Chapter 27

Location: Selene 03, Outside Union Space
Date: Fri 01 Nov 121
Time: UST 2322

While the Empyrean's naval power was formidable, its infantry was another story. Their laser blasters packed quite a whallop for their size, but that was the only thing they had going for them. Their body armor offered little protection for those who actually wore it and tactically they had less sense than even the Sheolites at their most suicidal.
Auto defenses posed a bigger threat, but they were easy to detect and eliminate. The real challenge was dealing with the tens of thousands of civilians. Often armed only with hand tools, they would make wild charges at the oncoming Marines. Ineffectual as they were, the charges did succeed in inflicting some casualties among the more lightly equipped Marines, so the commanders started to put more Mobile Armor Marines up front to act as a wall to break the waves of desperate civilians.
When their defenses were breached, many groups of Empyreans resorted to mass suicide. Sometimes the Marines could get there in time to stop them. Sometimes not.
With nearly an entire light division deployed, the Marines had a considerable competitive edge, but they were not all full strength. Unfortunately, when the Marathons were going in to dock, the Empyreans focused enough of their firepower to destroy the Iskenderun, killing General Wylczyk, most of XI MEF's command staff and all hands on board. That was two thousand Marines taken out of the fight in one fell swoop.
Admiral Mfume responded quickly, naming Colonel Gronzy acting commander of the MEF to have a command structure outside the immediate line of fire. The XI was out for blood after losing so many comrades, but the Colonel did an admirable job of keeping them reined in and on target.
Things would have no doubt been a lot messier without the 2/168 to clear the way and channel the XI's aggression. There were some flares of tension, but the XI's professionalism won out in the end. Still, it was a long, hard slog going room to room through all the nearly featureless, nearly identical corridors.
If the Empyrean soldiers and civilians were not enough, the colony's systems appeared to be going haywire. Red and blue lights would flash on and off and the intercom speakers would intermittently blare all sorts of gibberish and nonsense. It did not appear to be a psychological warfare tactic on the Empyreans' part, because they seemed to be even more disturbed by it than the Marines.
Miranda had seen a lot in the past 21 hours, but it looked like things were finally starting to settle down. Her platoon continued to scout on ahead and had not encountered any resistance in quite a while. A variety of factors were playing hell with their sensors, so they did not have much choice but to continue forward so as not to leave any blind spots for the rest of the unit.
Lee was fiddling with a rather important-looking door in front of them. After about a minute of fighting with the panel, he finally said, "Door's locked tight. I can't hack it."
"Can't get a clear reading on the other side," Sergeant Martinez added.
"Prepare to breach," Lieutenant Dixon said. "When the door opens, First Squad goes left, Second Squad goes right."
"Roger that," Comanescu and Martinez replied in unison.
Miranda had to admit no small amount of pride in seeing the Lieutenant growing into a capable commander. The Villareyes operation had changed him and the incident with the Sheolites cemented that change. He was well on his way.
Miranda steadied her arm cannon as they blew the breaching charge on the door. They were not greeting by an immediate hail of fire, but that hardly meant they were in the clear.
Lieutenant Dixon motioned for First and Second Squad to move out.
"First, Second, go, go, go."
Once they were through, he then motioned again, saying, "Third, Fourth."
And once Third and Fourth were in, he moved up to the door frame himself and peered around into the room beyond.
"Fifth, follow me."
Miranda covered the Lieutenant and Fifth as they moved into the room and then pulled up the rear. 'Room' proved to be an inaccurate term because what they were actually walking into was a massive docking bay that had to comprise the vast majority of the colony's south pole. The docking bay was filled with ships in various stages of construction. Or was it deconstruction?
"Any contacts?" the Lieutenant asked.
"Negative," Comanescu replied.
The Lieutenant looked out on all the ships out in front of them and said, "Well, looks like we found the missing fleet."
While Miranda was not informed of all the details of the naval side the battle, she heard people say that the fleet that had been after them for so long had not showed up once they got to Selene 03. So this was what happened to it.
"Are you gettin' this, man?" Maliki asked Fernandes.
Talking more to himself, Fernandes said, "Why would they be dismantling one of their fleets?"
"Let's keep the chatter to a minimum, First Platoon," Miranda warned.
Martinez, who was moving his squad up ahead, announced, "We've got bodies here. Signs of a firefight."
The Lieutenant went up to meet them and Miranda followed, keeping an eye out for any unwelcome surprises. There were several bodies there, along with scoring from a few stray shots. Only one of them was dressed as a soldier.
Surveying the scene, Miranda noted, "These are all laser burns. They did this to each other."
"Maybe it has something to do with the fleet that deserted," Lieutenant Dixon said.
"Maybe so," Miranda replied, though she had no idea what he was talking about.
"First Platoon," the Lieutenant said, "this is Echo One-Oh-One. Fan out by fireteam. We'll go ship by ship, starting with the destroyers. Do a quick sweep and move on to the next one if nothing shows up. Squads converge on the cruisers, then we all go in together for the big one."
The platoon replied with a universal "Roger", split up and moved out.
"Gunny," the Lieutenant said, "stay with me."
"Roger that, sir."
While the rest of the platoon was investigating the inside of the ships, Miranda and the Lieutenant went around outside, steadily making their way to the heavy cruiser. There were more bodies and signs of wild firing, but no evidence anyone was still alive or that any of the ships were still active. Miranda fiddled around with her sensors' calibration to try to see if she was missing anything.
"Are you picking up anything, sir?" she asked the Lieutenant.
"Negative," he replied.
After a few minutes, Miranda started to wonder what exactly they were accomplishing by sticking around.
"Sir, what are hoping to find here?" she asked. "These ships aren't going anywhere and it doesn't look like we're going to be finding any live ones. Let's just seal the bay doors and join up back up with the others. There's still fighting to be done up there."
"They've got 8000 Marines up there, Gunny," Lieutenant Dixon replied. "The 24 of us can finish this sweep."
Miranda had to grin at the Lieutenant's newfound assertiveness. Before he would give orders, but his voice would betray his lack of confidence that they would be followed, or even that they should be followed. Before she might be more apt to dispute orders she questioned, but now she was more willing to see them through.
"You're the boss, sir," she replied. She then called out to the platoon, "Squad leaders, this is Echo One-Oh-Two. What's your status?"
"Echo One-Oh-Two, this is Echo One-One-One," Comanescu replied. "The ship looks inoperable. We got bodies here, but no signs of life. Whatever went down here, we missed it."
"Echo One-Three-One here," Hoek said. "Same deal."
Before Martinez, Wang and Wilkers could chime in, Lieutenant Dixon said, "This is Echo One-Oh-One. Don't waste too much time if you're not finding anything. Move on to the light cruisers and when you're done with your sweeps there, meet us at the heavy."
Yes, Miranda was definitely liking this new take-charge attitude. He was steadily becoming a leader she could confidently follow into battle and not a hapless kid that needed watching over just like the greenest boot. She had seen the transformation happen before, but this was the first time she was one of the driving forces behind it. It felt pretty good.
As Miranda and Lieutenant Dixon were heading to the heavy cruiser, one of the voices that had been spouting gibberish earlier came up on the intercom, speaking normally for a change.
Alarms blared and green floor lights leading to the evacuation points lit up, cascading to show which direction to go.
"Why the fuck do people always gotta try an' blow shit up an' us with it!?" Maliki howled.
"Echo One-Three-Four, if you break radio protocol one more time, I swear to God--"
"No time for that, Gunny," Lieutenant Dixon interrupted. He then called up Major Knox. "Reaper Seven, this is Echo One-Oh-One, did you copy that?"
"Echo One-Oh-One, this is Reaper Seven," Major Knox replied. "I copy. Stand by for Reaper One."
Almost immediately, Colonel Grozny came on the line.
"All units, this is Reaper One. Begin to move civilian population to evacuation points as is feasible. You should be able to load up to two thousand per Marathon. Save as many as you can.
"Reactor team, you have five minutes to get it under control. If you cannot succeed in five minutes, or if you calculate you have less than fifteen minutes to evac, fall back at once. I repeat, if you have less than fifteen minutes, fall back at once."
They had their orders and it was time to go.
"First Platoon, this is Echo One-Oh-One," Lieutenant Dixon said. "Prepare to fall back. We'll assist with the evac on the way back our bird."
"Man, forget those cult-freaks!" Maliki whined. "Let's just get the fuck outta here!"
"Can it, Echo One-Three-Four!" Hoek snapped.
"Stay sharp, First Platoon!" Miranda shouted over the building radio chatter. "We're movin' out!"

* * *

Location: ESS Ticonderoga, Outside Union Space
Date: Sat 02 Nov 121
Time: UST 0036

"We've lost contact with the Mirach!" a sensor operator shouted. "Mirach is down!"
"Order the patrol escorts to increase velocity to 300kps," Admiral Mfume said.
"But, sir," the tactical officer said, "they'll have a hard time engaging the enemy at that speed. It'll leave the bigger warships open."
"They're after the patrol escorts," the Admiral said, "trying to pick off the weakest ships with what little firepower they have left. The bigger ships can afford to draw a little extra fire for now. We almost have them beat."
"Mika Fleet has taken down Delta Three-Three," another sensor operator said. "Delta Three-Seven is down. Kill shot goes to the Joan of Arc."
"That's ma belle Jeanne!" Commodore Frazier beamed. "I'd say that earns Commander Leonov a bottle of the Class Six's finest when we get back to Barton."
"Let's not be spending your paycheck just yet," Captain Yuen said. "They still have twelve more ships and one of those is Zulu One."
As the previous captain of the Anchises, Yuen took her loss hard, but his sense of duty outweighed his personal feelings and he didn't let it show while he was on the bridge. If Commodore Frazier didn't know him any better, he wouldn't even guess anything was wrong. However, the best way to respect Yuen's professional commitment was to actually pretend nothing was wrong, and continue their usual back-and-forth.
"She sure takes a lickin' and keeps on tickin'," the Commodore said, frowning at the display for Zulu One's readings. "I don't see how she's managed to last so much longer than Yankee One."
"Perhaps the two were not made entirely equally."
"Zulu One is changing course!" a sensor operator announced. "She's opening fire on the colony!"
"All ships, concentrate fire on Zulu One," the Admiral ordered.
The sensor operator following Zulu One said, "Zulu One's shields at 20 percent."
"2 percent..."
"Zulu One's shields are at zero percent."
"Lock on Zulu One and fire torpedoes," Commodore Frazier said. "All tubes."
"We have a firing solution," a CS operator said. "Firing all tubes, aye."
Eight torpedoes from the Ticonderoga and a couple dozen more from the other ships of the task force slammed into Zulu One. It had held out this long, but now it didn't stand a chance.
Abruptly, the viewscreens flickered and filled with red text.
The same line scrolled through for about thirty seconds. Then the screens went black and were replaced with one final line.
That too disappeared when the sensor operator following Zulu One announced, "Zulu One is down. I repeat, Zulu One is down."
The bridge erupted in cheers, but those closer to the back who saw the mystery transmission weren't quite as enthusiastic. And for good reason, too, because their cause for celebration was short-lived.
"Extreme heat signature detected!" a sensor operator shouted. "The colony's reactor has gone critical!"
They knew it was coming, but it was still a race against the clock.
"All craft, fall back to minimum safe distance!" Admiral Mfume ordered. "Prepare EMP countermeasures! Shield for flash! Brace for shock!"
The Ticonderoga was already far enough back, but there were still plenty of other ships in the danger zone. The video displays cut out momentarily to prevent them from getting overloaded by the flash. Normally, a nuclear blast in space doesn't have the same range that it has planetside, but the atmosphere inside the colony was just substantial enough to create a shockwave that rocked the ship, though not too seriously.
After the shockwave passed, Admiral Mfume said, "Damage report."
"Systems are all green."
"What about our Marines?"
"All four Marathons got away clean. All Combat Sparrows... As I were. Goindown Three is lost."
Admiral Mfume paused a moment before asking, "Who was on Goindown Three?"
"Third Platoon, Echo Company."
"Any other losses?"
"Still waiting on a headcount. All other craft accounted for."
"What about escape pods from the colony?"
"I'm reading 218 active beacons."
"Send out the rescue squadrons and start bringing them in."
"Aye-aye, sir."
The main viewscreen flickered and Mika appeared with her typical pink background.
"Thank you for your cooperation, gentlemen," she said cheerily. "I might not have succeeded if the Metatron made contact with the reactor and forced a shutdown. She was very close to winning, after all. But I had all of you helping me and that is what tipped the scales in my favor. Again, you have my thanks.
"With her gone, I now have control of the surviving Empyrean ships. I am placing them on lockdown now. Do with them what you will. Goodbye."
"Wait!" Commodore Frazier exclaimed, but it was already too late.
"Yankee Two-Three is no longer sending or receiving any signal," the communications officer said.
"All Empyrean ships have cut engines," a sensor operator said. "I'm only getting minimal power readings."
"Is it enough for life support?" Admiral Mfume asked.
"Unknown, sir."
"Redeploy the Marines to rescue as many as you can."
"Aye-aye, sir."
Commodore Frazier sank into his chair. He couldn't help but feel overwhelmed by the fact that their campaign against the Empyrean had finally come to an end.
"I guess that means it's over," he said.
Stroking his chin thoughtfully as he looked out at the viewscreens, Admiral Mfume said, "I believe I read in your file that you attended the Academy at Dartmouth, Commodore. Is that correct?"
"Yes, sir."
"Then perhaps you will be familiar with this quote from Churchill, which I believe is apt. 'Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.'"
"Quotable quotes is a lost art, sir," the Commodore replied with a grin.
"Perhaps so, Commodore," the Admiral said, "but it is one that could stand to be revived."
Commodore Frazier thought on Churchill's words and how they applied to their current situation. The Empyrean might be finished, but there was still no end in sight for the long war with the Sheolites. Though the Commodore never let it be common knowledge, he was a bit of a math nerd back when he was a kid. If this was just the end of the beginning, he certainly hoped their graph was parabolic instead of linear. That'd make this end of the beginning business a whole lot easier to swallow.