2 AC: Mindoir
As the years went by, the pressure within Transcendent Humanity to allow non-Uploaded to settle out of Sol rose. Over the last thousand years, the majority of humans had been born off-world, either in habitats or colonies on Sol's less cosy planets. There were dozens of potential worlds available, even within the small sector claimed by Transcendent Humanity. The argument between the Uploaded and the purely organic humans was of great interest to the Council. Only Uploaded had ever left Sol, and the Council were concerned that the organic humans were being forced to stay. Their concern was only slightly altruistic. Mostly, they were worried what this might indicate for the Uploaded's eventual plans for the other purely organic races.
The Uploaded, for their part, worried about their organic kin on both emotional and strategic levels. An Uploaded with an organic body could enable their ability to reproduce easily, and most humans born were the children of Uploaded, with only the very rare 'pure' clans remaining untouched. However, the process of Uploading could only take place once the human brain fully completed development around age 25, and many organic humans didn't worry about Uploading until years after that. The non-Uploaded then, were both the children and the parents of the Uploaded. Only from them could new Uploaded be created, and most of them were literally children, at least to the eyes of century-old Uploaded.
Strategically, the organic humans were a massive weak-spot in the gleaming machine of Transcendent Humanity. An Uploaded could be shot, set on fire, blown up, and as long as their reinforced diamond QIH was unharmed, be given another body without much fuss. If kidnapped or otherwise captured, they could jump into any nearby system that could support them. Rescue operations on a captured Uploaded generally consisted on getting a transmitter/receiver station close enough, and most military Uploaded could store others in their bodies in hibernation mode. Finally, every QIH carried a locator beacon that could not be removed without catastrophic damage to the QIH itself. Any kidnapper wishing to completely isolate a QIH would end up destroying it.
Most of this information was only known to Transcendent Humanity, and they so far had not shared their capabilities. Several potential situations had already been resolved quickly and quietly thanks to these systems and methods. The problem was, none of this was the case for the organic humans. Transcendent Humanity's plans and standing in the galaxy hinged on their appearing completely untouchable. While it was true that they wielded the biggest stick around, convincing everyone else that it was pointless to even try ensured they never had to use it, which they thought was a much more efficient way of doing things.
But the arguments continued, and eventually, non-Uploaded humans were allowed to settle out of system. Half a dozen worlds were carefully chosen and rigorously protected. The most remote of these, regretfully close to Batarian space, was Mindoir.
3 AC: Sol System
"We've picked up some indications that the Batarians might make a run at Mindoir." said Tuxedo. Someone else wore the suit now. The previous councillor had decided he could do more good on the Citadel, although he communicated often.
"Good," said Military.
"Good?" said Casual. "Are we using the same definition here? A bunch of slavers are about to attack a colony of non-Uploaded, and that's good?"
"It is if we've been expecting it," said Military. "The Batarians were always going to try something, and I was hoping we'd get advance warning."
"To send more ships?" asked Tuxedo.
"To hide more ships. I don't want to scare the Batarians off, I want them to come swaggering in and get their asses handed to them. We've played nice with galaxy so far, but we need to remind everyone that no matter what they may think, we've got the biggest sticks around."
"And the danger to the colony?" asked Robe.
"Minimal." assured Military. "We'll sneak in ships and troops enough to repel a full invasion force. Even take some extra nasty surprises. I don't want a fair fight, I wanted one crippled ship running home screaming about the big bad humans."
"I would interject with a point about humanity's image and galactic harmony, but we do need to flex our muscles a bit. The Citadel Council has been getting whiny of late, and I've never liked batarians. Down with xenophobia and all, but I've never met one who didn't look like he was figuring out how much I could be sold for." said Tuxedo.
"Excellent. This is going to be fun." said Military.
3 AC: Mindoir
"Alright people, we just got word from Solar Intel. Probability is high that the batarians are coming now, and will be through the Relay sometime in the next few hours," announced Admiral Amitomk from her command sim aboard the Solar Navy dreadnought Virtuoso Excision.
Unlike Captain Warrens' calm white sim, hers was a cramped and uncomfortable replication ofan ancient submarine cabin, altered to allow for efficient use of space. She was one of the purists who'd insisted pain was an important part of any sim, although she'd agreed with Warrens about the coffee.
The Virtuoso Excision hung quietly between Mindoir and the system's Relay. It (and the dozen other ships of the defensive fleet) was normally a shining white colour that reflected and scattered most forms of radiation, but for this mission had been painted with a smart-molecule cloud that not only coloured it pitch black, but hung around it in a sensor-deadening cloud. Several small, cloaked drones relayed information to the concealed fleet.
The Solar Intelligence Agency had been monitoring batarian fleet movements, and noticed that several ships had disappeared. A single TH cruiser could handle a large number of pirate and slaver ships, so it was assumed that the missing military ships would be providing back-up. Humanity had thus sent the currently hidden fleet to supplement the garrisoned colony fleet. The garrison fleet was not shrouded, but still in position above Mindoir. They would function as an "unprepared" lure, and as an emergency defence for the colony in case of surprises.
"Ma'am, were getting activity from the Relay!" announced Sensors.
"All ships, we've got incoming. Hold your fire until they think they're in the clear."
The space around the Relay distorted, and a single ship emerged.
Admiral Amitomk frowned.
"Ma'am, I'm picking up a signal from the ship. It's batarian." said Sensors.
There was silence for a moment, then screaming filled the sim. Amitomk couldn't understand most of the words, but one phrase slipped though. "-killed them all, burned them out of the sky. Please, by the Ancestors, someone help-"
Something else came out of the Relay, and the batarian ship vanished in a beam of golden light.
The new ship was ugly. It was a long, fat cylinder that looked like a termite mound growing out of a metal can. The gaping aperture at its summit glowed as the massive beam weapon it had fired powered down.
"What the hell is that?" asked Amitok.
"No record of anything like it in any Council database. Wait, there's something. It's not in anything official, they're more of a galactic bogeyman than anything else, but...Collectors. Nothing much else recorded other than the name, and place of origin, Omega."
"What are they doing here?" asked Amitomk
"They get their name from the fact that they apparently abduct or bargain for unique biological specimens. Organic humans must be rare enough for them." answered Sensors.
"Well if one ship can take out an entire batarian fleet, we're taking no chances. Weapons, prep the Archer-"
There was another pulse of distorted space, and two more ships arrived, identical to the first.
"Damn. Sensors, get ready to launch a drone swarm. All ships, listen up! It seems that the fleet we were intending on obliterating got destroyed by the galaxy's ghost story. We know almost nothing about these Collectors, except that if they can wipe the floor with the guys we were intending on wiping the floor with, they're at least as tough as us. A fun dust up just became an equal fight, and I don't like that. This one's serious. Stand by." said Amitomk.
"Ma'am, the Archer is targeting the first ship."
"Hold fire. Helm, kill the cloud and take us to them. Sensors, launch recon drones."
The shroud surrounding the fleet received its deactivation signal, and became little more than dust. As the dozen ships of the defensive fleet burst out to meet the incoming Collector vessels, their black armour shimmered back to the refractive shining white. The Virtuoso Excision began launching its recon drones, wave after wave pouring from their docks. Each drone was networked with its peers, and was smart enough to fly complex missions by itself. Uploaded handlers monitored the swarm, and directed them towards their target. The drones varied in size from a few inches to a dozen meters, and possessed an equally varied complement of weapons. The swarm had been launched from their host vessel at great speeds, and began to converge on the lead Collector vessel.
Point-defence turrets covered the surface of the enemy ship, and drones began to die by the dozen. As each died, its core detonated, sending out a wash of radiation. This pulsed through the Collector vessel, and the scattered reflection and refraction patterns were picked up by the remaining drones. Together they formed an immense sensors array, and sent the data back to the Virtuoso Excision.
In a glowing red display in front of Amitomk's chair, the interior of the Collector ship was sketched out. Each drone death was another wave of information, filling in smaller and finer details.
"Drone swarm has passed the point of maximum fidelity. Too many lost to maintain image clarity. The enemy ships have powerful point-defences." said Sensors.
"We have enough. Weapons, does that there look like a core reactor to you?" Amitomk asked as she pointed at the display.
"Yes ma'am. Central, shielded, high-density conduits running to critical ship systems; if it's not a reactor I don't what is."
"Good. Hit it with the Archer."
"Yes ma'am," said Weapons, grinning.
The Archer was not a ship. It was an arrangement of metal rails and other devices almost three kilometres in length. It had little to no armour, and so for all its size looked almost skeletal in the void. Cold-jets delicately aligned it with the precise location of the lead Collector ship's reactor core. Trajectory calculations were run another 17 times to ensure accuracy. The Archer was a one-shot weapon. No reloading allowed.
The Archer initiated, and 15 nuclear warheads detonated along its length at precise intervals. Shaping a nuclear charge is quite difficult, but Transcendent Humanity had done pretty well. The EMP from the special-designed nukes hit the super-conductive, three-kilometre rails and flowed down them, each nuclear device's detonation timed to add to the pulse in sequence. The energies involved caused the rails to flash to plasma in microseconds, but only after producing an immense magnetic field that shot down their length at the speed of light. Dragged along by this pulse was a one-ton chunk of iron.
The entire three-kilometre array vaporised in a flash that would be visible from a neighbouring star system in 7 years, but it had done its job. The iron bullet, technically now a focused cloud of liquid, hit the Collector vessel at 75% the speed of light.
The wash of radiation from the Archer's destruction blanked out the fleet's sensors. Humanity's technology was good, but 15 nuclear detonations is enough to blind anybody.
The radiation passed, sensors recalibrated, and an image appeared on-screen.
"Well that's impressive." muttered Amitomk.
The Collector ship was still in one piece. It did have a hole in it you could have flown a frigate through, and it was completely without power, but Archers weren't known for leaving anything other than shrapnel and vapour.
"The enemy ships have kinetic barriers at least an order of magnitude stronger than any we've encountered before." said a stunned Weapons.
"The other two ships are no longer heading to the planet. They're coming at us, and fast." said Sensors.
"See if we can lead them away from Mindoir. Let's try and minimise the chances of collateral damage here." said Amitomk.
The human ships began to slip to the side of the Collector vessels. The Collectors, apparently not wishing to be hit from behind, turned to face the human fleet. Both sides regarded the other a serious threat, and Mindoir as the prize. The planet would belong to whoever won this battle.
"Fire when ready," announced Amitomk as they finally came into weapons range.
A storm of weapons fire burst from the human fleet. Swarms of missiles rocketed towards the Collector ships, quickly outpaced by kinetic weapons fire. The cruisers and frigates were equipped with standard electromagnetic mass drivers, but the Virtuoso Excision carried the new Singularity cannon.
The Singularity drive was based on an ancient idea from Earth's history: the Alcubierre Drive. A mathematical proof for potential FTL travel, it had never been fully solved until the discovery of the mass effect almost three thousand years after its proposal. While it appeared that it did not offer an alternative to mass effect based FTL, it did allow for Transcendent Humanity to build generators that warped space-time. The generator could be used as a drive, emulate an eezo core sufficiently to activate a Relay, and more recently, as a weapon.
While work on a purely gravitational-distortion based weapon was still in progress, the Singularity cannon on the Virtuoso Excision functioned as supremely efficient and powerful mass drivers. In test runs they'd cracked open dreadnought armour in under half a minute of sustained bombardment.
Unfortunately, Transcendent Humanity's dreadnoughts still possessed no kinetic barriers.
Missiles were swatted out of the sky by sustained fire from the Collector's point-defences. The kinetic shots were, for the most part, repelled by kinetic barriers. The Singularity cannon shots pounded the barriers of one ship, wearing them down. Parts of the barrier flickered, and fire from the smaller ships began to pierce through. The armour of the Collector vessel absorbed most of their impacts, but point-defences were hit, and missiles began to impact against the kinetic barriers themselves, the heat and radiation from their detonation scorching the ship's hull. The other Collector ship remained apparently unharmed by the bombardment from the other human ships.
The Collectors fired. Two golden beams raked across the surface of the Virtuoso Excision. Forged to resist damage most Citadel ships couldn't possibly survive, the dreadnought's armour held. Two great gouges had been cleaved along its length, chasms meters deep and hundreds of meters long.
"Armour integrity holding, but those beams are too hot for us to initiate regeneration!" yelled Engineering.
The armour of Transcendent Humanity was almost a living thing. It could shift and morph, turn semi-liquid and regenerate damage at a cost of temporary weakness. The beams from the Collector vessels had interrupted the molecular circuitry that allowed this, leaving the dreadnought vulnerable.
"Increase power to all Singularity cannon, and Helm! I don't want to be hit again." snarled Amitomk.
"Aye aye, ma'am." answered Helm.
The Collector vessels fired again, and even as the target of the Virtuoso Excision took more damage. The Collector weapon was incredibly accurate, but hitting another vessel when both ships were trying to doge incoming fire made precision impossible. They settled for insuring that this time, the scars left by their weapons intersected at as many points as possible.
"Damn it, armour breached, armour breached! We've lost power to the port dorsal Singularity cannon. Drone bays 7 through 9 damaged, but intact." cried Engineering.
The third Collector vessel was finally beginning to take hits as the strikes from half a dozen ships wore its shields down. The second, still being hammered by three remaining Singularity cannon, was pocked and scorched, and fired noticeably slower than its partner. For a third time, the golden beams lanced out.
Chunks of armour tore lose from the human dreadnought.
"Drive conduits hit, we've lost motive power. Armour lost along our port side, starboard dorsal Singularity cannon hit."
"Stony Path, we're doing a peel and seal, now! Good Intentions, cover us. Our guns are the only things hurting them!" ordered Amitomk.
The cruiser Stony Path swooped in over the dreadnought, hovering above the worst of the damage while the cruiser Good Intentions placed itself between the damaged dreadnought and the Collector vessels. The Stony Path dropped down until it neatly touched the wounded hull of the Virtuoso Excision. Its edges seemed to merge with the dreadnought as the Collectors fired again.
The Good Intentions held against the twin beams, but its armour was nearly shredded. As it struggled to stay in position, the Stony Path lifted free of the dreadnought, its underside stripped bare of armour. The newly patched Virtuoso Excision opened fire again as the Good Intentions slipped back, meeting up with the Stony Path. The two weakened ships turned their damaged sides away from the Collector vessels, and resumed firing as best they could.
The newly healed Virtuoso Excision, still heavily scarred, managed to finally completely shatter the second Collector vessel's shields.
"All cruisers, fire pop-guns!" yelled Amitomk.
The anti-matter propelled fletchettes tore into the wounded Collector ship, tearing up its armour and causing explosions to rippled along its length. Its armour, so weakened, quickly broke up under the continued bombardment of the human ships.
Just before it vanished in a huge explosions of plasma and debris, it fired again, a few scant seconds after its partner. This time the beams did not target the crippled but re-armoured dreadnought, but the wounded and weakened Stony Path and Good Intentions. The Stony Path survived, though it lost all power. The Good Intentions however, exploded with a glittering spray of QIHs.
"We got two of the bastards. Just one left." said Amitomk as she grinned.
The last Collector vessel turned and ran. Amitomk had a fleeting moment of fierce joy before she saw where it was heading.
"Hell, they're running for the colony!" she snarled. With the Virtuoso Excision crippled, she could only limp after them. Of the four cruisers, two were also out, and the rest had expended at least half their armament to minimal effect against the remaining ship.
"All ships capable, after the bastards! Engineering, how long until we can follow?" she snapped.
"Best case, we might be able to get the main drive operational within half an hour." came the answer.
Amitomk glared after the retreating Collector ship. Two cruisers and eight frigates against a ship that could take heavy fire from a Singularity-equipped dreadnought. The fight would be a close one.
It was. After reaching an uncomfortably high cruise velocity, the Collector ship had cut its main drive and flipped, falling backwards towards Mindoir. Its main gun now aimed at the pursuing fleet, it began picking off frigates. The smaller, more nimble ships were better able to evade incoming fire, but the immense velocity of the charged particle beams and their great accuracy meant that shots still connected often. A lucky frigate was one that could still pursue after a glancing blow. Most were disabled, and fell behind. Three frigates were unlucky, and detonated after direct hits, their crew mostly succeeding in evacuating. The two cruisers continued to fire while the Collector vessel ignored them in favour of the weaker frigates. They eventually succeeded in wearing the shields down sufficiently so that when the captain of the last remaining frigate dumped most of her crew before making a suicide run, she managed to punch through the Collector barriers and carve a furrow along most of its length, smashing point-defences and causing several explosions.
The Collector ship's next shot neatly tore the drive out of one of the pursuing cruisers. The final cruiser, taking full advantage of the damage along the side of the Collector ship caused by the frigate's impact, pushed its drive to full and returned the favour, swooping past. The Collector's counter attack, fired as the great vessel swung back to face the planet and the cruiser, hit it just as the cruiser was beginning to turn. Whether by design or luck, the beam struck a weak point in the cruiser's armour near the drive aperture. The cruiser exploded, glittering QIHs launching from the wreckage.
The Collector ship, without a main drive, hurtled onwards towards the planet. Manoeuvring thrusters aligned it perfectly with the human colony as its still functioning kinetic barriers recharged to full.
Still awaiting the repairs of their main drive, Admiral Amitomk stared at her display in a mixture of horror and frustration. The small garrison fleet would have no chance of destroying the Collector vessel before it hit the colony. If they were lucky, the impact wouldn't be an extinction-level event for the rest of Mindoir, but the colony would be annihilated.
"This is Admiral Amitomk to all ships. We cannot intercept the enemy ship, and on its current course it will destroy the colony. Begin evacuation, and use anything you have to take it down." she said, without much hope they'd succeed.
"Admiral, this is Captain Evelyn Grace of the Alternative Medicine. We've, ah, landed on the vessel's surface." came a voice.
"Captain, if you're under their barrier, can you destroy the ship? It cannot hit the atmosphere intact if there's any hope of saving the colony."
"Sorry ma'am, we're dead in the water. But we've still got a warhead or two, and even if we can't breach their armour from outside, we can try to get to something soft inside." responded Captain Grace.
"Weapons, get me a route from their location to the softest target."
"Main reactor, ma'am. The Archer blew most of the first ship's out into space, but if they can detonate an AM charge right over the fuel reserves...well, secondary explosions should shred the whole thing." answered Weapons.
"Captain, we're relaying you the intel now. How many crew do you have?"
"I've just got my bridge crew here with me. We're still in sim. The infantry pods tore loose in the crash, and we're tracking down intact bodies. Looks like they got a bit scattered though, we're going to have to jump and meet up when and where we can. There's an Avaunt close by, I'll take it and grab the warhead."
"Captain, by our estimates you have fifteen minutes to get to the reactor and detonate the warhead before you're too close to the atmosphere to make any difference. I suggest you move."
"Yes ma'am. The rest of my crew just jumped, I'll meet up with them inside."
"Voice guide you, Captain." said Amitomk
"Thank you, ma'am." responded Evelyn before the connection shut off.
Amitomk waited the longest fifteen minutes of her life.