Planet Quazi - Orbit.
The noise on the bridge was loud and chaotic. Alarms and warnings and 142 crew shouting back and forth to try and work out where the problem was. And a baby crying.
All defensive systems were down and no one knew why. Or how to get them back online.
Everyone was reporting their station as fully operational, which clearly wasn’t the case. The howling sirens proved that.
There was nothing unusual about the level of noise or chaos. That was how a Seneca forward bridge was meant to be — twenty different command objectives happening concurrently, multi-layered interactions between computers and crew members, all relevant information being funnelled to the conn to support actionable commands.
To an outsider, it might look like bedlam. It took training and experience to be able to absorb so much information and make the correct decisions, but once you had the ship’s rhythm, it was like conducting an orchestra.
Only, this particular symphony was a discordant mess.
General Freya stood on the bridge of the Venerate, eyes on the remarkable person sitting in the command chair — in her chair.
There was no denying the acting-commander was a special individual; even among the ranks of the Corps’ greatest soldiers, she stood out. An extraordinary existence.
Nigella Matton-Ollo was not only the most powerful organic the Corps had ever produced, she was the most beautiful. There was no denying it. Freya had known her since she had been a small, precocious child, and it was obvious even then.
Delicate features, cold eyes, deadly mind.
Armageddon — the woman who had it all. Fear, respect, power.
She had conquered worlds; crushed all opposition; defied convention. Even when she decided to take up with a man, it was a man unlike any other. And now her children were proving to be just as remarkable.
Freya had none of these attributes.
No partner, no offspring.
All she had was her ship and her crew, and she wasn’t willing to give up either.
“I think you should give command of the fleet back to me.”
“Do you?” said Nigella, peering down from her perch. “And why is that?”
They spoke in a quiet controlled manner but were able to hear each other through the cacophony and clamour with relative ease. Both had spent time on the bridge. Both knew how to focus on what was important.
“Because you are too emotionally involved in this. He’s your son.”
“You think I don’t know that?” said Nigella. “That’s why I’m the only one who can bring him home.”
“Aren’t you curious to know how far he can go? Isn’t that why you’ve allowed him to run amok without check all this time?”
“That had nothing to do with me, that was his father. I already know he’s special, I don’t require proof.”
“Special? He is an experiment. A specimen.” Freya watched Nigella closely to see if there was any reaction, but Nigella’s eyes were calm and unaffected. “It isn’t even he who is causing us these problems. It’s the other one. The one who is meant to be powerless. He infiltrated our systems like they were nothing. He left us defenceless and then rang the dinner bell for all to come feast. And they will be coming, you know that. He is the one we need to bring down. Your son is irrelevant. He just got lucky.”
“Lucky? Hmm.” Nigella’s eyes remained the same but there was the slightest change in her posture. “Perhaps you’re right. But who knows what hand my husband had in ensuring that luck.”
“You think Ramon Ollo arranged for your son to encounter the other two?”
“I don’t know,” said Nigella. “It’s hard to know what that man is capable of.”
The chair began to descend.
Could Ramon Ollo really have orchestrated all this, wondered Freya. It didn’t seem possible, but three fleets in one place at the same time, it was the perfect set-up for an ambush.
“Very well,” said Nigella, rising from her seat. “You may have your command back. If you think you can weather this crisis better than I, please go ahead. I have other options I must consider.”
She raised a hand and her baby was brought to her. She took it into her embrace.
Freya watched with a sense of relief. It had never been easy to predict what this woman would do, but that also made it possible to ask for the least likely thing and get it.
“Good. Thank you.” General Freya sat down and retook her place on the bridge. “We will still need you if…”
“I understand,” said Nigella. “I am at your service.” She smiled but her smile was chilling. She might have given up command, but she had her own reasons for doing so. And she was never easy to predict.
There was no point pondering over it now. The chair rose.
Nigella Matton-Ollo took her child and left the bridge.
“Full sweep of the sector. Look for ships approaching, probably disguised, they will be armed even if the sensors say they aren’t, so find out what they’re carrying. Get me the Consolation and the Delight. Tell Analytics to prepare a full report on the one called Ubik. Everything we have and everything that might explain what he is. And I need more ghosts up here.”
There was a moment of silence as her orders were received, and then pandemonium broke out as the crew followed her instructions in a concerted surge of focused intent.
“We can’t find the breach in the defence systems.”
“Forget that. We won’t find it and even if we do, we won’t have time to fix it. Focus everything on offence and prepare to engage with everything we have.”
“General, detecting ships approaching from the interior. All are running commercial tags. All are showing faint signs of weapons activity but no live weapons signatures.”
It was what she expected. They were hiding their weapons but they had tested them recently enough for there to be traces. Idiots. This was the true legacy of decades of enforced peacefulness — tactical incompetence.
Seven thousand ships. How many years had they been waiting for a chance like this, a chance to unleash their impotent stockpile of prohibited toys?
And now they had smelled the blood in the water and were gathering for the feeding frenzy. A chance to destroy three battalions at once.
Even if they lost every one of their ships, it would be worth it for them. The galaxy would have a completely new look to it. New rules and new rulemakers.
“General Kieto is on.”
“General Morra is on.”
“General Kieto, this is Freya. Take the First Fleet and get out of here.”
“I can’t do that, General. We are the First. We don’t back down.”
Freya wasn’t surprised by the response. She would have reacted the same.
“General, three-quarters of our main assault force is in this one small sector, and we’re completely open to attack. If we get taken out here, the Corps will suffer unrectifiable losses. You have to withdraw. The Corps can’t be left defenceless.”
“We are the Corps,” said General Kieto. Her voice was cold and unemotional. She was the commander of the First Battalion for a reason. The woman was small and carried a limp she refused to get fixed, and she fought like every battle was her last. In this case, it might well be. “If we go down here, so be it. As long as we take all of them with us, I will be satisfied.”
“Morra?” said Freya.
“No,” said General Morra. “I don’t care what he did or how he did it. We don’t need shields to defeat these clowns. It will do them good to see what happens when they get their danders up. We should thank the brat for giving us this opportunity to remind them who we are.”
“You take point,” said Kieto. “You have eyes on the target, we’ll follow your lead.”
Freya smiled to herself. The Corps had instilled a certain disregard for common sense in its members. It gave them an edge over their opponents but one day it would push them too far. Perhaps today was that day.
“Very well. It seems we’ve grown complacent of late. Allowed ourselves to become too confident in our sense of superiority. Let us show these worlds what it means to stand against the Seneca Corps.”
Three young men — boys, really — had managed to make a mockery of the Corps, and now others were starting to think the reputation built up long ago was no more than a myth. It was time the myth was made real again.
She hit a switch to give her direct access to Offensive Command, the nerve centre of the Corps’ attacking capabilities.
“This is General Freya. Launch all assault vessels. Engage with the enemy and leave no survivors.”
“Offensive Command, this is Launch Ops. Mission is a go.”
Hundreds of fighter vessels shot out of the Venerate’s hull, each one piloted by a Seneca soldier with an organic.
They would fight, they would kill and then they would eviscerate whatever was left.
“Consolation has launched eight hundred and twelve fighters.”
“Delight has launched nine hundred and thirty fighters.”
“General, we’re being hailed by multiple ships.”
“Send out the standard disclaimer recording and block all other transmissions. How long to engagement?”
“Three, two, contact. 6800 ships surviving. 6500. 6000. Core explosion chain reaction. 3000 ships remaining. Enemy combatants are retreating.”
“Pursue and destroy,” said Freya. “No survivors.”
“2000 ships. 1800.”
“Do we have points of origin for these ships?”
“Yes, General. Forty-two separate planets and space stations.”
“Twelve hundred ships remaining.”
“Prepare new targets. Prioritise high-density worlds first. No more than a five percent survival rate. Full structural elimination.”
“800 ships. 600.”
“New targets locked.”
“Three hundred. One hundred. Thirty. Twelve. Six. Two. All enemy combatants destroyed.”
“How many casualties did we take?”
“Good,” said Freya. “They’ll have more waiting for us.”
She knew this had only been a probe. They weren’t stupid. Seven thousand ships was nothing compared to the true might of the major corporations. They would see this as a way to gauge how much effort they would need to make, how many of their resources they would have to spend.
They were just merchants at heart, adding up their credits and debits to ensure hygienic bookkeeping. They just wanted to know how much it would cost.
They had their answer now — all of it.
“Prepare to move the fleet.”
“Seneca Corps, this is Central Authority Vessel Amnesty. Request you power down. We’ll take control of the situation now.”
“I thought I told you to block all transmissions,” said Freya.
“We can’t block the CA under Directive 3.12—”
“Yes, yes, I know the directive. Amnesty, this is Brigadier General Freya of the SCV Venerate. We are operating under the full licence of the Combined Mutual Accord and following all protocols. The following forty-two locations have been targeted for justified destruction. Take a look at the list and get back to us… Send them the list and move us into position as soon as the fighters are back on board.”
“General Freya, we implore you to—”
Freya waited for the Central Authority bot to make its plea so she could reject it but there was only dead air.
“CAV Amnesty has been destroyed. There is a rupture in space at its last known location. We’re reading several new ships. They’re big. It’s… the Antecessor fleet.”
On the screen, huge ships of alien design began to appear. Nigella had sent them somewhere no one had ever come back from before. It had taken them a few hours to return.
“Great timing,” said Freya. “Where’s Nigella?” There was silence on the bridge. “Where is she?”
“She’s… not on board, General.”
“What do you mean? Where is she?”
“There was an unauthorised launch from Hangar 3. A small transport is headed down to Quazi. Should we send someone to intercept?”
There was a time when the Corps came first. No one was as loyal to the principles and people of the Seneca Corps. But then she had to get pregnant.
Freya let out a soft sight. It made no difference to what needed to be done.
“No, let it go. Prepare to face the enemy.”
The Antecessor ships loomed large on the screen.