In transit, on the knife edge of time and space, breaking the light barrier with the Tilsworth-Cooke Drive, the Vanguard carrier Versailles leads a combined fleet of warships searching for the renegade Yaralu known as Kemetti. General Charles Avocet, the fleet commander, peruses images of wreckage from the destroyed cruise liner Avondale. Thousands of people looking forward to a relaxing getaway, snuffed out in moments by the whim of this great beast.
A fighter on patrol finds a trail similar to the one that led the fleet here. It is an FTL trace leading to the Fringe, possibly Ungstir.
“Nest, this is Fledgling Six,” reports the pilot aboard the Stinger fighter that’s running point for the Versailles. “My sensors show a polydenum burst residue trail aimed roughly toward Ungstir.” The general orders the navigator to plot a transit solution. In ten minutes, the drive should be powered up for another jump. Fledgling Six is ordered back to the Nest.
In the outer reaches of Ungstir’s system in far orbit of its sun, Kemetti keeps his sensors active, looking for any stray vessels that might venture too far from the established shipping lanes.
Once Fledgling Six is back aboard Versailles, the combined battle group makes the jump toward Ungstir. Avocet orders a message broadcast on all subspace frequencies: “Denizens of Ungstir, this is General Charles Avocet of the Stellar Consortium. I have reason to believe the creature that destroyed the cruise liner Avondale may be in your region soon. Take all necessary precautions.”
Kemetti picks up the transmission and immediately begins to move further away from the system, watching as most traffic scatters to safe berths. He begins to consider his options before deciding upon a destination. Moments later, he wheels around and leaps into FTL. Towards the Line of Pain.
Some time later, the combined fleet drops to sublight in the Perseverance star system, where the remnants of Ungstir orbit. Immediately, fighters spill from the Versailles and start their picket routes in search of Kemetti. Nothing immediately shows on sensors. So the patrolling ships start scanning for polydenum bursts.
The patrols eventually come across Kemetti’s trail far away from Perseverance, and it seems to make a beeline for Parallax space.
“That’s interesting,” observes General Avocet as he reviews the latest trajectory projections for the creature. “Very interesting.” He prepares another message for transmission to Nalhom on an encrypted diplomatic channel: “This is General Charles Avocet of the Consortium starship Versailles. We are tracking a violent sentient starship that destroyed a cruise liner near Antimone. Our evidence suggests the creature is now en route to Parallax territory. I trust this may not meet with your approval. If you need our assistance, please advise. We have no intention of crossing the Line of Pain.”
Kemetti comes out of FTL at the Line of Pain and begins to race along it, moving as quickly as possible from his polydenum trail. A week is but a moment in the life of a Yaralu and he seems quite content from his last meal.
The Clawed Fist Fleet responds to the warning from the Consortium, dispatching a dozen warships – including a carrier – toward the Line of Pain.
Just outside Parallax space, on the edge of the border net, Kemetti continues his rapid, though sublight journey along the Line of Pain, heading in the general direction of the Ancient Expanse. He dodges through wrecked ships with surprising agility as he uses the line not unlike a fox might use a river to mask evidence of his passing.
Ur’soth Yok of Hatch Kavir, commander of the Clawed Fist Fleet carrier Slashing Strike, waits impatiently for the report from the sensors station.
The Huth reviewing the data hangs suspended in a chain-and-cushion seat, clawed feet dangling inches above the deck plate. His tail lashes back and forth as he swipes the sensor display to a great magnification, showing the nearest span of wreckage in the Line of Pain.
The faintest blip – a sensor ping from one of the Nalhom intelligence probes, reporting a vessel in motion, matching no known profile. Massive. He transmits the data to the Ur’soth, the weapons officer, and the flight deck.
Yokkavir studies the pulsing signal as it is traced in real-time. “Prepare to intercept and launch fighters,” he hisses. “And notify the Vanguard: we are tracking the creature. They must not violate our territory. We will deal with it.”
Beginning to detect approaching vessels, Kemetti puts his trust in speed to keep ahead of all but the smaller vessels. Moving laterally across the border, he makes certain to keep the interdiction net between himself and the Parallax so as to keep retreat an option.
General Avocet lifts his eyebrows as he reads the communique from the Nall.
His adjutant asks: “Shall we break off pursuit, sir?”
The general shakes his head. “No. We maintain a parallel along the Line of Pain until we’re sure the Nall have engaged the enemy. Until then, we do our best to give that monster nowhere to run.” He studies the map on one of his HUDs. A wave of his hand zooms out. He moves “north” a bit, toward the less-explored territory. “Our prey is going sublight now. Tell the Sivadians to jump ahead to these coordinates.” He indicates a spot that remains outside the Line of Pain but might cut Kemetti off on his path to the Ancient Expanse.
Kemetti picks up on one of the Vanguard sensor nodes ahead of him, and a tendril reaches out and snatches it. With a sudden change in thrust, he converts his forward momentum into rotation and hurls the unmanned device in towards Parallax territory before setting off again.
Rear Admiral Plimpton St. John-Crowell waits with implacable calm as the five ships of his fleet make their transit at FTL to the coordinates ordered by General Avocet.
During the journey, he has time to enter a new log while sitting in his quarters.
“I am grateful for the opportunity thus provided by the Vanguard fleet commander,” the rear admiral states into the mic. “It is my solemn vow to avenge those lost aboard the Avondale. I consider it mandatory, particularly because I accept full responsibility for prompting the massacre when our fleet dropped to sublight near Antimone. The fact that I was acting on orders is no excuse. I must live with their blood on my hands. I can but hope to die well trying to balance the ledger.”
Picking up movement in FTL ahead of him, Kemetti continues on course, as the sensor probe behind him begins to approach the Line of Pain.
The sensor officer aboard the Slashing Strike reports the detection of a sublight object roundabout where the redirected sensor probe is moving. Nowhere near as massive, though. Still, he diligently reports it to Yokkavir. The Ur’soth huffs, flicking a forked tongue as he ponders.
“Debris from the Line of Pain, perhaps,” Yokkavir muses. “Displaced by the beast, possibly. But this entire episode could be a ruse of the Vanguard to find a way to get close to the Line of Pain and skirt our defenses.”
He orders a third of the fleet contingent to intercept the sensor probe. The rest remain on a course matching Kemetti.
Kemetti does not change his course, still awaiting whatever lies in store ahead of him.
What lies in store drops to sublight adjacent to the Line of Pain ahead of Kemetti – five Sivadian Navy vessels, including the carrier Lafayette, which immediately unleashes a dozen fighters while battleships Winston and Manchester lock their main guns on the Yaralu. The two destroyers, Corbin and Blackstone, move into flanking vectors as they prepare to engage Kemetti.
As the FTL signatures approach, Kemetti slows to be out of bombardment range upon their arrival. When they arrive, he cuts sharply to starboard, towards the Blackstone’s course and the interdiction net. No going back now.
Soon after, the Nall fleet drops to sublight on the other side of the interdiction net – with the Blackstone between them and Kemetti. Yokkavir is displeased by this turn of events, but orders fighters and accompanying Nall warships to engage the Yaralu. “If the softskin ship is damaged, so be it,” the Ur’soth growls.
As the Yaralu approaches the Blackstone, a pair of tendrils flash out towards the vessel, but rather than attempting to ensare it, they seem to be engaged in a striking motion.
The Blackstone tries – unsuccessfully – to dodge the strike. But Kemetti now finds himself in range of the battleship guns, as well as plasma missile launches from the Nall fleet. All weapons in range are firing on the Yaralu, while the Blackstone is sundered in half in a burst of shrapnel and oxygen. As the assault begins, the Vanguard fleet arrives from behind Kemetti. The noose is tightening.
Kemetti seems almost surprised at how easily the Blackstone is destroyed and is forced to change his plan and direction. As he detects the missile launches, he cuts hard to port towards the main Sivadian fleet, drawing the missiles after him as his shields and body keeps the battleships’ fire off of them.
As Kemetti maneuvers, he also faces the onslaught of fighter swarms from three militaries as the Vanguard joins the fight along the Line of Pain.
It is a situation fraught with danger, as Nall ships, Sivadians, and Vanguard find themselves launching salvos at the Yaralu with little concern about the crossfire. Missiles, rail guns, pulse cannons – the void is suddenly a chaotic miasma of destructive energy and projectiles.
The Yaralu leads those few missiles toward the main Sivadian force, but Kemetti himself is the hub of a wheel of destruction. And while most of those blasts are going to find their target, not just a few are catching allies and cold war enemies alike in the crossfire.
“Damn it,” Avocet mutters as he watches the threat board HUD swarming with bloody fireflies and blossoming spirals. “Even after that beast’s down, the Nall are going to have their blood up.”
Born in the vastness of space, Kemetti is in his element, with no need for cold metal between him and the space around him. His shields begin to fail as he leaves the edge of the interdiction net, however, and it seems that he may be unable to draw the fight into the midst of the Sivadian fleet in time. He has yet one more ploy open to him. With a strain of effort and thrust, he pulls up, taking a course parallel to the galactic axis where none of the fleets have moved. Once there are but a few fighters between him and open space, he engages his FTL propulsion. He might take a deal of damage on the way out, but the fleets below him might find themselves otherwise occupied.
“Oh, no, you don’t,” Rear Admiral Plimpton St. John-Crowell proclaims as he spies Kemetti’s escape maneuver. He stands at his command station and shouts: “Ramming trajectory, ahead full!” He aims to put the nose of the Sivadian carrier through the sentient starship’s belly.
Meanwhile, the Vanguard and Clawed Fist fighters continue to harry the Yaralu, peppering it with blasts – and occasionally slamming into each other.
“Jesus wept,” Avocet says as he sees the Sivadian commander’s maneuver. “Someone took the Avondale really personally.” He then orders all weapons to open fire. “Empty the magazines! Take that monster out!”
Spewing fluids from tears in his hull, the Yaralu has no time to await the arrival of the carrier from the rear line. He takes a fighter or two in the face, but it is better than a carrier in the chest. It isn’t pretty, and it isn’t fun, but the immense creature slips out of the universe, clawing for velocity.
The Sivadian rear admiral watches, powerless, as his wounded quarry slips away. To be fair, most of the bridge crew seem relieved that they haven’t succeeded in killing themselves with a kamikaze maneuver.
St. John-Crowell, on the other hand, looks gaunt and broken. Still, he smooths the front of his uniform jacket, tugs at the lower hem, and then transfers the conn to his second in command before retiring to his office adjacent to the bridge.
He sits in the chair at his desk, pulls a slugthrower from the drawer, puts the barrel to his temple, and pulls the trigger. Blood, brains, and hair splatter the rectangular porthole behind him.
“Break off,” Avocet yells, a command relayed to the fleet. “It’s over! Fledglings, back to the Nest!”
As the Consortium forces tear away from the battleground, leaving wreckage from two empires – and bits and pieces of Kemetti – Yokkavir observes from the bridge of the Slashing Strike. His jaw falls open, hissing in amusement. “The Goddess slumbers no longer,” he whispers. “Send word to the Vox: Consortium forces violated the Line of Pain and engaged our glorious warriors in their attempt to destroy that ridiculous creature. Let’s see how she feels about this violation of our sovereignty.”