"How far to the target?"
"At current burn, I'd give it two, three hours tops," came the crisp, softly accented response. On the plotting table's projector, the figure of a Victorian English soldier fizzled into being. "That is, if the target doesn't flee, like he did over Thuris."
"He won't. We've got him cornered this time." The Captain muttered, thrusting the smouldering cigarette into the ashtray. "A few frigates from Admiral Richard's 13th are on their way, but we're to be the scout vanguard for this one."
The heavy frigate Constantinople, along with the scout ship Farsight in tow, had been rerouted from patrolling some of the mining outposts of the Kuiper Belt to the pursuit of the rebel Alexandre Lagos, who had escaped the raids on Titan that had killed his commander, deserter Colonel Tobias Locke. He, along with his cadre, had fled deep into the Empty Quarter with a few light ships stolen from dock over Saturn. His mission, as far as he knew, was to recover either Lagos or the ships, or, if possible, both.
All in all, a rather standard mission for the crew of the Constantinople, who had been hunting down the dissenting cells the now-exiled EAF had been funding and supporting since the collapse of their interests on Luna and Earth.
The system they were set to patrol was rather empty, all things considered. A few cold, icy gas giants wandered around an ancient star, still ringed with the debris of what might have once been an interior world. Fragments of an ancient asteroid belt, shredded by what was likely a cataclysmic impact, filled the void between the worlds, drifting slowly in the silence. Why anyone would find refuge in this dead system, Davis wasn't sure, but there was certainly no better place to hide.
"Anything on the scanners, Trevelyan?"
"Nothing but debris and dust, sir."
Davis turned to the ship's comms officer, sitting adjacent to his command chair. "Anything?"
"No sir," The woman, Ensign Anna Tchaikov, responded, frowning. "Although, there is a considerable amount of EM interference from the star. Could be hiding transmissions."
The Captain nodded, turning back to the bridge's duraglass viewing window, still overlayed with Trevelyan's scans of the nearby dead worlds, cracked and spilling atmosphere and magma into space. "Keep an eye on it. Let me know if anything changes."
Sighing to himself, he sank into the command chair, closing out the local map he'd been provided by the Belfast when she'd passed through a week earlier. Whether through fatigue or boredom, or perhaps through a mixture of the two, he began to think back.
Back to the day he'd boarded the Phoenix on it's deep cover mission, along with the LRR unit he was assigned to oversee. Every single one of those troopers lost their lives one way or another throughout the war, two of them on their very first mission, which, coincidentally, was also Davis' first mission outside of UEG space. Their target was a world that was technically part of the DMZ set in place after the first Kal'Haruum-UEG conflict a mere sixty years earlier, but had recently gone dark for both sides.
The planet was Nar Shadil, a swampy, dank rimworld claimed by neither the Kal'Haruum or the UEG, and also an alleged bioweaponry production site.
"Alleged" wasn't even the start of it.
A result, however, was the inflammation of a second Kal'Haruum-UEG conflict, after the battlegroup sent to cleanse the horrors unleashed on the planet was attacked by an overzealous captain of the opposing side and igniting a slugfest over the dying world.
The rather weakened Kal'Haruum, drained militarily from numerous border conflicts deeper upspin, were forced to turn their sights back towards the usually quiet systems that bordered the empires, and began to bit by bit scour the UEG side clean of human "infestation." This campaign, having started in late 2253, was known as the Second War of Aggression, a knee-jerk response to the tragedy over Nar Shadil, and the result of the High Council calling for redemption.
"Captain. Contact on long range passive, bringing it up now."
Snapping himself out of his thoughts, Davis blinked as a three-dimensional overlay of the system phased into being on the plotting table, plots symbolizing both the Constantinople, close to the world signified AC-1104, and the contact, further in system around one of the inner worlds. "Is it a ship?"
Trevelyan, flipping through a projected book, frowned. "I'm afraid I can't tell at this distance, sir. The background radiation of the star is preventing any good readings."
Sighing, Davis turned back to the screen. The contact, a small, black dot even on the highest zoom, was in a low orbit around one of the inner planets, a burnt ball of blackened rock that pinwheeled around the star almost twice the speed of the other worlds. It was a moderate sized world, with a very small habitable belt between the "day" and "night" sides.
"Take us into a high orbit, and engage whatever EW systems we have. Don't want to tip them off too early."
The navigator, a short, blond haired man seated at one of the consoles, nodded. "Setting course one-zero-zero, Sir. Current speed shows an ETA of around five minutes, not factoring in the gravity banks and spatial distortions around the star."
The planet, so remote and unwanted it was only listed in the prospective catalogue as "PP-101," was a very strange world. It was tidally locked, one side permanently facing it's dying star, and the other facing off into the depths of space. A small, belt of greenish-brown, obviously terraformed, stretched around the world from pole to pole between the extreme deserts that covered each side. Faintly, lights could be seen on the surface as they made their entrance into high orbit, showing it to be inhabited.
"Captain, I'm reading quite a bit of chatter from the surface, on civilian channels," Tchaikov remarked incredulously, tapping away at her console. "It's... a colony. Not listed on the BCA database."
The contact, now revealed to be the renegade Federal Navy Frigate Redoubt, rounded the planet's horizon just as the Constantinople slid into geostationary orbit over one of the planet's poles. Silhouetted by the system's sun, the frigate halted it's advance a few thousand kilometres off of the ship's bow. Her hull was battered, scorched streaks of blackened plating lining her sides, one in particular bisecting the service number on the ship's centrifugal well, which had obviously taken enough damage to stop turning.
"Redoubt has queried comms, Captain. Standard UEG protocols, high priority." Trevelyan announced, his holographic body vanishing in a flurry of light to be replaced by a simple tactical display. "Do you want me to patch them through?"
"Do it," Davis remarked flatly, crossing his arms as he surveyed the tactical display.
With a hiss of static, the projected rendition of the frigate's bridge resolved into view, spots of still-blackened machinery where they'd taken damage during the ship's escape. In the center of the frame, wearing a worn, tattered UEGNF Captain's uniform, stood a man. Tall, unshaven, and foreboding, Wilhelm Vandof had been one of the many captains who'd found pleasure in the retaking of Agate and the following excursion into the Kal'Haruum's weakened territories, himself supporting the order to burn Hak'Shala, the empire's capital, to dust.
"Well, Captain," Vandof mused, rubbing at his chin in mock thought. "Welcome to Paradiso. Lovely region of space, is it not?"
"Under the Luna Convention Treaty of 2117, you are in violation of sixteen different regulations of UEG law, Captain, least of all absconding with a Federal naval vessel." Davis stated flatly, crossing his arms. "By the sheer unwillingness to send a fellow captain to their graves does your ship still remain in a single piece."
The man on the screen laughed, cupping his chest with a hand. "You wound me so, Zachary. It really hurts to hear those words from a fellow captain." Folding his hands behind his back, the man adjusted into a relaxed parade rest, a slight scowl visible beneath the beard. "Tell me, do you know why I deserted? Why I left?"
"Frankly, no. Not that it matters much, seeing as you're in possession of a stolen vessel."
"The UEG is failing, Zach. More worlds fall from it's gaze every day - vanishing into the dark like a candle blown out in the wind. The days of a benevolent overseer are gone, replaced with corrupted tyranny! That is why Paradiso remained off of the charts, my friend. A haven, for wayward souls and renegades. It is hard for them to punish what they cannot find, no?"
Those... I've heard those words before. On Titan. Locke said the same thing.
"If I found you, so can they," Davis muttered, leaning back in the captain's chair.
"Yes, that is a problem, isn't it?" Vandof muttered under his breath, turning to one of his bridge crew and saying something unaudible. "Or, it would be, if you were going to survive this little... encounter, as it were."
Almost immediately, the deck beneath the Captain's feet shuddered, the lights on the bridge flickering for a moment from some unseen cataclysm. Rising fear began to pool in the back of his mind as the man on the viewscreen laughed, sitting back into his captain's chair as the bridge around Davis became frantic, the AI shouting about "additional contacts" as fire suppression teams were ordered about by Ensign Tchaikov, her voice wavering with stress.
"And so, I leave you here, my friend." Vandof said flatly, his voice carefully neutral. "It pains me so to sign the death warrant of a fellow captain, least of all one I fought alongside in the greatest campaign of my career, but..." He was interrupted as another shot from one of the ships to the rear, identified by the frantic AI as the Babylon, punctured it's way through the hull of the Constantinople, plunging the ship into darkness for a moment as what was left of the backup generator struggled to power the upper decks. Debris spinning off into the void was visible through the viewscreen, pieces of deck plating, chunks of the lower decks and engine components, all destined to be impromptu meteors burning up over the planet below. With another titanic impact, Davis was pitched forward as the artificial gravity generator was destroyed, the ship's hull buckling under the stress as more impacts rocked her superstructure.
The last thing he knew was the loudest sound he'd ever heard, and panicked screams of some of the crew who weren't unconcious.