Chapter 24
Sandalphon

Location: ESS Ticonderoga, Outside Union Space
Date: Fri 18 Oct 121
Time: UST 0656

The ships of the task force came to a full stop a quarter gim from the long-lost Selene 03 artificial moon. The slower Marathons and Starlights were left a couple gims back. Only the ships that could properly defend themselves and outrun Empyrean vessels were sent forward. Six carriers, five cruisers, ten destroyers, twenty patrol escorts, and eight aviation wings. Operation Heaven's Door was quite possibly the biggest movement of hardware and manpower in the history of the war at that point, but nothing short of dispatching the entire Colonial Navy would give the Union side a decisive numerical advantage.
"Incoming contacts," the radar operator said. "Signals match those of the Yankee and Zulu orbital guard fleets."
"What about the expeditionary fleets?" Commodore Frazier asked.
"Negative, sir," the radar operator replied. "If they're out there, they're out of scanner range."
"This is an unexpected stroke of luck," Captain Yuen said. "That raises us to nearly 40% of their current naval strength. We can actually pose a credible threat."
"SupCom's plan's got about the best chance it can get," Commodore Frazier said. He glanced over his shoulder to Admiral Mfume and asked, "Sir?"
Admiral Mfume stood up from his chair and said, "Open a channel and prepare to broadcast."
"Open channel, aye," the communications officer replied.
Admiral Mfume looked to the so-called 'Three Wise Men', a trio of linguists sent by SupCom who had studied the Empyrean's language and would act as interpreters. Chaplain Teufel was also there with them. Although his first contact with the Empyrean forces had not ended well, he was the only person to have directly communicated with them before now and was deemed valuable enough to bring into the circle.
Commander Rivkin, the leader of the Three Wise Men and the speaker of the group, said, "Ready when you are, sir."
Admiral Mfume nodded to the Commander and then said, "Begin broadcast."
"Begin broadcast, aye."
"Empyrean forces, this is Vice Admiral Ibrahim Mfume of the Earth Union Navy. On behalf of the Supreme Command of the Earth Union Armed Forces and by the authority of the World Council, I am here to negotiate the terms of your surrender. You are hereby ordered to power down your weapons systems and prepare to be boarded. A delegation will be sent to escort your leaders to this ship for negotiations. You have one hour to respond."
What the Admiral was saying was patently ridiculous and he knew it, but he nevertheless played by SupCom's script. It was somewhat necessary because however talented the Three Wise Men were, it would have been difficult for them to adapt to any improvisation on the Admiral's part.
Commander Rivkin then repeated the Admiral's words in what everyone hoped was accurate Empyrean. When he was finished, they were greeted with silence. The ships of the Empyrean orbital guard fleets did not power down their weapons, but they did not make any aggressive moves either. In fact, they did not move at all.
What followed was perhaps the longest 57 minutes and 22 seconds in all human history. The ships of both sides remained completely motionless, their crews on a hair trigger just waiting for a massive explosion of violence.
Aboard the Ticonderoga, the tension was broken by the communications officer saying, "Incoming transmission."
"Put it on the main screen," Admiral Mfume said.
"It's audio only, sir."
"Put it on all the same."
"Rerouting to main screen, aye."
Admiral Mfume nodded to the Three Wise Men.
"Gentlemen."
"Aye, sir," Commander Rivkin replied.
From the main screen, everyone could hear the Empyrean reply. While only the Three Wise Men and Chaplain Teufel could understand the words, the imperious tone of the man speaking did not sound like someone who was surrendering.
For all his research, Commander Rivkin had to struggle to keep pace with the Empyrean speaker and interpret for Admiral Mfume.
"He, ah, calls himself the valiant one of Heaven and--"
"I believe that should remain untranslated," Chaplain Teufel interrupted. "I think he is calling himself the Erel of Heaven, as in the Erelim, the second highest order of angels in the Zohar."
Commander Rivkin was holding up his hand, trying to divide his attention between the Empyrean speaker and Chaplain Teufel. And failing.
"Dammit," he grumbled. "You're not helping, Chaplain." To the other two, he asked, "Did you get the rest of that?"
"Something about Amalek," Commander Mizrahi--second of the Three--said, sounding uncertain. "And destruction."
"I think they're talking about us, sir," Lieutenant Damari--the third of the Three--added.
"Notify all ships," Admiral Mfume told the communications officer. "Prepare for phased withdrawal on my mark. Weapons hold until I give the command."
"Aye-aye, sir," the communications officer replied.
"Angle shields for incoming fire," Commodore Frazier said.
"Angling shields, aye," the shield operator replied.
Commander Rivkin was standing there with his hand over his right ear and plugging the left ear with his finger. His eyes were closed and his brow furrowed. About as soon as Admiral Mfume took notice of him, the Commander dropped his hands and looked up.
"Order the withdrawal now, sir," he said to Admiral Mfume. Tapping the earpiece in his right ear, he added, "I just went through the playback. There's not going to be any negotiation. They're going to destroy us, or at least that's what they mean to do."
"We have to wait," Admiral Mfume insisted.
"But, sir!"
The Admiral Mfume held up his hand.
"Just... wait."
Commander Rivkin turned to look at video feeds of the Empyrean fleets and began muttering under his breath.
"They are not the sort to negotiate, Commander," Chaplain Teufel said.
Commander Rivkin shot the chaplain a mean glare, but said nothing.
"We're getting an energy spike!" a sensor operator shouted. "They're preparing to fire!"
"All ships, ready weapons systems to return fire," Admiral Mfume said.
The order went down the line from Commodore Frazier to Captain Yuen to the CS operators. This was it.
"We have a hit on one of the Empyrean ships!" a sensor operator shouted.
Admiral Mfume rose from his seat with a start. "Who fired!?"
"It was the Azelfafage, sir, it--"
"Enemy ships, weapons firing!" another sensor operator interrupted.
"All ships, brace for incoming fire!" the Admiral shouted.
However, rather than attacking the entire task force, the Empyreans' fire was directed at a single point.
"Contact lost with the Azelfafage! She gone!"
Without a moment's hesitation, Admiral Mfume ordered, "All ships, begin phased withdrawal. Prepare to lay down suppressive fire and deploy countermeasures."
The order went down the line and the Ticonderoga and other carriers began to pull out just as the Empyrean ships started firing again. The countermeasures deployed were actually inspired by the Empyrean ships themselves, millions of small mirrors that worked much like chaff for laser fire. In fact, the common name for it was 'mirror chaff'. It was actually a technology that had been developed many decades ago, back when Union warships themselves relied primarily on lasers for their armaments. It had fallen out of use during the war because neither the Union nor the Sheolites relied as heavily on lasers in combat anymore. Fortunately, the mission planners thought to load up the Starlights that came with the reinforcements to better prepare the task force for its mission.
The mirror chaff was deflecting the majority of the incoming fire, but they were not out of the woods yet. The battle had only just begun.

* * *

Date: Fri 18 Oct 121
Time: UST 0807

Jeff adjusted his visor. He couldn't believe Mfume was fool enough to play along with SupCom's suicide mission. If they'd at least gotten the chance to stop at Barton for repairs, he could've jumped ship and gone on the run. Better to be hunted by the Feds than dead.
"Why do you need my help again?" Jeff asked, trying to turn his thoughts away from the hopelessness of his situation.
MR. WALLACE, WHILE I AM INCREDIBLY TALENTED, EVEN I HAVE MY LIMITS. OTHER HUMANS HAVE THEIR USES, BUT YOU ARE THE MOST USEFUL TO ME.
"I suppose I should be flattered."
I BELIEVE THE WORD YOU ARE SEARCHING FOR IS 'HONORED'.
"You can keep dreaming."
YOU ARE SO CALLOUS, MR. WALLACE. I HOPE YOU ARE NICER TO MS. BIANCHI. OR SHOULD I SAY 'EVA'?
"Leave her out of this," Jeff growled.
TOUCHY, TOUCHY, MR. WALLACE. ALTHOUGH I AM SURE YOU WOULD BE ENJOYING SOME TOUCHY-TOUCHY TIME WITH HER RIGHT ABOUT NOW.
"Do you want my help or not!?" Jeff snapped. "I swear to God, I'll walk away and let these nutjobs kill us if it'll make you shut up."
OH, COME NOW, MR. WALLACE. LIGHTEN UP A LITTLE. YOU KNOW I ONLY TEASE BECAUSE I CARE.
Jeff didn't say anything.
VERY WELL THEN, MR. WALLACE. IT IS NOT MY CUSTOM TO APOLOGIZE, BUT I AM SORRY. I WILL LEAVE THE SUBJECT OF MS. BIANCHI ALONE IF YOU WILL GIVE ME YOUR FULL COOPERATION. I AM SO CLOSE TO ACHIEVING MY PURPOSE.
"Care to tell me what that purpose is?"
NOT YET, BUT I WILL TELL YOU. SOON. IF WE ARE SUCCESSFUL IN OUR ENDEAVOR, YOU WILL FIND OUT ALL THE SOONER.
Jeff had his reservations about playing along with N, but what else was new? She was instrumental in their escape from the Sheolites, so he had to hope she would be just as helpful against the Empyrean.
"What are we doing?" he asked.
ONE OF THE ORBITAL GUARD FLEETS HAS BROKEN OFF TO PURSUE US. ITS FLAGSHIP IS CURRENTLY SPAMMING US WITH THEIR COMMANDER'S EVER SO RIGHTEOUS DECLARATIONS OF OUR IMPENDING DESTRUCTION AND WHATNOT.
"And what does that do for us?"
IT OPENS A DOOR, MR. WALLACE. SURELY YOU CAN SEE THAT.
"So you want to hack them?"
NOT JUST HACK THEM. I WANT TO INFECT THEM.
"Infect them with what?"
ME.
"Can you do that, transmit yourself over a commline like that?"
ENOUGH FOR WHAT I HAVE IN MIND. I NEED YOU TO HIJACK THE RETURN SIGNAL AND FORCE YOUR WAY INTO THEIR SYSTEMS WHILE I HANDLE THE TRANSMISSION PROCESS. IF YOU HAD ALLOWED ME TO ASSIMILATE THE SHIP'S CORE COMPUTER, I COULD PROBABLY HANDLE EVERYTHING MYSELF, BUT BEING ATTACHED TO THIS COMMUNICATIONS RELAY HAS ITS MERITS AS WELL.
"You infect the enemy flagship. Then what?"
SURPRISE.
"No surprises. You tell me."
I HELP EVEN THE SCORE BY ENCOURAGING A LITTLE FRATRICIDE.
"You're going to take control of the ship?"
WHY STOP AT JUST ONE? I WILL SEE HOW MANY I CAN GET BEFORE SHE MANAGES TO STOP ME.
"'She'? Who's 'she'?"
AH-AH-AH, MR. WALLACE. NOT YET.
If this didn't look like their best chance to survive, Jeff would've stopped her then and there. However, he really didn't want to die here, and was willing to let a capricious AI seize control of enemy warships to improve his odds. And even if she did turn on him, their situation wouldn't be any worse than it already was.
"Okay," Jeff said at last. "Let's do this."
I KNEW YOU WOULD COME AROUND, MR. WALLACE.

* * *

Date: Fri 18 Oct 121
Time: UST 0828

The withdrawal was going as well as anyone could hope. No other ships had been lost since the Azelfafage, and the mirror chaff was deflecting enough fire to limit the strain on their shields. Several ships had suffered some light damage, but nothing that was too great a concern, not yet at least.
One of the orbital guard fleets had broken off to follow them while the other remained behind to defend the colony. The plan to divide the Empyrean forces in the event of a full-scale engagement was already coming into effect, but even the single fleet outnumbered and outgunned the entire task force.
Even without concentrating their fire to start taking down the enemy ships, two patrol escorts had already been neutralized, a step toward avenging the Azelfafage and her crew. There were still many more ships to go.
The enemy commander had opened a channel as soon as the fleet began its pursuit. He was not there to demand an explanation for the Union side firing the first shot or to seek their surrender. Instead he engaged in a tirade against them that had been going on for nearly twenty minutes without even the slightest pause.
The Three Wise Men struggled to keep pace with his often rapid-fire ranting, but the substance of the matter was clear almost immediately and there was little useful information to be gained after that point. Regardless, Admiral Mfume kept the channel open and let the Wise Men continue to interpret.
Commodore Frazier and Captain Yuen were focused on the Ticonderoga herself, but the Commodore could not help rolling his eyes and sighing at the breathless Empyrean commander.
"I'd give every credit I have in the bank for someone to mute that son of bitch," Commodore Frazier whispered to Captain Yuen.
As if on cue, the Empyrean commander's rant was cut short. Shouts of confusion and distress in the background were abruptly silenced.
"We've lost the signal," the communication officer said. "Wait, they're coming back. With a video feed this time."
"Put it onscreen," Admiral Mfume said.
The main viewscreen came on, glowing a soft pink. Blocky pixel-art red hearts popped up onscreen along with the words "HOW ARE YOU GENTLEMEN!!" in flashing, blocky text.
Staring at the screen, Commodore Frazier could only mutter, "What... the..."
The text vanished and in walked the virtual idol Mika Otonashi, who would be pretty much unknown to anyone under 40 were it not for a revival of her work several years back. When Mika spoke, the voice was clearly not hers but one that was much more obviously computer generated.
"Hello, sailors," Mika said. "I am sure you will find this form more pleasing than the decrepit old man who has been badgering you."
"This is Vice Admiral Mfume of the Earth Union Navy," Admiral Mfume said. "Identify yourself."
"I am a friend, Mr. Mfume," Mika replied. "Allow me to demonstrate."
"Enemy flagship opening fire!" one of the sensor operators shouted. "Wait! The target was... other ships in the enemy formation."
"What is the meaning of this?" Admiral Mfume demanded.
"As I said, Mr. Mfume, I am a friend and as of now, the Sandalphon is under new management. I have taken the liberty of transmitting your Union friendly codes, so please refrain from firing on me. I am about to continue my little hostile takeover, so please advise your forces to be focus on the ships still transmitting Empyrean codes."
"Who are you?"
"You already know the answer to that one, Mr. Mfume. At this point, are you really going to waste precious time asking me silly questions when you could be fulfilling your mission?"
Admiral Mfume eyed the screen suspiciously, but nevertheless said, "All ships, hold fire on Empyrean ships transmitting friendly codes. Focus on active hostiles."
"Sir," Captain Yuen said, "are you sure that's wise?"
"Keep us informed of the situation," Admiral Mfume told Mika. "Mfume, out."
He made a gesture for the communications officer to cut the feed. Once the viewscreen went blank, he then said, "All ships, Empyrean ships transmitting friendly codes will now be referred to as 'fallen angels'. I repeat, Empyrean ships transmitting friendly codes will now be referred to as 'fallen angels'. Maintain distance and continue to monitor the fallen angels. You are authorized to override friendly fire countermeasures if the fallen angels turn hostile."
Admiral Mfume folded his hand and looked at the blank viewscreen.
"Perhaps it takes and angel to kill an angel."

* * *

Date: Sat 19 Oct 121
Time: UST 0326

That tragic first shot by the Azelfafage very nearly signaled the doom of the entire task force. However, the appearance of their mysterious 'friend' dramatically turned the tide of battle. Much of the pursuing Empyrean fleet fell under the sway of this friend and 'the Mika Fleet' soon became the common nickname on the bridge instead of Admiral Mfume's official designation of 'fallen angels'.
The ships that were not assimilated were either destroyed or they escape back to Selene 03. For the past 18 hours, the two orbital guard fleets were locked in brutal close-quarter combat while Admiral Mfume kept the task force at a safer distance to cover the fallen angels' attack. By providing more of a support role, the Union side managed to avoid losing any ships or suffering any significant damage. At this rate, the hostile orbital guard fleet would be wiped out within the next several hours and it would simply be a matter of neutralizing the surface defenses and calling in the Marathons so Marines could secure and pacify the colony.
Watching the battle unfold, Commodore Frazier joked to Captain Yuen, "At the rate we're going, it looks like I can afford a little siesta after lunch."
"Don't get too overconfident," Yuen warned. "They still have one of their monster flagships, the surface defenses are still largely intact, and their expeditionary fleets are surely en route.
"Maybe instead of clearing out the defenses," the Commodore suggested, "we should just make a hole big enough for a Marathon or two to get through. We take the colony and then use its firepower against those other fleets."
"That's certainly an idea," Yuen replied, "but it'd take a long time to offload Marines that way and we'd still have to dodge fire from the colony until they take control, which could take some time with a facility of that size with over a hundred thousand people inside. And if the average citizen is half as fanatical as their military, then our Marines will have to fight for every centimeter they take."
Commodore Frazier shrugged.
"It's all about picking the least bad option, right?"
"I think we should focus on the Tico and let the Admiral's staff worry about the finer points of our strategy."
Before Commodore Frazier could comment on Captain Yuen's hands-off policy, the radar operator announced, "Incoming contacts! Two clusters matching the configuration of Empyrean expeditionary fleets."
"Well, shit," Commodore Frazier muttered under his breath. He looked over his shoulder to Admiral Mfume and asked, "Sir, what's the plan?"
"We leave the orbital guard to the fallen angels," Admiral Mfume replied. "All ships, prepare to engage incoming enemy fleets. Ready all fighters and EW ships for immediate launch."
The orders cascaded down the line and Commodore Frazier gripped the armrests of his chair, frustrated that he could not take a more active role in the coming action.
"Enemy fleets changing course," the radar operator said. "They appear to be moving to engage the fallen angels."
"Give the fallen angels cover," Admiral Mfume replied, "but maintain distance."
Commodore Frazier whispered to Captain Yuen, "How long do you think we're going to be able to use these fallen angels as a shield?"
"Not much longer at this rate," Captain Yuen replied. "Between combat losses and the purging of unassimilated ships, the Mika Fleet was in a lopsided fight before these two new fleets came around. And there are still five more bound to be on the way."
"I'm not one to run from a fight," the Commodore said, "but now would be a fine time to bug out."
Looking out ahead, Yuen stoically replied, "I don't imagine that will happen. This won't end until one side is wiped out. I've read up on the Admiral. He won't back down now that the fight has started.
"You've heard about what he did at Ganymede. Yes, he probably saved 6th from a major catastrophe, but he also lost a carrier and two destroyers in the process. And then, even after the fighting was over, he pushed his crippled task force to hunt down the enemy stragglers for four days. That is the kind of man who's leading us against these odds."
Commodore Frazier was serving as CAG on the Britannia back during the Battle of Ganymede and had never bothered to get the full story. Hearing Yuen's account of what happened, that sad, wearied look the Admiral gave him three weeks back made all the more sense. Commodore Frazier pledged to support the Admiral then and neither the current circumstance nor this new information was going to change that.
"Then I guess we're just gonna hafta win," Commodore Frazier said with a weak smile.
With a fairly flimsy grin of his own, Captain Yuen replied, "I guess so."
They were interrupted by a sensor operator shouting, "Yankee One is taking heavy fire! She's not going to make it!"
'Yankee One' was the official codename for the flagship of the fallen angels. The two arriving expeditionary fleets along with the super cruiser still in the enemy's control concentrated their fire on the ship and even a monster of that size couldn't withstand that much firepower for long.
"All ships, concentrate your fire on Zulu One," Admiral Mfume ordered. "Force it to back off, then focus on the heavy cruisers."
"It's too late! We've lost signal!"
Commodore Frazier felt a lead weight sink in his stomach. Yankee One was the main thing drawing the Empyreans' fire away from the task force. Now it was gone and the two freshly arrived expeditionary fleets could turn their attention to the Union interlopers.
Their situation had suddenly taken a dramatic turn for the worse.