Operations Report station Matmos Alpha
Commander Althus Denn reporting
[open voice record]
The Matmos Rift remains inscrutable as ever. I must repeat my objections that this posting represents a waste of Federation credits and personnel resources. Any potential benefits to observing what is a simple element of nature have long been exhausted.
Personnel note: Operations Chief Farley is to be docked three days’ pay for insubordination.
Other operations remain … Wait.
[pause voice record]
[resume voice record]
I have never seen so many wanderers emerge at once. Append sensor logs to report.
[transfer sensor logs]
[divergent energy signatures detected]
[Matmos wanderer signatures identified]
[anomaly: Federation power wave detected]
What the hell…?
[anomaly: Federation weapons ignition detected]
[threat condition Amber initiated]
This makes no sense…
– final transmission from Federation science station Matmos Alpha
The Matmos Rift, image taken from Matmos Alpha archives.
Althus Denn was pissed.
Of course, for a licensed commander in the Federation’s contract enforcement division, being posted at a pointless science station at the far end of the known universe, with no opportunities for advancement, or worse, profit, was a good reason to be disgruntled. And like nearly all disgraced Federation officers through history, Althus Denn knew exactly who to blame for his exile to this oubliette - and it most certainly wasn’t himself.
If only that Bianco twit had kept his high-minded ideas about crew survival to himself, Denn would never have read them. Then he wouldn’t have been motivated to do an in-depth cost-benefit analysis that “proved” limiting the costs of training new officers would balance out any cost increases incurred through reinforcement of crew compartments and other safety measures, at least in the long term. He most certainly would have had no reason to research the safety and survival measures used by the other Great Powers, balancing them against the Powers’ success records during the Gratuitous War. And without all those foundation blocks, Denn would not have had the opportunity to cut his own career off at the knees.
He could still hear Vice-Admiral Chesterton’s dry voice, cutting through his future as surely as a monoblade would cut his flesh. “Financial planning for a period that will certainly exceed the Federation’s inevitable victory is a subject best left to civilian authorities,” Chesterton had droned. “Given your clear aptitude for such unproductive pursuits, perhaps it is time that your position within Contract Enforcement is re-evaluated.” Bastard.
And so, Althus Denn found himself unceremoniously shipped off to be the CE commander of Matmos Alpha, the only “science” station left in the Federation. Hell, the only reason the Funding Council hadn’t completely cut off the money stream to this half-forgotten place was that having the only outpost near an anomaly like the Matmos Rift carried a certain cachet - certain Admirals on the Council assigned value to the station because it was “unique”. Those hidebound coin-counters had never actually been out here, that was plain. Over time, the station had become the final resting place for every piece of Federation technology that still had too much value to justify scrapping, but not enough to justify any use.
“Junkpile, that’s what this place is,” Denn muttered. “Full of crap no one wants anymore and no one wants to throw away.” The fact that this was a good descriptor of Denn himself was not lost on him, and did nothing to improve his mood.
The commander - god, even his rank was a joke now - moved across the command center to the extensive central console (at least, it had been extensive when the station’s systems all still worked). Maintaining the daily reports from the system had become the high point of Denn’s day; the routine was the only thing about this posting that made him feel like he was still part of CE. The system had been designed for ease of use - but today Denn’s normal three-button sequence failed to bring up the primary sensors. He gritted his teeth, knowing what had to come next. Loathing every moment, Denn reached out a hand and flipped the internal communications switch.
Though Denn couldn’t hear it, he knew a chime was sounding deep in the bowels of the station. After a minute and a half, the comm grille crackled to life. “What?” a rough, gravelly voice rasped out.
Judging from his perpetually slurred words, Operations Chief Donald Farley still hadn’t exhausted his supply of the Nomad whiskey he favored. (Long ago, Denn had tried some of the uncouth brew at a party. The stuff had all the smoothness and charm of depleted reactor coolant, without the positive health benefits.) The chief, a former Rebel, had a knack with technology that was the only reason the Federation had accepted him into its ranks (that, and his willingness to work for an enlisted man’s salary). Though the CE command had high hopes for Farley at first, his preference for obsolete, “valueless” tech had eventually shunted him here to Matmos Alpha, the only Federation junkyard where most of the junk still worked. “The main sensor suite was supposed to be functional by this morning, Chief,” Denn snapped.
“It’s fine,” Farley growled back. “Finished your damn repairs yesterday.” Denn could hear unidentifiable mechanical noises in the background - obviously Farley was back to working on one of his pet projects again. Months ago, Denn had decided that as long as Farley stopped co-opting the station’s other four operational personnel into his insane projects, he would let the Rebel defector tinker with whatever garbage he chose. Trust a Rebel to see value where in fact there was none.
“If the sensors are functional,” Denn responded, “then why can’t I bring them online?”
“Prob’ly 'cause the control linkages to the main console are fried,” Farley commented evenly. “Want me to fix them too?”
Denn ground his teeth. “The sensor suite is useless without the control linkages!” he shouted. “Of course I want them fixed!”
“Couple days then,” Farley answered, and cut the connection.
Denn threw himself into his chair, fuming. After seven months of dealing with Farley day in and day out, he almost wished an enemy vessel would show up and blow the hell out of the station. A Swarm disruptor beam would be a welcome distraction, or a burst of Tribe kinetics, or even one of those Uni-T things he had read reports about. Anything to remove the blot that was Chief Farley from Denn’s life.
A series of tremors rippled through the deck, accompanied by a frantic beeping from the control console. Looking up, Denn saw the display for the station’s backup sensor array flickering to life. Through the static, he could make out a thin cloud of blips moving around the station. Before he had the chance to react, the comm crackled to life once again. “Hey there,” Farley’s guttural voice growled. “Don’t worry about those, they’re friendlies. Built some remote-controlled fighters from the spares down in storage. Old stuff, but it should work. Launch went pretty smooth, at least.”
The fighters must have been launched from the lower cargo bays, the only exterior ports capable of handling that size of hull. If a launch down there shaking the control center at the station’s peak was what Farley considered “smooth”, Denn would hate to see what the ex-Rebel would view as a problem. True to the chief’s word, though, Denn could see that the blips carried Federation signatures. Trust a Rebel to waste time and effort making automatic fighters out of nothing but junk. It was amazing the chief had time to work on any official repairs with such frivolous projects occupying his time. Then a worrisome thought occurred: “Are those things armed?” Denn asked.
“Found some old laser cannons,” Farley affirmed. “Not impressive, but functional enough. Don’t worry, they’re hard-wired not to shoot the station. Programming breaks down, they might shoot the hell out of each other, but we’re safe enough in here. Just gonna let 'em fly around a bit, work the bugs out of the guidance matrix.” The channel cut off again.
A reminder beeped from the control console. Time to file the daily report - futile without the station’s main sensors, but as there had been no real activity in the Rift in weeks, the backup array should be sufficient. “And it’s not like anyone reads my reports anyway.” A tension headache pulsed through Denn’s skull. He almost envied Farley his constant drinking - though of course Denn would prefer a civilized and above all expensive Imperial brandy; even a dry Swarm wine would be tolerable (provided it had been properly aged - that stuff was horrid when it was cheap). Perhaps a pleasant alcohol haze would be just the thing to blur the misery his life had become. Denn shuddered to think that given enough time in this pit, he might even find Farley’s vile brew a welcome balm to his battered ego.
Well, might as well get the routine over with, and watch another piece of what was once a profitable future get washed down the drain. Opening a new report file, Denn recorded the usual opening statements, including his usual objections to the Matmos Alpha posting. He paused, considering including a mention of Farley’s most recent unauthorized project. “Who cares?” he muttered, then addressed the microphone again. “Personnel note: Operations Chief Farley is to be docked three days’ pay for insubordination.” That should prove to the CE that Denn still had his priorities in order. Assuming anyone bothered to review the report, that is. Just to be sure, Denn entered a notation in the station’s operating log as well - or started to, until he noticed the log screen was unresponsive. Damn it. Well, once Farley had repaired that system as well, Denn would record the pay suspension. The irony of that idea made him chuckle.
“Other operations remain…” Denn was cut off by an insistent beeping from the backup sensors. What appeared on the small screen was hard to determine. “Wait…” The computer automatically suspended the voice record as Denn focused on the sensor console. For a moment, he thought that Farley’s robotic fighters had triggered another response, but the new signatures appearing were much further off, just inside the backup array’s range. The sensor readings were muddled, too confused for Denn to make out. In true Federation fashion, he resorted to the cheapest system available - the station’s optic system. A conglomeration of lenses and enhancers on the outer hull ground laboriously into position, and Denn had a look.
“Computer, resume.” The recording system stuttered slightly before coming fully online again. “I have never seen so many wanderers emerge at once,” Denn commented as his eyes swept the cluster of yellow spheres on the scope. “Append sensor logs to report.” Small good that would do, considering the poor quality of the equipment, but Denn was not about to have his value recalculated downward yet again for failing to include all available data. He turned his attention back to the optic screen - something about the arrangement of the wanderers seemed familiar…
Formation! The independent rifts were moving in a static formation! How that could be, Denn had no idea. The rifts themselves were of sizes he had never seen before. Doing some quick calculations in his head, Denn estimated the largest rift was on a par with the new Lion-class dreadnoughts, with a smaller cruiser-sized rift, two that would compare with most Federation frigates, and a host of small rifts no more than 9 or 10 meters in diameter. These smallest rifts were the most perplexing - some seemed locked in circumferential positions around the ship-sized rifts, while others were moving in a clustered formation almost like fighter squadrons. Curious. Perhaps the Rift’s known mimetic properties, along with its encounters with military vessels over the centuries, had combined to produce this bizarre mimicry of naval formation? It was somewhat chilling, though, to see that perfect formation of unknowns bearing straight for Matmos Alpha.
The sensor display flashed up its information in an agonizingly slow sequence: first the detection of the rifts’ energy signatures, then a positive identification of the Matmos energy wave, then - what? Denn decided the array must have truly degraded beyond the point of usefulness; there was no other sane explanation for the Federation power signatures that were now appearing on the screen. “What the hell…?” Denn’s voice trailed off as the power signatures stacked up, mixed in with several that were similar to the Matmos wave, but matched nothing in the station’s archives.
Farley’s comm sparked to life again. “What the hell is going on out there?”
A crimson flashing washed across the sensor screen, accompanied by a shift in the control center lighting. Suddenly the entire room was colored yellow as amber threat lights illumiinated. (Part of Denn’s mind couldn’t help but notice that just under half of the threat lights remained black. Apparently CE Command wasn’t willing to pay for repairs to even the passive alert systems.) Detecting unauthorized weapons signatures, the station’s minimal AI control matrix had classified the oncoming objects as hostile and raised the threat condition. But according to the sensors, the armed weapons out there were of Federation make.
“This makes no sense…” Denn was still trying to puzzle out what was going on when a prerecorded, staticky computer voice informed him that his report had been closed and transmitted automatically as a response to the increased threat. “You idiot machine!” the commander cursed, kicking the console. Without corroborative evidence to show the obvious failure of the backup sensor array, that report would make it seem as though Denn had no control over what was going on. He could almost see his net worth spiraling down as the Matmos wanderers continued their inexorable advance.
“I’m gonna bring the tactical systems online,” Farley growled, bringing Denn’s mind back to the situation at hand.
“What tactical systems?” the commander asked in disbelief, right before a long-unused console to the side of the control center lit up. Denn was shocked. He had no idea that Matmos Alpha had any sort of defensive capability beyond the standard shields and heavy armor that had been installed in the station’s earliest days, when ambitious Federation admirals were convinced that the station’s mere presence would invite attacks from the other Great Powers. Most of all, deep in his heart, Denn did not believe that anyone in the Federation, down to its youngest infant citizen, would or could justify the expense of maintaining weapons here. “This station-”
“Is based on your standard assault bases,” Farley cut in. “The old turrets are still in place - well, most of 'em anyway. They stripped out all the firing crystals and coils and such, but the turrets themselves are a bitch to cut out, so here they stayed.”
“What good are dead guns?” Denn asked.
The gravelly chuckle that came through the comm grill was thick with derision. “You Fed boys don’t know how to use anything but shiny, valuable tech, do you? Think we kept out of Imperial control all this time buying all our tech at a shiny new store? Rebels know how to build guns, boy,” Farley rumbled. “All the stuff you guys left lying about down here, I rebuilt all the guns ages ago. With the turrets in place-”
“What do we have?” Denn interrupted, one eye on the approaching rifts. On a certain level, he was appalled that he was treating a bizarre, but likely harmless anomaly as a hostile enemy requiring defense; however, if the station had functional weapons, he might be able to spin that into a “doing more with less” argument that could improve his reputation. No harm in finding out what Farley had cobbled together.
“Right now, two proton beams, two pulse lasers, one heavy plasma launcher - had a second one, but I burned out the power coils testing it - plus a scratch-built EMP cannon. Oh, and four missile turrets, but they won’t help us out much.”
“Well,” Farley admitted, “reaction mass and thrusters are easy to find down here; warheads, not so much. All four launchers are functional, but they’re shooting blanks.”
Denn couldn’t imagine what use decoy missiles would be against something like the Matmos Rift if it turned out to be hostile, but any guns were better than none. “How do we run those turrets without crew?” he wondered. Cruiser-class weapons were notorious for requiring huge firing crews, and he didn’t see how Matmos Alpha’s total complement of six was going to manage a suite of weapons that would normally require almost a hundred trained officers.
“The dummies and EMP cannon are easy to rig simple control systems for,” the chief replied. “I sent the other four boys to the beam turrets, and I’ll be taking the plasma. You’ve got overall control up there; with the rigs I worked out, each of us can handle the work down here. Try not to shoot our fighters by mistake, I didn’t make 'em as clay pigeons.” An idea occurred to Denn, but Farley anticipated it. “Can’t send the fighters out there - the central control matrix is here on the station, and it’s got a real limited range. I programmed them for escort duty only. They’ll shoot anything but us that comes in range.” The comm shut off.
Denn nearly sprinted to the tactical console, which showed the years it had sat idle. Still, the screen and controls were responsive; Farley must have reconditioned it along with the weapons. Trust a Rebel to simply focus his attention on the weapons systems first rather than doing a proper cost-benefit analysis. In this situation, Denn was not about to argue. He quickly slaved the sensor inputs to tactical. A small cluster - he was having a hard time not thinking of it as a “squadron” - of the fighter-sized rifts had broken off and were closing in on the station rapidly. The “fighters” peeled off well outside the station’s shield envelope, beginning to fire some sort of energy pulses. Finally, this was proof of the rifts’ hostility, even if the situation was rapidly moving from unbelievable to surreal.
Matmos Alpha had the same reflective shields as any Federation ship of the line, so Denn expected that these small weapons would be completely ineffective - no fighter he had ever heard of could pierce cruiser shields. It was therefore doubly jarring when the shield icon began flashing rapidly. Whatever those pulses were, they could damage the station’s shields! The damage was slight, and the half-squadron (it was an unavoidable label) currently strafing the shields posed no real threat, but en masse such a weapon would be a real problem.
Unfortunately, the attacking fighters were largely keeping their distance from Farley’s “drones”, but they were still mostly within the pulse lasers’ range. Denn opened fire to find that these rifts were just as agile - and reactive - as any fighter pilot trained by the Great Powers. The occasional shot struck home, but even the instability of damage didn’t seem to drive the fighters off. Trust a Rebel to rebuild one of the most pedestrian weapons in the Federation arsenal. But Denn kept firing, carefully monitoring the advance of the larger rifts. They would soon be within standard beam range.
While the cruiser rifts had barely entered missile range, Denn got an unpleasant surprise. Not only did the largest rift belch out a cluster of missiles, but both the cruiser-analogues unleashed bright white beams from their hovering surrounding rifts (which Denn belatedly realized were the Matmos equivalent of turret emplacements) at a range that none of the Great Powers had ever managed to focus a beam weapon. The one beam that actually struck the station’s shields packed such a punch that Denn could feel the force of the impact rattle through the deck plates at his feet. A glance at the shield readouts was hardly reassuring - that beam had packed enough punch to bring down over half of one shield’s output!
Against a normal enemy, the quartet of dummy missile launchers might have made a difference; at the least, they might have diverted some resources. But the rifts just ignored the harmless decoys, even as their “turrets” disgorged their own swarms of missiles - these ones far from harmless. While there was plenty of unfamiliar weapons fire pouring out of the lemon-colored spheres, there were also familiar missiles, beams and plasma - all with a Federation energy signature. Even as part of Denn’s mind focused wholly on his attempts to disrupt the attacking rifts, part of his mind was attempting to solve that bizarre puzzle.
A crackle of electricity suddenly crawled over the console, jumping out to zap Denn’s fingers. A glance at the optic screen showed the culprit - one of the frigate-sized rifts had fired an EMP beam! Denn had never heard of an EMP cannon small enough to fit into a frigate - but then, he supposed it was an easy hurdle to overcome when you didn’t have to worry about actual hardware. The shock passed relatively quickly, proving that even the Matmos Rift had its limits. But it had other tricks as well - white pulses streaked from the “frigate” turrets to impact against the shields - Denn could see that they were slowly eroding the shields’ stability. His hopes for surviving this encounter began to dissolve.
As the Rift cruisers closed in, it started to be a race between shield strength and shield stability: which would fail first? Unfortunately, it appeared that was a one-way game, as none of Denn’s shots were penetrating the rifts’ shields. Only the heavy plasma turret seemed to be doing any good, and its slow rate of fire coupled with the multiple targets prevented Denn from making any real headway.
Finally, the inevitable happened: the blinking red shield icon stopped blinking, becoming a steady red, as the station’s shield bubble collapsed. Now the incoming weapons fire sent shocks through the hull as it began chewing through the station’s heavy armor. The smaller Matmos cruiser moved in close, and for a moment Denn thought it might draw close enough for the drone fighters to do some damage, but then the nearest turret-rifts spat multicolored lightning that both started picking off the escort drones and raked the station’s skin.
A strange clarity spread through Denn’s mind as Matmos Alpha’s armor rang with repeated impacts. Unbidden, the solution to the anomalous Federation energy signatures drifted into his conscious mind - a vague report from weeks earlier detailing the loss of a flotilla under Admiral Sanderson, including a bizarre theory that matched up near-meaningless forensic data to suggest that Matmos wanderers had somehow done away with the Federation forces. It all made sudden, crystal-clear sense: if a previously peaceful entity decided one day to become hostile, what would its first act be? In that situation, Denn would follow Federation protocol - and go weapons shopping.
“We’re dead, you know that, Federation Boy.” Denn had almost forgotten about Farley and the others. Now the ex-Rebel’s guttural rasp reminded him that more than Denn’s life hung in the balance. Resignation hung thick in the chief’s voice, its customary slur now absent. Cascading, rainbow-hued beams lanced out to cut into the station’s hull; Denn could feel the first explosions rumbling through the deck. He would have expected to feel despair, but strangely a sense of peace settled through him. With a touch of a button, he flipped the weapons control over to automatic.
“Farley,” he commented, “I’m not afraid. How strange is that?”
“Not at all,” the chief answered quietly. “You’re learning what every Rebel knows at the end. You get afraid when you might die; when you will die, what’s there to fear?”
Denn pondered that wisdom as the damage reports flowed across the tactical console. Trust a Rebel to have the perfect perspective on dying in battle. Just before the comm system blew out, Farley put in his last words.
“Besides, the six of us? We’re done with these things now. For everybody else, this fight is just beginning.”