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Red Skies

FTL Prequel Story

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#1 Online Ninth Krayzikk

Ninth Krayzikk
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Posted Jun 01 2014 - 12:30 PM

The First Day

 

"Red sky at morning, sailors take warning."

-Nautical proverb

 

Year 94 ALT (After Light Travel)

Earth Orbit, Sol System

19:34 Hours

 

 

Laughter filtered through the air of the Officer’s Lounge, emanating largely from the cluster of men and women seated around a small card’s table. Those that hadn’t been laughing gave exaggerated sighs, and in a few cases, muttered, awestruck profanity. A dark-haired woman in her late twenties, rank insignia identifying her as a Captain, drew a mound of poker chips from the center towards her, grinning widely.

 

“And that, friends, is why you never, ever bet against me.”

 

“Geez, Izumi, remind us all why you’re here, and not at some poker championship somewhere?” The speaker, himself a Captain, was a dirty blonde man with a wry grin, looking to be in his early thirties. He shook his head, looking across the table at another of the officers. “Stein, you’re a commanding officer; Aren’t you supposed to be inscrutable or something?”

 

“Talk to me when I’m not on my third drink, Layton.” The other man quipped, raising his glass as if in salute only to take a long sip from it. Izumi, meanwhile, just grinned smugly at the other Captain, taking a sip from her own drink. “Besides, I don’t think it’d do me any good. This crowd, you’re all luckier than God, and I don’t understand it.”

 

“I’ll personally settle for being as lucky as God.” A brown-haired man remarked from the seat to Layton’s immediate left, chin in his hand. “I swear, if I were any less careful you’d play me for all I had.”

 

“Wouldn’t be hard!” Stein remarked, prompting another round of laughter. The brown-haired man rolled his eyes, turning around to signal for a drink. “That said, Daniels, I hear your movie collection’s probably worth more than my entire salary, and I outrank you.”

 

That might be a bit of an exaggeration. How much do you make?”

 

“Ssh, sssh, Will, don’t remind him; He works on a cruiser, it’s a touchy subject for him.” Layton commented mischievously, only laughing when the Lieutenant Colonel, in the midst of taking a drink, simply glared at him over the rim of his glass. Izumi chuckled under her breath, attention momentarily diverted from the stacks of chips she’d been in the process of organizing.

 

“Don’t get too smug, Captain. You’re not likely to get lucky enough to stay on a ship like this when you get to where I am. If I get the chance, I’ll see to it that you get assigned to the smallest ship in the fleet!”

Layton gave a look of mock fright, before returning to his grin and shaking his head. “I don’t know, sir. You heard the shipboard whisperings?”

 

“About the Colonel?” Izumi asked, looking up from her cards, eyes fixing on her colleague curiously. “I’ve heard a few of those. Reid tells me that he’s had more transmissions from Munich than usual lately.”

 

“Yeah, about the Colonel.” Layton confirmed, leaning back in his seat. “People’ve been thinking that he might be getting promoted. Can’t say it’d surprise me, either. He’s practically a legend, and he’s been at his rank about the right time.”

 

“I don’t think he’d leave the Archangel.” Will commented, sipping at his drink thoughtfully. “He’s been serving on this ship what, almost forty years? He’s never been away from it long. It’s more home for him than Earth, I’d be willing to bet. Besides, does anyone here really see Bryant as a General? He’d hate the bureaucracy.”

 

“Well, regardless,  ladies and gentlemen,” The Lieutenant Colonel began, setting his glass down and his cards with it. “It’s been a blast, but Colonel O’Reilly will be expecting me back on the Defiant soon. And I’m on duty in the morning, and she’ll skin me if I have a hangover.”

 

As he stood to depart, the dark haired woman stood with him, pushing in her chair. No one was particularly surprised; She was the Security Chief, it was her job to see that visiting officers were escorted wherever they were headed. The Lt. Colonel paused long enough to gather his things and nod to his fellows before walking to the door, flanked by the Captain. William sighed, setting his own cards down and gathering them up, while Layton gathered the various glasses from around the table.

 

“Hey, Mark,” The Captain said, getting his friend’s attention while he shuffled the cards idly. “Do you think the Colonel’s going to get promoted?”

 

“I don’t see how he won’t.” The other officer replied, organizing the glasses on a tray and tossing the assorted bits of trash into a nearby receptacle. “He’s been in the Forces for forty, fifty years, right? Records show he did more than a few tours out in the colonies, and some rough ones at that. A clear pick, if I ever saw one.”

 

Will tapped the cards against the table, the sound easily audible in the now quiet lounge. He looked thoughtful, sliding the deck back into its sleeve without really looking at it. After a few moments he shrugged, slipping the cards into a pocket. “Well, I suppose we’ll find out after the main fleet gets back.”

 

“Yeah. How long’s that going to be, anyway? They’ve been gone over a week.”

 

“About another week, most likely.” The Captain responded, sliding his chair out to stand, and glancing about to make sure that a mess hadn’t been left behind. “The trip to the Engi homeworld takes quite a while. Til then, we’re one of the thirty ships left guarding Earth.”

 

“And isn’t that the most boring job ever.” His counterpart commented, rolling his eyes. The duo moved for the door after raising a hand in farewell to the staff of the lounge, never ceasing their conversation.  “I mean really. Thirty ships doesn’t seem like much, but nothing ever gets through to Earth. I hate patrolling so close to home, it’s just too easy. Not what a ship like this should be doing, either. I want to be back out in the colonies, near the edge of our turf. Back out where the pirates are, where all the universe’s odd-”

 

“No, you want to be a hero.” The brown-haired man interrupted in amusement, raising an eyebrow at his friend’s look of mock indignation. “Don’t give me that look, Mark. You and I both know it’s true. You want to climb the ladder, want to make a difference. And maybe get into the history books while you’re at it. You never shut up about it back at the Academy.”

 

“Alright, fine, you win.” The Navigations Officer replied good-naturedly, slipping his hands into his pockets casually. “Besides, everyone wants to do something cool. Climbing the ranks is just a bonus. A bonus with a bigger paycheck, admittedly.”

 

Will chuckled, shaking his head in amusement as their path took them to an intersection in the hallway. Both men turned left, greeting familiar faces as they passed. The hallways weren’t very crowded, not at this time of night, but they were made to accommodate plenty of movement. Their footsteps made little sound as they turned the corner, continuing on their way without breaking stride. The ship’s hallways were a maze to those not familiar with them, but for the ship’s crew, they were almost like home. A very large home, admittedly, but home for the crew of five thousand. That said, most of the crew never really went through the passages the two officers currently walked; The officer’s lounge was off the beaten path, and with only ten percent of the crew at most composed of officers, there wasn’t much of a point for them to be traveled.

 

“Besides, Will,” Mark began again, looking over at his friend as he broke the silence. “Don’t you want to move up in the world? Maybe even be a hero?”

 

“Never really been a concern for me.” The Weapons Officer replied, shrugging slightly. “I mean, I wouldn’t turn down a promotion. But I’m the primary Weapons Officer on board a Dominion-class battleship, already a Captain, and I’m barely thirty. Not too bad, all things considered, and my paycheck’s pretty nice as is.”

 

“Well, to each their own, I suppose. Hey, you’re still supplying the movies for tomorrow night, right?” The event in question was a well known one, among the crew members of the Archangel at least. Organized by the officers of the ship, there was a night once a month where the ship’s crew could gather to watch a movie on a larger screen, or take part in any number of related activities. The event ran a full twenty four hour day to ensure that everyone would have a chance to attend, regardless of shift, and it was custom for the crew members to supply films from their own collections. Daniels was a frequent participant, hence why so many of the features tended to be of the science fiction genre. Not that the crew tended to mind; Old science fiction tended to be more like reality for them, what with how technology had advanced.

 

“A few of them, yeah. “

 

“Science fiction again?”

 

“... Perhaps.” The Weapons Officer said evasively, though judging by his friend’s laughter, it wasn’t in the slightest bit convincing. Daniels rolled his eyes, glancing at his watch. “Oh, be quiet. I think I’m going to get some water and turn in earlier. We’ve got the first shift in the morning.”

 

“Probably wise. I’ll stop by Reid’s quarters, see if she needs anything for tomorrow. I’ll come back after that and get some sleep.” The pair paused at the next intersection, Daniels nodding to the Navigation Officer and raising a hand in goodbye, before taking the right hand corridor. The walk wasn’t as long as one would have expected; Despite the battleship’s large size, it was set up with practicality and purpose. The officers’ quarters were situated not far from the Officers’ Lounge, and neither one was set very far from the ship’s bridge. The quarters for the enlisted were further away, closer to the maintenance rooms and the armory, allowing them to reach the rooms related to their duties more easily. There wasn’t much of a difference between the two types of rooms, bar location and accommodations.

 

As William keyed the access code to his quarters, he took a moment to look about, taking in the familiar sights. His quarters were divided to accommodate two occupants, whereas the enlisted rooms held more. In this case, the occupants were himself and Captain Layton, and it was easy to see which side of the room was which. Where Daniel’s side was tidy and well-organized, Layton’s had more surface clutter. Their personal effects were an easy indicator, as well; Where William had cases for data drives labeled with the list of fiction contained within and printouts of the public copies of new weapons research, his roommate had games and the evidence of his pastimes, including a deck of cards perched precariously on his desk. A battered and off-used coffee maker sat next to the personal computer, the catalyst for significant productivity.

 

Not that the Weapons Officer paid these things much mind; He took only the time to change out of his uniform, check for announcements on the ship’s main network, and then sink into his bunk. The past few days had been boring as far as duties went, but the crew had used the easy assignments to make time for more recreation than usual. Time at the pool, games in the recreation room, movies, and of course, cards in the Lounge. Between it all, he was more than ready to sleep. His thoughts as he drifted off to sleep were of plans for enjoyment, lists of the duties he would attend to in the morning, and little more than his daily routine.

 

Blissfully unaware that nothing would ever be routine again.

 

 

***************************

 

Outer Lunar Sensory Array

22:17 Hours

 

 

In the space, even so close to the Moon, nothing ever happened. Little moved outside of scheduled flights or military patrols. The latter were particularly thin; Though the colonies maintained their own defenses, the vast majority of the Confederate fleet had been gone for quite some time on their trip to the Engi homeworld. The sensor station’s duties were simple, and monotonous. It watched for FTL travel, and kept a watchful eye for any threats. Raiders, usually, raiders and pirates. There hadn’t been many insurgencies for quite some time, though rebellious colonists had been a significant issue a few years back. Nevertheless, it rarely had need to perform any duties beyond simple monitoring of its sector of space. The stillness was rarely broken, the drudgery of idle work seldom disturbed.

 

Perhaps that is why, when the station did detect something and sent the data back, the initial reaction was disbelief. Operators, unsure of what they were seeing, checked their equipment for malfunctions. That was the most likely explanation, after all; No matter how hardily built their devices were, unmanned stations would inevitably suffer from errors. In this case, it simply had to be an error. There was no way it could be correct. Nervous operators nevertheless passed the information on through the chain of command, all the way to the commander of the forces in orbit around Earth. They worked quickly, analysts woken and brought to their stations to verify what the sensory array was reporting. Precious minutes passed until, after the reports had been analyzed and the array’s systems checked for malfunction, the operators were forced to accept that their readings were correct.

 

The knowledge set off a frenzy of motion and activity, weariness instantly forgotten. General Pauls, stationed at Proxima Base, received word nine minutes after the sensor’s initial notification, and the commanding crews of the ships in orbit around Earth received word seven minutes after. The ships guarding the colonies had less warning; Word reached them a few minutes after the others, depending on where they were stationed. The information was spread as fast as it could be, but as the estimated arrival time carried with it indicated, their warning came only just before the storm.

 

 

********************

 

TCV Archangel

Earth Orbit

22:24 Hours

 

 

The blissful rest of sleep was interrupted by the clamor of alarms, piercing sounds that tore their way into the consciousness of even the deepest sleeper. Daniels woke almost instantly, the significance of the alarms registering mere seconds after he awoke. The Weapons Officer all but leaped out of his bunk, pulling on his uniform in seconds even as his roommate did the same. Few words were exchanged, and their initial communication consisted of only a glance to ensure that the other was awake. The Captains rushed out of their quarters accompanied by the sounds of hundreds of pairs of boots rushing through the halls, hurrying towards their ready stations. Any grogginess had vanished instantly, pushed from their minds and muscles by a rush of adrenaline. Their senses were crisp and sharp as the officers took a hard left from the quarters, all but running towards the bridge.

 

“Layton, what the helI is going on?” William said to his colleague, glancing over at him briefly. That glance alone was enough to know that the Navigations Officer had no more idea than he did, though he hadn’t really expected him to. The alarm wasn’t scheduled, nor was the next drill due for a few weeks. Something had happened, something that could raise the alarm in Earth’s orbit. The thought left a sinking feeling in his stomach, a tight knot of worry that he forced himself to push aside. Neither officer spoke another word in the time that it took them to reach the bridge.

 

As the doors opened to allow them entrance, they noted that most of the command staff was already present. The brunette-haired woman at the far right, pulling a headset on over her head and adjusting the microphone, was Lieutenant Reid, the ship’s Sensory and Communications Officer. The men to either side of the bridge’s entrance were present in the event either of forced entry to the room, or in the event that one of the bridge crew was injured and needed to be brought to medbay. And sitting in the center seat, a row back from the control panels that wrapped around the room, was their commanding officer. Colonel Bryant was a tall man, even seated, with steel gray hair kept at maximum regulation length and a carefully trimmed beard of the same. Piercing, analytical blue eyes were fixed on the tactical readouts flowing across his screens, taking only the briefest of moments to note the entry of his crew. The Colonel was pushing his late fifties, a veteran of the conflicts on the frontier, and he radiated experience, as befit one of his almost legendary status. Few officers had commanded a battleship as long as him.

 

Daniels and Layton slipped into their seats with practiced ease, adjusting the comm units in their ears and bringing their respective stations to active status with a few presses of the keys. Reports rang through the commlines as personnel reported in from across the ship, signifying their readiness for action.

 

“Daniels, bring weapons to standby. Lieutenant Reid, get the battlegroup on the comm.” Bryant’s voice rang through the air, firm and clear. A few key presses, and he had opened a line to the fighter bays. “Toselli, are our fighters ready?”

 

Aye, sir.” A lightly accented voice replied promptly, carrying the characteristic tones of a native Italian speaker. Lt. Colonel Rosaria Toselli reporting. All pilots accounted for, on standby status in their craft. We can launch on a moment’s notice.

 

“Good. Reid, open a shipwide communication.” The woman nodded, fingers flying across her keyboard. An acknowledgement light winked on the arm of the Colonel’s chair, and a moment later, he cleared his throat and spoke. “This is Colonel Bryant. Eleven minutes ago, the Outer Lunar Sensory Array reported incoming FTL signatures of unknown origin. They are estimated to arrive on the frontier in three minutes, and here, in Earth orbit, in six. Their numbers are unknown; Their numbers are too high for the array to estimate. We are now on red alert.”

 

In the moment following the Colonel’s words, silence reigned. Significant looks were exchanged across the bridge, Layton’s eyes uncharacterictically wide, and Reid’d face draining of color in moments. Daniels pivoted in his seat to stare at the Colonel, expression one of unmitigated shock. The announcement was ended by a gesture from Bryant, just in time for several faces to appear on the main viewscreen, audible over the command comm line.

 

Archangel battlegroup reporting in. Colonel O’Reilly, of the cruiser Defiant, representing.” The speaker, a woman roughly the same age as Bryant with fading red hair, was visibly accompanied by her second, Lt. Colonel Stein, who was hunched over his own console. “Bryant, are you getting the same reports I am?”

 

“I am.”

 

“Then you’re fully aware that we don’t have the numbers to deal with this. There are thirty ships currently in Earth orbit, and only fifty in the system. Even with the Tokyo, we’re outgunned.”

 

“Acknowledged.” Was the only reply, as the Colonel nodded almost imperceptibly. “You all know the tactics. We’ve done this before; This is no different.”

 

A wave of acknowledgements rippled forth from the commanders of the other ships in the battlegroup, their communications going silent as they issued orders to their own crews. As was standard procedure, the vessles took their places around the Archangel. Several Heinlein-class missile destroyers were the closest to the larger battleship; Arranged around it, they provided support while making use of the ship’s superior firepower to act as a defense. Just beyond them were the cruisers, mostly Constellation-class, were stationed to guard against incoming threats. Their duty was to protect the inner ships, intercepting threats that would otherwise strike through towards the destroyers, meant for blanket fire, and the battleships, which were too large a target to defend against all attackers. All around the planet other battlegroups did likewise, forming up around the five battleships in orbit. Over the Northwest hemisphere was the Seraph battlegroup, centered around the other Dominion-class ship in orbit, while the Southeast was defended by a pair of State-class battleships. High over the Southwestern hemisphere was the Tokyo battlegroup, arranged around one of only two Capital-class battleships in the solar system.

 

The space forces, thirty strong, waited in silence, weapons ready. Across the viewscreens of the fleet a synchronized timer counted down, bridge crews watching with tense anticipation. By the time all of the preparations were done, only forty seconds remained. On board the Archangel, those seconds seemed like an eternity. Daniels checked and rechecked the ship’s armament while Layton checked their bearings, and Reid orchestrated communications between the ships. Bryant stared in stoic silence. Though he couldn’t tell for sure who it was, the Weapons Officer was sure that he could hear quiet prayer from somewhere on the bridge.

 

As the timer passed the ten second mark, the world seemed to hold its breath. Nothing moved, nothing stirred, and everything was still. The silence was almost oppressive, pressing against their chests like a thing alive, aggravating the tension in the air. The timer ticked inexorably downwards, each second seeming longer than the last, until finally, with an understated beep, it struck zero. The silence continued a moment longer.

 

Then the world went mad.

 

As one, the contacts appeared. A horde of vessels appeared like a plague of locusts, choking the sky with their sheer numbers. The ships were all alien in design; Crudely insectile, with jutting protrusions and harsh, predatory angles, they descended as one. They were innumerable, untold in scope and scale, a vastly superior force arrayed against a mere thirty ships. The nearer ships were smaller; They appeared to be equivalent to the Confederacy’s cruisers and destroyers, but looming behind them were much, much larger vessels. Their battlships numbered in the dozens, and by a look alone, their other ships in the hundreds. Their make was unmistakable; The Mantis had come, and they had come in all their might.

 

“Sir,” Reid spoke up, voice cutting through the air, even as quiet as it was. “Sensors are unable to estimate their number. Best guess is several hundred in total.”

 

Almost as if waiting for that cue, the ships opened up, spewing veritable armies of fighters, craft small and nimble that surged towards the Confederate forces, their larger compatriots hot on their tails. Seconds after their arrival, with not a word spoken in warning or explanation, they opened fire, beams and lasers cutting through the reaches of space to impact with shields. The Confederate ships returned fire, spewing hot metal that lanced outwards, bypassing shields to slam into hulls. The routine had become the chaotic, the monotonous the cataclysmic, and the easy, normalcy of life the harrowing, unknown of war. It had been fifteen minutes, from warning to battle, and those minutes had ensured that nothing would ever be the same again.

 

 

 

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Edited by Simon the Digger, Jun 01 2014 - 01:06 PM.

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Red Skies, an FTL Prequel (Updated 7/13)


#2 Online Ninth Krayzikk

Ninth Krayzikk
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Posted Jul 12 2014 - 11:17 PM

The Second Day

Earth Orbit, Sol System

0:11 Hours

 

 

In the black of space, desperate battle had already been raging for nearly two hours. Lasers and kinetic projectiles criss-crossed the region, the sight of flaring shields a common occurrence. Between the weapons fire fighters flitted about, occasionally interrupted by volleys of missiles. Debris already drifted about the battlefield, tribute to the damage already done to both sides. Though the initial estimate had been imprecise, continued effort by the fleet’s officers had finally delivered an accurate estimation of the enemy forces; Roughly two hundred Mantis ships, made up of all classes. The number had been difficult to ascertain; the instant the battle began, the enemy forces scattered, acting more as a swarm than a coordinated military machine. It made them unpredictable, hard to prepare for. It did not help that the assault had revealed an unforseen flaw within Earth’s orbital defense batteries.

 

The software that ran the defenses was not able to target the enemy, as the number of simultaneous targets proved far too large for it to process. Technicians frantically worked to rectify the problem, but for the near future, they had been taken out of the fight. The only aid the skeleton force in orbit could expect was from the defenses on the ground, focused primarily on dealing with the Mantis battleships. The highest ranking commanders in the area had sent out a priority message to colonies further out, but aid would not be quick in arriving. As the reports rolled in, it was quickly apparent that the invasion was even larger than initially expected. The colonies within Sol were besieged as well, and their defense were even more thinly spread. Any reinforcements would not arrive for quite some time. Without any proper assistance, the battle was even more lopsided; thirty human vessels, versus two hundred invaders. The battle should have been a forgone conclusion, and a crushing defeat for the Confederacy by all rights.

 

But fortune smiled upon them, in one small way. The invaders, as was quickly discovered, relied heavily on energy weapons. Weapons that could be intercepted by the Confederacy’s shields. In contrast, all of the human ships were outfitted with kinetic weaponry, enabling them to deal critical strikes to the enemy ships without delay. Maybe it was arrogance, maybe it was an oversight; regardless, the Mantis had slipped up. And that mistake was the only reason that the Confederate forces hadn’t already fallen like leaves before a hurricane.

 

All throughout Earth’s orbit, barely contained chaos reigned as the planet’s defenders fought back against the invaders, a desperate stand against the numerically superior force. Within the depths of the Archangel battlegroup, that struggle raged like nowhere else. On the battleship’s bridge, panic had faded away, replaced with a grim resolve. Layton constantly altered the ship’s orientation to provide the optimum alignment with an ever-shifting enemy, while Daniels’ hands never ceased moving across his console, triggering volley after volley of weaponsfire at the enemy. There was no time to fine tune targeting for specific enemies; he keyed in targets and locations, directing the ship’s weapons towards where he knew the enemy was. Across the bridge, Reid constantly relayed information to the rest of the crew, orchestrating coordination between the ships within the cluster.

 

Behind them all, Bryant observed, issuing orders and conferring with his fellow officers on the command frequency. None of the bridge crew was privy to what he heard; the frequency was for Lt. Colonels and above, reserved for their discussions. Had they had the time to observe him carefully, they would have seen his expression turn progressively more grim as the information rolled in. The Mantis had, by this point, nearly encircled the battlegroup. Enemy vessels pressed close all around, almost drawing level with the Archangel herself. They had not yet managed to push past that point, kept at bay by the sheer wall of ammunition being hurled towards them, but it was only a matter of time.

 

“O’Reilly, status report.” Bryant’s voice cut through the tense air, over the inter-ship comm. There was an almost worrying pause before the reply, but nevertheless, it came. The other Colonel’s voice was stressed to almost biting tones, but it rang through clearly.

 

“Well as can be expected. We’re all in one piece, for now. A lucky bugger got through to the Washington, took out some of her port side weapons. All ships report that shields are holding.”

 

“Shift the Washington towards the interior of our defensive line, closer to the Archangel. We need to give her crew breathing room to get her weapons running again.”

 

“That’s going to stretch us thin. Without the Washington, there are only two cruisers on this perimeter line. They’re going to press hard.”

 

“I know.” Was the only reply, as the conversation ceased. The group did as ordered, allowing the damaged cruiser towards the center. The ship could still fight, and fight it did, but O’Reilly had been correct; no sooner did they pull the Washington back, the Mantis attacking with renewed vigor, red hulls filling the void of space around them. On board the battleship, measures were being taken to compensate. At the Colonel’s order, twenty of the ship’s fighters launched to guard against the waves of Mantis fighters. Daniels transferred complete control of the Archangel’s anti-fighter kinetic emplacements to the computer, allowing himself a moment’s satisfaction as the turrets promptly ripped apart one of the marauding fighters. The Weapons Officer didn’t have time to enjoy the event, however, as a shout promptly cut through the haze of repetitive action.

 

“Daniels!” The Sensory Officer shouted, not looking up from her readout. “Mantis bombers closing downwards to port.”

 

The danger didn’t need more than a moment’s thought to become evident; The angle of attack would allow them to slip past the battlegroup’s outer perimeter, and strike at the Washington’s weakened side.  The Captain quickly turned the battleship’s 30cm railguns against them, raining superheated metal down on the approaching enemy. Two of the bombers were crippled in short order, and finished off by the Washington’s remaining defenses. The remaining two, however, were too nimble, evading the shots long enough to return fire. A small cluster of torpedos, mostly directed at the smaller cruiser, but a few at the battleship herself; the latter were shot down before they ever became a threat, and the Washington swerved to avoid their trajectory, but one connected regardless, impacting against its hull, causing noticeable hull damage.

 

“Toselli,” The commanding officer spoke into the comm, gaining the attention of the Lt. Colonel down in the hangar. “Direct a quarter of our active fighters to the Washington, tell them to guard her port flank.”

 

Aye, sir.” Came the reply, though a few muttered curses could be heard over the line. Lt. Colonel Toselli was the best Flight Commander the battleship had ever had, but no one ever said she was subtle. Nor did anyone need to inquire about the subject of her complaints; Five fighters was too few, and everyone who’d ever cracked a tactics book knew it. It was also as many as they could spare.

 

Though no one said it aloud, the crew had reached the same conclusion; Bryant’s tactics weren’t meant for the short term. The Colonel had recognized that despite their enemy’s weakness to their weapons, the battle would not be a short one. They stood a solid chance of victory, but to win, they needed to err on the side of caution, and do what was wise in the long run. Hence the launch of half their fighters; the active ones would need to be pulled back after several hours to rest, at which point, the others would launch.

 

It was with that philosophy in mind that the crew fell into an almost repetitive series of actions, each working within their own sphere of existence. Coordination was instinctive, a continuous relay of information to allow for optimum efficiency. The tactics varied little as the minutes turned to hours, and the middle of the night gave way to the morning. Across the globe, the situation remained largely unchanged; losses were minimal, amounting to a cruiser from the Seraph battlegroup, and a destroyer from the that of the two State-Class ships. Several more were damaged, however; The Washington was continuously under assault, and had only been allotted a few short hours for repairs. It was forced to join its fellow cruisers at the outer line too soon, only able to bring a few of its railguns back online. The Tokyo battlegroup had suffered no losses, as the might of the Earth’s sole present Capital-Class effortlessly matched, and pushed back, the attacking Mantis.

 

The Mantis pushed, and low in number though they were, the humans pushed back with great resolve. The two forces were equal, for now; perhaps the Mantis were weak, perhaps the humans were unexpectedly ferocious, but it didn’t matter. The invaders had issued their challenge, and Earth had risen to it.

 

********************

Earth Orbit

13:17 Hours

 

Daniels’ hands were shaking, he noted dully. His movements had become mechanical. reflexive actions as he continued on as he had been for over half a day, directing the battleship’s weapons against the Mantis. The Weapons Officer would never admit it, but he was nearing exhaustion; the crew had been awoken after only three hours of sleep, if they were lucky. A quick glance around the bridge showed much the same upon his comrades, the tell-tale signs of exhaustion. Layton’s hands were clumsier than they had been, and his expression was blank and dull. Reid occasionally shook her head as if to physically ward off the specters of sleep, and her speech faltered at frequent intervals. The Archangel was used to operating for long spans of time, but her crew was not prepared to deal with the sudden and implacable onslaught with which they were faced. The Mantis outnumbered them more than six to one, so for every ship they shot down, another took its place. It had not been lost on them, either, that new ships warped in every few hours. Small groups, mostly, but reinforcements were reinforcements.

 

That said, the Confederate fleet was far from losing. Even as tired as she was, Reid’s voice sounded always sounded triumphant when she rattled off the latest numbers, and even Bryant’s face shifted into the ghost of a smile.

 

“Estimated twenty percent of initial enemy ships destroyed. With additional reinforcements, roughly eighty five percent of initial forces remain. Confederate forces have suffered no additional losses within the past ten hours. Multiple battlegroups report damages, however. Tokyo battlegroup remains largely unscathed.”

 

“Understood.” The Colonel’s voice acknowledged, nodding slightly. He was alert, and quite clearly so; His eyes were bright and piercing, continuously taking in the information available  to him. He had been nothing but professional since the assault began, and he showed no signs of slowing down. Nevertheless, the man was aware that the same could not be said for his bridge crew. They had been at their posts for over twelve hours, and hadn’t had a moment’s rest since. Even their rations had been eaten at their posts, after being delivered by an envoy from the kitchens. Stims had been delivered to the bridge early on, but even with the boost, they were working on little sleep to begin with.

 

The battle wasn’t over. Far from it. They had a chance to win; whatever had pushed the Mantis to attack without proper equipment had done more than level the playing field. Without enough kinetic weapons, the invaders had found themselves met with an almost invulnerable line of defense, a formidable force despite their low number. But the bugs still had the advantage of numbers, and it would be no short conflict. They needed to play the long game, and that meant keeping the crew sharp.

 

“Layton, Reid, Daniels. Shift’s up. Get a meal from the mess, and hit the bunks.”

 

“But sir-!” The Navigation’s Officer objected, looking up from his console for the first time in hours. The stifled grimace left no doubt that his limbs had long since stiffened in that position, his own body undercutting his objections defiantly.

 

“But nothing, Captain.” Bryant replied sternly, a note of authority entering into his voice, which quickly shut the younger officer up. “You’re all exhausted, and don’t deny it; I can see it, and you can feel it. You’re to get some rest. That’s an order. The auxiliary officers will take over until your next shift.”

 

“Aye, sir.” The response was grudging, but as the second shift crew moved in to take their places, the feeling of relief was almost palpable. As Daniels stood, he found that his muscles had gone stiff, and his legs had long ago fallen asleep; not really surprising, given how long he’d been at his post. Technically speaking, they had all been at their posts longer than even an eight hour combat shift called for. Normally, they’d have been relieved almost four hours ago. The battle, however, had been far too uncertain to transition at the time. It had been difficult to find the moment to safely let the secondary officers take over, so they had all kept working until they needed to end their shift.

 

The trio filed out of the bridge in silence, and maintained it until they had passed a few meters down the hall. It wasn’t out of any particular regulation, or situational necessity; but it was something they needed. For the first time since the fighting had began, there wasn’t a task to perform. There was no information to relay, or enemy to fire upon. There was no attack to be evaded. As their bodies began to relax, even just a little, from complete combat readiness, their exhaustion washed over them, leaving them drained and weak. But more importantly, the true severity of the situation was finally able to sink in. The horror of an attack on their very homeworld, and all of the worry that went with it. It was unimaginable, or so it had been believed. That had always been the belief; Earth was in the very heart of human space, surrounded by colonies and allied space. The orbital and ground batteries, much like the fleet always kept in orbit, were simply precautions. Their use was never expected. An enemy that dared to strike at the heart of humanity would have to fight their way through all of the colonies to even be able to strike safely. Thus, when the Confederate fleet ventured to the Engi homeworlds, they had left only a skeleton defense in place.

 

And yet the Mantis had come. Their red hulls filled the skies in vast numbers, raining plasma and laser-fire upon the unsuspecting defenders. The assault had been as without warning as it was merciless. The insectoid race had always been somewhat hostile, but no average crewmen ever thought that they would, or could, attack en masse. Not here. Not in Sol System. Not Earth. Yet here they were, threatening everything precious to them, every person, every place they held dear.

 

It didn’t sink in the same way for them all, nor at the same pace. They continued their journey towards the mess hall in silence, too overwhelmed for conversation. Even if they weren’t, what would they take about? The battle? The families back home, the ones under threat? Every topic lead back to the single, inescapable fact that for the first time in decades, they were at war. This was no skirmish, no group of raiders. This wasn’t even the trouble that had once brewed in the colonies. This was war, war against an enemy unprovoked. A foe that loomed above the birthplace of their civilization. It felt in every way a violation, a blasphemy against what was rightful in the world. Yet it was reality.

 

“It’s chaos out there.” Lieutenant Reid broke the silence first, her voice quiet and weak. The officer was doing her best to maintain a calm demeanor, but there were cracks in the facade, chinks in her attempt at a wall. Neither of her crewmates contradicted her; they knew it was true. Even if they didn’t, there was no contradicting her. Each of them, Daniels and Layton, they saw what immediately pertained to the Archangel. They saw threats and they responded. It was as simple as that, a fast-paced, ever-changing world of short term problems. But Reid, she saw everything. It was her job. As the Sensory Officer, she sifted through the bulk data, the inherent truth of everything around them, and relayed it. She saw everything in the big picture, in hard numbers. Whenever a ship went down, she knew. She saw the casualty figures. She was forced to bear witness to it all, and condense it down to the absolute necessities.

 

“We’re winning. Thank the Lord, we’re winning.” She continued, staring straight in front of her as she walked. “But it’s not clean. There are too many of them. They’re whittling us down, slowly but surely. It doesn’t matter how many they lose, as long as they take us with them.”

 

“Kassandra,” Layton began, breaking his own silence, voice tight. “It’s not productive to dwell on that. The Colonel ordered us to rest.”

 

“We’re all thinking it.” The third voice chimed in, deathly quiet. “We’re all wondering if we’re winning, or if we can win. There’s almost two hundred of them, Mark. There are th- No. Not even that. There’s less than thirty of us left. How long do you think we’ll have to hold out?”

“A week for the main fleet to get back.” Kassandra stated, returning to the conversation, a new note of despair entering into her voice, as if matching the growing mood. As much as they wanted to avoid it, it was true; They were all thinking about it. What else was there to think about? “I doubt they even realize we’re in trouble. Not yet. The General, he sent a message out. Trying to get us reinforcements, but-”

“But the colonies are under attack too.” Layton finished, a hint of anger creeping into his voice, despite his efforts to keep his voice under ironclad control. It was clear that he was tense, even more than his teammates. “Is there anywhere that isn’t under attack?”

 

“To my knowledge? No.” The Sensory Officer’s reply was taut with barely a barely contained cocktail of emotions, a mix of hopelessness and anger rolled together. Like the Navigation Officer, her anger wasn’t really targeted at anyone in particular; it was an anger born of desperation, a rage against the heavens at the lot they’d been left with. “The colonies are being attacked. We’re being attacked. For all I know, everywhere is.”

Their progress had halted, now at a standstill in a relatively unoccupied hallway. Rather than the grouping they’d been walking in, they had unconsciously formed a rough triangle, the better to see each other. The group quieted for a moment after Reid’s proclamation, until the Weapons Officer spoke once more.

 

“... Let’s all calm down, alright? We’re tired. We’re stressed. This isn’t resting, this is just making things worse. Kassandra, you said it yourself; We’re winning. It’s hard, and it’s not going to be short, but we’re winning.” He tried to force an upbeat smile, but it really just came out as a tired grimace. “Dwelling on what might be isn’t going to help us.”

 

“You’re right, Will.” The Navigation Officer said, beginning to brighten a little. After a moment, the flicker of a smile grew, albeit tiredly. “Yeah, you’re right. I mean, the Mantis came and messed with us on our turf. Caught us with our pants down, they did, and they’re still getting their insectoid ****es handed to them on a platter! I mean, really. Reid, you’ve seen it. How many’ve we taken down again?”

 

“... Around twenty percent of their initial forces.” The Sensory Officer admitted, looking a little more optimistic, though she still seemed unconvinced.

 

“That’s right, twenty percent. Almost forty ships. That’s more than we have to our name. They attacked us, and we’re winning!” Layton actually laughed a little, looking more like his usual self, despite the fatigue. His mood was clearly infectious, as even Kassandra gave a faint smile at the thought.

 

“We’re winning, so let’s all stop moping, get some absolutely terrible rations, get some rest, and get back to kicking Mantis tail come morning.”


Edited by Simon the Digger, Jul 12 2014 - 11:18 PM.

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Red Skies, an FTL Prequel (Updated 7/13)





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