(BSS Heartseeker, Coldana System)
The last time they were here, the Coldana system had been the site of a desperate last stand by the Consortium Navy, trying to bloody the X’thari as much as they possibly could before they were overwhelmed by the impossible numbers of the Swarm. The five Starhunter ships had played their own role in that battle, even though they had far fewer kills to their names than the Consortium ships did. Because of the way X’thari always attempted to destroy non-X’thari ships with the X’thari Anchor Drives on them, the call had been made for all five of the Starhunters to enter the system and draw off as many ships from the main fleet as they could.
With their escorts drawn away, chasing the lightning quick Starhunters, the Consortium Navy was able to get in several devastating blows, including two major hits on the massive Harvester itself. That hadn’t stopped the X’thari advance, of course, but it had been a major morale victory when it had been reported back to the ships and fleets that were gathering to try and destroy the menace once and for all.
For the Starhunters, though, that battle had been an exercise in quick reactions and seat of your pants flying. Thousands of ships had broken off from the swarm to hunt down five little ships that weren’t any larger than a light freighter each. If there were graver mismatches in the history of the universe, there couldn’t have been many of them. Fortunately, all five Starhunters had enough of a lead, that their overpowered engines were able to keep them out of weapons range, even as they kept drawing the X’thari away from the Consortium ships. And they had gotten their licks in, too! They may not have had many weapons, and certainly nothing for the numbers they faced, but every one of them launched their weapons bays dry, the sudden assault taking out some three dozen escort ships in total. It wasn’t much, but they could proudly say that they hadn’t simply run from the battle without doing anything.
Now, rested and rearmed, Heartseeker and her sisters were back in the game, this time to provide much-needed intelligence on what the X’thari were doing. It had been almost two weeks since the first battle of Coldana, and people were anxious to see what the X’thari had been doing in that time. So, the Boss had ordered them in. It wasn’t a heartless act on his part, though it was certainly cold and calculating enough. The Starhunters were designed for stealth insertions and reconnaissance, and they were designed with finding and mapping X’thari strongholds in particular. This was simply a dress rehearsal for when they did this for real. That’s what they told themselves, anyways.
Using the Anchor Drives, they came out far outside the system, where they could avoid detection by the X’thari ships blockading the system. Then, they got up to speed, before coasting on a ballistic trajectory into the system, sixty degrees above the ecliptic. With stealth systems fully engaged the five ships may as well have been holes in space as they spent three days on their approach. It was far too early to announce their presence, after all.
Finally, they began getting readings on the passive sensors. The readings were all limited by the speed of light, since they did not dare light off their active sensors, but what they could see was both impressive and disheartening at the same time. There were over one hundred and fifty-five THOUSAND X’thari vessels in the system! That number was enough to darken the heart of the most stalwart warrior, but it meant that the Consortium had managed to take down almost ten percent of the Swarm in their fanatical last stand! That number was up from the initial combat reports the Starhunters and the Fucking Bitch had brought back, evidently reflecting that some of the X’thari ships had been too badly damaged to continue functioning, or had been sent to replace losses in the groups blockading the system.
Slave-Captain Drah Sross had enjoyed their brief stay in Star’s Reach, where all the Starhunter crews had been able to get quite drunk without having to spend a single credit, thanks to the people who kept plying them with drinks in exchange for their story of the Battle. Even the Nomads, who had gotten the information on the battle through their communication networks, were impressed by the stories of those who were actually there. Still, there was only so much alcohol an Ihm could drink, and she was glad that they were back here in Coldana, doing something important. The Master had promised her excitement when he first ‘recruited’ her, and he had certainly delivered so far!
She took a breath, and then said, “Adam, tightbeam transmission to the group. All ships spread out, maximum stealth, into Stellar Halo formation. We want to map as much of the system as possible, and get any and all data on the X’thari movements. We don’t have the Consortium Navy or their tarpits to help us out this time, so getting spotted is going to be severely hazardous to our health.”
“Understood, Captain. All other ships acknowledge.”
Stellar Halo was just what it sounded. All five Starhunter ships would move on ballistic trajectories, with as minimal maneuvering as possible, to a distance 0.75 AU from the system primary along the ecliptic and 0.75 AU above the ecliptic, spreading out so that their path described a perfect circle circling the sun. The formation allowed all ships to keep in tightbeam communication, and being so far above the ecliptic made the chance of running into X’thari ships remote, to say the least.
“Adam, have we located the Harvester yet?”
“Yes, Captain. The Harvester is approximately two hundred thousand kilometers from its last known location.”
Drah frowned at that. “The thing has been here for two weeks! What has it been doing all this time? Has it finished off Coldana yet? What is the system’s status, Adam?”
“Negative on destruction of Coldana. The biosphere of the planet is still intact. However, I am detecting an extremely high number of X’thari ships in orbit of the planet. All orbital infrastructure has been destroyed.”
Chakizo purred slightly as he made his way to the cockpit from the engineering spaces. “Perhaps the Harvester was hurt badly enough that it couldn’t just rush and consume the planet. There might still be survivors!”
“We are detecting wideband transmissions from several parts of the planetary surface, but there is significant interference. The transmissions are not on frequencies known to be used by the X’thari. The chances of there being living resistance forces on the planet’s surface is 32%.”
Drah considered that. “What sources would the transmissions be coming from if not survivors fighting against the X’thari?”
“Several possible sources, with recordings of fallen resistance groups set to replay at intervals being the most likely. Given the extreme numbers of X’thari ships in orbit, it is unlikely that any forces still remain alive on the surface.”
“What about defense bunkers?”
“Calculating… If defensive bunkers were secure enough, and not destroyed by orbital bombardment, there is a chance that some of them could still survive.”
“Which ship is closest to Coldana Prime?”
“The Flux Capacitor is closest.”
“Tightbeam to the Flux Capacitor. Standard Black Star encryption.”
“Flux Capacitor, this is Heartseeker. We have what looks like corrupted signals coming from Coldana Prime. Do you think you can get a better read on them, maybe clean them up and see what they have to say?”
“Heartseeker, we’re reading the same thing here. Sarah, our AI, is saying that it doesn’t look good for any survivors to be still alive, given the number of ships. However, we’re not picking up the atmospheric ionization you’d expect if the X’thari had been doing large-scale orbital bombardments. If there are defense bunkers that haven’t been overrun, we could have survivors still alive on the planet’s surface!”
“Flux Capacitor, do you think you can get a better read on the situation if you moved closer?”
“Probably. I would like to know what the X’thari are doing if they haven’t been conducting large-scale bombardments, though.”
“Captain, I calculate a 74.9% probability that the X’thari intend for the Harvester to consume the biosphere intact, and that orbital bombardment would taint large parts of it making it suboptimal for their use.”
“Flux, Adam’s just had a brainwave. The X’thari want their big Harvester to eat the planet, so they don’t want to poison it with their big guns. I want you to break formation, and see if you can coast close enough to pick up the transmissions from Coldana, and clean them up. Do not transmit anything or respond. There’s nothing we can do for them, except letting the combined fleets know that there are survivors still fighting, if we can confirm that.”
“Understood. We’ll be quiet as a ghost.”
“Just don’t become ghosts yourselves!”
“Hah! Copy that. Flux Capacitor, out.”
Drah nodded to herself as the Flux Capacitor closed the line. “Adam, work with the other ships, to alter formation so we cover for the Flux dropping out to cover the planet. How soon until we can get more data on what the Harvester is doing?”
“Other ships are adjusting positions. Estimate twelve hours until all ships are in new final positions. Data analysis on the Harvester is ongoing. Prioritizing analysis of damage received and other factors.”
“What is the Harvester currently doing.”
“Analysis ongoing. Cross-referencing the current position of the Harvester with data from the Battle of Coldana. Discrepancy noted. Mass of debris from the destroyed remnant of Tenth Fleet is no longer present. Mass of debris from destroyed Fifteenth Fleet is 25% less than the predicted base on mass of the fleet and observed pattern of destruction. Preliminary conclusion: Harvester is consuming remains of the Consortium Navy vessels before advancing on Coldana.”
Chakizo frowned. “I mean, there’s a lot of reason to consume the fleets. That’s a lot of resources that they could get from it. But why would they focus on those fleets before going and snapping up a whole world’s worth of resources on Coldana?”
Drah shook her head. “Maybe it is just going with the closest source of resources, and will consume them all in time? But something the size of the Harvester should have been able to consume the fleets by now. The last time the Harvester showed up, and it would eat an entire planet down to the bedrock in two weeks. There’s no reason they couldn’t have moved past the fleet by now!”
“Captain, visual analysis of the Harvester shows scar tissue at the site of earlier wounds. This suggests that the Harvester has not yet fully recovered external wounds from the Firebringer attack. Additionally, there may be internal damage to the Harvester’s systems that is not immediately visible. This would mean that the Harvester is using the resources of the Consortium Navy fleets to fuel its regenerative processes, and also why new X’thari ships have not launched to replace the losses already incurred.”
Drah blinked, and turned to look at Chakizo. The Felisan also looked surprised at that revelation. “Could it really be that simple? The attacks hurt the Harvester enough that it was able to slow the speed at which they were able to process materials, even if there wasn’t noticeable external damage?”
“Damn. Yeah, it could be possible. Those hits from Firebringer had to have been one hell of an impact. Before I was ‘recruited’ to Black Star, I was a mercenary. You had plenty of people that would get hit, and they might not have big gushing wounds like you see when someone gets shot full of holes, but they get internal bleeding, and die out a while later if they don’t get it fixed up. And hell, you get your head smacked hard enough, you can get a nasty concussion, even if you aren’t killed, and that’ll throw you off your game for sure until it heals. And if a shuttle going at FTL hitting you upside the head doesn’t give you a concussion, I don’t know what will!”
“Adam, emergency message to the Master. Use the Nomad networks. We don’t want the X’thari discovering us. Tell him that there may still be survivors on Coldana, and that the Harvester has not yet made it in system to strike at the planet itself! They’re planning how to attack this beastie, and this might give them the opening they need!”