hastily calculated jump – he couldn’t risk a bad exit himself, and he would have barely fifteen minutes to prepare a hot welcome for the enemy…
Chapter 9 – General Confusion, Admiral Mayhem

TA’AK Core Worlds

It began as clear and bright day, as most days in the core worlds. Weather control was an old and well-tested technology. The TA’AK were about to suffer a little strategic confusion of their own, however. It began innocently enough. A simple blip on a little-used transmission channel. A blip which was, in fact, a burst transmission. And with the message, long-laid plans sprang into action.

On many of the ships of the fleets orbiting the Core Worlds, small charges detonated. Critical power linkages were consumed by the anti-matter explosions, and catastrophic power failures resulted. Other ships, loyal to the rebels, opened fire on the other ships still with power. While outnumbered, the surprise value of the situation quickly gave them an advantage.

On the ground, things were even more confused. Kinetic strikes from orbital weapon platforms thought long mothballed screamed down, neatly taking out major parts of the communications grid and slicing deep into military bases, scattering troops and destroying vehicles. And then the particle beams mounted on the platforms opened fire, targeting lower priority targets.

Police and security stations began vanishing as particle bolts fell from the sky onto them, but so did the firing platforms, as a few combatants in the melee above the planets realised what was happening and opened fire, and a few of the mobile railguns which the TA’AK used for light anti-satellite work were activated. Pieces of the satellites would rain down over the next day, just adding to the confusion.

Rebel troops flooded the streets, using flechette weapons to sweep aside unarmed civilians, and shoulder-mounted kinetic guns to take out enemy troops and the few light tanks and helicopters which the stunned government forces threw hastily in their path. Within a hour, though, the central facilities on each world – with one exception - were firmly in the hands of the Rebels.

On Kalishton, the Rebels plan went wrong from the start. The space detachment had no Rebels in it, and only one of the three capital ships was disabled by the bombs which their supporters had smuggled aboard. And so, most of the satellite launched only a single wave of kinetic lances before they were smashed from the sky.

The lances targeted at the largest army base on Kalishton died as it’s newly installed anti-air defence system’s lasers vaporised them. And the training exercises many of the other units were on saved them, although their bases were smashed. Fighting swiftly spread through the streets, and heavy tanks blocked the way to the government buildings, their railguns firing clusters of high-velocity shards, tearing apart the in-general lightly armoured rebels, while they had few weapons (a few anti-matter warhead missiles) capable of taking on the tanks.

Within hours, the Rebels on Kalishton were in full retreat, and soldiers peeled off, trying to escape into the main population. Police and security units jumped on most of them as they fled, killing without mercy. In just two days, almost every rebel on the planet was dead, and the first military units were loading onto troop transports to fight the rebels elsewhere.

While they had gained the momentum in their initial strikes, and captured a lot of hardware and the government buildings, the Rebels soon found that the paranoid nature of the old regime served them well. They were attacked by fresh floods of troops, armed with old but serviceable weaponry. While they could stop them, they kept the rebel armies occupied while the remaining security forces struck at their supply lines.

The great facilities from which they poured were from a contingency plan designed for just such a general rebellion. Those facilities were set deep into mountains, and the specialist atmospheric fighters sent in to destroy them died quickly, as they revealed an amazing array of railguns and missile launchers. Their heavy railguns started firing on ships in orbit, damaging several, and making them pull back. A few railgun-equipped units tried to stand and fight, but were outnumbered. The Navy was just – by design – not equipped to bombard worlds.

Great tanks heaved into life, and thousands upon thousands of cryogenically frozen soldiers were brought back to life, and armed from great caches of weaponry set aside. A vast secret project, staffed by true believers in the old regime. The troops heard the stories they were told of atrocities, and marched into battle. Their missiles and kinetic weapons were not as good as the latest military ones, true, but they were better than the essentially civilian weapons the majority of the rebels used.

The war on the ground quickly turned to stalemate. And then fleet elements from the outer worlds began to trickle in. Fighting broke out in orbit above several planets, and some fleet elements fled TA’AK space. They were perhaps panicky, but they escaped where those who tried to flee later did not. Other frontier Fleet elements were destroyed, but they damaged ships and resources around the core planets for repair were in short supply.

And then the forces from Kalishton attacked another Core World’s rebels. They smashed aside the few lingering fleet elements, and moved into orbit. Atmospheric fighters thundered across the globe, and they began making strikes on the rebel areas. Bomblets, missiles and laser beams thundered through the night. While a few fighters were lost, the rebels reeled from the sudden attack, and then Marines began landing in drop pods and transports.

A similar story occurred in the Capital itself, but this time the forces hastily recalled from one the Paths did the job. Only in the Gateway sector did the war – by now the far nastiest of the three paths active – continue unabated, although the forces there had to entrench and set up sources of resupply, and repair bases rather than pushing forward. With the exception of the hunt for the Halberd, the offensive ground to a halt, and there was some confusion in the fleet. A few units even fired on each other.

Warleader K’Vrin himself was recalled to the Core Worlds. His replacement was his deputy K’Yis, younger and far less experienced. And yet it had to be done, because K’Vrin’s experience was needed to quell the remaining rebel forces – still potent – and to represent the military in the organisations being restored. It was a task he dreaded, but he had no choice, and he tried to get the logistics moving as swiftly as possible.

The rebellion would take eleven months to finally crush. But it’s chances had faded as soon as a core world had withstood it, given the secrets plans of the “old regime”. While most of the old power figures were dead, others swiftly rose to replace them. The new regime was more brutal than the old, as those with even marginal links to the rebels soon discovered. It would take a long time indeed for THOSE memories to fade.
Chapter 10 – Fires of Destiny

New IAF High Command

Traditionally, the IAF High Command had been on the ground of a habitable planet. The new High Commander had already ripped through dozens of traditions in the first few days of his control over the IAF, and the space station which had been hastily contracted in a barren system served as his headquarters.

Vast uplinks connected the station to the rest if the Universe, and a dozen capital ship, and hundreds of lighter ships, platforms and fighters surrounded it. A somewhat paranoid response to the devastation which had overcome the IAF, but effective. No-one except IAF personnel was even allowed into the system. A small cruise liner, carrying reporters, had tried to intrude and had been neatly disabled, towed back to a nearby world and all the onboard were serving a year in jail for the security offences that the ship had committed.

Onboard the station, archives were restored, and strategic data re-collected. The enemy had, seemingly, stopped advancing. That was the one bright spot in what seemed an endless string of bad news. The IAF had almost 5% of its active forces (although mainly light ones) to the Aliens, as several forces had attacked piecemeal been slaughtered. They had simply been swarmed under.

There was also the loss of Nveran to consider. A habitable worlds had been lost, and the K’Kree Federation was screaming murder. They wanted the world back, now, and they didn’t much care for the IAF’s internal problems. They had, however, to rely on the IAF. The K’Kree Navy was fairly small, and badly outdated. For their part, the IAF were somewhat dismissive. While the bomber had been a rebel, he had also been K’Kree. Not a good situation.

The real concern for the Nveran situation was the Halberd. Its last transmissions had reported it was trying to loose it’s TA’AK pursuers in a region of mountain-sized boulders, a hazardous and tricky region to navigate. If it was lost, then one of the premier IAF commanders would be as well, and there was heavy hyperspace activity coming from the region.

In the meantime, ships were being pulled from all over. Convoy escorts, forces protecting worlds in border disputes and even some protecting the borders of the Interstellar Federation has been pulled from their positions and were hurtling towards contact with the TA’AK. While the reserve was being activated, it had been badly slowed by the attack, and the reserve would slowly fill the holes the movement of experience ships to the TA’AK border had created.

The Destiny was the first ship of her class, and had older elements to her design. Her gravity wheel was sub-standard for an IAF ship, her filtration systems sometimes emitted strange smells and her particle guns were 5% less powerful. Still, she was still a powerful and well-equipped flagship and there was no question of retiring her.

Actually, the had been due in dock for a refit which should of corrected those minor deficiencies in her design, but the war had intervened. And so, with these deficiencies still in place, she headed up the newly formed Third Fleet, hurting through hyperspace towards the warzone. Six other capital ships followed her, two of them carriers, and dozens of corvettes – all with fighters docked to their hulls – trailed their hyper fields.

Data flickered and flowed across the screens at the new IAF High Command. Assuming that the enemy did not receive major reinforcement – and strikes against the enemy logistical supplies had done a surprising amount of damage – the IAF would have rough parity with the enemy forces in the warzone within three weeks. Given the fact that one-on-one, the IAF fighters seemed to have the advantage it should allow them to start pushing the enemy back, especially if the IAF capital ships had the same margin of advantage, something which remained mostly untested.

Certainly destroyers would need to be wary of close combat with the alien cruisers, larger and more heavily armoured than they, but their own cruisers were slightly larger and better armed, while the enemy seemed to have nothing which could begin to match the armour and weaponry of a Battleship. The IAF only had eleven battleships, true, but eight were on their way to the front, and one was already there.

And then reports began to come in. The enemy had pulled back slightly, and were building supply deports and asteroid bases. The planning staff was a little baffled. Surely the damage they had done to the enemy resource operations – nasty as it had been – had not caused the enemy to stop alone? And yet, the flow of ships into the area had almost stopped.

One analyst suggested that they were having their own troubles at home and while the theory could not be dismissed, it was utterly unprovable and was swept aside by other suggestions. The consensus which was reached was that the enemy had always planned this – that they were setting up bases for additional forces and that major reinforcements were due…soon.

Orders flashed out. Ships in hyperspace went to overdrive, inevitably causing engine damage but increasing their speed by almost a third. The first forces from the reserve were sent to the battle lines as well, causing even more protests by other members of the Interstellar Federation who were hurting for the lack of the IAF they usually hired.

The priority of the day had become attack. And so the IAF moved to do so. Forces moved even more swiftly for the border, and attacks began. They were mostly inconclusive, but several of the resupply bases were destroyed. And then disaster struck – a battleship was ambushed and destroyed in an over-hasty attack.

It was about then that the final cry of the Halberd occurred. Overloading its engines, the final message told of its hunting and death. And warned of capital ships on the IAF flank. The offensives faltered and slowed. And so, one of the IAF’s more aggressive commanders, Salah Reimark, was told to take it back. She was the commander of the Destiny….
Chapter 11 – Fire In The Sky

TA’AKAlmighty-Class Command Ship Promised Land

Ships warped one after another, their highly efficient drives letting them drop from warp far closer to the vast asteroids than their foe seemed to be able to manage. For three days, Groupleader N’Kell had chased his prey in a nightmarish game of bluffs and movement around vast asteroids, hopping in and out of warp space, almost catching his pretty twice…and losing several ships to either it’s prey’s fire or to misjumps.

So, he had adopted a new approach. He had two construction ships, and was building heavy defensive perimeters – heavy enough to wreck the enemy command ship – at various points where it could enter warp. While it was faster in clear space, the enemy warp drives seemed limited to where they could enter space, and were slower in gravity-congested areas. Like the asteroid belt the chase was in.

Another day passed. Five blockades were in place, another Cruiser was lost to an ambush, although all the enemy corvettes were shattered in the attack. The Commander was alone now except for fighters, and not enough of them to stave off a serious assault.

And then the opportunity was there – a scout fighter near one of the blockades reported the enemy command ship was approaching. Fighters swarmed over the blockade, but died as a storm of lasers, rockets and torpedos lashed back at them. They reformed, and tried again, striking for the anti-matter reactor powering the defences…to no avail. They broke off, seriously depleted.

N’Kell knew that given enough time, the enemy commander could nanolathe a vast enough wave of bombers to break even the heavy blockage he had put into place…but he didn’t think it had nearly enough time left. The Promised Land skipped into hyperspace, along with three thunderbolt cruisers and several frigates. Armed with massive and extremely powerful electron whips, the Thunderbolts could tear the enemy command ship apart at close range.

Fighters and a heavy bomber wing detached as the ships came out of warp. One of the nearby asteroids detonated suddenly, sending shockwaves and shards of rock flying. Several fighters and bombers were caught up or hit by debris and destroyed, as was an unlucky corvette. An enemy bomber wing screamed in, and managed to destroy a frigate before being pounded on and destroyed.

As the bombers died, N’Kell looked at the scanner and realised what had happened. One of the thunderbolts had miss-jumped, and re-entered linear space inside the asteroid. That was clearly impossible, and beings who commit impossibilities come to very bad ends indeed. He shook his head, and then gave the order to proceed. His safety margin had been reduced, true, but he still had more than enough forces to finish the enemy command ship.

Frigates and fighters spread out to the side of his path, coming across several scattered enemy fighters and resource extractors, fighters and bombers blew them to scrap as they advanced. Another bomber assault lunched at one of the thunderbolts, it rolled it’s bulk neatly, evading most of the torpedos and it’s scanners picked up a fighter yard, which had produced the bombers.

The Thunderbolts closed with the factory, and what appeared to be lightning linked the ships and the factory, which began burning fiercely, electrical charges leaping over it’s metal. And then they fired again, and the factory exploded into a million glowing shards. The solar panels which had been supplying the factory took a single shot each from the Thunderbolt’s massive guns to destroy them.

There! A scout fighter reported the enemy commander’s location, a moment before heavy particle bolts smashed its hull open, sending it tumbling into the void. The thunderbolts wheeled, moving in on the enemy commander, as did the Promised Land from the other side. The enemy was obviously desperate. Fighters lashed at the defensive screen, but while they weakened it, they could not destroy it or let their few remaining bombers through for an uninterrupted attack run.

Another yard was detected, and one of the thunderbolts veered off to deal with it, briefly delaying its attack. The enemy commander lunged at the remaining Thunderbolt, even as TA’AK bombers screamed down on it, and the Promised Land closed from it’s other flank. It opened up on the bombers with it’s particle guns, and three were destroyed, but the others sent torpedos hammering into it’s flanks even as the Thunderbolt sent the first mighty electron bolt into it’s hull.

The Promised Land swept by at maximum range, its own particle guns hammering, but unwilling to close enough to use its anti-matter torpedo. The fighter plant died to the Thunderbolt attacking it, and it steadied on a course back towards the enemy commander. The enemy commander hammered back at it’s tormentors with it’s particle guns, but it could not match the raw firepower of the ship hitting it…and when the second Thunderbolt drew into range, a matter of mere seconds, the end was at hand.

The enemy command ship glowed from the inside, and a massive transmission was detected. It stopped, abruptly. The massive energy levels must of burned out the transmitter, and now the massive energy build-up could be detected. Bombers frantically hit their afterburners away from the ship, and the far Thunderbolt braked. And then a vast fusion fireball, all the energy from it’s engines and from the compressed stored material going up.

The closer Thunderbolt was consumed by the explosion, and the far one was shaken and battered by it. The Promised Land took only minor damage, but the bombers were decimated by the shockwave. It was a slightly stunned N’Kell who ordered a small base to be constructed to seek out and destroy any enemy remnants in the area.

The Promised Land and the remainder of the fleet were getting new orders now, from home. Hey were t pull back, to defend what they had gained, to await calm in the Core Worlds and the dispatch of heavy reinforcements. It might take months, but to advance now would be to throw everything they had worked so hard for away.

The reasoning was impeccable. And to commanders such as N’Kell, it smacked of defeatism. He would obey, of course – was he a rebel, so stand against his own government and people – but he did not like it. His response to the reformed councils on the Core Worlds was persuasive and eloquent, and their reply to him was equally polite…and unyielding.

And so, the Promised Land pulled back into orbit of the world known as Nveran. Reports came in of attacks on the other edge of the TA’AK dominion in the Gateway sector, but he was too far to intervene, even if he had wished to – and he did not, fighting a defensive battle would halve his advantages, especially against the wicked little fighters the enemy used. His ships worked tirelessly, building a massive net of defences, and the lighter ships to support them. He waited for the reinforcements which would allow him to retake the offensive. He would be waiting for some time.
Chapter 12 – Lords of Thunder

IAF Destiny-class Flagship, Destiny

Salah Reimark closed her eyes through the familiar sensations of exiting hyperspace. They were making a number of short jumps to confuse the enemy as to their destination – a small cluster of asteroids which the new High Command thought were lightly defended. She had her own opinions on the matter, but was trying to keep an open mind.

Her tactical officer, Ajuran, was Antaran. Like most of his species, he had just one name, and unlike most of his species he was happy to work with Humans. He was working a series of worse-case scenarios on his terminal for enemy contact. He was not precisely a pessimist by nature, but his tendency was to analyse situations which could turn nasty before he entered them. He had learned to be decisive when needed, but still preferred time to plan.

Into warp, out again. Stopping briefly to receive a burst transmission, which told of the destruction of TA’AK assets in other regions. And then, finally, came the last hyperspace entry before battle. Corvettes, fighters and bombers clamped tightly to their hulls, catapulted themselves through space alongside the Destiny. And then came warp exit.

There, four marks on the sensor screen marked the position of the asteroid clusters they had come to attack. As the fighter screen formed up, the Destiny and her brood lunged forwards. Bombers screamed over the asteroids, firing torpedos, and defensive emplacements died before getting a shot off. The return pass smashed the solar panels, and then the Destiny herself was in range, and smashed the enemy resource collectors with carefully placed particle shots.

The bombers swept onwards towards the second target, a good proportion of the fighter screen with them. The Destiny began replacing the now-destroyed TA’AK collectors with its own. The bombers suffered in their second pass. They had lost the element of surprise, at least somewhat, and three died to the defensive laser fire before the turrets died. A second pass, and a third, and then they came under attack.

A wave of fighters slashed through the protective screen at high velocity, firing as they came. Bombers exploded into ruin as the IAF fighters frantically clawed their way round. They turned in just behind the killers of the ships they were protecting, and their guns and missiles hammered the huge interceptor wave to scrap before it could escape. Fighter after fighter followed their prey into death.

Meanwhile, the corvettes were dealing with the third of the asteroid clusters. Standing off, the bombardment corvettes were picking apart the defences. The Destiny, on the other hand, had dispatched construction fighters to the second asteroid cluster, and was enhancing the fighter screen and beginning producing bombers from a pair of fighter plants.

One of the artillery corvettes detected the incoming torpedo just before it struck. The torpedo gutted it’s weaponry, sending plasma spurting into space. The torpedo could only of some from a capital ship, and the newly produced bombers lunged at it, as did the Destiny and the corvettes. Another torpedo finished the corvette, sending it drifting, powerless, into space.

Fighters tore away the weak interceptor screen around the enemy cruiser, and it was immediately in trouble. Designed for long-range fighting, the swifter IAF corvettes evaded it’s torpedos, firing into it’s heavily armoured hull. Bombers screamed in, adding their firepower to the fray. And then the Destiny slipped in behind it, its particle guns penetrating it’s weakened armour and gutting it. The bomber’s return pass shattered its spine.

Leaving it drifting, the bombers swept over the third asteroid cluster, finishing the task which the frigate’s bombardment had began, and then formed up around the Destiny as she moved into the third asteroid cluster, taking over the resource collectors stranded there.

From the direction of the final asteroid cluster came hyperspace signatures, frigates escaping into faster-than-light space. A fresh flight of bombers from the plants joined those around the destiny, then they moved as a mass on the final asteroids. They suspected that they were more heavily defended, and they were.

A railgun shot went straight through a bomber lengthways, and it imploded in a spectacular fashion. Laser bolts hammered into four more bombers, and a missile incinerated one, but then the survivors were there, and the defensive turrets exploded into flame. Of the railgun, two missile and four laser turrets at the start of the run, only one laser turret survived and the fighters which screamed by shortly afterwards used their plasma guns to finish it off.

The Destiny’s crew heaved an almost audible sigh of relief as the bombers almost leisurely finished off the final asteroid. Debris sparked into space, and the Destiny moved in once again to place it’s own resource collectors on the asteroids and begin the task of building a more extensive base.

The Destiny’s hyperspace detectors screamed unexpectedly three days later, and ships began emerging from hyperspace not far away from her. The capital ships which had joined her tight on her flanks, she advanced – a cloud of fighters leading – towards the contact.

And then the IFF returns came back. Signs she recognised. These were IAF ships…but why had they made transit here, now…and why were her sensors detecting that these ships were badly damaged? Why, that was Admiral Nkrumah’s flagship, the huge Behemoth-class Battleship named Asia.

“This is Salah Reimark,” she sent, “Admiral Nkrumah, this is a surprise”

A weather-beaten, very African-ethnic face appeared on her screen. A long-time friend of Salah’s, Admiral Nkrumah was one of the few pure-ethnic Humans left in the Stellar Commonwealth. A bandage covered much of the right side of his face, and the bridge she was on looked decidedly worse for wear.

“Well,” came the reply, “I didn’t expect to be here. But I had information from High Command that you were here, and we badly need repairs and resupply after tangling with a powerful alien force. We lost almost half our force in a nasty close-range battle”.

Salah Reimark kept her own face steady. He could not have known. Period. Only five Admirals at headquarters knew the location of her mission target, and there would never have been a pressing need for Nkrumah to know of it. And yet…she couldn’t see what her old friend was trying to do….unless…unless…

Then the burst transmission arrived. The message light started linking a priority tone, and she turned to answer it. On her display, unwatched for mere moments, the good side of Nkrumah’s face tightened. Salah Reimark called up the text on her screen, and gasped.

“All ships, all ships, be aware that Admiral Nkrumah has rejected the authority of IAF High Command and has stated a desire to negotiate with the Technological Alliance of Aliens Kossavus. Consider him hostile. Seek and destroy”

There was no need for words. Their eyes met, and saw possibilities missed. And then Nkrumah cut the contact, his ships turning to hyperspace. “Hot pursuit” snapped Salah Reimark, and sat down hard in her command chair. She would do the right thing, of course. And she would have nightmares about it, too. But at the end of the day, her old friend must die.

As hyperspace engulfed her ship, fighters freshly docked, the plotted intercepts showed that they would catch the damaged, fleeing force she was chasing after a single jump, near a large asteroid. Her flingers flew across the keyboard. Assuming she used the asteroid as a base…
Chapter 13 – Tower of Lies

TA’AK Silent-Class Stealth Ship Assassin’s Blade

The ‘Blade, as her mainly S’ri crew called her, had just wasted a lot of time. The high-ranking member of the restored inner-worlds onboard was less than pleased. The Admiral who had come to them offering to defect has simply not been at the rendezvous. There had been a storm of the indecipherable warp space blips which were thought to be non-directional communications by the enemy recently, true, but no sign of this Admiral… Nkrumah.

The passenger was a high-ranking S’ri himself, one of the established order who had been off-world when the rebellions started, and had organised the logistics for a small fleet which had reclaimed two worlds. He and his clan had become immensely more powerful since, and he had personally demanded to be assigned to meet the traitor Admiral…it was a mission which would catapult his rising star even higher.

The stealth ship was a triumph of design. As large as a cruiser, it mounted only the weaponry and armour of a frigate. It was packed full of generators and specialized devices to maintain its stealth field. It was suited only for scouting…or transporting important civilians in dangerous space. And it was as expensive as five cruisers…not something used casually or for unimportant missions.

The voyage had been long because to stay stealthed, especially on warp exit, it could make no more than fifteen percent of a warship’s warp speed. And in real space, it could only move at glacial pace, its engine wake hidden from even the most sensitive scanners. All that might be seen was a slight fuzz on all the sensor instruments on nearby ships.

Given the long voyage, all was not yet wasted. There was an alternate contact point, although the captain felt strongly that it was a trap. A quick consultation with his passenger left him no choice, however, and he manoeuvred his ship slowly, so slowly, and slipped into warp. It was a short hop, three days even for a stealth ship.

On the Home Worlds, a certain old Kossavus base was under siege. Even its holiness would not save it from the hand of the government, now a certain high-ranking Marvii had told them everything under the impression that it would be set free. It had been shot and dumped in a furnace with the bodies of other traitors. That was what, after all, the Books of Kossavus said was an appropriate punishment for traitors of his ilk.

The skies over the furnaces, typically little used, were thick with smoke, some of it toxic. Burnt Slen carapace, in particular, was an irritant to S’ri eyes. And yet the traitors had to burn. The S’ri in those organising the disposal of the bodies wore goggles and long cloaks to ward off the worst effects. Even so, it was a hated duty.

Very few of the leadership had survived the counter strikes. Leading troops, they were killed or captured quickly by the resurgent government forces. The only major leader to survive the push was K’yar the S’ri, who was as trapped as any in the base. Even his legendary hacking couldn’t avail him – there were no land lines into the base, anymore, and a wall of jamming blocked any possible wireless transmission he might try…and he had tried a lot.

Assassin’s Blade slipped from hyperspace. There were no ships…and the Captain’s face twisted in annoyance. It untwisted when a message pod was detected, drifting in the debris. It sparkled on the display, radiating at low power the code given the would-be defector Admiral for contact.

The ‘Blade eased her engines online, and moved towards the pod. Her cargo bay yawned wide, and the pod vanished silently inside. The bay snapped shut, and the ‘Blade eased away again, scanning for any sign of hostiles. There were none, space was quiet. And technicians went to retrieve the pod from the bay.

As expected, it had a message onboard with yet another rendezvous. An argument broke out once more between the captain and the passenger. The captain refused. The passenger ordered. The captain pointed out that higher authorities had told him to keep his passenger safe. The passenger considered a moment, then gave a written order that he would consider his own safety.

The captain, at that, gave up. He was not sure – was never entirely sure – his ship was safe. His paranoia explained his position…he would never use the field recklessly, or take risks. Except when he was ordered to. And so, he slipped the ship once more out of material space.

The tunnels of the base shook as kinetic impacts hammered into the tops of the defences. Their low-se t positions meant little to the fighters which screamed overhead, and rebels pulled back from them as they were turned into twisted wreckage. And yet, as they fell back, they hoped that the enemy would be forced to come and engage them hand-to-hand, to prevent wholesale damage to the base that they revered. They were to be disappointed.

Within minutes, clods of toxic gasses filled the tunnels, eating away at protective suits and killing the unprotected in seconds, fatally disrupting their nervous systems. The mix of gasses affected all the races, and groups of fighters burst out, firing wildly, before their suits gave way. They caused a few casualties, but the died.

Then, and only then, did the Book troops enter the tunnels, looking for sealed-off sections. And it was when they began hammering on the door to his final redoubt with kinetic weapons that K’yar detonated the anti-matter weapon. It was a final gesture of spite towards the regime he hated. The explosion devastated the base and killed him in an instant, but the blast was mainly contained underground. The rebellion…was over. Very, very finally.

Back on the Assassin’s Blade, the traces of weapons fire were unmistakeable. Wreckage was strewn over the battlefield, and a warp trace stood out like a sore thumb. It pointed towards a huge asteroid, a single short warp away. Again, the captain advised his passenger to abandon his mission – couldn’t he see that he was walking directly into a fight between loyal IAF forces and the rebel admiral he had hoped to meet – but was overruled once more.

The ‘Blade slipped into the gap between the universes again, even more slowly than before. Its particle shields and dampers making it’s passage through the unreal universe of Warp a shadow of the usual path of disturbances which could so easily be detected, even from normal space.

The Assassin’s Blade exited warp, it’s stealth field wrapped around it, to find itself extremely close to an IAF command ship. The alarmed captain turned his ship away and began crawling sway from danger…it was radiating an unfamiliar IFF signature, not the one they had come to meet at all. And then, suddenly, an energy spike was detected from the enemy command ship…
Chapter 14 – The Thousand Stars

IAF Harridan-class Diplomatic Ship, Banshee

The small star was far from the border of the Stellar Commonwealth. It was small, red and had never had a habitable planet. Its largest body was a small planetoid; the majority of the mass in orbit around the sun was in the form of three small asteroids belts, shattered remnants of the worlds which had once been there. A brown dwarf companion orbited the red primary, but it was a long way out, and ships warping to the planetoid’s orbit only had to make minor adjustment for it’s gravitational field. A typically useless barren system, in other words.

And yet, the Star – Haylan – was busy. It had been busy for over seventy-five years, since a waystation there, set up because it was on the crossroads of three major trade routes, had been the point of a meting between several ambassadors of five races which had begun the slow formation of the Interstellar Commonwealth. Haylan, in the years since, had become the single most important point on the spaceways for diplomacy.

The technical capital of the Interstellar Federation was the nearby habitable world of Vaii, true, but the media circus on Vaii was usually just that – a show for the public of the Interstellar Federation, a way for views to be placed on the record and even a place to shunt the more colourful politicians of dozens of races, to stop them causing trouble domestically.

Haylan’s charm to the rulers of the various governments in the Interstellar Federation came in the methods of dealing there. When you wanted to deal, you dispatched a ship to Haylan with orders to broker a deal. Dozens of diplomatic ships orbited the planetoid, often working entirely at cross purposes, trying to tap each other’s communications and messages, and generally getting inter-governmental diplomacy moving.

The Stellar Commonwealth usually had at least three ships – usually IAF Harridan class frigates – at Haylan. While unarmed, they were fast and very comfortable for the sizeable diplomatic crew they could transport. Many of the Interstellar Armed Force’s government contracts came from deals done at Haylan’s little planetoid, and so they made sure they could always be reached. As well as the business of the Stellar Commonwealth itself, of course.

The system was even busier than usual. The Banshee was just one of eleven Stellar Commonwealth ships at Haylan, and courier ships slipped in and out to the new High Command three times a day. The captain of the Banshee – although in reality the IAF’s senior diplomat on the spot - Senior Admiral Loren Chrissen and the Stellar Commonwealth’s special diplomat Sean Gallaway both had their hands full dealing with the ever-shifting diplomatic sands.

Except they were less changing than they perhaps once were. The war was the root of the change. If not for the Interstellar Armed Forces, all the races could read the projections. At least a third of the Interstellar Federation would already have fallen, and the remainder would be in a hopeless position. And yet, the IAF had shoulder the staggering cost – so far – entirely on its own. Indeed, the Stellar Commonwealth was looking at something close to ruin from the fines that their forces breaking contracts to fight on the TA’AK.

Round and round the arguments went, signals beamed between ships. Hasty meetings of diplomats on the now-vast space station orbiting the planetoid. Even small shuttles docking in space, for truly private meetings. And something was emerging from the arguments – something the K’Kree Federation, the greatest industrial power in the area – was prepared to support, along with the Stellar Commonwealth.

Side tones in the discussion were easy to miss. Certainly some were picked up on, and dropped or followed, but several times Loren Chrissen’s line seemed to…deviate from that being preached by Sean Gallaway’s. And there were a few hurried meetings. No-one was- or could – track them, but if a theoretical independent observer could, then they would of realised that each of the major power blocks had sent a representative to meet, privately, with Loren Chrissen.

The arguments went on, as the TA’AK advanced stalled itself, and then died down slightly when news of the TA’AK being pushed back – even slightly – came to the ears of the diplomats. And then it spiked, radically, when Admiral Nkrumah’s attempted defection came to light. Loren Chrissen met with ever-more diplomats, reassuring them of the overall loyalty of the IAF – or so the line went – while Sean Gallaway sought a solution to the rapidly worsening Stellar Commonwealth’s debt woes.

Things came somewhat to a head when several of the major power blocks sent messages to the Interstellar Federation that that they had important broadcasts to make. While the diplomacy had been done at Haylan once more, it was clearly unsuitable for sending the messages. No, the messages would be broadcast from the vast Central Hall at Vaii.

The Banshee moved into Vaii orbit the day before the broadcasts, a last minute flurry of diplomatic shuttles meeting. There was almost a fight that day, when Sean Gallaway finally confronted Loren Chrissen about the meetings she was only now picking up on. Loren Chrissen simply refused to discuss them, or the still somewhat mysterious broadcast which would be made.

The vast hall was packed with delegates. Several important government ministers and even leaders were there, including the premier of the K’Kree Federation. And yet when the time came for broadcast to be made, it was Loren Chrissen who was called to the centre of the chamber, dressed in a business suit. Sean Gallaway’s staff frantically tried to figure out what was happening, but were now simply stonewalled. That something was happening was apparent even to the least diplomat.

And then Loren Chrissen spoke to the hall and from there to the Trillions of sentients of the Interstellar Commonwealth. Her speech was precise, calm, and started a maelstrom. With a deep breath, she begun…

“Ladies, Gentlemen, Beings. I speak not only for myself, but for many others.” Around the room, dozens of delegated climbed to their feet. Humans, K’Kree, and a dozen other aliens. Perhaps three quarters of the power in the Interstellar Commonwealth were standing. Notably, Sean Gallaway was not. He was enraged and confused by the events.

“And I say this – the Interstellar Federation as currently exists, has failed. It has a loose structure bound only by commercial contracts. This…can be an advantage, but this event, this invasion, has shown the critical flaws in this. That there are some things which economics alone cannot dictate. If the current procedures were to continue then the Stellar Commonwealth, who I have served faithfully, would be crushed by it’s debt within a month. And then where would your worlds, your people be.”

There was a stir from the crowd. They could see where this was going. Sean Gallaway’s face was white and taught.

“This cannot happen. And to simply declare the contracts void would not serve the long term interests of we, the governments of the Interstellar Federation. The next time this type of emergency happened, we would have to do it again. And the Stellar Federation alone cannot maintain this war without external sources of funds for much longer, in any case.

So…a proposal has been put to the governments you see standing here. They have accepted it. I know that this comes as a shock to many governments, but there in now in principle an agreement for a true government of governments…a vastly more powerful Interstellar Federation, with the Interstellar Armed Forces as its military forces.”

The groundswell of noise shot upwards and cries of disbelief came from the Stellar Commonwealth’s diplomatic team. Sean Gallaway himself was grimly silent, but had turned bright red with anger. There was a sudden hush as noise suppressing fields damped the din, letting the speaker finish.

“The Interstellar Armed Forces are getting the support and munitions we need. We are going to take the fight to our enemy. And the track backbones and deals needed to support that have been negotiated by our good friends, the K’Kree. And finally, we do not forget where we came from. This deal includes debt relief, colonisation rights and special terms for the Stellar Commonwealth. We recognise that they must be able to stand on their own.

And suddenly it was too much for Sean Gallaway, who found himself laughing and cheering along with the rest of the delegates. It would be alright. The Interstellar Federation…and the Stellar Commonwealth…would live. Would prosper. And would turn back the alien tide.
Chapter 15 - Hand of Fate

TA’AKAlmighty-Class Command Ship Promised Land

“Turnabout is fair play” muttered Fleetleader N’Kell. His promotion for the destruction if an enemy flagship had been swift in coming. Partly, true, that was because the leadership needed a hero to distract attention from the minor but constant series of defeats which the TA’AK had been dealt in the last month. Across the border, minor outposts had been picked off, and the logistical base to begin the next great push was still not present.

All of which explained why he was doing precisely what had not worked for the enemy Commander he had killed. He was flying his command ship, with minimal heavy backup and some frigates, on a mission behind enemy lines. It was the same…and if was radically, radically different.

He had no particular base to protect. While each individual outpost and supply base was a piece of the network they were rapidly establishing, the loss of any single base was not overly important by itself. The loss rate could become serious if it climbed, however, and so they needed to counter attack to decrease it.

And then there was the fact that his attack was not alone. A wave of attacks against located enemy targets was underway. He had assigned himself to this attack, true, but it was very low risk compared to some of the missions. The danger to him in this convoy interceptor was an embarrassing failure, with ships slipping past him, not his ships destruction and personal death. And…one small defeat, if it happened, would be forgotten if the overall plan worked.

And so he and his slips hurtled through the blankness of warp space. The convoy they would assault, spotted by scouts, had four freighters, each of which carrying materials for the front line. Hardly the most valuable target, but once the freighters were cannibalised to build a base, quite valuable in terms of fighting the war. And the escort…should only be three corvettes, and some fighters. Hardly a serious threat.

Hyperspace exit. Trauma…and it was over. Fighters launched as normal space snapped back into focus. Confirmation came from the frigates designated to watch for the convoy doubling back…they detected nothing. And suddenly the fighter screen, still deploying, was under attack. Three interceptors arced in, taking out four fighters in a single pass.

The laser cruiser alongside the Promised Land caught one with a laser bolt which disintegrated it, and one of the escort frigates caught another. The final one evaded the fighters turning after it, and transmitted before it could be destroyed. N’Kell fanned his crests in frustration. The enemy know their location, now, and the convoy would be foolish to try and run past him.

Two minutes later, however, it became apparent that was what they were doing. A hastily build fighter plant was beginning to produce a bomber wing to add firepower to his forces, and the fighter screen was skirmishing with the far lighter enemy fighters screen…but refusing to be lured within range of the heavier guns of the corvettes. There were four corvettes he noted, marking the scout pilot who had reported three down for extra duty. Annoying, but hardly important, after all.

The frigates seemed ready to attack his Cruiser…suicide, surely…but the transports were heading for a straight run past him. And he realised what they did not. They had not, so far, engaged an Almighty-class ship in close combat, and assumed that like their command ships, they only had heavy particle guns. Their plan was good, given that. The Cruiser – especially if damaged – and the particle guns of his Almighty would indeed be hard-pressed to stop four of the heavy freighters. It was what they didn’t know which would hurt them.

The corvettes began their attack run. Fighters clashed, allowing the bombers a free run. And one of the corvettes dropped out before it could fire on the cruiser, its engine pods wrecked and spewing atmosphere. Fighters flashed by, their lasers finishing it. The other three got into firing rang even as laser bolts from the cruiser struck the second corvette, particle bolts slashing back.

It was a badly uneven conflict, especially when the Promised Land opened up with her own longer ranged particle guns. The Cruiser’s armour was still unbreached when the enemy combat craft were destroyed, and fighters ranged outwards to pinpoint the enemy transports. A scout flashed by one, and was rewarded with a particle bolt which tore its wing off. The other scouts took a more wary approach, and easily evaded the following fire, and N’Kell snorted.

And then they were in range. The particle turrets of the freighters could do little to a Cruiser or a Command Ship, and yet they tried anyway. The Cruiser opened fire on the closest freighter, and a few particle pulses from the Promised Land followed them, as it moved across their bows. He was not sure what the freighter’s captains thought he was doing – and the particle bolts splashing off his armour told him that they knew he was up to something – but they were about to find out.

The Promised Land’s lights flicked for a moment as a huge anti-matter charge was loaded into a torpedo. The massive launch tube rotated, found its target and then the electromagnetic catapult threw the torpedo clear. It ignited its engine – a matter/antimatter jet – as soon as it was clear of the Promised Land, and sped towards the target. The freighter must have realised what was happening, because while its particle bolt was wide, it was aimed at the torpedo. And then it struck.

The anti-matter load hit matter as it continued forwards, and the entire front of the freighter vanished in a huge fireball, spewing hard radiation as the anti-matter ate through the structure. And then it reached the fusion plants, and the faltering explosion claimed the entire freighter. N’Kell hammered one fist into his arm chair in delight, and particle fire launched out again while the anti-matter buffers were refilled. It would take only thirty seconds, true, but…

The second torpedo struck its target near the rear. It consumed the plasma reactors entirely, and left the front of its target moving along it’s curse, irradiated and tumbling. N’Kell flagged it for retrieval – it was likely that at least some of the metals onboard had survived, and the wreckage would be valuable in case. The third torpedo, aimed at a target now frantically, and hopelessly, trying to ram the more manoeuvrable Promised Land repeated the performance of the second, and again the hulk was marked for retrieval.

The laser and particle-battered freighter was in trouble of its own. The engines went dead as laser fire shattered it’s conduits, and carefully aimed particle fire gutted it’s turrets. The TA’AK Army wanted to know how tough their enemy was at close combat, and they were about to field test some equipment. Boarding pods detached from the Promised Land, and several hundred elite Army troops loaded their weapons in them, as they burned swiftly towards the crippled freighter.

The pods slammed into it’s hull, breaching charges blowing rents through which they stormed. Light weapons fire met they as they did, killing several troopers, but the firers were navy personal with light hand weapons and the flechette fire that was returned blew they to bloody chunks. Teams charged out over the cargo bays, heading for passages.

One team, entering a passage, found an unwelcome surprise. Their two lead S’ri were shredded by monomolecular wire string across the corridor, but a quick adjustment to scanners showed it up, and a quick blast from a handheld rocket cleared it away. Another team lost three men to a fixed heavy projectile gun, in the corridor leading to the bridge. Smart mines provided the answer, thrown round the corner they then located the gunners and homed in on them, killing them with tiny anti-matter explosions.

The final and greatest surprise happened to one squad, who had become somewhat lost in the freighter’s passages. By chance, one of the elite – and rare – fighters of the IAF who used advanced power armour for boarding actions had been travelling aboard the ship, and he had his armour with them. Two died in the first moment, as the suit’s plasma gun blasted them from behind. The battle which followed was destructive, and killed another seven TA’AK. But a second squad, called into deal with the armour, caught the bulky suit in a corridor, and it’s kinetic anti-armour weapons proved effective.

A few other soldiers died, but within twenty minutes of boarding, the freighter had been captured by the TA’AK. A coup of the first order – its database was still partly intact, and the bridge crew had surrendered.
Chapter 16 - Crusade of Ashes

IAF Destiny-class Flagship, Destiny

Salah Reimark was studying the sensor displays of her old friend’s ships when a slight, almost familiar distortion pattern began pulling at them. She frowned, trying to work out why the display was fuzzing. A quick query shot through the system provided a negative answer – the scanner and engineering crews were as baffled as she as to why the sensors were glitching.

And then she smiled. The passive sensors of the Destiny began a sweep of space. When it was only a third completed, it came up with a match to the profile that Salah had loaded from her personal files. A shape became evident on the scanners, and alarms rung. With a wave of her hand, the cancelled them, and tactical orders flew.

A seeming innocent ship movement began. A destroyer moved forwards, “coincidently” bracketing the stealth ship between then. And then they opened fire. The particle bolts hammered immediately into the relatively thinly armoured hull of the stealth ship, whose stealth shields vanished with an almost audible snap as it came under fire. A fusion missile from the destroyer breached the rear hull, and atmosphere flowed into space. The return laser fire carved lines I the destroyer’s armour, but it was thin lines.

The particle fire was joined by plasma bolts and even the torpedos of three bombers, and then the stealth ship died, its reactors spewing plasma. The bridge crew looked at her, curiously. She sat back, and pointed out an old file. When she had been young – just 21 – she had produced a scientific paper which had effectively ended cloaking technology by pointing to scan patterns which would always detect “cloaked” ships. Shortly afterwards, and for unrelated reasons, she had joined the military, but her work had eliminated the use of cloaking from the Interstellar Federation over thirty years before.

She turned her attention back to Admiral Nkrumah’s fleet. It was entrenched in a rich asteroid cluster, which more than matched the one her forces were even now building extractors on, and was preparing an effective defence with a shell of defensive platforms. He did not, on the other hand, seem to have the advanced fighter patterns that she did, and his capital ships were damaged. She could simply not allow him the time to build his defences.

Her fingers flicked over her keyboard, setting up a tactical plan. She did not consult her tactical section. She did not even think of referring back to the fleet headquarters. The IAF was simply not prepared to fight a rebellion in its own ranks, and she realised that taking the time to build heavier ships of her own would result in Nkrumah finishing his defensive emplacement…and that the should be forced to take weeks and take prohibitive casualties to defeat him.

As the fighter screens of the two sides began to skirmish, she sent her orders. She did not precisely hide the end results from everyone, but she did not make an announcement or try and justify her path. It was her responsibility to bring this to an end…quickly. The plan she had thrown together was the best plan for it…even given its cost.

Fighters whirled through space, firing plasma guns, lasers and missiles in an increasing skirmish – the innate toughness of both sides allowing many damaged fighters to retreat for repairs rather than being destroyed at once – as her construction corvettes worked on a row of advanced fighter plants. They immediately went into high gear, and advanced fighters – Hellcats – and bombers – Mentors began to flow into her defensive perimeter.

She was unsure if Nkrumah had grasped her essential strategy, but he had not radically altered his tactics. He was relying on a limited number of construction corvettes and just two factories, and that was going to hurt him. If they died, he would be in deep trouble.

There, thirty hellcats and twenty mentors were ready. The advanced fighters formed up, and thrusted towards one of the plants, even as more of their kind rose and joined the defensive perimeter. Nkrumah’s defences were strong, and his fighter screen interposed itself as the fighters screamed down on them. The Hellcats lost five of their number, but blew a hole and the mentors went through.

Their attack seemed to catch the defences by surprise, and several platforms died as torpedos slammed into them. And then they were within launch range of the factory they were targeting. As they frantically tried to escape the fixed defences, which had acquired their range and were slaughtering them, the plat exploded into glowing shards as torpedos wrecked it.

Five mentors, screened by a dozen hellcats, pulled away and there was a kind of stillness on the bridge of the Destiny as they realised that she meant to repeat that attack. Not one voice was raised, not one objection forged. They all knew how close she had once been to Nkrumah, and to throw pilots into the fray like this, to pursue a strategy that while effective would lose many of them…was heart-wrenching for her.

Her heavy ships began a slow movement towards the enemy, as the second strike went in. They lost just as heavily, but destroyed the other plant, and two corvettes which were trying to replace the destroyed plant. The third and fourth and then the fifth strike all went in – all suffered – before the enemy construction corvettes were dead. And then, and only then, did the two destroyers of Reimark’s force engage the perimeter.

A damaged destroyer of Nkrumah tried to engage them, but died for minor damage to one of the destroyers. They systematically laid waste to a portion of the defences, then withdrew for repairs. As they moved in again, Nkrumah made his move. His Battleship moved towards them, more than a match- even damaged – for two destroyers. As soon as it moved, through, it’s fighter screen was disordered and that was when the fighters and bombers which Reimark’s forces were still producing struck.

Three dozen hellcats carved a river of fire through the defensive screen, missiles and lasers flashing, a maelstrom of destroyed interceptors…and two dozen bombers followed them. A missile from the battleship struck a bomber full on, and the detonation took out another beside it. And then they were firing, more rents torn into the battleship’s hull. Its lasers and plasma cannon flashed, and another three bombers died. But the battleship’s now reduced fighter screen could not hold back the bombers, or do anything except die to the superior numbers of Reimark’s fighters.

The bomber’s return run finished the job. Salah Reimark closed her eyes and turned her head as her old friend and his crew perished in a jolt of fire. A tear ran down her face, and she did not wipe it off. With a calm voice, she directed the destroyers to eradicate the remainder of the defences, took those few followers of Nkrumah who chose to surrender. Their lot – most likely life on a penal asteroid - would not be happy.

As the destroyers finished the destruction of the base Nkrumah had built, she put him out of her mind, and concentrated on the naturally worded report she was writing to the High Command on the stealth ship. It had been so long since cloaking was a threat that scanner programs would need to be updated to reinstate the old measures for detecting them.

She moved off the bridge to her wardroom after hyperspace transit, to - as she said – finish the report in peace and quiet. And that was where a steward found her three hours later, her head buried in her arms, her eyes red from her tears for her old friend, who she had killed. It had been necessary to kill Nkrumah, of course. Duty. Always duty. It tasted like ashes in her mouth.
Chapter 17 – Silent Dreams

TA’AKAlmighty-Class Command Ship Promised Land

Fleetleader N’Kell was not happy. Despite the fact that the mission he had lead personally had been successful, overall a remarkable number of missions had been stalled or, as in two cases, run into traps which had cost him a capital ship and almost a dozen frigates, as well as the associated fighters and bombers.

His resource base was almost complete, but he was worried by the dataflow. Something had changed. It was almost if a massive reallocation of resources was feeding this…IAF. And yet, why had it not happened before. They had to realise that if he broke their perimeter entirely, his capital ships would take world after world.

He tried to write a report on it, but he kept on stalling. What had changed? Nothing he could track, for sure. He was quite sure that this sector must have a fairly small population, and that the IAF was its entire military. Well, except for a few obsolete units which he had swept aside.

He did not - and never did – realise that the fundamentally non-military nature of most of the citizens of the “Gateway” sectors meant that the IAF was a fraction of the size, in proportion, that the TA’AK fleet commanded. The TA’AK had been on a war footing for decades, and their productivity was dedicated to the fleet. The funds now at the IAF’s disposal had effectively temporarily eliminated their supply problems, and N’Kell was not going to like the result.

Meanwhile, on the Core Worlds, good new at last came from a path. The pacification of the sector down the second active Path had been successful, and the Path could be converted into a stable gateway – far slower, but allowing ships to keep a quiet eye and prevent any resurgence of the races they had taken. The military forces which could be withdrawn from the sector – three dozen capitals and assorted lighter ships – would need to be split between the two active pathways.

Even so, that alone would likely allow the complete pacification – and following cleansing – of the aliens encountered beyond the first pathway, and the third pathway – the one to the Gateway sector and this “IAF” – could use the reinforcements.

N’Kell’s conclusions reached the various committees which were commanding the fleet efforts, and discounted. Why would things change, now? No, he had simply miscalculated a few fleet strengths. A few S’ri did try and investigate further, but no official action would be taken. He now had a resource base, and was getting reinforcements which would add a fifth to his capital ship strength. He would be able to take the offensive once again, shortly. The orders to do it were sent to K’Vrin.

K’Vrin studied the report with mixed feelings. Certainly he was relieved to get the reinforcements, but he was still unsure if he was ready to strike. The way N’Kell ‘s concerns has been dismissed by the Core Worlds was in some ways not a surprise, but it did mean that he had no choice but to attack, and relatively quickly after the reinforcements arrived.

N’Kell was a far more experienced commander, and K’Vrin was unwilling to simply dismiss his report as fears, but he also had no options remaining but to follow the letter of the commands he had received. He had just under three weeks to plan, and his staff went into almost frantic activity as they churned out routes of attack, logistical supply plans, ways to integrate the new ships into squadrons, and more.

K’Vrin did summon N’Kell onboard his flagship for a conference, and as a result N’Kell’s staff produced another set of plans…plans which were transmitted to K’Vrin and sealed away. They were plans to regroup, and to retreat. To extract ships even in the midst of an attack, and to – if needed – retreat through the path. While that kind of retreat would mean his life, he was not willing to throw the crews of his fleet’s lives away for Core World families, isolated from the realities of Fleet.

There were mandatory celebrations across the Core Worlds, officially celebrating the battles won to clear the second path of all opposition. In fact, they were designed to help pacify certain elements of the Core World civilians, a great number of who had lost friends and relatives in the fighting. While most of the weapons used were precision kinetic and particle weapons, precision is a relative term when talking about weapons whose power is rated in kilotons and megatons.

And so, a two-day holiday was planned and put into effect. Across the Core Worlds, military units had to go onto high alert to make sure that any remaining rebels didn’t take the opportunity to strike. While there were a number of minor incidents, only a single major one occurred, and two flights of atmospheric fighters quickly dealt with the AI-controlled Tank unit before it could reach a population centre…although the programmer never WAS found.

In the midst of the celebrations, the detachments from the second pathway moved back into the Core Worlds and out again into the other two Paths. Supplies were hastily sent to them, and replacement fighters docked to their hulls. Some were still slightly damaged, but the logistics involved allowed no delay, especially considering the economic effects of the holiday.

It was three hours after the arrival of the reinforcement squadron, and it would take five days for them to move into position…and then the attacks would commence. Squadrons were moving to staging areas, logistical supply lines were filling magazines with missiles, and replacing laser barrels. Everything was moving smoothly, and on time. And yet K’Vrin could not shake a sense of doom.

N’Kell was too busy to share a sense of doom. He had five capital ships and a large number of other ships under his command, and somewhat surprised when the all-ships emergency signal came in. He was even more surprised when IAF ships began emerging from warp.

The limited warp-scanning capacity of the TA’AK really hurt them, they had little time to realise that their attack had been pre-empted before they were subject to a full court press. Across the sector, attacks – aimed very much at staging areas where ships had been gathering – came under attack. Capital ships in particular were singled out for attention by wings of Mentor bombers.

For K’Vrin, it was disaster personified. Reports were flooding his boards of attacks across the sector, and almost a third of his ships had been destroyed. Only the prompt activation of the contingency plans which he– with what seemed like amazing foresight – had N’Kell prepare had prevented a complete collapse. Taskforces fled, then recombined and struck back at weak points. The attack was being slowed, but not stopped, and resource areas were being picked off.

He longed for the advice of N’Kell, but the old campaigner had not been heard from since the initial attacks, and it was assumed that his ship, the Promised Land, had been destroyed. A great loss, both to the TA’AK and to his contingency planning. As it was, the plans he had made were coming to an end, and even his most brilliant additions seemed to lack…something. With N’Kell’s presumed death they would, however, have to do.
Chapter 18 – Rivers of Time

Stellar Commonwealth

The riots had continued for six days. Several tens of thousands of thousands, across the Stellar Commonwealth, were dead. The Interstellar Armed Forces, whose Army would usually be called in to suppress the troublemakers…would only of inflamed the situation. Besides, as several politicians spitefully pointed out, they were no longer the Stellar Commonwealth’s armed forces.

There were certainly riots – or the start of them – elsewhere, most notably the K’Kree Confederation’s ever-fractious border worlds, but in every case their existing armed forces and police could suppress the rioters. The Stellar Commonwealth, however, hung on a thread. Many of it’s police had joined the rioting, and it no longer had it’s Army and Navy.

The IAF were being supplied – massively – through the industrial powerhouses of the new, tighter, Interstellar Federation and they were moving away from Stellar Commonwealth space, leaving older ships and gutted bases to those few who chose to remain loyal to the Stellar Commonwealth rather than to the Interstellar Armed Forces.

Technically their loyalty, sworn by oath, was to the IAF after all. But the IAF could not, and would not, jeopardise the fragile Stellar Commonwealth…for its leaders, in turn, had sworn to serve that very same Stellar Commonwealth. They saw the best path to protecting it…was to protect the entire Interstellar Federation. Much of the Stellar Federation…disagreed.

Bitter words had been exchanged between the Admirals of the IAF and the politicians of the Stellar Commonwealth, but the results were undeniable. Freed from the fiscal restraints they had been fighting the war under, they had pushed the TA’AK back across the entire front. While they had been inconvenienced by the attacks on their supplies, it had been just than – an inconvenience – and not a disaster.

The Central Hall at Vaii rang with update broadcasts from the IAF, reporting triumph after triumph. They were expensive logistically, true, but the new backers of IAF could afford it while not easily, without excessive strain. And that strain was being reduced even further as many of the smaller powers negotiated their way into the new Interstellar Federation.

Another form of trouble began quietly. The world of Ysirii had always been home to many K’Kree. On the Stellar Commonwealth – K’Kree border, it supported much of the Stellar Commonwealth’s trade, which had rocketed even higher as specialist IAF goods were purchased in bulk by K’Kree and other industrialists. The riots had barely touched Ysirii. And so it was that they considered themselves to have more in common with the K’Kree than their fellow humans.

The Stellar Commonwealth was aghast when they informed by Ysirii’s planetary government that they were seceding and joining the K’Kree Confederation. They promptly issues an official statement rebutting the right of planets to seceding, and ran up against the clause in the agreements in the new Interstellar Federation which guaranteed just that.

Riots again rocked the streets, and threats were thrown back and forth by the K’Kree Federation and Stellar Commonwealth. In the chaos, three more worlds decided they would be better of in the arms of other, more minor powers. The Stellar Commonwealth could see itself crumbling almost in front of it’s own eyes. Its next actions only hastened the rot.

The Stellar Commonwealth decried the new Interstellar Federation, and closed its borders. The few units it had left were ordered to put down the rebellion. Worlds announced they were seceding at an almost frantic rate. Until the orders they their government had given came back to order that government.

The ships that they had ordered to quell a “revolt” appeared over the capital. They gave codes to the defence network which it accepted, and ordered the government to stand down. It issued a defiant proclamation, crying out against “warmongers and puppets of the Interstellar Federation”. A fighter put a missile into the – empty – parliament building and repeated its earlier message.

For four hours, a tense standoff happened. The entire Stellar Commonwealth held its breath. And then the people came out on the streets. They demanded the government step down. They would simply not countenance the use of the fleet…their fleet, as decimated as it was, on their friends and families on the worlds trying to seceding. The Government ordered the army to crush the demonstrators. They joined them instead.

Three days later, a caretaker regime headed by one former Ambassador Sean Gallaway officially took charge of the Stellar Commonwealth. He managed to persuade almost four fifths of the planets which had tried to secede that they wee better off in the Stellar Commonwealth. He even persuaded a minor K’Kree Confederation planet that using the terms of the new Interstellar Federation treaty to change sovereignty was better than rebelling and being suppressed, as Nveran was.

The resultant protest from the K’Kree Confederation was met with chuckles from the other members of the Interstellar Federation, and even the K’Kree had to admit – although with noticeable bad grace – that they were indeed gaining overall and that they really did want to support the new Interstellar Federation. They also added, not that it was so widely reported, that they would try and amend the rules on seceding. That motion failed miserably.

Through this all drama, supplies flowed to the Interstellar Armed Forces. New bases were established across the Interstellar Federation, although almost al the warships not watching other potentially hostile borders were on the offensive against the TA’AK.

The TA’AK were being driven back, but a question re-emerged. Where had they had they come from? The region “behind” the stars the TA’AK ships were defending was empty. Only a vast nebula, hundreds of light years away, lay on a direct bearing of their main angle of attack. It was a mystery which sorely puzzled some of the best minds of the Interstellar Federation.

It was then that an IAF scoutship, ranging far beyond the TA’AK front lines noticed a massive energy distortion in hyperspace, and moved to investigate. What they found would spell the beginning of the end of the war.
Chapter 19 – A Line In The Stars

TA’AKAlmighty-Class Command Ship Wind of Flame

Warleader K’Vrin felt he was trapped in bad nightmare. His forces were being ground away, reports from home were becoming somewhat hysterical in tone – and would likely soon order his - somewhat permanent – replacement. While he had no intention of having his corpse shipped back to the Core Worlds for ritual display, he could not come up with a plan to turn the tide either.

His suspicions about the supply lines of his enemy had turned into outright paranoia. He was convinced that somehow they had come up with a way to eliminate their supply problems…and there was nothing he could do to match it. Even the best and fastest nano-replicators needed templates, and they needed raw materials. He had even tried ordering a planetoid converted into raw materials by free nanites, but it had – as usual – gone badly wrong, and just cost him a number of missiles, destroying the nanites before they consumed his ships.

His flagship and it’s escorts hurtled through warp space, fleeing a crushing defeat. He had tried to manoeuvre around a trinary star system, using the gravity wells his ability to warp far closer to them to confuse and outmanoeuvre his enemy. Instead, they had simply manoeuvred huge fleet elements as blocks, using pre-planned paths to cut him off. He had had to blast past a force larger than his fleet at close range, and had lost very heavily.

Damaged ships had dropped out of warp along the path of his retreat, unable to maintain warp fields, and left with fused engines in normal space – sending spikes into warp space advertising their location and making them sitting ducks for the inevitable enemy forces which would destroy them.

Warp exit. The starscape was dominated by a cloud of gas to the left, and a vast asteroid to the right. The data tank suddenly lit up, blurring as it loaded a high-bandwidth data dump. And then it cleared, as the satellite which had sent the data – unannounced – finished. The reason for it was almost immediately obvious….the defensive position was already under attack.

At the two weakest points in the perimeter, the sensor shadows of approaching enemy capital ships could be detected. As ships followed the Promised Land from hyperspace, they were vectored to support one or the other. The few docked fighters he had left added little to the protective umbrella already drawn over the perimeter, but his capital ships would add firepower the stationary platforms and frigates simply did not have.

At the first weak point, Thunderbolts charged at a cruiser as it approached. The cruiser turned away, pounding the thunderbolts with missiles and laser beams, and they hastily withdrew themselves. Bombers tried to chase after the cruiser, but it’s frigate escort was heavily biased towards anti-fighter work, and they lost a dozen bombers for little return. The remaining screen pulled back.

At the second weak point, two destroyers closed rapidly, wrecking platforms with cannon and missiles. A railgun platform exploded even as a laser cruiser opened fire back. Beside it, an anti-fighter Cruiser pulled four bombers from space, and sent others fleeing as its huge main laser lashed out with repeated pulses of green laser energy. One of the destroyers was overwhelmed, it’s cannot wrecked when bombers swooped down on it in the space cleared by the anti-fighter capital ship. Torpedos opened the destroyer like a can, spilling it’s contents into space. The other destroyer tried to withdraw, but laser blasts struck at it’s engine pods, and the bombers overwhelmed it as well, only losing a few of their number to the frantic plasma and missile fire.

Meanwhile, construction ships which had fled with K’Vrin moved out to repair defences and ships. Two fighter repair corvettes landed, repaired and launched fighters in rapid series, quickly putting damaged armour and shattered weapons back on line with streams of nanites and even whole replacement units for the worst damage.

The Wind of Flame herself was building another frigate plant, with the aim of working up over the next few hours to a capital plant and even a few more capital ships. The crew was fully engaged with the tricky task, leaving K’Vrin to study the battle and wait to see if other forces under attack could reach the new perimeter.

The battle seemed to be going well. The IAF threw repeated waves of fighters and bombers against the defences, but after the initial strike they had not risked any more capital ships. They were losing fighters and a few defensive platforms, true, but they were being replaced and the damage made right before the next wave of attacks, if only barely.

A cruiser came into extreme range, trading fire with a cruiser, but withdrawing before it could take serious damage. That repeated itself several times, once coinciding with a fighter strike. K’Vrin’s bones ached from the constant whine of the nanolathe, and he was considering ordering a limited counter-attack when the cruiser attacked again, once more for no decisive reason…

It was then the laser bolts began lancing in from the asteroid to the right of the main line. Almost worthless in terms of minerals, the asteroid had been ignored. The IAF had taken advantage of the fact, and build a huge laser cannon on it, surrounded by a ring of smaller laser and missile emplacements. It would be nearly impossible for a bomber attack to crack.

Capital ships formed up as K’Vrin snapped orders. The anti-fighter capital caught a series of blasts straight on, and began to drift, a hole torn right through her. The other capitals charged onwards, and the fighter screens clashed in a bloody climax, over fifty fighters dying within two minutes – torn apart in a swirling maelstrom which deprived the IAF fighters of the advantaged their more potent missiles gave them.

Some bombers got through to the capital ships. Without the anti-fighter capital, the force couldn’t really stop the, but their damage was nothing compared to the laser cannon. A laser capital and a thunderbolt – electron whip – one fell behind, lamed, before they got into range. Laser bolts and the arc of an electron whip resounded, but the damaged laser cruiser was destroyed by a final valiant flurry of laser fire from the cannon before it was smashed.

K’Vrin was aware that his swift action had likely saved his position from defeat, but fighters swarmed all over the asteroid, searching for and finding two other locations with partially built lasers – it would seem that the enemy commander had either gotten impatient or had suspected that K’Vrin had divined his plan (which he had not) and that he was forced to act. Each of the unfinished emplacements was torn to shreds by bombers.

The IAF attack died down. The two sides regarded each other across space, and then the IAF ships slipped away into warp space. The UIAF advance had been stalled…at least temporarily.
Chapter 20 – The Dawning Day

(Please note – this, final, chapter breaks from the pattern. The final IAF mission is not described in this Novella)

IAF High Command

The schematic on the huge wall screen turned slowly through loops, phasing from a display of its appearance in normal space, and a stylised representation of its effects on space/time in hyperspace. The object, or group of objects, was a circular cluster of huge generators floating in space…pumping power into hyperspace.

The constrained energy field was baffling IAF scientists. Properly the energy should be wasted…pure energy forms could not, in their experience, hold together in hyperspace. Only when a material object existed for a energy field to coalesce around could energy exist there. Except they were obviously wrong. And some new experiments were beginning to show them how wrong.

The scientist giving the presentation was late middle aged, with grey hair. He constantly stopped and backtracked on statements in response to queries from the less technical parts of the audience, and thus while his presentation had taken a while he was now reaching his major point. That it seemed to be some form of gate. That it must have a far end.

He could see an easy way for IAF ships to enter the portal through hyperspace. He was unsure if the enemy ships could do that, although the amount if activity near the portal suggested otherwise. But if IAF could pass through it in Hyperspace, well, they could bypass any defences it has for one. The scientist seemed enamoured with the idea.

It went down less well with the IAF admirals. A force passing through the portal would be going into the unknown, and the portal might just also rip anything trying to enter it in hyperspace apart. Which would be rather…unfortunate…for the ships trying it. The maths was somewhat unclear on it, although in a few months experiments might show if it would be the case.

The debate raged back and forth across the table between the Admirals, the scientist’s forgotten as they argued the practical implications. The model cycled over and over, ignored, in the wall screen as the consensus gradually came round to the fact that is was just too risky to try passing through it with a manned ship, and they were winning the war. This…gateway could wait.

The meeting broke up, and scientists sent back to their labs to continue work. Hyperspace energy structures suggested all sorts of thing to them, from gateways through space to ways to burn an enemy ship’s engines out while it was in hyperspace, dropping them back into normal space. One scientist even suggested using focused hyperspace energy fields to affect probability fields, and was laughed at.

The gateway was put to the back burner. Rumours of it quickly spread around the high command, ranging from bizarre to useless. The admirals who had discussed it had long ago moved onto more productive enterprises…at least until something new suggested itself. Or rather, was suggested to them from an unexpected source.

The K’Kree Confederation was connected in many ways to the new IAF command, and they heard about the gateway two days later. Many K’Kree served in the Interstellar Armed forces, including many in a way which they were uniquely suited. That is, they had their limited lifespan clones.

Limited lifespan clones were not, and are not, classed as sentient by the Interstellar Federation. They are a form of biological robot which only understand things like pain as indications to avoid. They have no real sense of self-preservation, although they will clean and feed according to natural cycles because it keeps them useful.

Some of the, carefully programmed, piloted a unique class of IAF vessel which had only seen limited use in the war. While the idea of sacrificing sentient life needlessly was abhorrent to the IAF, there are times you need to make a suicide attack. And that is where the limited lifespan clones came in. Their non-sentient status and lack of a sense of self preservation meant that they manned the kamikaze corvettes.

Lightly armoured but quick, the kamikaze corvettes contained a powerful set of fusion cells. When triggered, then set off a massive chain reactor, the plasma cloud produced could seriously damage other corvettes and do some damage even to capital ships. They did need to trigger before they were destroyed, though, or the fireball was a lot smaller. Fortunately, limited lifespan clones have the same reflexes as the K’Kree who shaped them.

The K’Kree Confederation had a sizeable reserve of the ships parked, ready for activation and turning over to the IAF. And they activated a crash program to program enough clones for them all. They presented the Admirals of the IAF with a bold plan, indeed.

There was little warning. Corvettes in their dozens slipped through the portal in hyperspace, to emerge on the other side. Almost at the same moment, dozens appeared on the “Gateway” side of the portal. It was already in trouble – the energies released by the hyperspace passage caused much more feedback than a ship passing through from normal space.

Arcs leaped from the might generators, frying any of their own defensive platforms, although there were enough corvettes that it would not have made a difference in any place. Lasers and torpedos lashed out, and a few of the corvettes on each side were vaporised, small plasma clouds forming as they died.

And then the corvettes fired their engines, and as they came to the portal’s generators…detonated. Clouds of fusion fire washed over the generators, doing a lot of damage. The fatal blow, however, came to the control installation on the Core World side of the gateway. It was wiped out in one of the detonations, and with that the gateway’s energies ran wild.

Space twisted and folded as it collapsed on itself. The gateway spat the hyperspace between it’s ends out, furious energies blasting a pulse of radiation into the void. In consumed the few frigates yet to detonate and the gate generators. The TA’AK forces were cut off.

It was the beginning of the end of the end of the first IAF-TA’AK war. The TA’AK forces, cut off and surrounded would be destroyed within a month. There would be no more losses of IAF capital ships…the attacks were cautious and in overwhelming strength. With no reinforcements, the TA’AK fleet simply could not stand.

The political fallout would take a dozen years to settle, but the IAF eventually returned to base on the Stellar Commonwealth worlds, guarding the Interstellar Commonwealth…and the, after the expansion, the Thousand Star Commonwealth.

The K’Kree Confederation lost many of it’s colonies to the surrounding powers, but gained them back with interest in power struggles which saw the Ashlund thrown out the Interstellar Federation for attempting to make a deal with the Hkra to betray the Interstellar Federation as a whole.

The IAF fought many small wars over the decades. They smashed the R-gar probe and then helped us make piece with the hydrogen-breathers. They fought and destroyed the Oracle when it’s followers tried to crusade through our space…and two dozen other minor conflicts.

And then, of course, there was the second IAF-TA’AK war thirty years after the first. When the IAF chased the TA’AK back to their Core Worlds. And the third, so recently done, fought entirely in hyperspace and punctuated with the deaths of eleven stars. And the final defeat of the “Book Order” of the TA’AK.

But they, as they say, are stories for another day. I’ll end with a truly ancient quotation from a pre-Scattering flatfilm:

“An age is called dark not because the light fails to shine, but because people refuse to see it” – James Michener, “Space”

Rebecca Morgan, Human Female
K’Kree Confederation Citizen