Human beings do not always get along.
In fact, warfare has tended to be on the forefront of human history throughout its entirety. Even without a war, the bloodthirsty satisfied themselves with prejudice, discrimination, and even genocide. It's tempting to think that violence is inherent in the human condition, and that the human race is doomed to self-extermination.
An extinct species, however, is not in the best interests of anyone in that species. So, naturally, there are those throughout history who sought to counter irrationality, fear, and willful ignorance. It could even be argued -- in a few, select cases -- that they succeeded; that rational thinking and even peaceful coexistence were becoming more and more a reality for a greater and greater percentage of humanity.
Technology, too, steadily progressed, with new advances occurring at exponential rates. New advances constantly seemed to reshape cultures as they were introduced. Early advances seemed focused on and encouraged by warfare, true. Gunpowder, gatling guns, nuclear warheads... each radically changing "modern" warfare until fear of annihilating the entire planet was the only thing holding back the bloodlust in some. Non-military technology, however, also benefited. Global communication approached instantaneity, and medical technology doubled and even tripled lifespans.
Eventually, however, it was the very advances in technology that promised to save society that doomed it. Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it, and the fear of change, of the technological terrors that could be wrought with nano-viruses and genetic engineering, plunged the human race into chaos. The future seemed to slip away as all world cohesion collapsed. Society seemed to utterly disintegrate in the face of this all-encompassing fear. Self-extermination didn't seem far off, with nuclear weapons at hand; anarchy, in its pure, base form, reigned.
Some survived the madness. One group fled into orbit, taking all the information with them that they could, to rebuild society... far from the madness of the surface. Others stayed behind, trying to stem the tide of chaos. Whether either group was truly successful is debatable.
An accident with a nuclear missile caused an orbital colony to be wiped out in the blink of an eye. Those in orbit decided that in order to truly survive the madness, they needed to leave the Sol system behind entirely. They took with them as much knowledge as they could and took off in three different directions on three giant colony ships, constructed out of the orbital colonies they'd fled from Earth to, aiming for hopefully inhabitable planets. One of the ships was blindsided by a comet, with only enough warning to send off a distress signal. Another was never heard from again, its fate unknown. The last founded a small colony on a planet similar enough to Earth to allow seeding by Earth-based flora and fauna, orbiting a star not much bigger than our home Sol, which they called Volitanus (though where the name came from has been lost to history).
The Volitanians created a society founded on high ideals meant to avoid repeating the mistakes of their ancestors. Good intentions, however, cannot change human nature, and almost nothing can stamp out pettiness and greed. Those who did not personally grow up on Earth had no true knowledge of the horror, and some harsh lessons had to be relearned the hard way.
Their society grew, however, into an interstellar empire, stretching across dozens of systems. An emphasis on science led to technological growth, leading to advanced terraforming and automation, increasing the number of habitable planets and how productive they could be, respectively. And surprisingly, those harsh lessons, once relearned, appeared to stay relearned for many years.
History repeated itself, however. Earth survived the chaos, eventually making an empire of its own... but without the very people who would try to turn it into an enlightened society, it ruled with an iron fist and wished to expand its control to every planet in the galaxy. The Volitanian Empire and the Earth Empire clashed head on, after "first contact" ended with the destruction of the entire Volitanian fleet sent to the meeting. Enraged by this, the Volitanians kicked their industry into high gear. War, once again, took the forefront.
- * * *
The interior of the IVS Fayton was dimly lit and filled with smoke, and shook as strained shield generators struggled to protect the battered ship from the worst of the incoming hostile fire. The only sounds were blaring alarms, redundantly informing the crew that they were still under attack, and the wailing screams of the hull as it came closer and closer to total collapse. There were no screams of panic, no wails of dispair, coming from the crew. They'd already passed that point, and were too terrified or too stubborn to do anything but wait anxiously as the engines raced to minimize their engagement time.
The bridge of the Fayton was almost silent, with the alarms being as quiet as they could be to allow the officers in charge of running the ship as much clarity of mind as possible. It was unnecessary, however; clarity of mind was easy to come by when those who weren't paying attention quickly ended up dead.
The ship's first officer, Commander Vaughn Lindberg, winced as another blast was barely absorbed by the greatly diminished shields and answered his captain's request for information to the best of his ability. "Shield integrity at roughly thirty percent and dropping, and engines are threatening to fail this close to redline; however acceleration is holding steady at 98 percent of maximum. Current speed is 28,000 KPS and climbing. Time to waypoint alpha, six minutes."
Captain Morvis Hanarock noddod gravely. Waypoint alpha was the point at which, were they to continue along their present course, they would leave the firing range of their pursuers. "Time to waypoint beta?"
Lindberg winced. He knew the question was coming, but that didn't mean he liked it. "Sixteen minutes."
Waypoint beta was the point at which the Fayton would be out of firing range if it turned around and brought it's bombard cannon to bear. The bombard cannon was a powerful, long-range weapon that was originally designed for planetary assault, but ended up being used against ships with increasing regularity. It was so effective that it was even, on occasion, mounted on "mere" heavy cruisers... like the Fayton. The problem with bringing the bombard cannon to bear would be that they could not accelerate along their escape route, and would have to rely on their current momentum to carry them away from pursuit. If they did that, they'd find themselves taking almost three times as much hostile fire before escaping... but they'd deal a lot more damage in return. As it was, only the Fayton's rather pathetic chase armament could obtain a targeting lock on the enemy ships, and would lose effective range three minutes before they could reach waypoint alpha. It would have left effective range a minute sooner than that, but the fact that the enemy was chasing them gave them a slight range boost and their foes a slight range handicap. The difference meant very little, given the circumstances, but Captain Hanarock had learned to appreciate small favors.
And, she thought with a sour grin, it's a very small favor indeed.
"Continue on to waypoint alpha. Recalculate time to waypoint beta for when we're three minutes from waypoint alpha."
Lindberg nodded and was silent for a few moments before replying, "Eight minutes."
Hanarock thought about it for another few moments. "Estimate of shield integrity when we would reach waypoint beta?"
Lindberg shook his head. "Zero, having been that way for a full minute."
Hanarock winced. A minute of no shield coverage would be the end of the Fayton, even assuming they could take out at least two enemy ships... which, given the great range, the slow firing rate of the bombard cannon, and the small target profile the hostile cruisers presented, was unlikely. "Very well, Commander. Take the chase armament offline and divert its power to the shield generators."
Lindberg looked like he was about to object, but he stopped himself. He didn't like the idea of not shooting back at the enemy, but he also knew as well as Hanarock did that it wouldn't make much of a difference at this point anyway. All the Fayton could hope to do was escape in one piece, and it needed all the help it could get to pull that off.
- * * *
"Sir, Admiral Redfield is on the comm. He says it's urgent."
Fleet Admiral Kelinnon Molkev stiffened in his chair. Christopher Redfield was a man much taken to understatement; if he thought it was urgent, he'd better damn well take the call. "Thank you, Ensign. Put him through."
The image of Ensign Hallawell disappeared from his screen and was replaced by that of Admiral Redfield, who looked agitated. "What is it, Chris?"
"We had an... incident... in Masvara."
Kelinnon frowned. "What kind of incident are we talking about?"
"The Earth Empire appears to be striking out in a bold way. They just staged three consecutive ambushes. The first hit a supply convoy on its way to the local station, wiping it out completely. We only found out about it because a patrol ship stumbled onto the wreckage. The second ambush hit three destroyers on long-range patrol. Two of them managed to escape, but badly damaged and mostly due to luck. The third hit a pair of heavy cruisers on anti-piracy duty. One of the cruisers was destroyed, but the other survived."
Kelinnon gaped in astonishment, but before he could respond, Redfield continued.
"In both engagements in which we had survivors, the enemy outnumbered them at least ten to one, and 'suddenly came out of nowhere' right on top of their flight path. Meaning they were sitting dead in space knowing full well when and where our ships would be there."
Kelinnon found himself suddenly very angry. "Damn them. CentInt said they'd been stepping up intelligence-gathering like crazy, but I didn't know it was this bad. Were we able to inflict any losses on the ambushers?"
"Well, we've no idea if the convoy escorts were able to take down any of their attackers because they didn't survive to tell us, but we didn't find any Earth Empire wreckage, so we're assuming they were hit hard and fast."
Redfield shrugged. "As for the destroyer patrol, they couldn't obtain a firing solution without unreasonably increasing engagement time, so they didn't get a single shot off. The cruiser pair, however, managed to do at least some damage. The one they destroyed had pulled a one-eighty to bombard the hostile ships and managed to take at least one down before it was destroyed, and the other fired with chase armaments for as long as it was able and at least disabled one more."
Kelinnon managed a sour grin. "Small victories."
"Very. The surviving cruiser -- the Fayton, by the way -- immediately jumped here and told me about it, and she's undergoing repairs. Her captain, Morvis Hanarock, is writing up a full report, and I'll forward it to you as soon as I have it."
"Thank you. I'll contact Admiral Bexley and Admiral Jola and see about strengthening our patrols. You, of course, have full authorization to increase your patrols before I make it official."
"Good man. I'll also have a little chat with the people over at CentInt... tell them we need to step up our counter-intelligence immediately, before more people die."
- * * *
Doran Llek paused in front of the door to Volitanian Central Intelligence, his expression thoughtful. He had been summoned without warning to perform a mission no one would talk about through a subcom unit (despite being theoretically secure), which was always a bad sign. Furthermore, it would most likely be bad for him, rather than his superiors; so he had considered, with partial seriousness, simply ignoring the summons. That could potentially result in his death, however, so he decided he may as well find out what the collection of Admirals who were in charge of every single intelligence operation performed by the Volitanian Empire wanted.
With a deep breath, he stepped through the automatic doorway and into Reception. It wasn't actually named Reception, it was named something completely different and far more official-sounding, but since nobody could remember what it was and it served pretty much the same purpose, they called it Reception (in fact, the only people who could remember the official name where the ones who'd come up with it, and they were long dead). Rather than go through the queue of civilians wanting to leave messages for intelligence operatives (mostly family members... people unrelated to intelligence personnel had an odd habit of not wanting to talk to them), he simply strode up to the lift, flashed the scanner his badge, and rode it down to the bottom floor.
Upon exiting the lift, Doran found himself running headlong into Agent Carol Weissman, his immediate superior. Doran frowned. "Agent Weissman? What's going on?"
Weissman eyeballed him. "Got you down here too, eh?"
"Yes, sir. Is something wrong?"
She shrugged. "Hell if I know. Something's gotten the top brass in a mighty panic. You might want to start praying that they don't start executing grunts in annoyance."
Doran gave Carol a glare that spoke volumes and decided to take his chances. It took him another minute to navigate his way to the meeting room he'd been told to report to. Upon opening the door, however, he had to perform a triple-take.
"Don't just stand there gaping, man, come in."
The voice was that of Fleet Admiral Kelinnon Molkev, head of the entire Volitanian fleet. In fact, it seemed as though the entire Voltianian Admiralty had decided to hold a meeting at CentInt for some reason. He counted no less than 57 officers in Admiral's uniforms, and there were at least a hundred more officers seated (or standing, even), around the room.
Molkev interrupted. "You were told to report here, and now you have. So come in and shut the damn door."
The Admiral's directness startled Doran into action and he did as asked. He then took the ominously-vacant seat directly in front of him.
"Now," said Molkev, leaning back in his chair, "you're probably wondering why you were called here under such secrecy."
"Well," Doran stuttered, glancing around the room, "Not anymore."
Molkev smirked at that. "Your superiors tell me you're... well, to be perfectly honest, you're the best agent not currently out on another mission, and this can't wait."
Doran's eyes widened at that. Either his superiors had a better opinion of him than he thought, or more agents were currently on missions than he thought. He wondered which option was worse.
"We have information that suggests the Earth Empire has been stepping up their intelligence operations. Massively. We need a way to counteract it, and you're it."
Doran blinked and said nothing for several moments while he found his voice. "M-me, sir?"
Molkev didn't look like he was going to elaborate without prompting. "But, sir, how could I possibly--"
"Have you heard of Project Glassbud?"
Doran blinked at the apparent non sequitur. "Y-yes, but what does that have to do with--"
"Are you aware of what Project Glassbud has been working on?"
Doran blinked again. "Research on more efficient fusion reactors, sir... or, at least, that's what I thought."
Molkev nodded. "Well, that would be what we call... an outright fabrication."
"Project Glassbud has been a military project designed to create a viable nanotech-based reaction-assistance net." Molkev scratched his head for a moment. "At least, that's how they described it to me. I think they spend far too much time coming up with official-sounding descriptions. Mostly I caught the part where they said it would increase agent efficiency 'somewhere in the realm of one thousand percent' or so. It just so happens they need a test subject."
Doran was literally stunned. He couldn't speak for a full minute. "A-and... that would be me, sir?"
"That would be correct."
Molkev rose out of his chair. "And," he continued, "we need you to start right away."
He gestured toward the hallway. "If you'd just come with us?"