Overseer Jarkul gripped the portal frame, looking out over the subjugated planet below. Their monitors in phase space had picked up a single Vasari cruiser approaching their colony, apparently a part of the Dark Fleet sent in to destroy whatever menace had been claiming their territories. However, Jarkul's colony was nowhere near the launch or rally points for the fleet - in fact, it was nowhere near anything significant at all. Why would this lone ship be coming to him?
He had ordered a flotilla of support ships and a few military vessels to meet it at its projected arrival point as soon as he was informed of its approach; perhaps they would find some answers. They should arrive shortly before the cruiser did, roughly three hours from now.
In the meantime, Jarkul had a matter closer at hand to deal with. Dissidents had begun trying to sow the seeds of rebellion in one of the larger cities down on the planet. An orbital strike was being organised to level the district the ringleaders lived in - a suitably strong message would discourage others. The dissidents weren't a threat - there was only so much they could do when they were landlocked and unable to obtain any significant level of technology. But still, some things just wouldn't do. Jarkul busied himself with the minor details of the suppression to distract from the question of the incoming cruiser.
"Arriving at projected interception coordinates."
"All ships, full stop," ordered the commander of the flotilla. "Sensors, sweep phase space. I want to know exactly when that cruiser is due."
Commandant Varalk waited, pacing the command pulpit.
"Cruiser acquired. Arrival in three minutes. Interception coordinates accurate."
"All ships, standby."
Another star appeared over the hololith, almost too faint to be seen at first. It grew brighter and larger as time went on, eventually resolving into the image of the sweeping lines and bulbous crew sections of a Vasari cruiser. It was a Skarovas-class cruiser; the flat cross-section and pincer-shaped prow gave its design away.
Its phase engines gave out early, detonating in a blaze of Cherenkov radiation, a few thousand kilometres short of the edge of the system's gravity well. The cruiser carried on forwards, at sub-light speeds, tumbling slowly. A thin, expanding cloud of debris followed it.
A pair of salvage and rescue frigates threw out a gravity net to snare the cruiser. It started to slow as soon as it met the outer edge of the net, five hundred kilometres from the rescue flotilla, finally coming to rest relatively upside-down between the two salvage frigates. A small modulation of the field slowly flipped the wrecked vessel back over.
There was a pause while signals were sent. The commandant used the delay to look over the ship with his own eyes. There were rents and fissures in the starboard prow, most of which were leaking atmosphere. The stern of the ship was a mess, after the phase engine failure. Running lights and the lights shining out of the crew spaces flickered erratically, indicating ruined power delivery systems.
"Hail them again," Varalk snapped.
Another pause. "No reply."
"Sensors. Sweep that ship. Are the crew intact?"
"The crew are alive; the ship is near its full complement. Their communications suite is almost undamaged. Their redundancies are completely functional."
"Send a boarding party. Strike squad first, then engineers, then medics."
Another ship moved towards the cruiser, a docking sleeve extended.
"Docking computers not responding."
"Then we will cut our way in."
The strike team were assembled, checking their weapons and ammunition. Another team member hauled a plasma torch up the gangway, ready to slice through the airlock.
The docking sleeve connected to the ports around the airlock with a solid clunk, and a light indicated that there was atmosphere on the other side of the bulkhead. However, the door failed to unlock.
The strike soldier lugging the plasma torch went forward, and ignited the cutter head. Cutting through the door took another half an hour, and a small shaped charge blew it inwards. The strike team activated their vision filters and made a rolling advance into the failing ship, alternately covering fire lanes and moving forward.
There was no sign of the crew.
"To the bridge."
One of the team was ambushed by a screaming crew member. The pair crashed against the nearest bulkhead and tumbled to the floor. The soldier struggled to restrain the frantic vasari as a rain of open handed blows landed on his armour.
"Leave! Escape, while you can. Can you hear me, are you listening? RUN."
A shot rang out; the team leader lowered his rifle as the crewman slumped to the deck, a steaming hole in his back. "To the bridge," was all he said.
Jarkul watched as a Vulkoras-class battleship slid into low orbit beneath the colony station. A single phase missile leapt out of its launch cradle and screamed towards the planet, aimed at the rebellious district. The ship carried on, passing out from underneath the station and into the local star's weak yellow light.
Jarkul switched his view to that of one of the many surveillance cameras facing the planet, and watched passively at high magnification as the missile slammed into the city, levelling a square kilometre of concrete and steel. Casualty numbers and damage costs scrolled up one side of the screen, evaluating the destruction and filing the results away.
"Overseer, there is a message from the interception flotilla."
The monitor Jarkul had been using to watch the missile strike flicked to an image of the strike team leader on the partially lit bridge of the cruiser.
"The video and audio logs were destroyed, as well as the comm buffers, but the manoeuvring logs and damage reports were left."
"Almost as soon as the ship arrived with the rest of the Fleet outside the target Tier-Two system, they fired their retros on full burn and banked round. The damage to the prow resulted when the ship hit a Jarrakul-class mothership. None of the crew have been forthcoming with intelligence regarding the enemy." He paused. "The engineering and medical teams will not be necessary."
Jarkul ground his mandibles. Another aide called for his attention. "Overseer, we're out of phase link contact with another three systems."
"Find the captain of that ship," Jarkul ordered the strike team.
"At once." The monitor faded to darkness.
"Adjutant - bring me every Fleet ship you can contact. Urgent coding."
The captain of the damaged cruiser was waiting quite calmly outside his bridge when the strike team levered the doors open again.
"Explain your actions. The overseer of this colony demands it."
There was a pause as the captain considered his next words. "This ship is on a silent autodestruct. I set it a while ago; it should go off in the next few minutes."
The strike team leader shot the captain, and ordered the team to make best speed towards the airlock. They wouldn't make it, though. It was too far to go in too short a time.
"There are energy spikes in the power matrix of the cruiser. It is going to explode."
"Move the rescue flotilla away to a distance of one hundred kilometres. Raise shields."
The various ships began to pull away from the stricken warship, and peeled off to regroup at a designated rally point. They had barely reached minimum safe distance when the cruiser's reactors went critical and exploded, tearing the once-proud ship apart.
"Risk from debris?"
"Minimal. The shields will deflect any fragments that are dangerous to the hull."
"Send a report to the Overseer."
"Overseer. The Dark Fleet cruiser has autodestructed. All hands lost. The strike team were still aboard."
"Did they discover the reason for the ship's retreat?"
Jarkul snarled and threw a portable terminal across the chamber. The echoing crash faded into silence as the Overseer's adjutant bowed out.
Over the next month or so the Vasari ships began to arrive, questioning their summons. Jarkul told their captains and governors the same thing - it was time to leave. No word had been heard from the homeworlds, and the number of quenched beacons was reaching three digits.
There was some inevitable grumbling about following the heirarchy, but no one present had been able to contact anyone of higher rank than Jarkul, so his word stood.
It took another week to evacuate all the Vasari aboard the orbital station, and to collect the mine slavers from the asteroid belt. The natives were left to their fate.
Finally, with the station moved in a retrograde orbit and all the Vasari in the system billeted aboard the exodus fleet, Jarkul gave the order to make best speed for the edge of the system's gravity well, and prepare for phase jump. The amassed ships were catapulted out of the system in a blaze of blue light, never to return.
Before the fleet left, Jarkul had left a trio of beacons in the system - one around the star, one around his planet, and one at the edge of the well. Four months after they were gone, the beacons went silent. Adjusting for the time delay due to their distance from each other, they were silenced simultaneously.
Whatever was befalling the Vasari colonies was right behind Jarkul and his exodus.
Jarkul began leaving beacons at every system they traversed, not just the ones they colonised for resources. Always, they would transmit steadily for months, sometimes years, but eventually they all fell silent. The only thing he communicated to his inferiors was a demand for more speed. His desperation was infectious.
The once-mighty Vasari were being hounded across the galaxy, and they were terrified.