Hey there. It sure has been a while. All I can do is hope this makes up for it.
I've run into both some extremely heavy creative block and just a general lack of enthusiasm for this story. That's mainly due to it not going how I want it to. I have made progress on that front though, so there is still hope. Since the last update, I've written this chapter, started on the next one, and begun to rewrite sections already published. I'm (more or less) done with that through the first part of Chapter 8. I haven't done any drastic changes, but I have retcon'd a good bit of stuff to bring it more in line with this universe as it stands now. I plan on rolling out these updated chapters soon. If you really want a changelog, so to speak, just let me know in a review or PM and I'll get back to you. (I'm far better at that than posting updates.)
0958:08 Hours Military Standard Time, June 4, 2629 (United Earth Governments Calendar)/ MILAI "Apollo", Onboard UNSV Sol, Bridge, Attican Beta Cluster, Theseus System
The Sol dropped out of Slipspace at the exact location and only a quarter of a second before it should have. The entirety of the electromagnetic spectrum streamed into sensors that had been useless in the bubble that was Slipspace. Apollo savored the moment that came immediately after exiting Slipspace. For in that brief instant, he was the only one on the ship who could see, who could know, who could act. The light of the local star, the enemy warships, the twinkle of millions of stars. The photons from those things had yet to reach the retinas of the humans on-board, which had yet to send impulses to the brain, which had to make any sort of sense of all that noise, which meant no offensive or defensive action could be engaged in. Not yet.
Such a waste.
And just like that, it was over as he brought himself back up to the human timescale. It took Captain Lasky an arduous 1,398 milliseconds before he could even open his mouth to ask for a sit-rep. Apollo scaled up further. Seven and a half seconds fully elapsed before all major stations called in green. Another second passed before Admiral del Rio could even start asking for a tactical appraisal. Sensors delivered as succinct declarations as she could, "Six enemy vessels: two Able-class frigates, three Oscar-class transports, one Dreadnought." It still took over eight seconds for del Rio to hear everything. He then authorized the engagement and gave weapons free and the command to separate the pocket frigates. The pocket frigates, as they were nicknamed by the crew, then had to first be jettisoned before the Sol could move to combat acceleration. By the time the miniature battle group had gotten into formation, sixty eight seconds had elapsed. It was 52 seconds faster than required by regulation for an engagement of this size, but it was still so extremely slow.
Apollo didn't understand human military doctrine. Of course, he knew how and even why it worked, but he could not figure out why his creators chose to do it that way. True, it worked, but they were so slow, so unresponsive, even if they couldn't perceive it. They possessed an advantage none of the other races in the galaxy had: Artificial Intelligence that was loyal to a fault, with or without the built in failsafes, and able to outthink, outgun, and outdo any other threat.
And yet they still insisted on doing things themselves.
The Sol had arrived half a million miles from it targets. By pure happenstance (Apollo had to admit dumb luck played a part), the main guns were within three degrees of three of the smaller ships, well within the swivel limits on the guns. In the time it had taken del Rio to formulate and voice his question about whether or not they had arrived in one piece, Apollo could have calculated the trajectory of those three targets, formulated a firing solution, picked the optimal weapons package, and fired, during which the picket frigates would also have been released, more to reduce mass than augment the Sol's defenses or firepower.
By the time the first station had called in green, the enemy would have been reduced to two troop transports and the dreadnought. A picket frigate or two could have been diverted against the transports, but they posed negligible threat to the UNSC vessels. By the time the second station called in green, Apollo could have reoriented the Sol to face the dreadnought and loosed another volley with the mains, along with a few hundred missiles from the Sol's compliment of tens of thousands.
Instead, however, he was forced to endure the seemingly endless procedure that accompanied human command of a warship and had to be content with running that simulation a few hundred thousand times, all the while having to listen to a tiny rebellious seed deep inside scream "LET ME TAKE COMMAND! LET ME FIGHT FOR YOU!"
He would never be able to understand humans.
0958 Hours Military Standard Time, June 4, 2629 (United Earth Governments Calendar)/ Vice Admiral Andrew del Rio, Onboard UNSV Sol, Bridge, Attican Beta Cluster, Theseus System
They flashed back into real space and Captain Lasky instantly called out for a sit-rep. The bridge crew responded in near record time, and del Rio silently expressed relief that they had come out roughly where and when they should have. Even with the new Forerunner drives, Slipspace travel remained a dangerous occurrence.
"Sensors, can you tell me what's out there?" he asked.
"Six enemy vessels: two Able-class frigates, three Oscar-class transports, one Dreadnought, sir," the officer replied. Other relevant information streamed into del Rio's head and he quickly appraised the information.
Six vessels, only half of which were equipped for war. The dreadnought, about four kilometers long, posed the biggest single threat, but it was also the farthest away, nearly a hundred thousand kilometers on the opposite side of the collection of enemy frigates and troop transports. Those were gathered together very closely, only a few kilometers apart at the most. That cluster of vessels would have made an excellent target for a low-yield nuke, say about 50 or 75 megatons, but they were in a relatively low orbit around the planet, only about a hundred and fifty kilometer altitude. They would still be at a disadvantage though, being stuck fairly deep in the gravity well.
It should have been a run in the park for the Sol, but del Rio's insides were turning and the hair on the back of his neck was standing up. He locked eyes with Captain Lasky, and knew the younger commander was feeling it too. You didn't attack a human colony with only three war ships, no matter who you were. Something wasn't right.
"Ops, give the command to separate the pickets. Elements Alpha, Bravo, Charlie and Delta are to engage the enemy light elements. Echo is to escort the ground element to the planet. The Sol will engage the heavy. All elements have weapons free. Commence ground operations." He sat back in the Admiral's Chair as his orders were carried out. On the tac-map, ten new vessels appeared as the picked frigates slid out from the sides of the Sol. Fifteen smaller contacts also popped up as the ground teams' Ospreys and their escort fighters, which would also serve as their CAS element, knifed towards the planet under the protective wing of the picket frigates.
Del Rio turned to Captain Lasky and said, "Captain, you are free to engage hostile Heavy-One." For better or worse, his part of the battle was done with, at least for now. His orders of battle had been given out. His commanders were now free to carry them however they saw fit.
0959 Hours Military Standard Time, June 4, 2629 (United Earth Governments Calendar)/ Captain Jackson Lasky, Onboard UNSV Sol, Bridge, Attican Beta Cluster, Theseus System
"Captain, you are free to engage hostile Heavy-One," del Rio told him. Lasky was only too happy to oblige.
"Aye, aye, Sir," he acknowledged. "Helm, set up an intercept course with H-1 and give me full power on the mains. Weapons, load heavies to MACs 1 and 2 and canister to 3 and 4, prime missile batteries Alpha through Echo on all variants, bring all kinetic-kill batteries to stand-by, and disengage the primary safeties on two of the Lucifers." Almost as an afterthought, he added, "And warm up the Grindell's generators."
Silence descended on the bridge. It was only broken a full second later as the chief weapons officer starting inputting the commands. Lasky focused on the officer and his file appeared in front of the Captain. Lieutenant, Junior Grade Martin Johansen, aged twenty-three. Fourth, and least experienced, of the weapons officers on the ship. Graduated from Luna OTS in '27 as 31st of his class. Once engaged in anti-piracy actions as part of joint Citadel-UNSC patrol group, but no major fleet actions.
It was a shame that such a young officer had to be put in such a position, but with the state that the suddenly expanding Navy was in, any officer certified to staff a bridge crew was worth his weight in anti-matter.
Not that Lasky could blame the man, or his entire bridge crew, for hesitating. He had just commanded Lieutenant Johansen to prepare to unleash more destructive force than the human race had unleashed from the advent of gunpowder to the start of inter-planetary travel. If he gave the command, "Fire all," the number of missiles alone would exceed five thousand, each with a warhead ranging from the low yielding 3-megaton Howlers to the 100 megaton Rapiers. If all four heavy MAC slugs hit, they would do so with a combined two and half million petajoules of kinetic energy. The Grindell, an advanced prototype directed energy weapon that required so much power it had its own dedicated power plant, was theoretically capable of punching though the atmosphere of a Jupiter-sized gas giant and still have enough energy to melt through a few dozen meters of Titanium-S. This truly mind-bogglingly destructive force, usually enough to lay waste to the military strength of entire star systems, was being directed at a single enemy ship. The term "overkill" definitely occurred to most of the bridge crew.
But something wasn't sitting right with Lasky. A tiny voice at the back of his mind was screaming at him, BAD! VERY BAD! His entire body was covered in goose-bumps.
It was the same feeling he got right before an operation went belly-up, only multiplied ten-fold.
He checked the range. 550,000 kilometers, well within the limitations imposed by the "Ten Second Rule."
The effectiveness of a MAC shot was determined not so much by range, technically MAC rounds had an infinite spatial range, but rather by the velocity of the round and limitations introduced by the speed of light. The higher the velocity, the more distance it covered over a given time, and the less time the enemy vessel had to respond to the attack. The Sol, thanks to her Forerunner engine, was capable of accelerating a 'heavy' slug to a quarter of the speed of light. At that velocity, and against a competently trained UNSC crew of a Halcyon-II heavy cruiser (one of the most powerful starships in the galaxy), combat simulations had shown that a target within 10 seconds reach, or approximately 750,000 kilometers, had the smallest chance of evasion. Of course, this rule of thumb varied depending on how well-trained both crews were, whether or not one or both vessels had an AI, the total mass of the target vessel, and dozens of other factors, but it was accurate enough. This was defined as the optimal range and it was generally frowned upon to engage past it. Maximum effective range was limited by the speed of light. Past a certain distance, the lag introduced by the time it took light to travel from the target to the attacker prohibited effective gunnery, unless the target was stationary or in a well-established orbit. Beyond this distance, typically defined to be around 10 light-seconds for a moving target, UNSC regulations almost entirely forbade engagement with MACs. The chance of missing and hitting an unintended target was considered too great, especially considering weapons as destructive as MAC rounds.
He checked the range again. 500,000 kilometers. The light bouncing off of Heavy-One was now only a bit more than a second and a half old, providing as up-to-date information as any commander could possibly want. Yet, the dreadnought still serenely hung in space, with no apparent effort to move, either to withdraw or engage the Sol.
They passed through the 1.5 light second mark. The time had come.
"Set canister to narrow spread. Fire," Lasky ordered.
Canister, as used by MACs, had been developed to combat the chief weakness of ordinary magnetically accelerated rounds: over-penetration. Orbital defense platforms had been able to punch holes straight through even the biggest Covenant capital ships, but unless they hit something vital, like reactors or life support, or key parts of the physical superstructure on the way through, they could leave the target in relatively good condition. This had often resulted in one target needing multiple strikes, even though one round should have, theoretically, been enough. Canister, made up of several hundred hyper-dense spheres, each about 50 centimeters in diameter, was designed to transfer more of the kinetic energy of the round directly to the target. To address the vast distances over which space combat took place, each round was formed around an explosive charge and tipped with a unique electronic chip designed especially to withstand the incredible G-forces the round experienced on launch. This chip could be programmed to detonate the charge at a set distance from the target, affecting the spread of the spheres inside. A narrow spread, as Lasky had ordered, meant the charge would detonate relatively close to the target, meaning the area over which the individual balls would strike would be pretty small. An additional positive side effect was that the on-board electronics could detect if the target was away from the round's line of travel and detonate the round early so that at least some of its contents would strike the target.
Yet despite all of its potential, canister was the last option of nearly every commander with a ship capable of firing it. The rounds were bulky and often had their center of mass off their center-line, affecting how the super-strong electromagnets accelerated the round. The human race, despite having been a computerized civilization for over half a millennia, still wasn't capable of producing a computer chip capable of reliably withstanding thousands of gees of acceleration. Additionally, the rounds also had a stigma attached to them. During an early live-fire exercise, the acceleration had been great enough to detonate the core charge halfway down the barrel of the cruiser Highveld. No lives had been lost, but the damage had been extensive enough to land the ship in dry-dock for eight months as eighty-five percent of its MAC was replaced.
While Lasky had doubts about the round, they weren't strong enough to prevent him from using them. Besides, he was using them more as a means to test the water, so to speak. The rounds impacted, much as he had expected, on a form of energy shield, which glowed a bright crimson as it absorbed the impact of the attack. For the first time, the dreadnought moved. It spun, with its tentacle side facing the Sol, but instead of launching a counter attack, the rate of closure between the two ships began to slow, indicating that it was beginning to move away. The glare from the shields faded to reveal an untouched ship.
"No damage detected, Captain," Weapons confirmed.
Sensors came to the rescue. "Captain, I detected an energy flair from this part of H1," he said, highlighting a region of the dreadnought and sending the image to Lasky. It was exactly the information he had been looking for.
Lasky couldn't pin it down, but something inside his mind was telling him that this was no Geth ship. It was far more primeval, and yet much more advanced, than anything the Geth could field. He had wagered that the canister shell would be powerful enough to warrant extra input from whatever power source supplied the shields. His wager had paid off.
He barked out orders. "Helm, new heading zero-five-six, inclination 30 degrees, engines dead. Weapons, load two heavies in the empty MACs. Apollo, get me a Slipspace exit vector 1K kilometers from H1. I want our nose pointing straight at this guy and a firing solution straight at that hot spot we detected. You have control when we drop out. Ops, brace the ship for a flash jump. Helm, initiate flash jump sequence on new bearing."
The bridge crew jumped to their tasks, the hesitancy from earlier gone, as the voice of the Ops officer rang through the ship, calling "All hand, brace for flash jump."
"New heading, Captain," Helm said. Acceleration pulled Lasky sideways in his command chair as the Sol spun around to come to her new heading, though the effects weren't uncomfortable. "Initiating flash jump." He paused for five seconds. "Translights spun. Jump in two. One. Mark."
The five kilometer long Sol slipped into Slipspace sideways, carried along by her momentum and with her nose pointing to where the enemy would roughly be when they exited.
Her mighty Forerunner engines dropped her exactly where they should have, in too short an interval of time to have any meaning to a human mind.
1005:26 Hours Military Standard Time, June 4, 2629 (United Earth Governments Calendar)/ MILAI "Apollo", Onboard UNSV Sol, Bridge, Attican Beta Cluster, Theseus System
For Apollo, it was more than enough time.
And something was wrong. Very wrong.
He had the peculiar sensation of being in two places at the same time. They had entered Slipspace on an unusual heading. This meant that the starboard side of the Sol entered Slipspace before the corresponding location on the port side. It wouldn't have been an issue if they had exited in the same way. But they were coming out of the portal bow first. In layman's terms, the left part of the bow was coming out of Slipspace before it had actually entered it.
He was overcome by two different experiences, each as vivid and real as the other and both competing for the same slot of memory. On one side, he could see the retreating dreadnought and on the other it was directly in front of him. He felt his logic processors overheating.
This shouldn't be happening.
This couldn't be happening.
He was dead before he was born.
He counted to two before counting one.
He had killed his grandfather, but was still there.
His next thought would be true, but it would tell him his previous thought had been false.
Darkness descended on him.
0000:00 Hours Military Standard Time, January 1, 9999 (United Earth Governments Calendar)/ MILAI "Apollo", Onboard UNSV Sol, Bridge
How long it took him to reboot, he didn't know, but apparently it was long enough for the Sol to decide where exactly in space she wanted to be.
One overwhelming thought occurred to him: he had been in a combat situation before he had been shut down by his failsafes. He jumped into action. He was not receiving instructions or anything other than basic telemetry from the crew, meaning they were either dead or so incapacitated as to be unable to command the ship anyway, so pushed life support to the bottom of his priorities list. He wiped the nav data base. He pinged the propulsion systems and got a positive response from the mains, though the PCEs, or precision control engines, remained dark. He initialized a diagnostic. He would need them if he were to precisely control the Sol's orientation. He still had fire control of all weapons systems. Radar, Lidar, LazNav, GravNav, and VisNav rebooted and he got his first view of the outside world.
The dreadnought was bearing down on the stricken Sol, arms extended as if to embrace her, and barely five kilometers distant.
He did the only thing he could and reacted reflexively, much the same way a human leg does when hit on the knee.
But instead of a kick, he fired.
He fired everything.
0000:30 Hours Military Standard Time, January 1, 9999 (United Earth Governments Calendar)/ MILAI "Apollo", Onboard UNSV Sol, Bridge
The nature of human warfare in the middle of the Third Millennium was unlike any that had come before it. The commander of a human frigate held more destructive power at his fingertips than entire countries had wielded five hundred years before. One Halcyon-II could outfight an entire Covenant expeditionary force.
So when Apollo fired every available weapon on the Sol, he unleashed enough firepower to have beaten the Covenant forces at Cote d'Azure, Reach, and Earth, combined. That wasn't to say it was particularly well-directed, or even effective, fire, but it was an awful lot.
The problem was the range. The Sol was never designed to fight at distances less than her actual length against another capital ship at an angle of zero degrees off the prow. As a result, at five kilometers, only the MACs and aft-most mounted missile pods, at a distance of ten or eleven kilometers from the target, had a reliable chance of hitting.
Furthermore, the Sol had drifted in the time after the jump when no one was at her helm. Only two of the MACs were still in line with the target and they too would soon be out of attack angle. Apollo, therefore, had to act fast and essentially fired from the hip.
So of the four heavy MAC rounds already chambered, 15,000 missiles and twenty Lucifers in their launch tubes, and thousands of railguns and point-defense guns, only two MAC rounds, a mix of three hundred-odd Archer and Howler missiles, and the fore-mounted guns were in a position to hit. The Grindell was still unavailable; it would need at least another 60 seconds to reach an effective charge. The two MACs outside of the cone of fire he held in reserve, but everything else he fired. The missiles which could adjust fast enough he put on direct courses. The rest, including the Lucifers, he program ed to fire straight outwards to twenty kilometers and, if they lost telemetry from the Sol, probably due to its imminent destruction, speed back inwards to avenge the death of their launching ship.
The two heavy rounds hit with enough force to completely arrest the forward motion of the Geth dreadnought. They were followed shortly afterwards by the few hundred direct missiles. All the while, thousands and tens of thousands of 70, 120, and 500 millimeter rounds pounded away. The light and radiation from the assault caused several of the forward facing cameras to shutdown in order to preserve their internal workings. A ball of ionized gas started to form between the two ships
The dreadnought was apparently both surprised and disgusted by the sudden opposition. Two of its arms straightened out and Apollo detected energy build-up at their points. A microsecond later, gamma- and x-ray-wavelength lasers shot across the nose and starboard side of the Sol. The shield projectors under the beams overloaded, allowing the beams to cut into the hull of the ship. Electro- and chemo-reactive armor segments arced and blew, helping to dissipate the power of the lasers, but they still packed enough energy to melt meter wide gashes into the Titanium-S armor. Apollo detected decompression warnings on two dozen of the outer most decks. He squelched them and closed off those sections.
In front of him, the dreadnought's shields grew to a deep crimson color. Apollo was in a tough predicament. He didn't actually know what the change in color meant. In fact, he knew next to nothing about his foe. All he could hope for was that the deeper the color grew, the closer it was to failing.
Enough time had now elapsed for him to reassert precise control over the ship, meaning he could now effectively fire all four MACs. The two MACs he had fired first finished reloading. He fired the two guns that hadn't yet, keeping the two new rounds in reserve. The dreadnought's shield was now so bright and solid that it was impossible to see the actual ship, even outside the visual spectrum. Lasers pierced out again and raked the sides of the Sol, melting away more armor and cutting a fuel line leading to one of the hangars. The resulting explosion tore a hundred meter-wide hole into the side of the human ship, near the starboard hangar deck. The Sol had been designed to withstand the fire from an entire Covenant battle fleet though, and shrugged off the hit. The smaller gun batteries on the bow and near the prow flashed a warning. They were running through ammunition at an unsustainable rate. Decompression warnings flashed from a dozen more decks.
The MACs cycled again and he fed power to the two he had held in reserve. In the microseconds that followed, his gravimetric sensors flared a sharp collision warning, claiming a gigantic mass was in danger close proximity to the Sol, but the optical and IR sensors could only detect the dreadnought. By the time the first electrons were reaching the magnetic coils, the dreadnought started shifting to its port side. Apollo blanched as his targeting software calculated acceleration in order to maintain his firing solutions. The behemoth was jinxing to the side at nearly 500 standard Earth gravities, and it was still accelerating. At this range, and that sort of acceleration, it would pass out of the gimbal limits of the guns in a matter of nanoseconds, fast enough to actually dodge the MAC salvo. The scenario played out in his mind a mere instant before it actually occurred.
Two MAC rounds screamed off into space, the closest missing its target by mere meters, actually grazing the shield. A far away corner of Apollo's mind grimly reflected that someone in the far future was going to have a very bad day.
He ran the numbers again and confirmed. Peak acceleration had been almost 10,000 G's. For the first time in his life, Apollo understood what it meant to be inadequate. He was hopelessly out-classed. At most, by pumping all available power into the inertial dampers, he could only sustain around one hundred gees and even then only for a minute before he killed every human on-board. Even worse, his opponent was fighting at the same speed he was, the speed of electrons flowing through circuits, he was sure of it.
He ran the scenarios a hundred times over and made up his mind. He overrode the built-in limiters of the Forerunner engine nestled deep inside the Sol and opened the throttle fully. Petawatts flooded into the engine projectors, propelling the Sol forward. The temperature at the back of the big ship flared briefly and then flat-lined as the sensors melted away. He had at most thirty seconds of full burn, he calculated, before the engine baffles would completely melt away, or worse, melt shut. He fired the fore- and aft-most emergency thrusts in opposite directions, straining to bring the massive ship to bear. His safety codes popped up a warning, the corresponding accelerations in those parts of the ships would likely be lethal for non-secured crew and highly injuring for others closer to the center of rotation. He squelched the warnings. If this didn't work, they would all die anyways.
Slowly, almost ponderously so, the mysterious dreadnought came back into the limits of the main guns. Apollo cut power to the mains, but let the rotation continue. The brief burn had propelled them forward fast enough to bring the distance from the muzzles of the MACs to the shields of the dreadnought to less than one and a half kilometers.
He fired two more MAC rounds and watched as they impacted and atomized against the solid red wall. Then, suddenly, miraculously, the dreadnought was there, crystal clear.
Apollo started registering tiny explosions on its hull. It was the moment he had been waiting for. The logical assumption was that the thinnest part of a structure was its most vulnerable. The thinnest parts of the dreadnought were its arms, so that was where Apollo directed his remaining two rounds. For poetry's sake, he aimed at the two arms that had scarred the Sol. He executed the fire command.
Terawatts of power surged through the Sol from its weapon's capacitors and down the kilometers-long MACs. Electricity passed through the conductive round and completed a circuit. Electromagnetic forces took over and hurled the slug down the barrel to a full quarter of the speed of light.
The rounds punched straight through their respective arms, severing them and leaving them spinning away in space, surrounded by debris. A deep note, like that from a fog horn, only much louder and deeper, reverberated through the Sol. The very ship itself shook. How the dreadnought passed the tone along from itself to the Sol through empty space, Apollo had no idea, but with it came packets of incoherent data at an incredulous rate. As the tone grew even louder and deeper, Apollo realized what was going on. The ship was screaming out in pain and anger. The data packets continued to flood his system, threatening to break into his central mainframe and erase him completely.
Apollo's failsafes were on the verge of putting him into a standby mode when the dreadnought appeared to stretch out to infinity and then disappeared. Just like that, it was over.
The silence which followed was deafening.
Unbeknownst to Apollo, he had just inflicted the single worst defeat to a race of sentient machines hundreds of millions of years old that they had experienced in some two hundred thousand years. In that long forgotten battle, under much similar circumstances, a battle group crewed by organic intelligences had also fought a vanguard of this race of machines and won, albeit at a much higher cost. The similarity was not lost on the machine Apollo had just fought, nor did it fail to remember the violence of the following millennia-long struggle to rid this galaxy of those organics.
While this race of machines, which had no name for itself, for there was no need to have one, never bothered to name their foes, that conflict had left such a mark on them that a separate identity had been burning into their collective. The name/concept had no direct translation into any organic language, being composed entirely of flows of electrons, but Standard Terran English would return either something along the lines of Those Who Would Not Break or The Unyielding Ones.
The names themselves were not especially important to Apollo, or to the spooks who raided his database afterwards. Why they were given that name was far more important, because it suggested they had stood up to the machines far more effectively than any other race before or since.
Besides, humanity already had a far better fitting name for those long-gone organics.
The plot thickens. As always, feel free to leave a review!