55. Downbound Train

A TSAB cruiser exploded, the backwash splashing against the battered wards of the Void's Wrath. The Chaos formation ground forward, the trio of battleships at its heart spewing carnage in all directions as their escorts shielded them with an impenetrable web of fire.

"Assault squadrons, keep 'em busy!" Fleet Admiral Thundra yelled. "Fourth Heavy, get that barrier up and give us some elbow room, Kaiser damn it!"

He turned to his bridge crew, slamming his fist into the desk to get their attention. "Weapons, charge the Arc-en-ciels for full bombardment. I want us ready to atomise those daemon bastards as soon as the heavies have their barrier in place. Comms, where the fuck is the rest of my fleet?"

The communications officer looked up, her face grey and wan. "Sorry, sir, still no luck. This storm is playing hell with our systems. I can barely reach a few thousand klicks without running into interference. Best I can say is-"

"Fleet Admiral Sagitar Thundra, if I may?" Kimidori piped up.

Whilst the admiral disliked having his conversations interrupted, and disliked having them interrupted by one of the Entity's minions even more, it was seldom wise to pass up a Humanoid Interface's advice. "Yeah, what is it?"

"The communications problem. I believe I can help."

"Go on…"

"Our primary purpose, as I have mentioned before, is to gather information, but that is useless if we are unable to disseminate it to the rest of the Entity. As a result, our inter-unit communications are quite sophisticated. If necessary, we can transport any message you care to… ah. One moment, it appears my counterpart aboard the BSS Dolga has reached a similar conclusion. Establishing two-way audio link now."

The green-haired girl paused for a moment, and then her eyes rolled back in her head and she began speaking in the voice of Lindy Harlaown.

"Hi, professor, sorry I couldn't get in touch earlier. Secondary storms have started cropping up across the battlefield, and we're bogged down on multiple fronts without many ways to coordinate a proper counter-attack. The Spiral Drivers are working well, but they're evening the fight more than giving us a serious advantage, and whilst shooting the big ships seems to disrupt the enemy's movements, we haven't been able to exploit that weakness as much as we'd like. They seem to have figured out that the game's up, and we lost the Ninth Assault and a couple of Space Grappals to an ambush when they used one of their battleships as bait."

There was a pause. Thundra stared at the Interface. The pause continued.

"Um… you can just speak normally, sir," Lindy added helpfully. "Imagine I'm in the room with you."

"Right. Got it. Any good news, then?"

"One thing. I think I've figured out where the enemy's coming from." She sounded hesitant, almost embarrassed. Kimidori, miming her body language, seemed more expressive than he'd ever seen her.


"Professor… when we arrived in this sector, did anyone check the local realspace? Anyone at all?"

"Nah, didn't seem to be much point to it. The Warp's where their ships have the greatest advantage, and they always strike from there, so… oh, bugger." Thundra mentally kicked himself. That's what you get for assuming a bunch of lunatics who call themselves 'Chaos' are going to be predictable, I guess.

Kimidori-as-Lindy's expression was irritatingly sympathetic. "Think we should send a scouting force over, then?"

"A big scouting force. No risks – we have no idea what kind of nasty surprises they've got waiting on the other side. We'll need to alert the other fleet commanders, establish breach protocols, set up reserves to drop in if the first wave runs into …"

"Um, sir?" the communications officer cut in. ""This just got relayed to us across a few dozen short hops. It's from the Klingons. Putting it on-screen now."

A large, dreadlocked Klingon appeared on the main viewer, glaring at them from under bushy eyebrows. Klingons were natural glarers, but this one seemed to be putting some extra effort into it.

"I am General Talash, ranking officer for the Empire since Marshal Qo'goth's demise at the hands of the honourless Chaos filth thirty minutes ago," he said. "We have received multiple reports that Chaos ships are invading from realspace. As a snivelling Bureau pataq', it is our expectation that you will react to this by blathering inconsequentially for the next few hours before selling us some poisoned racht-bowl of a 'superweapon' and throwing us in front of you to fight and die on your behalf, and so we have chosen to spare you the effort and mount a full assault on the vermin ourselves. If you wish to reclaim some shred of honour, you may follow us, learn how true warriors fight, and perhaps take care of the mangled leavings we scatter behind us. Either way, the stars will soon run red with daemon blood. Talash out."

The screen went dark. Thundra and the Interface looked at each other.

"… they're all going to die, aren't they?" Lindy said faintly.

"Oh yeah. Harlaown, you're closer. Round up any ships you can spare, and see if you can save those idiots from themselves. I'll hold the line on this side."

"Roger that."

Thundra turned back to the advancing Chaos ships. Pleasingly, the Arc-en-ciels were now almost fully charged. He had a lot of frustration to work out.

The first Klingon vessels screamed out of the Warp into the heart of the Chaos fleet, Spiral Driver barriers lighting up as over a thousand warships opened fire on them. They responded in kind, lashing out at their assailants with showers of plasma bolts, waves of Spiral-enhanced torpedoes, and walls of searing green fire, but it was not enough. For every Chaos ship they destroyed, they lost three of their own, and there were far more of the enemy than there were of them.

Admiral Rong-Arya watched through the windows of the New Syracuse as the last of the Klingon vanguard charged towards them, howling out their death-songs across every available frequency. Dark energy lashed against their massed shields, picking off one craft after another, but they kept coming, carving through escorts and crippling ships-of-the-line with devastating coordinated Driver blasts. The admiral gestured, and two squadrons of daemon-crewed frigates bulled into the Klingons' flanks, forcing their formation apart as they scrambled to confront the new threat and leaving them easy prey for the main fleet's guns.

Soon, all that was left was the vanguard's command ship, a slabby, bulky Negh'Var that shone like a newborn sun as it shrugged aside attacks that should have destroyed it ten times over. Its form rippled, Spiral Energy racing along the length of its hull as it brought its massive, newly-forged guns to bear on the New Syracuse. It fired, double-helix beams raking the dreadnought's shields with the raw energies of creation and forcing Rong-Arya to shield her eyes from the glare.

"Ooh, that was a big one. How much did we lose, Choi?"

"Ten per cent shield strength, ma'am," the tech-priest said. "Pretty impressive when you consider it took ten of those things firing at once to dip the Stiletto's shields by point one."

She nodded. "Yep. Can't blame 'em for thinking that's going to win the war for them. Are the torpedoes ready, commander?"

"Aye, ma'am," Ichiro-Faust replied. "One plague-bomb each."

"Good. Tube Seven, right in their faces."

The Syracuse fired a single torpedo, the vast metal cylinder winding lazily toward the enemy ship. The Negh'Var flicked out a contemptuous spray of plasma bolts and the missile rolled around it, flying to within a few hundred metres of the Klingon vessel before exploding in a cloud of sickly yellowish-brown. Too late, the Klingons tried to turn away, and then the cloud engulfed them.

The effect was instantaneous. Rust swept over the hull, the glow of its Spiral Drivers flickering and dying as great chunks of armour crumbled away into dust. The ship tumbled for a moment, sloughed-away debris shrouding it like flies around a dying man, and then the Chaos flagship's dark lances burst it into powder.

Rong-Arya turned away, smiling happily as a new constellation of green lights marked the arrival of the Klingons' second wave.

I really must remember to get some pictures for Cassie. She'd have loved this.

The Eventide drifted, engines off and emissions cut to almost zero. Its Magical Interface System had gone into its recharge cycle, and with a TSAB warship's primary medium-range weapon offline, standard operational policy was to slip back behind friendly lines, make yourself as unobtrusive as possible, and repair and resupply everything that needed repairing and resupplying until you were ready to go back out again. Until recently, Hayate had been quite comfortable with this aspect of standard operational policy – it reduced the odds on her and her crew dying, and not dying was generally a positive. When she had actually had to put it into practice for the first time, though, she had hesitated, and it had taken two reminders from Lieutenant Rostov before she finally pulled the Eventide back.

Fighting was easy. Not in the sense of the skill it took to accomplish – she had been strained to her limits calculating shot trajectories, predicting the enemy's movements, and co-ordinating her squadron through the anarchic nightmare that the battle had devolved into. It was easy in that it required more instinct than thought, in that it was clear what you needed to do and you had plenty to keep you busy. You could turn your brain off, put aside tricky little questions like how many people did I just kill?, or did I know someone on that frigate?.

She stared at the maintenance logs, trying to lose herself in them as she had in the mayhem of the front lines. It wasn't working quite so well.

I need to see Shamal. She'll have some answers. That's her job, isn't it?

Hayate was reaching for the medbay button when the Humanoid Interface to her left rolled her eyes back and started speaking in completely the wrong voice.

"Colonel Yagami, report," Admiral Harlaown said through Yuki Nagato's mouth.

This was not the first time this had happened. Though communicating through Humanoid Interfaces was a very new idea, it had been swiftly adopted by the allied fleet through lack of better options, and the Eventide had received three messages in the past quarter-hour. It hadn't started looking any less disturbing, though.

"Ninth Scouting is resupplying, ma'am," Hayate said. "We've lost the Spirit and the Fury, and the Valiant is crippled. Our remaining ships are in good fighting order, though, if low on ammunition and MIS power, and should be ready to advance in ten minutes. Seventh Scouting took heavier losses than us, and is requesting that we merge our squadrons to retain battlefield effectiveness."

"Authorised, but your orders have changed. We discovered the main Chaos fleet hiding in realspace, and our allies… mounted an impromptu assault. You'll be providing support. Go in fast and quiet, map out the enemy battle-lines, and see if you can disrupt them a little. Entry point may be unsecured, so proceed accordingly. I'll be honest, things aren't looking good over there, so sooner would be better than later if you can manage it."

Hayate saluted. "Aye, ma'am."

Yuki lifted her head. "One other thing. The ships you lost… any survivors?"

"…Negative, ma'am. The Spirit launched pods, but… the daemons got to them before we did." And we heard it. Right through the hull, from a thousand kilometres away. We heard all of it.

"… I see. I'm sorry, Hayate. Be safe. Admiral Harlaown out."

Yuki blinked, and slumped back in her chair.

"We may need to pick up the pace a bit, ma'am," Lieutenant Rostov said. "The battle-line to our east is getting pushed back – the bad guys have brought in a half-dozen heavy squadrons, and they're piling on the pressure."

Hayate pushed her private thoughts away, shamefacedly glad of the opportunity to do so. "How much of a problem are we looking at here?"

"Growing, but containable. Admiral Harlaown has already deployed a few extra ships to tie them up, so this is more of a heads-up than a we-need-to-get-out-of-here-right-now thing. Still, thought it was worth mentioning."

"Good call, lieutenant." She thumbed the button for the cargo-hold. "Bridge to Captain Krebs, how are we-"

"Holy crap!"

Rostov sighed. "I take it, Sensors, that the situation to our east just dropped the 'containable' qualifier?"

"You could say that, sir. They've – nah, it'd be better to show you. Borrowing the main screen, ma'am."

Hayate closed her comm-link. "Authorised."

The ship status diagram on the monitor blinked away, replaced by an image of local space. The sensors officer had foregone the usual convention of replacing ships with oversized symbols denoting their rough locations, and the battlefield was instead a sea of tiny, near-imperceptible dots and lines. This was not Hayate's first time seeing that display format, though (even if most of the others had been in simulators), and it took her only a few moments to figure out who was doing what.

The allied fleet in this region was largely comprised of Bureau ships, its edge forming a shallow dome that bulged outwards towards the Warp-shrouded Chaos battlegroups. The dome was in poor repair, though, crumpled inward in places as thick clumps of enemy capital ships swept it with curtains of fire. The allied vessels were responding, thickening their lines around the worst-hit areas as interlocking magical barriers scabbed over their injuries, but it was clear even at this vast distance that they were losing ground.

Hayate looked closer, trying to see what had alarmed Sensors so, and found it a scant half-million kilometres from their position. The dome had completely collapsed there, Chaos heavies ripping a hole the size of a planet in the allied fleet, and golden lights gleamed in the middle of the killing field. Realspace intrusions. Big ones.

"Any idea what's coming through?" she asked.

"Looks like another of their thirty-ship groups," Sensors replied, "but it isn't the usual escort wolfpack with a capital and a few ships-of-the-line thrown in. You're looking at a sledgehammer, ma'am, nothing but super-heavy dreadnoughts packing more guns than I'd like to imagine when I'm off my meds. They push through, we lose the whole flank. Guess the figured that once their secret was out, they could stop holding back."

"Chaos dimensional transits are quite clumsy, ma'am," Rostov said. "Their void shields will be weakened until they push all the way through, and a mistimed gate collapse would shear them in half. There isn't a better time to stop them, but…"

"… but their friends are laying down too much firepower for our front-liners to do anything about it," Hayate finished for him. "How's the charge on our Arc-en-ciel?"

"Still at seventy-five per cent. Sorry, ma'am."

"Understood." She re-opened the ship comms. "Colonel Yagami to Ninth Scouting. Anyone recharged their main gun yet?"

The icon for Captain Corsa of the frigate Kaiser's Will lit up. "Sure thing, ma'am. Where do you want it pointed?"

"Dreadnought battlegroup, bearing two-nine-seven high. Red Dawn, Blue Harvest, you still have MIS juice, so give them cover. The rest of us will run interference and try to give you some advance warning if something nasty comes your way. Readings say they'll be through in the next few minutes, so we'll only have one shot at this. Make it count."

The icons on her display gave a series of acknowledging blinks.

"We're suspending the resupply, ma'am?" Rostov asked.

"As quickly as we can. Have Quartermaster Krebs make the necessary arrangements, and if the repair crews can't get back to their own ships in time, we take them with us. We can always give them back once the crisis is over."

"Aye, ma'am."

The little ships of the Ninth Scouting Squadron accelerated away from the fleet supply depot, thrusters glowing. The Kaiser's Will rolled into the middle of the formation, its two escorts walling it off with a dizzying array of wards and illusions. Over the Intercom, Hayate heard the crew begin their prefire sequence.

"Commencing barrel expansion…"

"Contact!" Sensors yelled. "Chaos battlecruiser, coming in fast!"

A single ship had broken from the enemy lines, weaving through the crossfire with impossible agility for something so enormous. It was still only a dot on the screen, but it was a big dot, and getting bigger with alarming speed.

"ETA?" Hayate asked.

"Four minutes. Should be too late to…"

The battlecruiser vanished.

"… oh fuck," said Sensors.

The battlecruiser reappeared two thousand metres behind the bombardment formation. The Red Dawn was first to fall, its efforts to defend the Kaiser's Will leaving it with nothing to spare for itself. The Blue Harvest, warned by the demise of its comrade, lasted two whole seconds more before it was carved into pieces. The glow around the Will's projector fins faded slightly as Corsa tried to cut the power to the main gun, and then it vanished in a sphere of white light four hundred kilometres wide.

The Eventide bucked madly, its wards shattering and hairline cracks popping open across its hull as the outer edge of the blast washed over it. Hayate held on to the arms of her chair with white-knuckled hands, trying to make sense of the sea of red lights that lurched before her eyes.

"Damage report!"

"Mild structural damage throughout the ship, sugar," Leeron's voice said through the comm system, "and the inertial dampeners took a beating. Repair teams are working on it, but I wouldn't recommend much high-G manoeuvring for the time being. No casualties, thank goodness."

"Dreadnought squadron is nearly through, ma'am." The sensors officer's voice was strained, right on the edge of cracking. "Not much we can do to stop them now. Recommend we get out of here ASAP."

Above them, three other Arc-en-ciel detonations blossomed in the heart of the allied fleet. Looks like they had the same idea we did.

Hayate leaned back and closed her eyes. " Miss Nagato, please send message as follows: Ninth Scouting to Second Command. Dreadnought battlegroup mounting assault from realspace in our sector, ETA thirty seconds. All attempts at interception have failed, and our squadron is down to three ships. Requesting an exit route, over."

The little Humanoid Interface gave a brief nod, then looked down again. Hayate looked back at the tactical display, zooming in on one of the emerging dreadnoughts. It was only halfway in, most of its bulk still concealed by the golden plane of the realspace gate, but she could still see that it was massive, almost as long as her home-city of Uminari. The armoured prow was shaped like the beak of some impossibly huge bird, its dozen or so torpedo tubes sculpted to resemble nostrils. Its guns and shields were still offline thanks to Chaos's clumsy dimensional drive technology, but clouds of daemons poured from the recesses of its hull, swarming towards the allied fleet in vast, writhing streamers.

As she watched, the largest of those reached a Bureau squadron. Their point-defences lashed out, slicing through the horde of Warp-spawned monsters, but for every one they cut down, a hundred more stood ready to take their place. The megaswarm flowed over them, leaving nothing but tiny, glittering fragments of metal in their wake.

"Second Command to Ninth Scouting," an unfamiliar voice said through Yuki's mouth, "proceed to coordinates kappa-two-nine, six-seven-five. Elements from the New Republic Expeditionary Force will provide cover, along with Third Bombardment. Do not, I repeat, do not engage Chaos forces. That's our job. Over."

"We have a way out," Hayate said. "Helm, set the course. Fast and quiet, please. Relay the coordinates to the Valiant and the Aurora as well. Did anyone get a read on how that cruiser got past us like that?"

The sensors officer shook his head. "Sorry, ma'am. Still nothing. It seems those other poor bastards we saw light up just now were hit the same way, though, and what we could make of it looked a lot like those preliminary strikes at the start of the battle. I'll keep sifting through the data."

"That tactic was… known to the Data Integration Thought Entity," Yuki said diffidently. "It exists within our databanks. Given the recent damage inflicted upon the Entity's structure, however, acquiring access to that data is proving… problematic. Another opportunity to gather information would likely accelerate the process."

"No offence, Miss Nagato," Rostov said, "but I'd prefer if we weren't the ones to do the gathering. Did you see what that thing did to us? At least they weren't smart enough to judge the size of an Arc-en-ciel blast properly. The situation's bad enough without them breathing down our necks too."

The view through the main screen disappeared, replaced by a brightly-painted wall of buttresses, gargoyles, and very, very big guns. The sensors officer squeaked and hid under his chair.

"You had to say it!" he screamed. "You had to fucking say it!"

The Eventide dived just as the battlecruiser opened fire, dark beams glancing off its abused wards. More red lights appeared on the colonel's console, and an alarm began to blare from somewhere deep in the guts of the ship. Instinctively, she closed her hands on the MIS control crystals, but they were still cold and inert to the touch.

"Lieutenant, do we have anything that can hurt them?"

""The transporters are still loaded with photon warheads, ma'am," Rostov said uncertainly, "but we're having trouble getting a lock. Whatever mutant drive system that monster's using, it's playing hell with our sensors."

"Then send everything over. Even if we don't hit anything vital, a half-dozen multi-megaton blasts inside their hull are still going to sting a bit."

"Aye, ma'am. Energising transporters in ten seconds… nine…"

The battlecruiser fired again and the Eventide jinked away, its hull creaking alarmingly as one inertial compensator after another failed. One more of those and we all die.

"… two… one… energising."

The Chaos ship vanished again. Twelve antimatter bombs exploded in the empty space where it had been a second before. Too late. We were too late.

This time, the monstrous vessel reappeared three kilometres to the Eventide's starboard, looming over it like a hunting pike next to a minnow. Hayate looked up from the mass of warning lights and empty gauges littered across her console and stared into the tiny black hole of a disintegrator barrel. I'm sorry, Vita.

Another string of explosions bracketed the enemy battlecruiser, fading out the screen in a haze of white.

"More photon bombs!" Sensors yelled. "EM pulses from the blasts scrambled their electronics – they're blind!"

Hayate didn't hesitate. "Helm, get us out of here!"

The Chaos ship opened fire again, but not at the Eventide. Another Bureau frigate was swooping down at its exposed back, glowing charging rings disgorging long indigo streamers of magic into its foe's shields. An icon on Hayate's comm panel lit up.

"Hi, colonel," Captain Passat of the Aurora said cheerfully. "Guess whose MIS just went online again?"

Hayate sighed. She was dimly aware that it should have been a relieved sigh.

"Good timing, captain. Will you require assistance?"

"With all due respect, ma'am, not if it's coming from you. You guys are way too banged up, and the Valiant isn't looking much better. Recommend you retreat whilst we keep 'em tied up here. Don't worry; we'll be right behind you."

The blinded battlecruiser launched a spread of torpedoes, the outermost missing the Aurora by scant metres. The colonel winced.

"Planned route no longer looks viable," she said, "especially if there are more of those things through our lines by now. Suggestions?"

"Well, we were supposed to head for realspace, yes?" Rostov pointed out. "Maybe we could arrive a little early. Can we make the jump?"

"I don't know." Hayate pinged Leeron. "Can we?"

"Well, sugar," the engineer drawled, "the hull's ready to shatter, the inertial compensators are fried, the engine's fluxing all over the place, and we're thiiis far away from a core breach. By most conventional standards, it'd be somewhere between 'impossible' and 'suicide'. Give me two minutes. No, wait, make that one and a half."

"Understood. Valiant, can you make it?"

"Aye, ma'am. It won't be smooth, but it's doable."

One of the biggest problems in warfare, naval or otherwise, was communication. Most of the spacefaring civilisations allied under Operation Guardian had been waging war (or, in the Bureau's case, low-intensity police actions) amongst the stars for centuries, and had developed sophisticated techniques with which to manage military intel. The Bureau, for instance, had a streamlined but information-rich battlefield argot, reliable, high-tech vocal/telepathic communications devices, and thousands of intuitively-designed, easy-to-access channels and sub-channels for every conceivable eventuality.

Despite this, even the smallest squadron-level clash still involved hundreds of people trying to share absolutely vital information that everyone else had to know about right now, and keeping several thousand ships from four different universes networked in a chaotic (and Chaotic) melee when several of the alliance members were barely on speaking terms with each other was a Sisyphean task. The Warp-storms had shrunk the Eventide's horizons, drowning out one voice after another, but Hayate had still become used to the constant, background rumble of thousands of fellow-soldiers, their clipped, staccato reports and requests for aid tapping out a rhythm like the heartbeat of a vast, disparate leviathan.

Now, though, that heartbeat was accelerating, upping in pitch and tempo as its steady pulse frayed alarmingly. The beast was panicking.

"They're through! I repeat, dreadnoughts are through!"

"… wards down to fifty per cent, almost out of ammo. Some of them are on the hull. Kaiser, where did they all come from?"

"Hull breach! HULL BREACH!"

"They're clumped together, can't we get an Arc-en-ciel on them?"

"USS Camden here, we've lost the Iowa, the Mississippi…"

"…en-ciel? Are you high? Didn't you see what they did to the last few idiots who tried that?"

"…iral Driver barriers aren't working, what are they…"

"This is the Humanoid Interface Emily Ngoma aboard the Star Destroyer Vigilance. Life support has failed. All crew members are deceased. Ship is drifting. Requesting instructions."

"Oh, good. Looks like the rest of them are coming too. Eighth Bombardment, prepare to…"

"Fire in Engineering! We can't contain it!"

"Hold the line! In Kamina's name, hold the line!"

– a long, low, animal wailing, abruptly cut off –

"… all that's left of Sixth Assault. MIS is out of charge, wards are barely holding together, our weapons are ineffective, and we have a hold full of photon warheads. We're going in. Wish us luck."

A realspace gate began to open in front of the Eventide, the normally perfect circle of its edge ragged and wavering. On the other side was a black void scattered with bright, tiny points of light, disturbingly clean and orderly next to the seething madness of the Warp.

The last thing Hayate saw before her ship lurched through was the Aurora, its hull bucking as a dozen lance beams pierced it at once.

"Status report!"

"Well, sugar, the hull's still in one piece, mostly. We had a couple of breaches, but luckily they weren't in inhabited sections. Magical Interface System's still offline, and I wouldn't recommend a jump any time soon."

"What about that battlecruiser? Did it follow us through?"

"Negative, ma'am. The etherweb sensors are lit up like it's Saints' Day, and there's ships coming and going all over the place, but there's no intrusions in our immediate area except for us and the Valiant. Not sure why, they had us dead to rights… oh. Right. That would be why."

Red icons appeared across the tactical display, coalescing to form a solid wall. Chaos ships. Hundreds of Chaos ships. Hayate could see them through the monitors, a constellation of distant, unfriendly lights forming a hemisphere around the remains of Ninth Scouting.

As one, they opened fire.

Author's Notes: And on that heartening note, this update of the Doorstop concludes. More to come soon. Thanks for reading, and, as always, let me know what you think.