The Battle of the Void (The Ember War Saga Book 6) (8 page)

BOOK: The Battle of the Void (The Ember War Saga Book 6)
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Luna’s light gravity hadn’t agreed with him then, and it hadn’t gotten any better with time.

The Tycho Dome was three miles high at the apex, and with enough surface area to house almost a million people once complete. Hale didn’t think one could suffer from agoraphobia beneath the Moon’s surface, but he’d come close to a panic attack while his brother chatted up the project’s engineering staff.

Tycho Dome was a child’s sand castle compared to where Malal led them.

A great cylinder spun around a freeway-wide bridge. Lakes, green forests and concentric circles of structures filled the inner surface. All of it stretched so far behind them that the end was lost in a haze. Ahead, a solid pillar of light pulsated.

Hale used his forearm screen to send a dose of anti-motion-sickness drugs into his system. That the folded landscape rotated around the bridge did nothing to settle his stomach.

Malal opened his arms wide.

“Behold! My great work, my soul forge,” he said.

“Malal, is there anyone in those cities?” Hale asked.

“No one. Holding areas for the kindling, if you will. Come, you won’t be the first to see this, but you will be the first to speak of it afterwards.” Malal moved toward the pillar at a brisk pace.

“How does it work?” Hale asked.

Malal looked at Hale like a dog that had just messed the rug.

“I don’t think your language has enough small words for me to explane it properly.”

“Try me,” Hale said.

Malal remained quiet for a minute then held up the palm of his hand. A box morphed out of his palm.

“What is in the box?” Malal asked.

“How am I supposed to know?”

“You aren’t. You are to guess. Please, do so.”

“I don’t…a model of the
Breitenfeld
, how’s that?” Hale asked.

The sides of the box sank back into Malal’s palm, revealing a sparrow that flapped its wings and jerked its head from side to side.

“Incorrect, but inconsequential.” Malal closed his fingers around the bird and dropped his hand to the side. “You are capable of creativity; you can imagine multiple possibilities. Tell me, where did that answer come from?”

“Just a guess,” Hale said.

“And that guess is what makes you so wondrous. Animals do not imagine. Computers do not create. They follow a pattern set by those capable of independent thought. I will share something your physicists suspected but would never be able to prove. No matter what you guessed was in the box, you were right.”

“You changed what was inside?”

“No. But in making a decision, making your guess, you created a reality where there was a model in the box,” Malal said. “The universe reacts to your will. That is the ultimate power of sentience, and that power is quantifiable. Measurable. Useable.”

“You lost me,” Hale said.

“You held on longer than I thought possible.” Malal turned his attention back to the great pillar.

“Where’s the ‘so what,’ Malal? What does all this have to do with those empty cities? What you did to the Shanishol on Anthalas?”

“Hale,” Stacey tried to step between the two, “none of this is relevant to the task at hand.”

“The power exists in sufficiently developed minds, but it is faint,” Malal said. “When harvested in sufficient amounts, it can be bent to a purpose.” He waved a hand up and down his omnium body. “To stave off the decay of time. Or, if at the right place at the right time, to open a doorway to another universe where the laws of physics are more…accommodating.”

“And how many souls did you feed into this forge?” Hale asked.

“Lieutenant! Stop this line of questioning right now,” Stacey said.

“What’s done is done, bright one,” Malal said, “and I have no time for regrets.” He turned his face to Hale. “All of them. We harvested every advanced intelligent species in the galaxy. Every planet we nurtured to maturity fed the forge engines. We left a few primitive species behind, those not worth the effort to collect. Ironically enough, there was no suitably advanced civilization to counter the Xaros when they arrived.”

Hale stopped. His stomach felt like a rock as the implications of what Malal just told him raced through his mind. He knew Malal was a monster, but the sheer scope of his crimes was almost impossible for him to comprehend…and this monster was their ally.

Stacey took a few halting steps after Malal, then came back to Hale.

“Hale, look, I know this is a lot to take in, but the Qa’Resh—”

Hale grabbed her by the shoulder, glared at her and opened a private channel.

“We are not doing this, Stacey. We can’t help that thing anymore. Not when the price of its cooperation is going to be paid in blood. Our blood!”

Stacey slapped his grip away. “Not your decision. Not mine either. In case you haven’t noticed, we are up shit creek without a paddle in this vault, and in this war, without Malal. Play along until we’re back on the ship. Can you do that, at least?”

Even when angry, Hale could see the reason behind her request.

“We’re not done. Not by a long shot,” he said.

Stacey opened her mouth to speak, then turned away.

“Problem, sir?” Cortaro asked as he came up from behind.

“Let’s keep moving.”

CHAPTER 9

 

Miles beneath Abaddon’s surface, a control room came to life, a circular room with a flattened dome ceiling, identical to Crucible’s command center. Workstations lit up with data on the human fleet, holo recordings of the
Gallipoli
’s final moments, replays of Xaros disintegration beams ripping across the aegis armor with less effect than expected against the humans’ ships.

The presence of humans in deep space was an anomaly, one that must be reported.

A plinth in the center of the room glowed as pale light shone through the base, up through floating red plates of armor. The control room connected to the greater Xaros network and transmitted every scrap of data collected on the human fleet.

The light grew brighter. A burning sphere of light grew in the armor’s chest. The spheres burst like a supernova, filling the armor with coherent light.

The General had arrived.

A swipe of his ethereal fingers brought up a real-time image of Eighth Fleet. The ship that carried his prisoner and had proven difficult to destroy on Anthalas and Takeni, the
Breitenfeld
, was absent. He studied the ships, noting their markings and significant improvements made to their weapons and armor.

They are using the omnium reactor they took from Anthalas.
The General compared the ships arrayed against him with Torni’s memories. His prisoner was of the human’s warrior caste, but segmented to the human’s ground combat arm. Her memories of the humans’ fleet were fragmented, ancillary.

The largest human vessel,
Midway
, corresponded with memories of a wrecked ship broken across a mountain range.
Is this the same ship?
the General asked himself.

The General compared Torni’s memories of ships in battle over the Crucible to the humans’ fleet and came to a conclusion he had some confidence in.

The humans had sent their entire fleet to stop his invasion. The fleet before him was a few ships less than what Torni remembered seeing in dry dock and in space. Human breeding patterns and maturation meant that the crews of these ships were the vast majority of the fighting force that survived the Battle of the Crucible.

If they risked their entire fleet to slow my advance…they’re relying on the Qa’Resh alliance to protect their home world.

The theory fit the facts…but something galled at him. The humans had proved too resourceful, too clever, to make such a strategic misstep as sending everything they had to interdict the next invasion.

The eye slits in his mask burned as frustration mounted.

I will brush this irritant away and finish off what remains on Earth. The final outcome is the same
.
The General stretched his perception through the entire planetoid and felt the drone crèches. Proto-drones, little more than omnium sacks clutching the sides of hollowed-out caverns through the rocky interior, reacted to the General’s command to mature into full-sized drones.

His arsenal was far from the dark matter halo around Barnard’s Star, forcing the drones to transmute far more of the planetoid’s mass to mature so quickly. Drawing on so much of the arsenal’s potential would make for fewer drones once it arrived in the human’s system.

There was a single tenet of warfare that the General held to with every operation against the intelligent species polluting this galaxy: overwhelming force. Even with the losses he’d sustain swatting this human fleet aside, he’d invade Earth with a force several orders of magnitude greater than anything the humans could hope to have standing against him. Their extinction was a near mathematical certainty.

Still…

The General ordered his drones to redouble their production. He would take no chances.

He watched the human fleet for hours and then he entered the conduit leading to the rest of the Xaros network and left his arsenal to the droids’ programming. He would return, but first he needed more answers.

CHAPTER 10

 

The admiral turned an ornate handle on her bulbous samovar and piping hot water poured into a china cup, already half-full with deep brown tea. Her hand trembled and the cup rattled against the saucer in sympathy.

She set the saucer on her desk, spilling some of the tea onto an open notebook.


Chyort voz’mi, guvno
!”
She wiped the spill away and picked up a pen. Every observation from the recent battle went onto the paper—every conjecture, every crazy idea that came to mind. She picked up a printed photo of the damaged construct and scribbled a note on the back.

“Ma’am?” came from the doorway. Calum leaned into the room. “Five minutes until the captains.”

“Yes, I will be right…Calum, that ribbon. It fired off the lance that destroyed the
Gallipoli
. Why haven’t we seen that tactic before?” she asked.

Calum frowned.

“Well,” his head rocked from side to side, a sure sign he was thinking hard, “they were under duress.
Gallipoli
was going to pound them to dust if they didn’t do something fast. The whole thing—the ribbon, the lance, all made out of drones. They lost a lot of combat power when they killed the
Gal
.”

“We haven’t seen kamikaze tactics from them,” Makarov said. She chewed on the end of her pen then wrote furiously.

“Should I have them wait?” Calum cocked his head over his shoulder.

“No.” Makarov jabbed a period and closed her notebook. “Time is valuable. I don’t waste my time. I will not waste others’.” She slammed back the hot tea. If it caused her any pain, Calum didn’t notice.

When she arrived at the operations table, Delacroix’s holo was ready and waiting across from her normal spot. The rest of her captains’ holograms shifted from side to side, looking uneasy.

“Scorpion, what did we learn?”

Graphs formed in the holo, full of science jargon that Makarov didn’t understand.

“We recorded fascinating readings at the moment the rings took damage. The space-time grade fluctuation perfectly followed the Kapur Theorem which will—”

“Skip to the end,” Makarov said through grit teeth.

Delacroix rolled his eyes and Makarov resisted the urge to rip his face off.

“The damage to the ring disrupted the planetoid’s Alcubierre field and cut its acceleration, but only briefly—not because the ring came back online, but because the drone net around the surface formed a new field.” Delacroix nodded slowly. “The new field is just as strong, but the Kapur signature matches readings from recorded drone interstellar travel.”

“And?” Makarov asked.

“And look at this.” Delacroix swiped a screen and a graph with a slight decline came up. “This is the planetoid’s gravity. As soon as the drone field came online, the pull of gravity from Abaddon decreased, and it is only getting weaker. Granted, it would take years to have any measurable effect…Yes, Admiral, I see that look and I’ll cut right to the chase. The drones are consuming themselves to keep the Alcubierre field up and running.”

A video of Abaddon’s surface came up. Drones spewed from open portholes and melded into the net surrounding the planetoid. Burning embers traced up and down the net’s filaments, like a lit cigarette wasting away.

“The power needed to keep this planetoid moving is enormous, and the drones were not designed for this. Hence, the Xaros use the rings to relocate large objects, not a drone net like we see now.”

“We take the rings off-line permanently…what effect will that have on Abaddon?” Makarov asked.

“Assuming they keep the same acceleration, it would decrease the mass of drones arriving in our solar system by thirty percent,” Delacroix said.

“Seventy percent of a giant shitload is still a giant shitload,” Calum said.

“Correct,” Delacroix said. “The ability of the drones to create their own field also puts my task force in a precarious position. The drones can power through the effect of the graviton mines. There’s no way to stop Abaddon from reaching Earth.” Murmurs filled the air as the rest of the captains reacted to the news.

“The strain…” Makarov tapped a finger against the side of the table, “you set off the mines and the drones will have to burn their candle at both ends to keep up the speed, yes?”

Delacroix’s eye slid from side to side as wheels turned in his head.

“Yes, we have to monitor the consumption rate a bit longer.” Delacroix’s eyebrows shot up. His holo turned away from the table.

“I’m sure he will return in a moment with a brilliant deduction,” Makarov said. “Now, if we can’t stop this thing, then we must weaken it. Give Earth a better chance when it arrives.”

Delacroix returned to the table, a smile across his face.

“Good news, everyone! I ran some simulations based on my idea—”

“My idea,” Makarov said.

“Her idea, and we can force the Xaros to expend between forty and seventy percent of their total strength. How? Take out the rings, then Task Force Scorpion makes for Earth at best speed, seeding graviton mines every few light-hours for maximum effect. It’ll be like forcing the Xaros to run uphill. Given the details, the forty percent solution is preferred, naturally.”

“How do we get to seventy percent?” Makarov asked.

Delacroix went pale. “That’s the worst-case scenario, given what we know about the Xaros’ ability to highjack computer systems, and that the minelayers will only be a few steps ahead of Abaddon to maximize the effects. The ships can’t run on automation. They have to continue to the limits of their life-support systems.”

“The minelayers run ahead of Abaddon until air, food and water run out,” Makarov said.

“And then the crews die,” Delacroix said, swallowing hard. “My ships have to run at full speed. No other ship in our fleet can keep up with the minelayers.”

“It may come to that,” Makarov said. “It may come to that for all of us.” She looked around the table. Captains straightened up as they found her gaze. “We are here, in the depths of the unforgiving void, to fight for Earth. Give her a future. We have a chance to win, and we are going to fight for it. There is no price we will not pay, no burden we will not bear. Am I clear?”

Calum tapped her on the elbow and whispered to her.

She hit a flashing icon and the holo switched to a close-up of the damaged ring. Drones pressed into the exposed pyrite, melting, then morphing into the brass outer casing and the pyrite.

“Easy to conquer the galaxy when you have no supply chain to worry about,” Calum said. “The drones convert mass to omnium, then to more drones, to whatever they need.”

Makarov zoomed out. A circle of light opened on Abaddon’s equator, then darkened as a swarm of drones poured forth.

Makarov felt her stomach knot. “Battle stations.” 

 

****

 

Corporal Brannock wondered, not for the first time, just who he pissed off to get hull guard duty. The
Midway
had small bunkers across her hull where security teams would protect against drones attempting to cut into the hull. The idea had proven marginally successful during the Battle for the Crucible, even though casualty rates had been exceedingly high for those tapped to stand on the wrong side of the ship’s armor and fend off Xaros drones with little more than a gauss rifle.

He shared bunker D-28 with Derringer, a Marine heavy weapons team and three doughboys. The heavy weapons team nursed a Gustav cannon mounted on a turret ring. The two Marines had spent the last half hour practicing detaching and reattaching the weapon, all the while cursing whatever naval engineer expected them to swing the weapon in a circle to engage targets coming from the other direction.

All wore the new combat power armor, the armor plates coated with the same material that made up the aegis plating. Brannock didn’t care for the glossy sheen, but noise and light discipline had little effect when fighting in the void. The armor would, according to the quartermaster who’d issued it to him, protect them from a Xaros disintegration beam. The engineer went on to say that
not
getting shot was still the preferred method to survive on the battlefield, but anyone hit and not killed should write up the experience to benefit the next design iteration.

Indigo shook Brannock’s shoulder.

“Sir. Sir!” Indigo pointed to the bunker’s bolted door.

“How many times do I have to tell you not to call me ‘sir’? I work for a living.” Brannock pushed Indigo’s hand away.

“Time to go see, corporal sir,” Indigo said, his eyes wide with anticipation.

“Has it been thirty minutes? Fine. Derringer.” He kicked the sleeping Marine’s feet. “Taking the big boys on a little walk.”

“This mean I have to wake up?”

“Yes, exactly that.” Brannock detached the air supply lines running from the side of the bunker to his helmet. The doughboys did the same, wrapping the lines around their hooks just like he’d taught them when they first started their shift.

The doughboys didn’t come across as terribly bright, but they learned simple skills surprisingly fast. Brannock wished he could say the same for Derringer.

The corporal opened the door and stepped out onto the
Midway’s
hull, his mag locks gripping the matte-gray armor with each footfall.

A squat void craft with wide wings sat on the hull ahead of him. It had ball turrets on the top and bottom of each wing, mounted to the fuselage, twin gauss Gatling cannons, rocket pods and a spine-mounted rail cannon. The new Osprey gunships had arrived only a few days ago, and he’d been keen to get a closer look.

The doughboys were even more eager to know more about the Osprey. They’d nearly gotten into a fistfight over who got to look through the bunker’s view slits to see it. Promising to take them out to see the new weapon if they behaved for a half hour had calmed them down instantly.

There were two of the new gunships not far from the bunker, a flight of Eagles just beyond them. All were mag-locked to the
Midway’s
hull. Putting pilots and crews on the ship’s surface took stress off the flight deck when it came time to get more fighters and bombers into the void.

Brannock glanced at Abaddon, glowing like a
bale eye
. There’d been no official word on the
Gallipoli
and the ships that left with her, but they sure weren’t with the rest of the fleet in the void above his head.

“‘Join the Marines! Fight a planet!’ Let’s see the recruiters use that line,” Brannock said.

Indigo grunted, his default response to anything remotely complicated.

Brannock stopped a few yards from the Osprey and shrugged. “Here you go. Remember, no touching.”

“No touching,” the three doughboys said as one. They bustled past Brannock and pointed at the larger gun emplacements, grunting in approval.

“What the hell are those?” came from behind him. A pilot in a lighter, less armored vac suit walked up to him, his steps tenuous on the hull. The call sign “Zorro” was stenciled on his chest.

“You’re asking me, sir? Thought you flyboys would be all over the new toys.”

“Not the Ospreys…those.” Zorro pointed at the doughboys.

“Yeah, them. Bio constructs made to look like us, minus the freaky skin and Cro- Magnon features. Guess Ibarra can’t make proccies fast enough so now they’re mass-producing these guys,” Brannock said.

“What do they do?”

“Whatever we tell them, so long as you can say it with very small words. They fight like demons. I saw some footage of them in Hawaii ripping Toth warriors apart. I spent that whole fight on ship security detail, thumb way up my own ass.” Brannock shook his head.

“I was in the upper atmo, knocking down their transports,” Zorro said. “You think I can talk to one?”

Brannock called Indigo over. The doughboy went to the position of attention when he saw Zorro’s lieutenant rank.

“At ease, soldier. Bend down a bit,” Zorro said. He leaned close to Indigo’s face and took a long look at him. “Amazing, isn’t he? Ibarra creates life now. Same way he created us.”

“What do you mean, sir? The proccies?” Brannock asked.

“Aren’t you one too? The whole fleet are proccies.” Zorro held up a palm to Indigo, who returned the gesture with a hand nearly twice as big.

“Suppose so. That rumor was going round the ship after the fight with the Toth. Then Admiral Makarov told everybody it didn’t matter one way or another far as the military was concerned. I got better things to worry about than if my mom and dad were tubes. The parents I remember are dead, killed on Earth with everyone else.”

“What’s your name?” Zorro asked the doughboy.

“Sir, unit designation Indigo-347.”

“How do you feel about being out here?” the pilot asked.

Indigo grunted.

“Don’t bother, sir. They’re as dense as armor. The only time I’ve ever heard them even laugh is when one of them passes gas,” Brannock said.

“Sir.” A massive hand shook the corporal’s shoulder. He turned around and found another of his charges, Cobalt, pointing at an Osprey turret. The crewman inside banged on the shell and pointed to a piece of paper with an IR frequency on it.

BOOK: The Battle of the Void (The Ember War Saga Book 6)
2.51Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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