Thuva watched the Gallor-Tal carefully. The system ahead of them was a simple looking one, and sensors had not detected anything out of the ordinary, other than the object, which had attracted their attention in the first place of course.
"What do you see, Thuva?"
"Lord, I see a Tiri Imperial Sensor Platform."
"Indeed, Thuva, and what does that tell you?"
"We are getting closer."
Lortal smiled, as Thuva carefully kept her eyes downcast. Looking the Gallor-Tal in the eye was an easy way to become a sacrificial dinner.
"I agree, Thuva, we are getting closer. There have been sensor platforms in the last three systems. At long last we will place the last of them under the yoke."
The Gallor-Tal examined his subdued second in command critically. She had always been subdued, and he detected a note of almost sadness in her voice. His optical implant finished relaying the last of the warp gate formations, as the last few ships slid into formation. It was one of the largest Bak'ra fleets ever assembled, and Lortal felt a surge of pride that he had been chosen to lead it.
"You sound almost sad, Thuva."
She chose her words with infinite care. A slip here would as surely end her life as stepping into a fusion reactor.
"I will miss the hunt, My Lord. Once the Tiri are finished, who else shall we have to conquer?"
"There will always be someone else, Thuva. Always."
"There they are, Angwar. Right on schedule."
The command deck of the Guardian-class ship, North Star was eerily silent. Every one of her officers were watching the display screen that was set above the tactical holo tank. The horde of small red dots in the tank showed them more information than the display screen could, but somehow it seemed more real to see those ships on the display. It certainly seemed to mean more than a red dot with an ID code attached to it.
"How many do you think there are, Ma'am?"
That was her helmsman, a young man from Georgia if she remembered correctly. This was his first trip outside of the solar system, although the Tiri had recruited him long before they had made their presence known.
"A tad over four thousand of them, Nick."
The command deck, if anything, grew quieter.
"More than we expected, Emie."
The First Guardian shared a brief look of concern with her Provost before answering him. Making certain that her answer was loud enough to be heard by her other officers.
"Remember, our job is to lure them into following us. We're not attacking them directly. Besides, they don't have Guardians."
her best to sound absolutely certain that they would succeed. Judging by the
slight, but noticeable, lessening of tension on the deck, she'd succeeded.
There were though, as Angwar had put it, a LOT of Bak'ra ships out there.
More than she'd expected except in her worst-case scenarios.
Four thousand of them, counting the ships that were what she'd call destroyer-sized and up, that wasn't even counting the fighters. The largest ship out there was just under four kilometers long, a full kilometer shorter than a Guardian-class ship. The Bak'ra had never cared much about size. To them, sheer numbers matter. This better work, or we're going to be in a hell of a lot of trouble.
"Sensors, any sign that they've detected us yet?"
"No, Ma'am, they are continuing on their original course."
She knew that of course, but it was best to follow protocol. People who knew what set conditions they could expect were people who could deal with stress better. Besides, keeping track of everything else on top of sensors was taxing for even the First Guardian.
The Expeditionary force, as the twenty-one Guardian ships, and three Heavy Cruises were almost jokingly called, had been in position for nearly a day before the Bak'ra fleet showed up. She wished she had more Guardians with her, desperately, but no use wishing for what she couldn't have. These were it, the only Guardians who had survived the evacuation from Tiri Prime. There would have been twenty-two of us if that fucking lunatic Larac hadn't gone insane.
Even that though was just a passing thought, upon which she didn't dwell for long.
Thank the Maker that I could at least fill our Fighter bays.
For the plan to work she couldn't let the enemy see any of the new capital ships that they'd built in Mars and Earth orbit. That didn't mean she couldn't fill up on fighters though. The Bak'ra would expect her to have at least gotten that much accomplished in her time on Earth. The same went with the full crew compliments.
Julie, I hope you're staying out of trouble, babe, cause I'm bringing enough home with me.
"Ma'am, I think they've finished their sweep of the system. The main elements are still on course, but their scouts are pulling back towards the main group of ships."
A quick look through her own sensors, and Emily nodded. That had taken them less time than she had thought it would. They must only be doing a cursory scout of each of the systems. They know we're out here somewhere and they'll know it when they find us.
The First Guardian's smile had nothing at all to do with happiness, and her Provost tried to suppress an urge to step away from her.
This time, we're waiting for you though. Come here, Kitty, Mama's got a big surprise for you.
The Bak'ra, if nothing else, were at least quite methodical.
"Com, tight beam communiqué to all ships. Make certain everyone understands that we go on my order, not a second sooner. All ships to battle stations."
Emily touched the small control panel on the side of her command couch. It was one of the few physical controls that the couch possessed. The shrill battle alarm snarled to life throughout North Star followed only moments later by the other Imperial vessels.
"Alright people, you all know what to do. Keep your cool, remember what you've been taught and you'll do fine."
The majority of her command crew was new, she'd had to promote anyone she could to captain the auxiliary ships, which had been commissioned. The fact that she knew it had been necessary didn't mean she had to like it. No one liked to go into battle with a mostly untried crew.
"You know, I really wish we had our old team here."
Emily smiled in return and winked at her Provost. Angwar was a good man, and she was glad she had him as a friend. Pitching her voice low enough so that only he would hear her, she nodded slightly.
"I know exactly what you mean."
He snorted and went back to his station, making certain that his crash harness was tight. Not that the harness or the fleet vac suites that they all wore would save them from a direct hit, but it would save them if all that happened was a loss of pressure.
"Guns, we'll want to engage the moment they enter our powered missile envelope. Rowen, the second we do, I want full acceleration away from here."
Her Chief Engineer and head of tactical had heard it all before with the rest of her command staff, but it didn't hurt to make certain they understood. It was going to be close, very close. It was important that the Bak'ra follow them on the path that Emily had decided upon. Otherwise they'd have little, if any, clue as to where the Bak'ra would attack from when they reached Sol.
"Ma'am, all Guardians report ready status for phase one."
The First Guardian nodded absently in acknowledgement. She was sinking deeper into her ship bond, letting her mind become one with North Star. Battle conditions were always tricky. Go too deep into the bond, and damage to the ship during battle could put a Guardian into shock. Not deep enough and the Guardian wouldn't have enough control of her ship self.
Emily closed her eyes and watched through her sensors. Dear Maker, there are a lot of them. The force heading towards her was an order of magnitude larger than the one she had brought with her.
"Stand ready, Guns."
The bridge was silent with tension; she could feel the single-minded dedication every one of her command staff was displaying. There was an imaginary sphere extending eight hundred thousand kilometers around the group of Guardians. Inside of that sphere any missiles that she fired would still be active and under power. Outside of it, a missile could still be used, but they would be traveling on built up momentum alone. She wanted to catch the Bak'ra force just as it crossed that envelope. If she waited longer the missiles would have a shorter flight time, increasing the chances of catching the Bak'ra unaware, but that would mean her force would be that much closer to the Bak'ra fleet.
Above all else her ships had to survive to draw the Bak'ra out.
The leading elements of the Bak'ra fleet crossed the imaginary sphere.
"Guns, fire plan Alpha. All ships commence firing."
Twenty-one Guardian ships, and three Heavy Cruisers fired as one. The ships had their broadsides towards the oncoming fleet, and each of the Guardians had forty missile tubes per broadside. It took time to reload those tubes, and while they were reloading, the ships spun on their central axis, flipping over to bring the other broadside to bear. Another forty missiles per ship launched five seconds after the first salvo had cleared the tubes.
That was it though; North Star and the others were accelerating even as they flipped to fire the second salvo. Emily watched in satisfaction as the Tiri Guardians began desperately accelerating away from the fleet they had just launched an attack against.
"Angwar, make certain all ships get good sensor records of the Bak'ra response."
The warp gate missiles themselves Emily watched speed towards their targets. Each of those missiles weighed in at slightly more than thirty metric tons. They were big; they had to be to fit in everything that they needed. Their powerful plasma drives accelerated the missiles so quickly that any human on them would have been turned to jelly. Even at the speeds they obtained, a fraction of light speed towards the end of their powered flight, it took the missiles several minutes to reach the Bak'ra fleet.
Time which the Bak'ra put to good use. Emily's lips curled slightly as she watched the fleet's formation shift. No one ever said that the enemy had to be stupid, even if I wish they were. The Bak'ra fleet changed formation, drawing closer together, interlocking there anti missile fields of fire.
Still they'd been caught by surprise; a missile launch, which must have seemed to come out of nowhere before they spotted the Tiri Guardian ships. Even as the Tiri sped away, Emily watched what happened behind them through her sensors. They had fired over seventeen hundred missiles in six seconds. All of those missiles had been targeted at just a handful of ships in the Bak'ra formation.
"There, see it, Angwar? They didn't quite pull their formation together fast enough."
Emily brushed a stray lock of black hair back out of her face and smiled savagely as the first of the missiles closed in. It could be seen on the holo tank of course, but Emily had a much better view through her ship self's sensors. Either way, it was obvious what was happening behind them.
Counter missiles raced from the Bak'ra fleet, trying to destroy the incoming missiles. Dozens of the Tiri missiles, then hundreds, were blown apart before they got into range to attack. If the Bak'ra formation had been complete Emily was certain few of her missiles would have gotten through. But it wasn't.
Her smile widened as one, then a half dozen, then even more of the missiles they had fired made it into range. A warp gate missile had to get within five kilometers to attack. Once within that range though, the small fusion bottle contained in it's middle would spin up to maximum power. The warp gate generator in the missile was powered up and formed, for a brief second, an unstable warp gate. It didn't last long; it didn't have to, not to do what it had been designed to.
The warp gate would tear apart anything that it encountered when it was formed. The gravitic drives all capital ships employed formed a shield ahead of the bow and behind the stern of the ships. The twin gravitic discs, which "pulled" and "pushed" the ship through space were powerful enough to shield the ship from frontal and rear attacks. They didn't stop attacks on the broadsides of the ship though. That was were the missiles tried to hit, some failed of course and hit the gravitic disks, but many more succeeded.
All told, Emily watched eighty-one missiles make it through everything the Bak'ra could throw at them. Those missiles hit only four separate targets, exploding mere kilometers from the flanks of the large ships they had targeted.
Three ships became the hearts of blazing explosions as their fusion power plants exploded. The fourth tumbled out of formation, its power systems failing, its hull shattered.
A cheer went up from the bridge and Emily eased out of her ship bond smiling faintly as her command crew cheered. The sound was echoed across the other decks and on the other ships. The first blow had been struck.
"We got them, Ma'am."
She kept her voice quiet as she answered her Provost, her attention returning to the holo tank. The Bak'ra fleet was shifting its course, trying to chase after the Tiri ships. They had no hope of catching the Guardians before they opened warp gates and fled from the system, starting the five-jump sequence that would take them to the Solar System.
"We only got four of them, Angwar. Four ships out of four thousand. It's barely a bloody nose."
Julie yawned and groggily rolled up out of bed. It was early still, only 0500, five in the morning, ship time. She didn't have to be up for another two or three hours, but she was having trouble sleeping these days.
It had been two weeks since the Expeditionary force had set off from Sol. They hadn't been in contact since the moment that North Star and her brothers and sisters had passed through the sensor sphere. They couldn't risk a stray signal finding its way to the Bak'ra, especially the closer that the Expeditionary force got to its intended interception of the Bak'ra.
If they managed to intercept the Bak'ra that is.
Julie forced that thought from her mind. Her dreams were filled with a nameless dread.
"Come back to me, Emie, I miss you."
The dark quarters were silent and she sighed, getting up and putting on a robe against an imaginary chill in the air. It only took her a small brush with her ship bond to call up her quarter's lights, and make certain that they were still on course.
Two hours until we reach the coordinates.
Julie sighed and ran a hand through her short, red hair. She'd been getting less than five hours sleep every night since the Expeditionary force had set out. She didn't think any of them had been getting much sleep since then.
Ok, shower and then breakfast. Then I can go up to the Command Deck see how things are shaping up and maybe swing by Marine Country on my way. Make certain God has everything she needs.
The trick, Julie had realized, was to keep her mind occupied. To keep sorting through her sensor logs, to go through everything she had learned about Southern Cross and then go through it again. Even paperwork served to keep her from thinking too much about Emily. Even when she was working though, she'd be ambushed by memories of the First Guardian.
Night was the worst though. Then, laying in her bed, staring up at the platting above the bed, she had nothing to occupy her mind and it ran wild. Not knowing what was going on was hell. Julie wished she had something, anything to let her know that Emie was all right.
Come back to me, Emie, come back soon.
It had become her mantra these past few days, one that she repeated often.
An hour later she made her way down into what had become known as Marine Country, near the foreward docking bays. Julie found Katya sparring in one of Southern Cross's rec rooms.
Wincing, the human Guardian took a seat and watched Katya finish beating up a rather large Marine with a particularly vicious kick/punch combo. God helped the other Marine up and laughed, pounding him on the back before heading towards where Julie was.
"Marines are weird."
God smiled and wiped her face with a towel as she left the sparing mat and headed towards the Guardian.
"Oh really, Julie, and why is that? Your Honor Guard knows you think they're weird?"
Julie ignored the second question, since she was quite certain that her Honor Guard thought she was insane.
"You beat each other up and then walk away friends."
The Russian laughed and took up a bottle of water, drinking from it before answering.
"Why's that so weird?"
"God, I don't particularly like people who beat me up."
"Oh come on, Julie, you went through basic and did self defense right?"
"That's different. I did that because I had to, you do it because you guys like it!"
They both smiled at that, and Katya wiggled her eyebrows.
"What can I say, I like pain?"
"Does Winston know that?"
Julie watched her friend carefully, wondering if the two of them had managed to sort out their differences yet. Considering the laugh that got, she wasn't really certain until Katya took a seat on the bench next to her and started unstrapping her gloves and helmet.
"That's your subtle way of asking if we're back together isn't it? Well we are, we fixed things, mostly anyway. Figured it would be best, you know, just incase something happened."
The smile faded and Julie nodded. A lot of people had been doing that. Small differences just didn't seem too important when you knew you might be dead soon.
"I came down to see if you needed anything else?"
Katya shook her head, standing as Julie did.
"Nope, we got the engines on the Drop Ship working, so we're back up to full compliment. If we need to, I can drop my entire Sword in one shot."
"Good, I hope we don't have to, but you never know."
The two wandered down the corridor, passing more training rooms and the firing range. Past two machine shops where Jump Troops were doing alterations on their Hard Suits.
"At least your people are keeping busy, Katya."
"We've got a lot to do to finish prepping. You wouldn't believe the number of glitches in the new equipment. We'll work it out though."
"Lovely, just lovely. Just don't put a hole in the side of my ship self ok?"
"Oh come on, American, would I do that?"
Julie laughed and headed towards the lift, leaving Katya at her quarters.
"Don't make me answer that, Katya, you don't want my answer!"
The Command Deck, when she reached it, was just coming off Delta shift. Returning the salutes of the on duty Marine guards, she smiled as she stepped inside. Her own Honor Guard remaining at the entrance.
"Guardian on deck!"
The crew on duty stood as she entered, until she waved them back down. It was still odd to realize that she was in direct command of all the thousands of crewmembers who were onboard Southern Cross. Odd and a bit-disconcerting if she thought about it for too long.
"As you were. Helm, time to the sensor sphere?"
"Our ETA is twenty three minutes, Ma'am."
Clarice showed up five minutes later. It didn't escape Julie that her Provost showed up on the same lift as her Chief Engineer. Lieutenant Sanders, if Julie wasn't mistaken, had been laughing. Something that she hadn't known the tall blond to do often since she'd met her. Julie raised an eyebrow as Clarice jauntily crossed the command deck towards her command station.
"You seem to be in a good mood today."
"I had a very nice breakfast."
Julie grinned and waited. The ex-Marine looked slightly uncomfortable but stared back almost defiantly.
"Should I even ask who you ate said breakfast with?"
Her Provost's eyes flicked towards the engineering station and Julie chuckled. Clarice stiffened and her features stiffened.
"Is there a problem, Guardian?"
"Dear God, of course not, Clarice. You do remember who it is that I'm dating right? Just don't let it interfere with your duties, Clarice."
Her Provost's body relaxed at that and she smiled.
"Thank you, Julie. I like her. I don't think she's ready for a relationship, but it's nice to have her as a friend."
"Well, good luck."
"Thanks, Ma'am, I think I'm going to need it."
"I think both of us are going to need that luck to get out of this one."
Julie settled down into her couch and let her connection with her ship self deepen just enough so that she could take over helm control.
"Here we go, time to cross the sensor sphere. Mr. Weber relay the status of Home Fleet to Mars and Earth. Inform them that we will be going to silent running in two minutes."
The newly arrived Com officer nodded and set about sending the signal before they passed through the sensor sphere.
"It's amazing, Clarice, they built this sphere of sensor stations without us ever knowing about it."
"It took them a long time to do it, Ma'am. I expect we'll be needing it pretty soon."
"I fear you're right on that one, Clarice. Make certain all stations are secured for silent running. We'll take up position just outside the sphere and wait for the Expeditionary Fleet."
The sensor sphere was made up of thousands of unmanned sensor platforms that the Tiri had placed in a sphere pattern that loosely enclosed everything inside of Mars orbit. Most of the sensor platforms themselves were hidden inside of the asteroid belt. It was with those sensors that the Tiri had prevented any of the human television and radio broadcasts from the last half-century from escaping the Solar System and potentially leading the Bak'ra to Earth.
It also was the largest linked sensor array ever constructed in the history of both worlds.
The plan called for the newly named Home Fleet, which composed of the hundred and ten human Guardian ships, and their support ships, to assemble for the ambush just outside of that sphere.
That was if Emily managed to lead the Bak'ra on the right course back to Earth.
"Don't worry, Ma'am, the First Guardian is very capable."
Julie looked up at her Provost in surprise. She hadn't known that her feelings had shown so clearly on her face.
"I know that, Clarice. It's just"
She shrugged, how could she explain it to her Provost if she couldn't even explain it to herself?
"You worry about her. I understand, Ma'am. She'll come back though, don't worry."
"I miss her, Clarice. I miss her."
"Gallor-Tal, I don't understand what they are doing."
"Is it not obvious, Thuva? They are fleeing before us."
Thuva didn't quite think it was that obvious, but who was she to disagree with Lortal. Out right disagreement with the Gallor-Tal was not a good way to further one's carrier, or life expectancy for that matter.
"Perhaps that is not the only thing they are doing, Lord?"
The Gallor-Tal sighed, and finished chewing. His tone when he continued was the type one used when dealing with a particularly slow child.
"Thuva, I know that sometimes you have problems with tactics, but they are fleeing. They will attempt to distract us with those feints they continue to do, but eventually we will find their home system."
Thuva hesitated, taking a sip of her own soup before trying to phrase her next question.
"Does it not seem a bit too simple?"
"Thuva. Have we not driven the Tiri from their system and killed nearly all of their Guardians."
She hesitated at that, knowing where this was headed. Thuva had heard it twice now since the chase after the fleeing Tiri Guardians had commenced.
"Have we not captured everything that was once theirs?"
"Then tell me, Thuva, what difference does it make? In the end we will take care of them as we have all of the others. Is that all?"
His tone implied rather bad things if she continued with her current line of conversation; the results would be unpleasant.
If she did not seem as certain as Lortal, he chose to ignore it. She was young after all; this was her first battle against the Tiri. She would learn soon enough that now the outcome was inevitable. The Tiri were homeless and they could not have done anything significant with the small number of them who escaped.
It never even occurred to him that they might have found allies.
Emily's mind burned with pain. Licking dry lips she forced her eyes to focus. Five jumps in the past two days had pushed her and her fellow Guardians to the limit. Flesh and machines were simply not designed to take the kind of stress she was forcing them to endure. It was a small miracle that everyone had managed to keep up so far.
Angwar and Dr. Miato, North Star's chief medic, were waiting for her when she came out of her bond. The hypo in his hand hissed as he pressed it to her neck.
"You can not keep doing this, First Guardian."
Emily took a deep breath as the command deck stopped spinning. Whatever he had given her stopped the pounding in her head as well.
"There is no other option, Doctor."
She ignored the worried looks from both of them as she swung her legs up over the side of the couch and managed to get into a sitting position.
"How are the others holding together?"
"Nicholas reports a fluctuation in his gravitic drive system after the last warp gate, but nothing serious. He says his speed has not been compromised."
The First Guardian wearily accepted the report that her Provost silently offered her. She scanned it and nodded, she already knew what was contained on the data pad.
"Good, make certain that the fleet continues at maximum acceleration until all ships are ready to form warp gates again."
Dr. Miato glared at her and she hid a sigh as he instantly objected.
"First Guardian that is simply not acceptable. That will only give you thirty-five minutes rest at most! You may not believe me, but forming warp gates is not an easy maneuver and is placing considerable stress on your body, both of them! Guardian Mira nearly suffered a stroke during this last warp gate. "
Emily ground her teeth and swung back towards the doctor, the glare in her eyes forcing him back a step.
"Believe me, Doctor, I understand the stresses involved. There is no other option though. By the Maker, we WILL continue on our course until we reach Earth, is that understood?"
Miato looked from the First Guardian to her Provost. He had the power to overrule her if it came down to it, on a medical basis. He'd need the Provost's help to do so though. Her Provost simply shook his head slightly though in response to the doctor's questioning look. The First Guardian did not miss the exchange and took a step towards the doctor.
"Doctor, I asked you, is that Understood?"
"Yes, First Guardian. I want the record to show that this goes against my recommendations though."
Her voice was a snarl when she answered.
"Acknowledged. Now is there anything else?"
"Make certain to come see me if there are any more headaches or blurred vision. I'll be back for your next warp gate."
With that he stalked off the command deck stiffly. Emily had to force herself not to snarl at his retreating back. Of course she understood the stresses involved! I understand perfectly. The pompous little twit can't really understand what it takes to form a warp gate. No one who isn't a Guardian can.
Her tactical officer looked up from his readings and cleared his throat.
"Ma'am, I've got multiple warp gate formations behind us."
"Five million clicks."
That was well outside of missile range, but it was closer than the Bak'ra had come out last time. They were catching up, slowly, but they were catching up.
"At this rate they'll catch up to us in another four jumps."
Emily smiled without any humor at her Provost and cautiously started to make her way towards her ready room. It would help if she could get some fluids into her before they had to make another jump.
"Good thing our next jump will bring us to Sol then, isn't it?"
She hoped everything was going to be all right when they returned. The Expeditionary Fleet had been gone for nearly three weeks now. They'd waited for the Bak'ra for two weeks before they had showed up in the system that Emily had decided to intercept them in. Then it had been a frantic pursuit across space, leapfrogging their way ever closer towards Earth. The Bak'ra only a step or two behind, always drawing closer with each jump, eventually they would catch up to the fleeing Tiri. Thankfully, they'd be at Earth long before then.
"I'll be back out before we have to warp gate again. Pass the word that when we do, we have to make positive that the Bak'ra are within a million kilometers from us. We want them to be occupied with destroying us when we reach Earth."
"Yes, First Guardian."
The command deck was silent when the doors slid shut behind the First Guardian. Angwar watched those doors with a worried frown before taking his station. No one had ever done so many jumps in so short a period of time. He'd heard that the other Guardians were not holding up as well as the First Guardian. He hoped that the Expeditionary Force would survive to reach Sol intact.
Southern Cross hung in the darkness of space. Her hundred and nine brothers and sisters hung besides her. Between them, huddled around the larger Guardian ships like children, were the cruisers and destroyers. Once in a while, a squadron of fighters would cautiously move further out of the system on a scouting run then hurriedly they would return to their mother ships.
Their only connection with Earth and Mars were the cargo ships, which came and went every day. The large cargo ships would slip through the sensor net, coasting and silent. Unload their cargo of perishables, food, spare parts, and more recently graduated recruits. Then they would turn around, slide back through the net, and power up for the voyage back to Mars or even Luna.
For a week that was the routine. The newly formed human Home Fleet stayed silent. Everything that was non-essential was powered down as all of the ships did their best to imitate a hole in space.
Julie hoped it wouldn't last much longer. With their fusion power plants on standby, none of the ships could power up their gravitic drives, even if they wanted to. The human watched as a passing Ensign misjudged his trajectory and hit a bulkhead instead of going out the hatch. He grinned sheepishly at her stare and used his magnetic boots instead of floating.
No gravitic drives, no gravity on the ships. God, I really didn't want to learn all the fun that being without gravity meant. Taking a shower, or going to the bathroom for that matter, is really annoying.
Annoying wasn't quite the word she'd been searching for. Impossible worked well for taking a shower, and aggravating worked even better for going to the bathroom. There were just some things that were never meant to be done in Zero-G.
A week in Zero-G was starting to affect everyone, despite her Chief Medical Officer's best efforts. The body, as all astronauts had learned, was never meant to function without the constant pull of gravity. Muscles weekend, bone mass was lost. In some cases it became serious enough that people could hardly function at all when they returned to a normal gravity. Those however were the long-term effects; it was the short term Julie was worried about.
"Ma'am, we've had two more incidents."
At least, Julie hoped she wasn't going to have to worry about the long-term effects. Emie, where are you?
"What happened now, Clarice?"
"A weapons tech on deck five caused an airlock to cycle accidentally. He nearly caused a depressurization of the entire section. An engineer in life support vented twenty five liters of water before she could correct the mistake."
None of which were that worrisome on their own, but what would happen in battle?
"Thank you, Clarice. Alert the doctor that the amount of perception errors seems to be increasing."
As we knew they would.
Errors in perception were just one in a long string of things that started to happen. Back pains were another, as the disks between the vertebral columns expanded. Julie had actually managed to grow something like four centimeters.
Which is pretty much the only good point so far.
There were similar reports from the other ships; she'd read them all. A week was the longest that they had thought about spending time in what the Tiri called silent running'. Not particularly different from what the American and Russian subs used to do. Try to pretend nothing at all was there, and wait; lots of waiting.
Which gave her lots of time for thinking.
I miss touching her, tasting her. I miss holding her and just talking to her, even if she doesn't answer.
Julie stopped the next sigh before she could manage to sound like she was bored out of her mind. Which she was of course. Settling down into the couch, she had to use the shock straps to keep her actually on the couch itself, she let her mind wander. Replaying images of fine, dark hair, and piercing blue eyes; the sound of a voice that commanded thousands, even millions, but could make her shiver just with a word.
What will life be like if we survive this?
It was something she'd been wondering about more and more these past few days. What would happen if they actually won? Emily would stay as First Guardian, and what would that mean for Julie? She didn't bother trying to think about what would happen if Emie died and she survived. It wouldn't be living then, she was certain of that, it would just be existing.
Will we always be apart? Will I be going somewhere while she stays and deals with her responsibilities of being First Guardian? I don't think I can let her out of my sight after this stupid stunt of hers.
"Ma'am, I've got something on sensors."
Julie's eyes snapped open at that and she leaned over to get a good look at her sensor officer.
"What is it?"
"CIC is calling it multiple warp gate formations."
The tension, which had started to ease on the command deck over the past few days, ratcheted back up to record levels.
Another reason for Home Fleet's position, other than the cover that the sensor net gave to the constant stream of cargo ships, was its location near the OK limit. Inside of the limit warp gates could still be formed, but they could only be used to traverse "short" distances of a few light minutes. Anything greater and the Guardian ran the risk of the warp gate collapsing on her. Beyond the limit, the jump gates could be formed to cover much greater ranges.
"Ten million kilometers, on heading one five, mark two zero."
Everyone held their breaths as they waited. Julie strained, trying to force her ship self's sensors to read what was going on. It took what felt like an eternity for what was happening ten million kilometers away to reach them.
When it did, Julie nearly sobbed out loud in relief.
North Star slid through the first of the warp gates. The rest of the Expeditionary Fleet was right beside her, as the entire fleet jumped at the same time. Forming so many warp gates so close to one another at the same time was dangerous, but the Tiri Guardians managed it.
The formation of the warp gates lit up on their sensors like the birth of a star. Brilliant against the cold nothingness of space, and glowing just as warmly, to her sensors at least. It was beautiful, and no one who was not a Guardian could have appreciated the dance of gravity waves required for its formation. North Star was there, that was all she cared about for the moment though.
Thank you, thank you, Emie's back.
A second after the readings reached her sensors, she picked up the warp gates opening behind the Expeditionary Fleet. If the formation of the warp gates that signaled the arrival of Emily and the other Tiri Guardians was the birth of a star, these were its death.
Thousands of warp gates opening in a staggered formation, a bare four hundred thousand kilometers behind the Expeditionary Force. They arrived one after the other, not jumping all at once like the Tiri had. There were simply so many of them that they couldn't. Even as Julie watched, two warp gates touched on formation, and the ships trying to transit through it were sheered in two. There were so many of them that Julie winced in almost physical pain at the "brightness".
Someone on the Command Deck prayed, quietly. She heard one or two muffled curses.
They'd known what was coming their way. But hearing about what was going to arrive and seeing it were two different things.
Julie licked suddenly dry lips. The urge to try and call out to Emily was nearly overpowering. She desperately wanted to send a signal to the other Guardian, ask if she was alright. To hear her voice again. Instead she focused on what was coming towards them behind the First Guardian.
"Mr. Webster, signal all ships, tight band laser transmission. Prepare for battle."
Thuva frowned at the tactical display. Something was wrong, and the young Gallor-Tal couldn't figure out what. The way the Tiri were fleeing before them, drawing the Bak'ra ever deeper into this system. Surely they would have stopped to defend it if this was the system they had chosen to colonize?
Yet, if they did, why were sensors not picking up anything from the inner planets? Had they not built any of those orbital forts they always seemed to prefer?
She held her objections until the systems asteroid belt, located between the fourth and fifth planets, came into view. The Tiri Fleet, small as it was, had just begun to come into missile range. The first salvo of missile fire sailed across the void. At this range it would be a miracle if either side scored a hit. The Bak'ra had the missiles to spare though. She wondered if the Tiri did.
"Lord, do you not find this strange?"
Lortal turned to study his young student then smiled, not a particularly reassuring expression on the Gallor-Tal's face.
"Thuva, they are attempting to get deeper into the system where they doubtless will attempt to use their warp gates to better advantage. It does not matter, they will not survive the coming battle."
It made sense, sort of. The Tiri warp gate generators were far more efficient than their Bak'ra counterparts. They could function deep inside of a star's gravity well, where as the Bak'ra couldn't. The Tiri could only open warp gates for short distances, but it was still an advantage.
One, which her Lord seemed to believe they sought to exploit.
"Lord, I have no doubt that is true, but should we not see some sign of defensive emplacements? Somewhere? Yet there is nothing before us."
"Thuva, they simply did not build any. Do not forget they must not have been here for more than sixty standard cycles."
Thuva licked her lips, trying to marshal her objections.
"Lord, I know that is not long for us, but these Tiri seem to progress so much faster. Do you not think they would have built at least a sensor platform? We should be seeing something at least. Perhaps we should pause here and send scouts ahead?"
She knew the last was a mistake the second she said it. Stopping in the pursuit of fleeing cattle was tantamount to suggesting that they were all cowards; unfit for the hunt that was underway. Thuva bowed her head as Lortal's right optic sensor extended slightly. Two of the engineered personal guards hunched slightly, their disruptor nozzles aimed towards her.
"Thuva, you are young, and that is the only reason I will not feast on your flesh tonight. You will take a Claw of ground troops and proceed to secure the fourth planet."
That planet didn't even have an atmosphere capable of supporting sentient life. At least none that the Bak'ra had ever come across, it was the third planet that showed the most promise from this far out. Accepting her banishment, Thuva bowed and walked backwards away from her Lord.
She was lucky to be alive.
Julie bit her lower lip, watching the plot ahead of her intently. The Expeditionary Fleet was twenty minutes away and behind them, in missile range. The two fleets, if one could call them that, were beginning to exchange missile fire. For every missile that the Guardians sent back towards their pursuers, nearly forty would answer them.
It wasn't quite as hopeless as the numbers suggested though. Julie knew that Tiri technology was more advanced than the Bak'ra in electronic counter measures and missile technology. Still, she winced as missiles began to slip through the counter fire and detonate near the oncoming Guardians.
Clarice looked up from her station and answered, her voice steady and professional.
"Two million kilometers, Guardian."
Soon the Guardians would arch up "over" the waiting Home Fleet, and it would be their turn.
"Any sign they've spotted us or the sensor sphere?"
Julie knew that of course, but she'd learned from watching Emily that the best way to keep people from freezing up was to keep them occupied. There was no way she could handle all of Southern Cross's systems in the coming battle, but she could direct them. Her crew would have to make certain those systems kept working though.
"Ma'am! I've got ships breaking off from the Bak'ra fleet."
Julie had spotted it at the same moment as her sensor officer had. Through her ship self's sensors she watched as a handful of what looked like planetary assault ships broke away from the oncoming fleet.
Now where do you think you're going?
It was the work of a moment to plot their new course and project it onto the tactical holo tank.
Julie nodded in agreement with her Provost and watched the dotted lines of the projected course intercept the red planet's orbit. So, they'd decided to go ahead and land troops before the actual space battle even took place. That was a bit arrogant.
"Mr. Webster, com the other ships. Tell the stand by Marine forces to launch now. Stealth protocol until they're past the sensor sphere and then burn all the way to Mars. Clarice, tell Katya to go earn her pay check."
"You certain you want to do that? If the Bak'ra spot us"
"They're going to need our help on Mars, Clarice. The Bak'ra are far enough away that the Drop Ships should be able to slip out unnoticed under stealth protocol."
Her Provost didn't look happy, but she went and relayed the orders. Julie just hoped she knew what she was doing.
Emie, I could really use being able to speak to you right now. I don't know what I'm doing.
Emily raised an eyebrow towards her Provost and watched Angwar wince in apology.
"There was always a possibility that they'd be arrogant enough to launch a planetary assault before engaging us, Angwar."
Still she understood his feelings, since she wanted to scream as well. Since screaming and pouting on her Command Deck just before a major battle didn't tend to work well, she stayed as calm as she could. Still her armrests creaked as she clutched them.
Julie, please launch your ready Marines. There must be something like a half million Bak'ra on those assault ships. Mars is going to need all the help we can send them.
"Helm, time until course change?"
"Fifteen minutes, Ma'am."
There was nothing that she could do now, so she concentrated on the holo tank and her link to her ship self. The Bak'ra had emerged closer than she had anticipated. They were still towards the edge of the missile envelope, but not by as much as she would have wished. More and more missiles were starting to make it closer to the fleeing Guardian ships.
Just a little bit longer, come on, just a little bit longer.
The Expeditionary Fleet had been incredibly lucky so far. Several ships had suffered minor damage; blown gravitic shield generators, minor damage to outer hull platting, that sort of thing, but nothing serious so far. The fleet had carefully kept at the edge of missile range for as long as they could. Still, the Bak'ra had closed the gap.
There wasn't much that the Expeditionary Fleet could do in the way of evasive maneuvers. Small shifts in course, hoping to force the Bak'ra to waste more missiles, but other than that, they depended on their counter missiles, and aft gravitic disks.
The sheer weight of Bak'ra fire was cutting the advantage that superior technology granted the Tiri. Even the still long range was not as much of a help as it could have been with that many missiles. It was only a matter of time.
The Medusa hurtled through space, writhing and dodging as much of the murderous fire as she could. The Type-Thirteen Variant Guardian ship was fully crewed, something that her Guardian appreciated a lot at the moment.
Nicholas was deep into his ship bond, coordinating the defenses with the other Guardians, when his world went insane.
A single warp gate missile had managed to slip past everything the Expeditionary Fleet could throw at it. Others made it through as well, but they detonated at the wrong angle, or wasted their energy on the thick drive disks. This one skimmed under the Heavy Cruiser, Ninia, and then detonated a mere kilometer away from Medusa's rear flank.
The missile's small fusion bottle drained itself in one massive burst, powering the small warp gate generator in the missile's nose. The unstable warp gate it created clawed at the Medusa's gravitic shields, like a dozen others at that moment.
This one slipped through.
A fluctuation, nothing more than a small power flux in the shield grid, and the generators "hiccupped", through that small gap the warp gate formed inside of Medusa. It was like a small black hole had opened in the ship itself.
Armored hull platting, meters thick, crumpled like tissue paper.
Decks twisted and shattered.
Compartments were ripped open and exposed to space.
Dozens of people died instantly, more were injured.
The warp gate opened almost directly on top of her aft engineering compartment.
Medusa's aft gravitic drive fluttered and died, exposing the entire rear of the ship to fire.
Nicholas screamed in agony as his ship self was torn. Decades of Guardian training allowed him to force his mind to work through the pain, shunting more power to the section. Trying desperately to reroute around the damage. Nothing; the aft disk remained dead. Without it, Medusa's acceleration was cut in half. Instead of being "pulled" and "pushed" through space, the ship was only being pulled now.
Alarm klaxons snarled throughout the Guardian ship. Despite the reigning confusion his Provost was by his side almost immediately.
Another missile slammed into the rear of the Medusa. Without the nearly impenetrable gravitic disk, she was a tempting target. He knew what was going to happen next.
"Sound general evacuation!"
Her eyes met his and he nodded slightly. The well-built woman licked her lips then nodded and passed on the order. Throughout the ship, crew raced for shuttles, fighters, escape pods. Anything that would get them off the suddenly sitting target.
"You should go, Sharra."
"My place is with you, Guardian."
"Nicholas, Sharra, my name is Nicholas, remember?"
He grinned at her, ignoring the blood running from his nose. For the first time since she'd become his Provost, since before the evacuation of Tiri Prime, Sharra smiled in return and nodded.
"Nicholas, then, what are your orders?"
"Get me North Star, Emily's going to want to speak with me."
Another missile and then a third hit, the Medusa was falling behind her sisters and brothers. Falling out of formation, a certain death sentence. He knew what Emily would want to do, and he also knew he couldn't let her.
The First Guardian stared at the holo tank as it showed what her sensors had already told her. She tasted bile as she silently desperately urged Medusa's gravitic drive to come back online. It didn't though, and she gritted her teeth. Battle chatter flowed around her, and she could clearly hear the relayed evacuation order. Shuttles and fighters began to launch, along with more and more escape pods, from the five-kilometer long Guardian ship.
More and more missiles were beginning to hit her friend's ship self. The Medusa simply couldn't keep up with the others, not with half her drives down. Emily could order the Expeditionary Fleet to slow their acceleration to match the Medusa of course. That would mean the Bak'ra would close on them that much faster though. There was a possibility though, if they used the tractor beams
None of the rapid-fire thoughts and possibilities showed on her face though, as she directed the com signal from Medusa on to the main display screen. The image was a bit fuzzy, but Nicholas's smile was still readily visible.
"Emie, I've got a bit of a problem."
"Hold on, Nicholas, I'm going to get a few of the others to tractor you and pull you along with us."
"You know it's too late for that. I'm falling behind too fast. I've ordered the evacuation of everyone I can, the shuttles and fighters should have enough acceleration to catch up with you. Those in the escape pods will just have to hope the Bak'ra miss them."
The First Guardian's eyes blazed at that and she sat upright.
"Nicholas, don't be stupid. We'll tag you and drag you along with us. Now just hold tight."
His smile, for once was sad and he took the hand of his Provost. Emily blinked as they laced their fingers together, and Shara actually smiled.
"It's been an honor serving with you, Emie."
"I'm sorry old friend. There's no other way, you know it."
Her sensors picked up another two missile hits. The entire aft kilometer and a half of Medusa was nothing more than a mangled piece of wreckage. The large Guardian ships were designed to take punishment, but this was above and beyond what they'd been expected to endure.
She swallowed against the sick feeling in the pit of her stomach and forced a small grin in return.
"I'll miss you."
"Give my love to Julie." The screen flickered and she saw a panel behind him explode. The image stabilized again, long enough for him to add, "listen to her, Emie, she's good for you." Then the image wavered and went dark.
She watched, silently raging, through her sensors as Medusa absorbed another missile hit. Her hull was shattered, her fusion generators ruined. The ship had simply taken too much. One moment she was there, the next her forward fusion plant went, and the ship turned into a small supernova.
Then, just like that, Nicholas was gone.
"Oh my God."
Someone, Julie wasn't sure who, whispered.
Every eye on the bridge was locked onto the main display as Medusa's final moments showed.
Julie thought about the people on board who were doubtlessly dead. The Guardian whom she'd met, and had made her laugh. Nicholas, he'd been in charge of the Tiri base near Australia.
If she'd been alone she would have thrown up. Cried, wailed and raged against the waste, the knowledge that more would die before this was over only added to that urge.
The small woman forced a shaky hand to run through her hair before speaking. Using the moment that action gave her to try and steady her voice. It was still wavering about the edges a bit, but steadier than she'd expected when she spoke.
"Time until Phase two commence?"
No one moved.
"Tactical, you heard the Guardian. Time until Phase two, and MOVE on it!"
Clarice's voice was a whiplash against the stunned confusion. People moved, jerked out of the moment, and Julie smiled shakily in thanks to her Provost.
Julie nodded and tried to clear her mind enough to sink deeper into the bond with her ship self.
It took her three tries.
"Webster, send the signal to the others. Tight beam, ready for Phase 2 on my mark only."
A part of her watched the looming Bak'ra fleet and hungered for revenge. An even larger part of her wished there was a way around it. Any way to avoid this senseless bloodshed and carnage, some of which she was going to cause.
"Marines are all away. It's even money as to whether they beat the Bak'ra to Mars or not though."
"At least they won't get through the sensor sphere before our little surprise, Clarice."
"I hope it works, Ma'am."
"You and me both, Clarice, you and me both."
She sank deeper into her ship bond, only half aware of her Provost moving away to take her own duty station as she did. The Imperial Fleet, which had seemed huge to her before, seemed like such a small thing compared to what was coming at them. Licking dry lips she watched missile after missile streak towards the oncoming Expeditionary Fleet. So few were thrown back at the Bak'ra, such a small number compared to what they were enduring.
"Expeditionary Fleet course change in ten seconds, Ma'am."
At least Tobias, her new Tactical officer, seemed to know what he was doing. Not like the last one.
"Mr. Webster, stand by to send the signal to the sensor sphere."
Last minute targeting changes were made on hundreds of Imperial ships.
Prayers were muttered, wishes to see loved ones again were wished.
Thousands wiped sweaty palms off on their uniforms, and thousands more wished they'd gone to the bathroom earlier.
A First Guardian, and the first human Guardian, each whispered that they loved the other at the same time.
"Send the signal, Mr. Webster."
On North Star, Emily issued orders, and the entire Expeditionary Fleet shifted course. They angled "upwards" at an angle of ten degrees from the course they had held so far. Each of the surviving ships was injured, some more than others, but they had held together through the incessant missile fire. A cold bloodthirsty smile formed on her lips.
On the Bak'ra command vessel, Lortal blinked. The Tiri Fleet, which was fleeing before him, had suddenly, after so long, shifted course. There was no reason for it, none at all. The course change would only allow his ships to close even closer onto theirs. Then the universe went mad.
The sensor sphere had not only been designed to keep Earth's radio emissions from seeping out into space, it had been designed to transmit and receive as well. Now it did the later. Hundreds of stations that were near where the hidden Home Fleet powered up and started transmitting at maximum power. Each of them projected a decoy sensor ghost. To the Bak'ra, hundreds of ships had just appeared in a wide arch of space above them. The sensor ghosts weren't that good, and the Bak'ra computers pierced the deception almost instantly.
In that one instant, the Home Fleet went from standby to active. Even as the Bak'ra computers were dealing with the flood of new information from the sensor ghosts, the human Guardians targeted and fired.
They'd had days to refine the firing plan, and an hour to carefully select targets. Those targets were only a few hundred thousand kilometers away now, and each of them was oblivious to their existence.
Emily's smile was savage as Phase Two swung into action.
"It's working, Angwar. By the Maker, it's working."
Her Provost shuddered at the battle lust in the First Guardian's voice, and mutely nodded in response. It was indeed working. As one, the Home Fleet opened fire with everything that they had. Missiles streaked out and detonated among ships that never even saw them coming. Plasma cannons fired at unprotected bellies.
What did the most damage though was the new gravitic weapons system each of the human Guardian ships carried.
"All hands brace for emergency deceleration!"
Southern Cross bucked and heaved as missiles struck around her. Her personal escorts, the two heavy cruisers and single destroyer did their best, but more and more energy weapons were hitting her shields. Still, that was nothing compared to what they'd just done.
A hundred and ten Guardian ships had opened fire as one. Their missiles and plasma cannons were only a sideshow though, compared to what the new gravitic weapons systems did. Each of the Guardians mounted one in their hammerhead-shaped bow, which was completely different than the smooth sleek bow of the Tiri Guardian ships.
The beams tore at the Bak'ra ships. Punching through the gravitic shielding on their flanks and into the ships themselves, then through the other side.
Julie tried not to think about what she was doing, not to focus on the lives she was ending.
The Home Fleet leapt forward, actually passing through the Bak'ra formation. In the years to come afterwards no one would be able to put together exactly what happened. Never before in Tiri history had two fleets actually physically passed through one another. The Home Fleet accelerated directly at the Bak'ra fleet, cutting a swath of dead and dying ships through it. Like a scalpel slicing through a large predator, they forced their way through the very center of the Bak'ra force. Right behind them were the ships of the Expeditionary Fleet, having reversed course.
They didn't escape unharmed, a dozen Guardian's died in the fight, but the combined fleet managed to break through the other side. Leaving a hole in the middle of the Bak'ra formation behind them. The two battered and nearly broken fleets raced away from each other. The Imperial fleet slowly decelerated then once more changed course and took up the chase, after what was left of the Bak'ra, speeding towards Earth.
We hurt them, Emie.
There was no way that they could leave their ship selves while still chasing the Bak'ra, but Julie really wished she could hold the taller woman right now.
I know, hon, I wish I could hold you too.
Earth ready for them?
Maybe, Julie, but even if we did hurt them, we didn't stop them.
Emie, we destroyed hundreds of ships!
Julie, they have the ships to spare, we don't.
The redhead sighed and snuggled a bit deeper into her ready room bed.
Will Earth hold until we can reach them?
They have about an hour lead on us now, love. We'll just have to hope that the orbital forts do their job. Once we get closer, we can try to warp gate to catch up a bit, but for now we'll just trail them and do what repairs we can.
Julie smiled as the feeling of love and warmth spread through the link between the two Guardians.
Any word from Katya yet, Emie?
Sorry, Julie, the last I heard they were going to be touching down on Mars the same time as the Bak'ra land assault force. We've done the best we can for them. We have to worry about Earth now.
Julie could feel her love's fear and worry about her father and brother who were on Mars. She said a quick prayer for them all, hoping that they would survive what was coming towards them.
The sensation of phantom lips brushing against hers brought a small moan of pleasure.
I need you.
A sense of longing so powerful it nearly hurt filled the link.
I need you too, Julie. Get some rest. We'll need it when we reach Earth.
Promise me I'll have the chance to show you how much I've missed you?
Oh, I can definitely promise you that Ms. McGrath.
The Drop Shuttle was crowded with a full Dagger, ten people, in hard suits along with the shuttle's normal crew. They'd had to strip everything they could out of them, and strap on additional fuel tanks, to get them to reach mars from where the Home Fleet had been positioned.
They'd make it.
"Major, we're about to enter the atmosphere!"
The pilot was nervous. She didn't blame him; the Bak'ra had entered the atmosphere ten minutes earlier.
"Get us down close to Mars base!"
"I'll do my best, Major!"
The ship bucked as it slammed into the thin Martian atmosphere. Thin streaks of light wisped up over the thick armored view ports.
"Ma'am, got a read on the Bak'ra. They're touching down sixty klicks south of Mars Base."
Katya grunted in acknowledgement. That meant they were staying clear of the base's ground weapons. Probably getting sorted out before taking them. A cautious maneuver on the part of whoever was in charge over there. She added that to a small mental file.
The fighters came out of nowhere. The first they knew about it was when two Drop Ships turned into flaming tombs for the Marines onboard them. Then another two, and four more afterwards, ten were gone before the fighters scrambled from Mars Base managed to reach them.
Katya was ready to shoot someone to get the hell out of that Drop Ship. If she was on the ground she could see who was shooting at her, usually anyway, and do something about it. Up here she didn't even have the illusion of being in control. Here she was strapped down and at the mercy of the pilot's skills.
So she was very happy when they pulled out of their descent two kilometers above the surface of Mars and her command Dagger jumped. The Drop Ship went into a short, and brief glide, as the pilot killed her anti-gravity drives for her people to jump. Since getting put through a meat grinder was a pleasant experience compared to going under an active anti-gravity drive, Katya was rather glad about that too.
"God, we've got a problem."
The voice of her XO, a good man from Mexico, Andresson, came over her suits com system.
They were still a good kilometer up, when she hit her suits anti gravity pod. It was a brute thing, and it kicked like a mule.
"General Gagner was in that last Drop Ship."
"Shit, what about Major Arkin?"
"Didn't make it."
"That puts you in charge, Major."
"Thanks, Andresson, that's just what I wanted to hear."