A/N: It's a little rough around the edges, but I wanted to get back into the feel of writing sci-fi, and what better way to do that than paint the setting?

Also, you might notice expressions like 0.2c showing up repeatedly in the fic. The 'c' stands for Light Speed, so 0.2c stands for 20% lightspeed, while 0.997c stands for 99.7% light speed, 10c stands for ten times light speed, etc. etc.

For reference, Council dreadnoughts' main guns fire tungsten slugs at approximately 0.013c.

When it comes to the vast distances involved in space combat, you will find that I resort to using light-units very often, so to give you a sense of scale, the distance from Earth to the Moon is approximately 1.3 light seconds, while the distance from the Earth to the Sun is approximately 8.3 light minutes. This means that a ship traveling at 0.05c will move traverse the distance between the Earth and Moon in approximately 26 seconds.

"Our enemy is cruel, sly, fearless, and completely and utterly assured of their own supremacy. They were out conquering other races back when dinosaurs still ruled the Earth. They have at their disposal ships capable of reducing our mother Earth to a cinder in a matter of hours. Their leaders have hundreds of thousands of years' worth of experience to draw upon. And yet, in spite of all that, we are winning! If we can say that about our enemy, and yet still beat them, what does that say about us?." - Quote attributed to Simon Hutch, Head of XCOM Department of Propaganda.

Prologue: State of the Union

August 12th, 2155

Interstellar Void

"Captain, I'm picking something up. It's a gravity wake." The words of his XO caused Junior Rear Admiral James Grant to rise from his seat in the bridge of the heavy cruiser XCV-Angaur. Steaming at the head of a small patrol fleet of twenty frigates and three light cruisers, the eight hundred meter long vessel was currently in the middle of a routine FTL patrol, its sole duty being to detect any incoming enemy probes or pushes towards the Perseus line, a line whose entire purpose was to keep Earth and her colonies safe from attacks coming in from the rimward direction. An entire Grand Fleet, the Third Grand Fleet to be exact, patrolled its length, its fifteen component Battle Fleets based in strategic systems along the front.

"Tonnage?" James asked, walking up to the officer.

"Approximately... One and a half million tons, give or take a few hundred thousand. Shouldn't be anything too big." The officer reported.


"303 degrees, local relativity. They're on an intercept course with our local Battle Fleet headquarters."

"Send a message to B-47 Headquarters. Tell them they've got a potential probing attack inbound, the ETA, and that we're moving to head them off. Then take us out of FTL, plot an intercept course, and jump again."

"Aye-Aye sir." The officer was off, relaying his orders to the rest of the crew, and by extension, the rest of the fleet.

Within a minute, the twenty-one ships of Battle Fleet 47, Patrol Fleet 31 exited FTL, rotated, and as one, jumped away once more.

Several long hours passed, before the XO spoke up again.

"Our entry shockwaves have just reached them. If their commander has even half a brain, they'll know we know where they are."

"Maintain course. Spool up the interdiction gear once we are within five hundred light years. Notify me of any further developments."

These orders given, the fleet continued on its intercept course, traversing twenty light years every second. Several minutes passed, then the XO spoke up again, his voice uncertain.

"They've dropped out of FTL, and we've picked up their shockwave. Mass readings are significantly off though, we're reading a combined mass in excess of twenty million tons. No ripple effect either."

"Hmm... Either they're sending a twenty million ton supership at us, or they're using GravMask technology. Even with their technology, twenty million tons of ships cannot exit FTL at exactly the same moment." James replied.

"What are our orders?"

"Send a message to headquarters, tell them that the enemy fleet may potentially be more than a probing attack, and that our investigation will continue as planned. Once that is done, exit FTL, adjust course, then jump again. Make sure our FTL capacitors are charged for at least one instant jump once we make contact, just in case they're actually using some sort of new tech to mask their FTL grav-wakes."

"Aye-aye sir."

The fleet once again exited FTL, adjusted course, then jumped once more. This time, no wake was detected.

"They're not jumping again. They want us to come to them." James mused at that.

"You think it's a trap?" The XO asked.

"They might as well be holding up neon signs saying 'TRAP HERE'. Of course, our current objective hasn't changed. We jump in, find out what exactly is going on, and then jump out to alert command. If it turns out that we were right at first, and this is nothing but a probing attack, we engage them. What is our ETA?"

"Three minutes, sir."

"Sound general quarters and start charging weapons. I want to fire at least one volley before jumping out. Will we be able to do so?"

"Our FTL capacitors have enough in them for two jumps. We can do that and more."

"Excellent. Send a message to headquarters. We are engaging the enemy."

The next three minutes were tense, the only sounds being that of alarms and tramping feet as men hurried to battle stations. The beeping of bridge consoles, the soft hum of the ship, all of that and more added to the symphony of the pre-battle calm.

The minutes ticked by all too quickly, and soon Battle Fleet 47's 31st Patrol Fleet exited FTL. Immediately, it became all too apparent that something was wrong.

"It's a full-blown battle fleet! Get us out of here!" James ordered over the screams of sensors, as the hundreds of enemy ships, ranging from frigate and corvette swarms to a massive Temple Ship, made their presence known.

"On it!" The orders were relayed across the tiny patrol fleet, and as one the fleet once again flickered, preparing to jump to FTL, but this time, instead of accelerating away, the ships shuddered as the gravitational shockwaves of failed FTL jumps rippled across their shields.

"They've got interdiction gear! We can't get a message through either, our comms are jammed!" The XO shouted from his post.

"Damn. Turn our fleet around and open fire. I won't go down without a fight." James said, resignation replacing any fear in his voice.

"Tell the men that it was an honor to serve with them." He said again moments later, as the Angaur's spinal fusion lance fired, its multiple plasma cannons adding to the patrol fleet's puny barrage. Compared to what the aliens were throwing at them, though, the mighty human barrage was a pittance. Twelve kilometers off the Angaur's port side, the frigate XCS-Jennifer Kelley exploded as a fusion lance blast from the Temple Ship punched through its shields and armor, only to detonate within, causing the small vessel to simply vanish in a ball of short-lived nuclear fire, the ship's internal atmosphere burned away almost instantly several hundred megatons of nuclear death going off within its hull.

"It was an honor to serve under you." James smiled as his subordinate said this. The ship shuddered, alarms going off as the shields went down, while several plasma bolts slammed into the ablative armor. However, while that armor was perfectly capable of withstanding plasma bolts, the fusion lance shot from the Ethereal Battleship thirty-two thousand kilometers away was not so easily turned away. Lights flickered and died, their backups irregularly bursting to life, while metal groaned and alarms screamed as the entire forward half of the heavy cruiser simply vanished under the blow. Plasma bolts tore into the gutted ship. One such bolt punched through sixty meters of deckspace and tore open the bridge of the effectively-dead heavy cruiser. The bridge officers who were not killed by the bolt itself were sucked into space, the ship's atmosphere containment system already compromised.

Twenty minutes later, a second fusion lance blast, this one originating from an Ethereal Cruiser, slammed into the wreck. In a final burst of fire, the XCS Angaur died, and its small patrol fleet died with it.

The headquarters of Battle Fleet 47 were located in a system nicknamed Serpens Ultima. It had once been part of the Viper Imperium, which in turn was a small client state of the Ethereal Collective, but as humanity had blazed a furious path out of the Sol system, the Imperium had rapidly fallen, the Viper fleets shattered in engagement after engagement with their human foes. In order to prevent rebellion from the warlike reptilian race, the Vipers had been armed with hand-me-down, obsolete technology, technology that failed to withstand the human blitz. Serpens Ultima had been the final holdout of the Viper race, a no-name Garden World with no significant life transformed into the site of a foreign species' last stand. Orbital bombardment had scarred the green world, and several long years of combat between the Vipers, their Ethereal overlords, and Humanity only deepened those scars. Now, Serpens Ultima was midway through a long nuclear winter, and the only remnants of its former owners were the mass-produced soldiers marching out from the Ethereal clone vats on a world somewhere in the cold depths of the galaxy.

Above this world floated the 47th Battle Fleet, its flag held aboard the XCS-Warsaw, a mighty, two-kilometer long Paris-class Heavy Carrier. Around the massive warship floated shoals of frigates, wolfpacks of cruisers, light and heavy, and several massive battleships, each with their own escorting vessels. In command of this force was Admiral Nikita Lebedev, a man who had seen his fair share of combat. Under his command, the 47th Battle Fleet had blunted a massed assault on the Perseus Line three years prior, a fleet action that saw him wounded whilst repelling a boarding action.

"Sir, PF-31 has not yet reported in. We've sent out PF-38 to investigate, and they detected the hostile wake, ETA: Two days, eighteen hours. No sign of PF-31 though." Natalia Sampson, Executive Officer of the XCS-Warsaw, relayed the information to Admiral Lebedev. The aging slavic man, four silver stars emblazoned on his lapel, sighed at the news.

"Reclassify PF-31 as lost and alert the boys down on the ground. Then send out a message to the rest of B-47, and tell them to converge on Headquarters. If this was a mere probing attack, our patrol fleet would have annihilated them. I want as many ships in this system as possible, and if that means plugging gaps in our line with reserves for a while, so be it. In addition, I want a message sent to ComNavPer to alert them of the coming battle."

"Understood, sir."

The Warsaw sent out its messages, and the fleet, already prepared for war, began to ready itself for the defense of the system. The planet itself was ringed with the debris of thousands of warships, Human and Ethereal alike, and in the years since the planet's fall, the ring had only gotten thicker. Within that ring lurked multiple orbital defense platforms, several of them clustered around a large asteroid. The asteroid had once occupied a much higher orbit, before the system's former owners, in a desperate attempt to cut their losses, attempted to slam the asteroid into the Human foothold on the planet. That plan had been brought to a halt.

The days passed quickly, an air of tension pervading the atmosphere as the hours ticked by. Then, approximately two hours before the enemy was scheduled to arrive, one of the buoys at the edge of the system picked up a gravitational shockwave, indicating a fleet exiting FTL, shortly followed by a second shockwave, this one indicating a fleet adjusting course before re-entering FTL. Deep-space buoys, placed in the middle of empty void by intrepid patrol fleets, picked up the subspace wake shortly afterward. The enemy's position and course were now known, although their destination was already common knowledge.

Approximately twenty seconds after scheduled arrival time, in-system buoys picked up strong shockwaves, showing that the enemy fleet had indeed arrived in-system, approaching by the predicted vector. Five minutes after their arrival in-system, three squadrons of destroyers shimmered into view around the massive Ethereal fleet. Thirty-five vessels strong, the force of destroyers let loose a single barrage before fading away again, taking evasive action as return fire streaked their way. However, the paltry force of destroyers could only harass and slow the massive fleet, which was now moving in tight formation, ensuring that no stragglers were left behind for the destroyers to pick off.

These hit-and-run attacks continued for nearly three hours. Seven destroyers were lost, while six small enemy vessels suffered the same fate. Many more ships were damaged, but ultimately, the delaying action failed to accomplish anything significant. Eventually, the attacks were called off, the destroyers retreating to the planetary debris field, where the rest of the fleet already hid, masked from enemy sensors by all the wreckage around them.

All was quiet as the Ethereal fleet sailed into orbit. Even if sound were able to traverse the vaccum of space, neither fleet would be making any sound. The engines of both fleets were cold, their crews tense and silent. Slowly but surely, the Ethereal fleet closed in on Serpens Ultima, unchallenged. Then, suddenly, three task forces of destroyers decloaked around the Ethereal fleet, while two large clouds of fighters emerged from the debris field, all charging towards the enemy force.

"Heads up boys, we've got bogeys incoming. Keep the bombers covered at all costs." The voice of Maroon Flight's leader sounded out in Eugene Flowers' ears. The flight was composed of six F-309 Hurricane IIG Vacuum fighters, each one the culmination of over a century of experience in vacuum combat. Cruising at a comfortable 0.05c, the flight was at the head of nearly six hundred similar fighters, serving as an escort for four hundred heavy bombers. Another similar force was approaching the Ethereal fleet from a different vector, while behind them hundreds more fighters served as a combat air patrol for the capital ships.

"Attention 221st Wing! This is EWACs, callsign Veiled Eye. We are picking up eighty-three hostile contacts changing course to engage you. Range is 15 light seconds and closing. Uploading data to your HUDs now." The relevant data was uploaded, and the enemy fighters, still nearly four and a half million kilometers away, lit up on Eugene's HUD.

"Maroon flight, we're the vanguard. Fire as soon as you have locks." The flight leader's voice sounded out two minutes later, mere moments before the dreaded tone of a hostile lock echoed through his cockpit. The Ethereal fighters had locks now, and if the bright red warning lights on his HUD were any indication, they had already launched missiles.

"Fox-5! Fox-5!" The brevity code for anti-missile missile launches was repeated throughout the fighter formation as the small, fast M-213 AMMs left their tubes, the revolving magazines rotating more into place moments later. Forty seconds passed, before bright flashes of light in the distance indicated the countermeasures' successful impact. Then, a second tone filled the cockpit, this one much more welcome.

"Maroon flight, hold fire until two light seconds." The flight leader's order kept his finger off the trigger. Back when he had first graduated from Luna Flight School, he would have fired as soon as he heard the tone, but long experience had taught him that missiles fired from that distance never reached their targets. Again and again the tone sounded out as he locked onto enemy after enemy.

"Incoming! Fox-5!" The warning lights had barely gone off before Eugene hammered the firing stud for all it was worth, firing off six AMMs, the warheads impacting seconds later. The explosions were still blooming when his flight screamed past them, entering combat range.

"Fox-2, Fox-2!" Once again, the message repeated itself throughout the fighter formation, but now it was the heavy, M-207 AFMs that were being fired, streaking towards their target. Unlike their Human opponents, the Ethereal fighters carried no anti-missile missiles, and while their heavier missiles had a longer range, they carried much fewer of them. However, they made up for this deficiency with numbers, but their mass-produced, barely shielded airframes were no match for the heavy warheads that screamed towards them. Two of the fighters Eugene had locked onto vanished in green-white bursts, while the other three took evasive action, deploying what countermeasures they had, and managing to evade the missile barrage. They were now so close that Eugene didn't need his HUD to tell him where they were, but at this distance the missiles he carried were of limited use, leaving him with one last option. His finger shifted from the missile firing stud to the trigger beneath it, and opened fire, the two heavy Disruptor guns firing away at their first target, propelling streams of exotic particles at relativistic speeds at the desperately swerving enemy craft.

Nearly a century and a half before, Ethereal fighters were large, bulky craft, heavily armored to the point of being able to withstand anything the Human militaries could throw at them. They had no need for maneuverability, and could move fast enough that even the cutting-edge Fifth-generation fighters of the time may as well have been stationary in comparison. The Sidewinder and Phoenix missiles thrown at them barely scratched their paint job, and the 20 millimeter cannons were even less effective, while the Alien plasma cannons made short work of even the advanced F-22s, F-35s, and other, barely produced prototypes that had risen against them back in the March of 2015. Now though, these old, First War alien fighters had another name: Target Practice. The newer Ethereal fighters were small, nimble, and lightly armored, able to run rings around their predecessors. However, no amount of maneuverability could save Eugene's target from a cannon lock, the two Disruptor guns swiveling on their gimballed mounts, keeping track of the target as they fired, their bright blue-white beams tearing through the fighter's weak shields, and into its airframe. The hostile fighter spun out of control, its damaged Elerium core causing its engines to misfire. Bits and pieces began to fly off, proving that its G-stabilizer had failed. At its current speed, that would mean the G-forces alone would have reduced the pilot to a thin paste, but even if it had been flown by something capable of withstanding the force, the Elerium core detonating moments later rendered that ability moot.

However, the now-dead fighter's wingman had not been idle, and Eugene immediately threw his fighter into an impressive series of evasive maneuvers to avoid two streams of plasma coming from right behind him.

"This is Maroon-4, I've got one on my six!" He called out over his squadron comms as he continued to evade enemy fire. One advantage that human Disruptor guns, a technology obtained from the short Micronoid war, had over Ethereal plasma guns was shot velocity. A Disruptor gun fired its particle streams at nearly 0.997c, meaning that, once cannon lock was obtained, it was nearly impossible to avoid them at close range. Meanwhile, the plasma guns on Ethereal fighters fired at a comparatively slow 0.15c, with the heavier ones on-board the capital ships firing up to three times as fast. Against the merely supersonic fighters of old, such a difference was irrelevant, but at the relativistic speeds of modern starfighter combat it made all the difference, as Eugene proved by deftly weaving through the alien barrage, his enhanced reflexes giving him the edge he needed to stay alive at speeds that would tax ordinary human reaction times well past their limits. Of course, the genetic modifications had their consequences. While the Meld was present in his body, he was effectively sterile and unable to comply with the government breeding mandates. This meant that the modifications would be removed once he left the military, which allowed him to produce Earth's most valuable export at the cost of gradually failing eyesight and fine motor control. By the time he reached age 50, he would be blind and unable to write, but none of that mattered in his current situation.

"Maroon-4, this is Maroon-2. Quid Pro!" The voice of one of his flight-mates rang out in his ears, causing him to look around for its source. He spotted his fellow pilot a scant few thousand kilometers away off his right wing, the bright dot of an Ethereal engine right behind him. Not pausing in his evasive maneuvers, he turned to his fellow pilot, quickly obtaining a target lock. Less than a second later he screamed past his ally, passing within several meters of the other fighter, and squeezed off a burst of disruptor fire, watching as the other pilot did the same, both enemy fighter craft exploding in flashes of green within moments of each other.

"That gun cam's going straight to flight school!" Maroon-2's elated laughter rang through Eugene's headset.

"You got that one right. Head's up, we've got two more making a break for the bombers." Eugene replied, already spinning his fighter around to face the two new contacts, reversing direction in under a second thanks to his craft's grav-gyros and omni-directional maneuvering thrusters.

"I have lock, Fox-2." Maroon-2 was quick on the draw, and four more missiles streamed from his fighter's tubes, streaking towards the enemy fighter at approximately 0.12c. Two slammed into one fighter, reducing it to a cloud of high-speed debris, while the other two went wild, the enemy's countermeasures succeeding in their intended role. However, two more missiles from Eugene got through, erasing that particular fighter from existence.

"Veiled Eye to Maroon Flight, you've got a flight of hostile bombers incoming. Sending data now, engage at will." With those words, twelve new contacts appeared on Eugene's HUD, these ones larger and slower than the fighters they had just eliminated. Moments later, the familiar tone of a target lock sounded off. Once more, the chorus of Fox-5s sounded off over flight comms, and once more a stream of missiles flew towards their targets. However, unlike the fighters, the bombers were heavily armored, and to them, a missile was a minor nuisance, nothing more. Of the eight missiles that Eugene personally launched, only two got through the bomber formation's precise defensive fire, and neither warhead got past the enemy's shields. A red warning light on his control panel promptly showed him that only four heavy missiles remained in his magazines, meaning that, once again, the only way to reliably down that bomber was by closing to cannon range. Accelerating towards the heavy Ethereal craft, he formed up behind Maroon 2, electing to serve as a wingman to the more experienced pilot. Maroons 5 and 6 formed up to his left, while Maroon 1 was left alone, the sixth member of Maroon Flight having been downed during the dogfight with the Ethereal fighters.

"Here we go!" Maroon 2 called out as faint sparkles in the distance indicated the bombers opening fire with defensive plasma guns. Moments later, the two of them were once more dancing through a series of evasive maneuvers, but no amount of defensive fire could stop them from closing on their targets.

"Guns, guns, guns!" The call rang out, and five pairs of heavy disruptor guns raked the bomber formation, sparking off the larger craft's shields. Each Ethereal bomber was a large, circular craft, heavily shielded and armed with two turreted plasma cannons, as well as enough heavy munitions to destroy a light cruiser if left unchecked. Fortunately for the human armada, this particular flight of bombers had indeed been checked, as five fighters screamed past, their targets desperately taking evasive action, but while Ethereal fighters were nimble, the bombers were much less so, having traded inertial compensators for additional payload. They could move fast, sure, but only in a straight line. This meant that, to the human fighters now circling their formation, these bombers were just one step above the drones they blew out of the sky back in training over Luna.

The second pass took three bombers with it, with shields dropping on two more. Those two died in the next pass. Again and again Maroon flight slashed through the enemy formation until nothing but dust and debris remained.

"Veiled Eye to Maroon Flight, the area is clear. The CAP can deal with any that made it past us." The EWACS craft reported a few moments later. The surviving members of Maroon Flight formed up once more, ready to make their final charge at enemy ships hundreds of times their size and thousands of times their weight. No more fighters assailed them as they closed in on the enemy fleet, the capital ships slowly growing from glowing indicators on his HUD to small specks in the distance. Lock-on tones sounded throughout his cockpit as sensor after sensor painted his fighter, while sparkles of plasma fire in the distance denoted the enemy warships starting to fire their own plasma cannons. Unlike the relatively small guns on the enemy fighters, a single hit from any one of those incoming bolts would be enough to annihilate any craft they hit, shields and all, while their speed was nearly three times that of the smaller fighter guns. The sight of the incoming barrage was enough to force evasive action, and soon the hundreds of Human fighters and bombers were desperately weaving through an intense fusillade of glowing green plasma, the enemy ships rapidly growing in the distance.

"Attention all small craft, allied capital ships have acquired targeting solutions. We are marking their firing lines now. Stay clear if you want to live." The transmission was short and brusque, coming from Maroon Flight's parent carrier, the XCS Berlin, and true to its word, red lanes began to appear on his HUD, denoting the current firing lines of friendly capital ships. Moments later, some of those lines glowed a blinding white as fusion lances sped across the void, slamming into their targets.

"Eyes on enemy CAP, engage at will!" With those words, thousands of small contacts appeared all over Eugene's screen, the enemy fighters flying out of the shadow of the larger Ethereal warships and engaging. These were different from the escort fighters that Maroon Flight had dealt with so far, being designed for knife-fights among the tight confines of friendly fleets. They were ridiculously nimble, sacrificing speed for additional agility, and sacrificed missile space for two large batteries of plasma cannons, one facing forward, the other covering their rear. Warning tones from his HUD screamed to Eugene that his missiles couldn't lock onto anything thanks to outside interference, so once more he switched to guns, and once more he engaged the enemy. As he lined up his shot, he was only dimly aware of Maroon 5 bursting apart several kilometers away, a lucky shot from a shipboard plasma gun catching him unawares. All that mattered now was his opponent, and his firepower. The first target was shredded nigh-instantly, and a short burst clipped a second before he was through the enemy formation, dodging past the tightly packed enemy capital ships as he zoomed out of the enemy force. Two enemy fighters followed him out, and it was with a smile on his face that he locked onto them and fired missiles, now free of whatever interference prevented him from doing so moments before. Two missiles fired, two more kill marks to paint on his fighter. Down to his last two warheads, Eugene reversed course and plunged back into the enemy fleet.

All was silent on the bridge of the XCS Warsaw, all air in the room, along with that of the rest of the ship, having been evacuated to centralized storage tanks. It was the cheapest, most effective way of preventing fires onboard the ship, while rebreather-equipped pressure suits issued to the crew members prevented the plethora of other issues present with working in near-total vacuum. Communication was handled via built-in suit radio, neatly circumventing the ability of ordinary sound to travel in a vacuum. Admiral Lebedev's own suit was only slightly more ornate than those of the rest of the officers, having a slight gold trim around the shoulders, and his four stars emblazoned on its helmet. On his right hip, the man wore a short saber, its hilt gilded as of his ascendancy to Admiral, while its fusion edge was safely deactivated. However, for all its ceremonial appearance, it had seen its fair share of action, as in the cramped confines of starships, melee weapons were just as valuable, if not more so, than the pistols every crewman, Admiral included, wore on their other hip.

"All fighter squadrons have successfully engaged the enemy."

"CAP forces have engaged the surviving enemy bombers."

"Heavy Cruiser Urup kill. Light cruiser."

"Warsaw bomber kill. Frigate."

"Destroyer Hermes-22 foundered."

The orderly chaos of the CIC rang out through Admiral Lebedev's ears as he stared up at the holo-projection that took up the vast majority of the room. In one corner, the enormous bulk of the planet lay, while on the other end lay the Ethereal fleet. In comparison to the planet in the other corner, even the massive Temple Ship looked tiny, but then again, so did the entirety of the human defending fleet, that even now advanced towards the enemy at approximately one thousandth of light-speed, their fusion lances crossing the void between the fleets in moments, while slower plasma bolts flew towards whatever few enemy bombers managed to make it through the fighter screens. As he looked on, several squadrons of frigates sped ahead to engage the smaller bombers, performing their job admirably. However, it was not without its risks, as one of Ethereal bombers proved by unloading its deadly cargo into a frigate at what, in space, would be considered point-blank range.

"Something's not right here." The admiral spoke after a few moments.

"What makes you think that?" His XO asked.

"These head-on tactics don't seem like something the Ethereals would do, and-"

"Buoy at L-point Alpha is reporting adjacent gravitational shockwaves. Multiple enemy contacts exiting FTL!" The sensor officer cut him off. Had the admiral's head snapped around any faster at that, he would have broken his neck.

"Type, speed and heading?" Nikita demanded of the officer as the new contacts showed up on screen.

"Looks like forty-eight high-speed transports, twelve frigates, a light cruiser, and a fast carrier. Speed is 0.005c, and they're heading directly for the planet. It's an invasion force."

"Damn. Tell FrigRons 44 and 45 to engage the enemy. Divert the 882nd through 892nd wings from CAP duty to do the same. I want those transports stopped at all costs!" The order was obeyed without question, and moments later, the Warsaw's defensive screen of frigates was halved, as thirty-six frigates and two light cruisers split away from the formation, taking several wings of fighters and bombers with them.

For a few minutes, all was normal as the interception force proceeded to its target. Then the two forces met, and the transports vanished, their mass signatures disappearing from the screen. The rest of the ships remained, however, and promptly engaged the confused Human forces.

Moments later, one of the sensor officers called out, alerting him to one FTL entry shockwave, and two simultaneous exit shockwaves almost immediately afterwards. One was another force of transports exiting FTL dangerously close to the world's asteroid moon, the Ethereal Temple Ship doubtlessly having sensors powerful enough to allow them to exit FTL with such precision. The other was the force that had jumped away, having performed a micro-jump that placed them dangerously close to the now-weakened human carrier group.

"Give me numbers, now!" Nikita demanded.

"Three light cruisers, a heavy carrier, eight light carriers, and twenty-three frigates. Carriers are launching fighters, cruisers are firing!" The sensor officer reported as alarms blared throughout the bridge, the Warsaw's shields absorbing several direct hits from opposing fusion lances. At this close range, the enemy's plasma batteries were also blazing away, and even now the first of the bright green bolts were slamming into the Warsaw's Disruptor Shields. The Human Heavy Carrier responded in kind, as while it lacked a fusion lance, it still held a formidable arsenal of dual-purpose plasma turrets, which even now pointed themselves at the nearest Ethereal vessel and opened up, bright blue-green bolts crossing the divide between ships and causing ripples to grow on the enemies' shields, the bright red barriers protecting the Ethereal Light Cruiser flashing as they were hit. Bright crimson beams soon began to fly as well, as dedicated point-defense lasers opened up on enemy bombers, the more powerful, but shorter ranged, Disruptor CIWS systems opening up shortly afterwards, spraying their lethal firepower into space as the two forces manuvered closer to each other, the humans attempting to turn the battle into a point-blank broadside fight, while the Ethereals attempted to mix themselves in with the human forces in order to keep the fusion lance batteries on the nearby moon from getting a clear shot.

However, the moon's defenses did not fire, as the human orbital fortress was having its own problems, as the Ethereal transports hurtled towards the asteroid moon's surface, their heavily reinforced prows slamming into the hard, frozen surface, their deadly cargoes streaming out of their hulls, while small turrets on the ships themselves suppressed the human defenders. From afar, the asteroid moon appeared to be sparkling as human and alien traded fire, while up above the transports' escort ships screamed low over the moon's surface, pouring fire into human defensive installations.

However, the battle on the moon was less pressing than the situation on the Warsaw, as concentrated fire from two Ethereal Light Cruisers and their frigate escorts whittled down the massive vessel's vortex shields, the defensive barrier winking out of existence after nearly twenty minutes of constant bombardment. Two bright fusion lances slammed into the massive Heavy Carrier, and had the atmosphere not been evacuated, those two strikes could have been fatal. However, as it was, the vacuum inside the ship prevented the relativistic fusion reaction from igniting anything, and the lack of atmosphere prevented what could have otherwise been lethal shockwaves from breaking the vessel's spine. However, the white-hot lances were still able to cause two large breaches in the carrier's hull, one on the crew deck, and the other on the Hangar deck. The Ethereal light carriers was quick on the draw, turning to face the damaged, but far from crippled, Human flagship. Ethereal carriers often doubled as troopships, and often carried automated boarding parties within large torpedoes, torpedoes that even now were leaving their tubes, aimed for the hull breaches. Admiral Lebedev's hand went to his saber as he spoke into the ship-wide comms, alerting the on-board marine contingent, as well as all other crewmen, to prepare to repel hostile boarding parties.

Even as he gave the order, more transports dropped out of FTL, their entry coordinated by the Ethereal Temple Ship, allowing them to appear just outside Serpens Ultima's atmosphere.

His forces all tied up in battle, Nikita could do little else than send a warning transmission down to the planet's surface, alerting them of the enemy's landing site, and hoping for the best.

"Attention all members of the 2346th Earth Armored Regiment. Mount up immediately, we are under attack by hostile landing forces. They're coming down on top of us, hard approach. Repeat, all members of the 2346th Earth Armored Regiment are to mount up immediately." The voice of Colonel Jurgen rang out in Sergeant Arnold Dubois' ears as he scrambled to his tank. Up ahead, his Main Gunner, Ernst Jaeger, had already reached the vehicle, scrambling into the T-109 Super Bradford's turret cupola, while Preston Miller, his Anti-Air gunner, practically leaped in behind him.

Teresa Mendez, his Driver, reached the tank moments before he did, throwing open the driver's compartment hatch and climbing in as he scrambled up the side of the tank. A few meters away from him, 'Beda', a Slavic crewed T-109, was already starting up its engine, rising to hover above the ground on a cushion of Elerium-powered science. The tank had originally been christened 'Pobeda', but the first two letters had been scorched off by a glancing hit in a pitched battle two years before. The crew had laughed at that, and had promptly renamed the tank. Arnold still didn't get the joke though, as aside from a few curses his knowledge of old Russian was next to nonexistent.

"Impatient little bastards, aren't they?" Ernst asked as he entered the vehicle.

"You got that right, the alien fucks aren't even waiting for orbital superiority!" Arnold replied as the base's surface-to-orbit plasma guns opened up on the enemy transports that even now blazed down near-vertically through the atmosphere.

There were two ways of landing a large transport on a planet. The first was a 'soft' approach, which involved a shallow re-entry, and a long cruise to the target destination. Of course, without orbital support, such an approach would often lead to the transports being blown out of the air by ground-based anti-ship artillery before they reached the target. That was why the 'hard' approach existed. During this approach, the transports would dive into the atmosphere nearly perpendicular to the planet's surface, approaching fast enough that ground-based defenses wouldn't be able to lock on for a significant amount of time. Of course, this method also placed considerable stress on a vessel's re-entry shields, and if they went down the ship was a lost cause. However, with orbital superiority still undecided, the hard approach was the best one.

"Start the engine! They're coming down right on top of us, and I don't want to be caught napping!" Arnold shouted into the driver's compartment, the vehicle purring to life moments later, coming to a hover about two feet above the ground. A few moments later, the turret whirred to life as Ernst quickly put the device through its paces. With those actions, Arnold's T-109 'Super Bradford' MBT, Serial Number 72140 'Ice Cream Truck', came to life, ready to kill aliens once more.

'Ice Cream Truck' was a T-109-4 'Super Bradford' Main Battle Tank, built on Mars alongside thousands of its fellow tanks. The T-109 had been Humanity's Main Battle Tank design ever since the start of the Fourth Ethereal War fifty years before, although the design had been regularly updated as technology advanced and tactics changed. Its main armament was an Ares PKL-48 Variable Duty Plasma Cannon, which jutted out just past the end of the vehicle's front, although its short barrel was not at all indicative of its devastating stopping power. Its secondary armament, meanwhile, consisted of four MPL-89 Laser CIWS cannons, two on each side of the turret, which were manned by the tank's AA gunner. The weapons were originally designed to intercept Alien Blaster Launcher rounds before they could detonate, but they turned out to be effective against everything from low flying aircraft to enemy infantry, their high rate of fire, pinpoint accuracy, and near-universal coverage making them both cheap and effective weapons. The tank's armament was completed by a Fusion Bomb Launcher in the rear of the turret, its targeting system being fixed on a flexible mount on top of the vehicle's turret.

The tank's defenses, meanwhile, were composed of two heavy Disruptor Shield generators, technology that, in the early days of EWIV, had made the vehicle all but invincible. Now, however, while still effective against Ethereal weaponry, the shields were far from the impregnable barriers they once were, which was why the tank also had thick Alloy-D armor, ranging in thickness from ten to thirty centimeters, with an additional centimeter of APDBA Ablative Plate on top of that. However, while this protection made the tank heavy indeed, the Helios-D-5330 Elerium Drive within it hull made that weight a non-factor. Under ideal conditions the tank could make up to 200 kilometers per hour, although outside of a perfectly smooth, clear track this speed was horribly impractical. All together, this combination of lethal armament, thick defenses, and incredible speed made the T-109-4 'Super Bradford'

"Driver, take us out, nice and easy. Watch for pedestrians." Arnold ordered.

"Gotcha Sir." Teresa replied, guiding the tank out of its platoon revetment with practiced ease.

"All armored units are to report to pre-determined co-ordinates in accordance to defense plan H-Gamma Three. Enemy ETA is approximately five minutes, so move at maximum safe speed. Good luck. Terra Invicta." The orders came in loud and clear through Arnold's headset moments later, co-ordinates appearing on his helmet's HUD moments later.

"Driver, take us to Hill 449, Max safe speed. AA, watch for early launches."

"Roger." The two crew members chorused as the tank sped out of its revetment, following the 'Beda' to Hill-449. Looking out of the commander's cupola, Arnold looked up at the massive burning streaks that denoted the enemy transports performing their hard insertion.

"They weren't kidding when they said they were coming down on top of us." He muttered.

"You got that right, one of them looks like it's coming down right onto our base." Preston chimed in, the vehicle's laser cannons spinning around, scanning the area for potential targets.

"Why wouldn't they? I mean, we've done the same in the past." Arnold replied, watching as the bright streaks of defensive weaponry fired up at the distant, but rapidly closing, transport.

"Attention! All forces are to immediately brace for nuclear-equivalent kinetic impact! Enemy transport has been downed, impact site is Sector D-12. All units in Sector D-12 are to clear out immediately. All airborne units are to commence anti-nuclear maneuvers. Estimated time to impact is two minutes. Repeat..." The warning had barely started to repeat itself by the Arnold slammed the cupola door shut, checking to make sure it was sealed tight.

"Looks like the AAO boys have managed to hit something." Preston commented.

"I'd hate to be one of the poor bastards in D-12 though." Ernst replied.

"We're here." Teresa added.

"Good. Set us down, but keep the drives warm. I don't want to be thrown around by the blast, but I want to be mobile on a moment's notice." With a light hum, the vehicle descended, setting down on the hard, dry soil of Hill 449. Seconds ticked by, then one minute, then two, then...

The blast was the first sound that was heard, as the massive transport slammed into the ground, its Elerium drive detonating spectacularly moments later. It was followed by the sound of roaring, gale-force winds as air rushed in to fill the sudden vacuum, creating a towering mushroom cloud over the battlefield. Even as the mushroom cloud rose into the air though, the remaining alien transports came down, slowing themselves down as best they could, the ground shaking as they lightly crashed into it. One came down barely three kilometers away from Hill 449, huge deployment ramps slamming open along its sides, while bright red energy shields burst into being, keeping the disembarking troops out of immediate danger.

"Open fire!" The command was given. The die was cast. All along the line, the assembled tanks opened fire, while self-propelled artillery on the opposite side of the hill did the same.

"Ready Anti-Infantry! Fire at will!" The cannon boomed moments after Arnold gave the order, the bright blue-green beam slamming into a cluster of hostile infantry that were just disembarking. The four laser cannons joined in moments later, sweeping the area with incandescent red death, tearing apart any foe they encountered. Then, around a hundred meters down the line, a tank exploded, a deluge of bright green bolts whittling down its shields in moments, before an overcharged shot from one of its assailants punched through its armor and detonated its Elerium core, causing the vehicle to go up in a bright flash of green.

"Seekers!" The warning sent a shiver of fear down Arnold's spine, as less than a second later the bane of Human tankmen everywhere opened fire once again.

During the start of the Fourth Ethereal War, human tanks were all but invincible thanks to Disruptor Shield technology, which had been reverse-engineered from the Micronoids during their attempted invasion of the Sol system. It had rendered the vehicles all but invincible against the Ethereal anti-armor weapons of the time, allowing them to withstand anything short of an airstrike with nary a scratch. Then the Ethereals rolled out a new series of anti-tank weapons, with dual modes of fire. The first was a high-intensity rapid fire burst designed to strip away Disruptor shields, while the second was an overcharged bolt designed to punch through Human tank armor. To make matters worse, this new weapon had been mounted on Seekers, turning what had, until then, been a minor nuisance and harassment unit into a lethal, unpredictable tank destroyer. This, when coupled with advances in cloaking technology, made Seekers completely undetectable unless they were firing, at which point only the origin point of the plasma bolt was visible. Already red fire raked the skies above the armored line, occasionally striking and de-cloaking the deadly robots, at which point every laser in the area would converge on it and melt it down to slag.

"Sit tight 449, this is Anthill. We've got Gnomes in the air. We'll take care of your squid problem." The calm message from behind the lines came just as the tank to the left of 'Ice Cream Truck' detonated in a flash of green. This time, the culprit was an Ethereal tank, the hostile vehicle having exited the transport's shields as the Seekers wreaked havoc.

"Gunner! AT! Tank, Plus twelve, minus thirteen!" Arnold shouted, ordering the main gun set to Anti-Tank, and calling out the target's bearing.

"Identified! Up!" Ernst called out. The target was now in his sights, and the gun was set correctly.

"Fire!" The gun blazed.

"Hit!" The enemy tank blazed. Unlike their human counterparts, Ethereal armored vehicles rarely had defensive shields, although their armor was much stronger to compensate. Of course, while the old Bradford-III's PKL-42 of the previous fifteen years would have struggled to penetrate the thick alloy plate, the Super Bradford's PKL-48 cannon punched clean through it, the shot's containment fields losing cohesion in the enemy crew compartment if the turret blowing off was any indication.

"Kill confirmed!" Both Gunner and Commander cheered in unison.

"Driver, move out! Gunner, Tank, Minus two, minus twelve!" Arnold ordered a moment later as the enemy vehicle's two companions took aim with intent to return fire. The two bright green lances of light passed through empty air as Teresa traversed the tank to the left, bumping up against the burnt out carcass of the tank that once occupied that particular position.



"Hit!" The shot left a bright, glowing score along the side of the enemy vehicle, but the return shot striking the shields moments later told Arnold that it wasn't a kill.

"Target still up! Fire!"

"Hit!" This time, the tank went up in a burst of green light, its Elerium core rupturing and detonating.

"Kill confirmed!" The crew cheered once more.

"Driver, move out!" Once more the tank repositioned, avoiding the precise return fire of the Ethereal armor. As 'Ice Cream Truck' shifted, 'Beda' fired on its right, killing the third Ethereal vehicle. However, as the other Human tank was repositioning, it caught a point-blank barrage from a Seeker. The alien drone was taken out by a Gnome Anti-Seeker Drone before it could kill its target, but the damage was done, and the tank's Disruptor shields were breached. A moment later, a bright green bolt shot out from the plain below. It was a glancing hit, but it still burned away the ablative coating on the tank's left side. A shot from the vehicle to the 'Beda's right killed the enemy before it could follow up though, and 'Beda' retreated safe and sound to recharge its shields.

"Come in 2346th Regiment, this is the 23rd Ganymede Close Support Wing. Name the target and we'll obliterate it." The cocky, Jovian-accented voice of the Regiment's air support rang out in Arnold's ears. The AH-91 Firebrand VTOLs had hidden behind nearby hills to protect themselves from the blast, and had only now managed to get airborne once more. Moments later, someone higher than Arnold in the command chain ordered a general airstrike. Immediately, area around the transport was raked by fusion bomb and plasma cannon fire as the Firebrands tore up the area.

"2346th Regiment! Forward!" The command came moments later from the same officer.

"You heard the man! Charge!" Teresa didn't need to be told twice, as the tank vaulted over the ridge line, accelerating towards the disorganized enemy forces. The first foes to feel 'Ice Cream Truck's wrath were a pair of Sectoid Shocktroopers, the oversized, muscular creatures going flying as the heavy vehicle ran over them. The shocktroopers were a necessary adaptation on the enemy's part, as the capture of the Muton homeworld early on in the Human offensive had effectively cut off the Ethereal supply of Muton stock, meaning that other races were needed to fill the gap. Of course, like any infantry, a tank could run over them just fine, as 'Ice Cream Truck' demonstrated.

"Gunner! Tank, Plus fifty-three, minus one!" The next armored target was spotted, as the tank's laser cannons laid waste to everything around the vehicle, swiveling around wildly on their individual mounts as Preston operated them.

"Identified!" Once more 'Ice Cream Truck's turret swiveled around, its gun depressing the needed amount as Ernst took aim.


"Hit!" The enemy vehicle brewed up, its turret bursting open as something, likely its main gun, detonated inside.

"Kill confirmed!" A flash of green off to the tank's left alerted Arnold to the presence of another tank, as the hostile vehicle fired on the 'Beda', the vehicle's Disruptor shields once again going down. However, the hit failed to take out the vehicle, and 'Beda's turret swung around and destroyed the enemy.

Then, moments later, a second plasma bolt punched through 'Beda's rear, and smoke began to rise from the engine compartment. As Arnold called out the next enemy's position, the fire began to grow, the other vehicle's fire suppression system evidently having been damaged by the hit. Then, even as Ernst added another tank kill to his crew's tally, several hatches popped open on 'Beda's turret and front, as the crew bailed out, the AA gunner clambering out of the turret cupola first, standard-issue plasma SMG in hand, leaping down from the side as smoke poured from the open hatch. Evidently, the fire had spread to the fighting compartment. The gunner clambered out next, clutching his own SMG, and jumped down, several plasma bolts just barely missing him. The driver, meanwhile, was clambering out of his own hatch, but just as he managed to extricate himself from the vehicle, a plasma bolt caught him in the chest. His tanker's vest, designed to protect against shrapnel and the remnants of plasma bolts that had prematurely lost cohesion, was useless against the direct hit, and the man fell forward, chest blown open. The tank commander was the last to attempt evacuation, clambering out the cupola, SMG in one hand and a fire extinguisher in the other. A plasma bolt caught him in the head, killing him instantly. Moments later, the tank brewed up in a flash of green light. The two escaped crewmen, who were using the vehicle for cover, didn't stand a chance.

"Damn..." Arnold muttered as he helplessly watched four men die.

"Couldn't run, couldn't stay." Preston replied, not pausing in his laser barrage. Arnold didn't reply, however, as he spotted another enemy vehicle.

"Gunner! Psy-car, Plus twenty-two, level!" Unlike the tanks they had cut through before, the hostile psionic assault vehicle was heavily shielded, both by the glowing crimson energy barriers used by Ethereal forces, and by the nigh-invisible telekinetic barrier thrown up by the heavily altered super-sectoid within.

It was a well known fact that the Ethereals were on their last legs in terms of physical state, as even their immense psionic powers couldn't keep their decaying bodies functioning forever, a fact that the men back in the Propaganda department were very keen on reminding the human race. After all, if their enemy was dying, humanity didn't have to win. It only had to outlast. However, even though the Ethereals had vanished from the battlefield by the time the EWIV began, the need for a strong psionic unit remained, hence the so-called 'Super-Sectoid'. Little more than a massive, oversized brain connected to tiny, useless limbs, the Super Sectoids were almost always hard-wired into oversized psionic amplifiers, which were in turn often attached to so-called Psy-cars, designed to keep both amplifier and operator safe and mobile on the battlefield.


"Fire!" The cannon blazed, and the bolt lanced towards the enemy vehicle. However, just as it was about to hit the other vehicle's shields, it suddenly changed direction, dealing the crimson barriers a glancing blow as it flew off into nowhere.

"Deflection! Fire!" The cannon blazed once more, and once more the shot was deflected. At that point the hostile vehicle was glowing purple as it charged up to retaliate, and before Arnold could order another shot, the opposing vehicle attacked. No amount of armor or disruptor shielding could stop the psionic bolt of energy as it sought out the minds of the vehicle's occupants.

"Psi-" A cry of agony cut off Arnold's warning as the psionic attack met its mark. It was an attack that had only one defense, and that was rigorous training. Every member of the Human armed forces trained at Luna academy had been forced to undergo hours of mind control resilience training, being subjected to nonstop psionic assault, first by psionic trainees to get a feel for what was going on, then by hardened instructors to practice defending against it. It was that training that now kept Arnold thinking straight as he fought against the mental assault.

Being on the receiving end of full-blown mental domination wasn't like having a voice in your head that told you to kill your allies. Instead, those on the receiving end found out that they WERE the voice in their own head, desperately trying to keep their body from turning against humanity. Fortunately, after what seemed like an eternity, but was likely only a few seconds, the assault was over, and Arnold awakened to a revolving turret. Evidently, Ernst hadn't been as fortunate, as he had the characteristic blank look and glowing purple eyes of a mental domination victim. A quick, hard strike to the gunner's brachial plexus took care of that problem, as the gunner collapsed limply in his seat. However, while an unaffected person would only be briefly stunned by such an attack, the effects of mind-control caused Ernst to lapse into unconsciousness, completely incapacitated by the combination of nerve strike and mind control.

"Sound off!" Arnold shouted as he pushed the limp form of his gunner out of his seat, jumping into the gunner's seat in his place.

"I'm clean!"


The two replies from his fellow conscious crew caused him to smile. It seemed as though they had fought off the enemy mind control as well.

"Good. AA, open fire on the Psi-car. Two guns." Arnold ordered as he settled into the Gunner's seat, peering through the sights and centering them on his target, the red glow of the Psi-car's shields amplified by the bright red streams of light deflecting off the vehicle's telekinetic field.

"Firing!" With that word, he pulled the trigger, and the enemy vehicle disappeared in a cloud of smoke as a Firebrand VTOL flew overhead, unloading its missiles into the unsuspecting foe. When the smoke cleared, only a burning wreck remained. The aftermath was eerily quiet, broken only by sporadic small-arms fire as infantry charged in to clear the mostly-empty transport ship.

"That their kill or ours?" Preston asked, as Arnold bent down to shake Ernst awake.

"Ours, of course. We have the bigger gun!" He declared in response.

"But they're faster and have miniature nuclear weapons." Preston countered.

"Are you, an AA gunner, arguing in the flyboys' favor?"

"Meh, I always did want to be a pilot."

"Then why aren't you one?"

"Because I failed flight school. That's why I'm not allowed to drive the tank!"

"So you became the AA gunner?"

"Well if I can't fly, no-one will!"

The banter continued for a while as the tank hovered outside the landed enemy ship, too big to fit inside, and with no more enemies on the ground to engage. Occasionally, Preston would squeeze off a burst into the air as he spotted an enemy flyer near the edge of his guns' effective ranges, but other than that the battlefield was quiet. The landing ship was soon clear, any last holdouts onboard being systematically smoked out by flamethrowers and plasma fire. Judging by the comm-chatter, the same scene was repeating itself across the battlefield.

"Strange." Ernst remarked once the all-clear was sounded, the tank turning and heading back to what was left of the base.

"What?" Teresa asked from her compartment below.

"This doesn't seem like the Ethereals. I mean, attacking a purely military world without orbital support, and with so little manpower? If I didn't know better, I'd suggest incompetence on the part of the enemy." The Gunner replied.

"I've been having the same thought. This just doesn't seem like them." Arnold replied.

"Maybe the wrinkly old bastards are finally going senile." Preston joked.

"Let's hope so." Arnold replied.

"Enemy forces have retreated out of system. Grav-buoys indicate that they have exited FTL approximately three light-years away from the star." Admiral Lebedev sighed at that report.

"Looks like they're blockading us." The admiral stated the obvious as the sounds of weapon fire on the deck below slowly petered out, the onboard Marine contingent slowly but surely eliminating what remained of the enemy boarding parties. It had been a close battle, and the Warsaw was in severe need of repairs after it rammed one of the attacking light cruisers, neatly shattering the enemy vessel, shields and all, but crushing the entirety of the Heavy Carrier's prow in the process.

"Small craft are being recovered, and we have begun to restore atmosphere to safe rooms. I will have a full report of our losses and damages within three Solar hours." Natalia continued her report as air slowly hissed into the room once more.

"Good. Send a message to ComNavPer requesting for relief. How are our supplies?"

"Auto-farm productivity down on the planet has been reduced by approximately forty percent. If repairs are finished fast enough, we will be able to scrape by on rations. However, our orbital infrastructure was severely damaged. We will not be able to manufacture replacement parts for our fleet any time soon."

"Sir, ComNavPer is on the line. Priority-Two channel is open on hyperwave." A communications officer reported moments after Natalia finished speaking.

"Onscreen, now." The holoprojection of Grand Admiral Warren Perry, Commander of Navy, Perseus, or ComNavPer for short, shimmered into existence in front of the system map. Nikita saluted as it did so.

"At ease, Fleet Admiral. I assume that the attack on Serpens Ultima has been repelled successfully?" The Grand Admiral got down to business immediately.

"Yes Sir, the enemy forces have retreated, but we are now blockaded in-system. I would like to request a relief force to be sent as soon as possible." Nikita reported. Upon hearing this, Warren shook his head.

"I am afraid that we cannot spare any forces to relieve you at this time. The entire Perseus line is under assault by multiple Ethereal battle fleets. We're barely holding the line as is, and our scouts report second and third waves incoming. We're all tied up, and reinforcements are days away at least."

"How? Shouldn't we have had ample warning?" Nikita demanded.

"We thought that the attack on Serpens Ultima was a large-scale probing assault, as has been done several times before. Whenever one of those occurred in the past, the enemy would always send small probing fleets at the rest of our line to check for weak points. We in turn engage these probing attacks and destroy them. Today, our patrol fleets engaged the enemy attacks as usual, and those that managed to get away started screaming about how they were full-blown battle fleets using some sort of grav-signature altering technology, which you have already encountered. Evidently, the Ethereals have already mass-produced it."

"So it wasn't just a combat trial after all. What are my orders, sir?"

"Can you run the blockade?"

"Negative. Preliminary damage reports suggest that nearly half the fleet is too damaged for long-distance FTL. We'll fall apart if we try to jump more than a light year at a time, and we don't have an Elerium Sling in-system. For all intents and purposes, we're stuck here."

"I see. In that case, your orders are to hold out for as long as you can. We will relieve you if possible, but until then you are to hold position and harass the enemy whenever you can. I trust that the supply situation isn't too bad?"

"I believe that we will be able to pull through. What about reinforcements? Can the Perseus line hold?"

"We're holding out for now, and ComNavInt has already mobilized what he can on such short notice, with a promise of more on the way. We will likely be pushed back by around twenty to thirty light years, but we can endure. We've faced worse odds, after all."

"Very well then. I will endeavor to hold Serpens Ultima to the best of my ability. Just don't forget about us!" The Grand Admiral laughed at that.

"If you're still there by the time we push the line back, I'll have you all sent back to Sol for commendations. ComNavPer out." The hologram winked out of existence, leaving Nikita to stare at the empty systems map. A few seconds passed with only the low hiss of atmosphere and the hum of technology pervading the room. Then, Natalia spoke up.

"Sir? What do we do?"

A slight hiss rang out in the room as the Admiral removed his helmet, his face set in a grim smile.

"We hold this system. I want our ships patched up within the next three solar days. Use debris from the ring if needed. Next priority is getting the orbital infrastructure back up and running. I want all the engineers we can spare to work on getting that orbital fortress operational. We need those parts if we want our fleet to be fully combat ready."

"What about crew losses?" Natalia asked.

"If necessary, we will pull what we can from the ground forces. The Colonel will bitch about it, but I can pull rank."

"I see."

"Then let us get started. The system won't hold itself, after all!" And so, the bitter struggle continued.

It was a perfect day for a parade, mused Simon Hutch, head of the XCOM Department of Propaganda. Of course, August 25th was always a good day, the weathermen having worked overtime to create picturesque sunny skies and gentle breezes for the Victory Day Cadets' March. After all, it wouldn't do for something as simple as rain to spoil the annual spectacle. Said spectacle now unfolded below him, as millions of cadets, aged between sixteen and seventeen, marched through the New London city streets. He had just given a speech on the events that now unfolded across Human space, his voice being broadcast to every human colony in the galaxy and heard by billions of souls, all of whom already knew exactly what was going on.

All around the world, and on every one of humanity's populated colonies, almost every single human aged between sixteen and seventeen now marched to their local space port, nearly two billion souls destined to follow in the footsteps of their mothers and fathers. Military service was mandatory for the human race. The only ones who avoided the draft were the very few cripples who could not be healed even by modern medical science, and the few prodigies whom the XCOM Research and Development Bureau took an interest in. Everyone else, no matter their parents, gender or social status, went into the military. Nearly sixty years before, Hutch had made the same journey, clad in a dress uniform that, while it looked good, had clearly been recycled many times before, with an old, cheap, showpiece rifle over his shoulder. Then came the four years at Luna Academy, where he graduated an infantryman. Two ten year tours of duty came next, followed by a fifteen year stint in the logistics corps, and then another six in Information Warfare before he was approached by a pair of suited individuals and offered a position in the Department of Propaganda. Now, nearly halfway through his life, the sixty-five year old Department Head watched another generation of youths march past on jackbooted feet, their parents cheering them along on the sidelines.

However, half of the young men now marching would not return home, their fate being death on the battlefield. However, Humanity could not afford to falter, even in the face of such a horrific attrition rate. No, the only option Humanity had was to keep growing. For every soldier that died in action, five children were had by the one who made it back. XCOM Executive Order 2381 made it so.

It was that executive order that ensured that nearly every woman watching the parade was pregnant. It was that executive order that ensured that every human being watching the parade worked long hours in the many factories of Earth to keep the soldiers at the front supplied. What many people a century and a half before would have called barbaric was now being embraced as a necessity, an attitude that Simon was instructed to maintain. In the early days, there were philosophers and poets who cried at how the human race's humanity had been stripped away. Some ended up making propaganda, while many more simply vanished, arrested for sedition. After all, any disunity in the human race could end up costing them the war. That was why the Propaganda Department, in addition to managing education and the media, also headed the Anti-Sedition Police (ASP), one of humanity's three secret police forces. The ASPs were the least utilized of all three secret police units, as the times of protests, opposition media and draft-dodging were long over, and their sphere of influence did not extend beyond the 'pacified' areas of space, which were far enough behind the lines that the threat of hostile military action was negligible.

"A fine speech, Mr. Hutch." A smooth, cultured voice brought the Propaganda Minister out of his musings. He turned to see his ever-present shadow, David Blake, standing behind him, an easygoing smile on his face. Officially, the man was Simon's bodyguard, but in reality, he was Simon's handler. He was, after all, a member of the Ordermen. Highly trained, all veterans of no less than four tours of duty, and loyal only to the XCOM High Commander, the Ordermen were the second secret police force at XCOM's disposal. Their purpose was simple: To keep the other politicians and high-ranking officers on a leash. After all, a government coup would be potentially devastating at this juncture.

"It was nothing, really. I just switched out a few parts of last year's speech." Simon replied, shrugging off the praise with a smile.

"I don't remember the part about utopia after victory being in last year's speech."

"You weren't my bodyguard five years ago, when I last repeated that segment."

"I see." The words were friendly, but carried a pointed undertone. The man was asking for an explanation.

"I usually get these speeches done an hour or so before the actual event. Being Propaganda Head isn't exactly the easiest job in the world, and I don't want to waste government funds on a speechwriter. After all, given the current state of affairs, ASP is getting rather restless. I'm sure you remember how I spent all of last week negotiating with the Industry Head about getting more of my men on his production lines. I know that ASP is little more than a stepping stone for wannabe ExAlt Hunters, but even then we must do our utmost to serve the human race." Simon replied. Everything he said was true, as there simply wasn't enough seditious activity going on anymore to justify ASP's current existence, the organization's main purpose currently being that of a stepping stone to the largest branch of XCOM secret police, the ExAlt hunters, jokingly known as the Inquisition to some. However, the Inquisition's job was anything but a joke. They were tasked with hunting down Extraterrestrially Altered Individuals, or ExAlts, who served as nigh-undetectable sleeper agents for the alien menace.

"We all must do our best for humanity. After all, if we do not, we won't be human much longer." David answered.

"If I had any of my alcohol ration on me, I'd drink to that." Simon replied.

"Then it's a good thing I do." David said, pulling out a large flask.

"Are you allowed to have that on you while you're on duty?" Simon asked.

"Liver mod. Not even grain alcohol could get me drunk." David replied, as Simon went over to a small cupboard to retrieve a pair of shot glasses, their ornate design showing them to be pre-war heirlooms.

"So you drink for the taste?" He asked.

"Nah, it tastes like Andromedon piss. It's a nice, friendly gesture though, and has all sorts of uses." David replied, pouring the beverage into the glasses.

"Now I'm not sure whether to drink it or not!" Simon laughed as he raised his glass.

"Don't worry, it only tastes like poison." David replied, downing his own. Of course, his modified liver meant that he'd likely be immune to any poison he may have placed into the drink beforehand. However, Simon didn't believe that he had done anything that could jeopardize his life, and thus he prepared to drink his own. After all, refusing the drink would have given the impression that he had something to hide.

"To humanity! May we one day reach the utopia I promised the people." Simon declared as he raised his glass, before downing it in one go.

"You weren't kidding!" He spluttered as he registered the taste.

"I rarely do." David smiled back. Really, the man would have been a great friend were it not for the fact that he had standing orders to kill him at the first sign of disloyal behavior.

However, as it was, man and minder maintained a cordial working relationship by sharing another drink, while down below them a younger generation marched off to follow in their footsteps.

A/N: And it's finally done! It took about a month longer than expected, but it is finally here! It's certainly different from the original When Civilizations Meet, but this time I had to take XCOM-2 into the equation, which led to a completely different kettle of fish! The next update will likely be a brief timeline (and by brief I mean a monster that could very well extend past the 10k mark. I had a lot of time to brainstorm history.) As for a codex entry describing technology, I might include it if it is demanded enough, but otherwise I would rather let your imagination and the in-story explanations fill in the gaps.

Please let me know what you think of the story so far! It's noticeably different from 'When Civilizations Meet', being much grittier, with a slightly more 'real' portrayal of warfare, rather than the idealized, happy portrayal of the original WCM. I had originally planned to include more scenes of humanity behind the lines, specifically from the eyes of several more characters on Earth and her colonies, but they ended up getting cut due to time and wordcount constraints. I didn't want to write a 20k word prologue, as that would mean that each chapter would need to be at least as long, which would severely slow update time. Even now, I didn't expect the prologue to go past 10k, and here it is at 12.3k words with a slightly abrupt cut-off.

I would also like to thank Phantomwa1ker and Goodpie2 for their help in writing this fic. Both helped with brainstorming the various background details for this fic over a long series of PMs. In fact, you can thank Phantomwa1ker in particular, as were it not for him convincing me, I probably wouldn't have started work on this rewrite at all! Incidentally, Phantom is currently working on his first fic, a Halo/RWBY crossover, which I will likely Beta in the near future. As for Goodpie2, he has written several fics, with my personal favorite being Mythos Effect. I hope that some of you decide to check them out, and once Phantom's own fic is out, I hope you guys give it a look as well!

Any questions you may have, I am willing to answer. Just leave them in a review or PM me. I hope you enjoyed it!