She gives me the same lop-sided grin she gave me when we were children. That smile is all I recognise of her. In front of me stands Alexis Lotar, the woman who’s nicknamed as the Reaper, for her many victories fighting alongside her unit Death’s Hands. Behind her, nineteen men and women stand, they are all that remain of her units after its hundreds of battles. Behind them looms a WAR-FRAME, white as snow, the entire reason for Alexis’s nickname. Reaper, a custom Frame produced off of the blueprint of Champion. It’s right and left arms are connected to large cannons, the Frame is famed for it’s destructive capability at long ranges.
She kneels before me, head bowed. “Your Highness,” she greets, “It is an honour to serve.” Octavian makes a clicking sound with his mouth. He disapproves of her.
“Rise, Lady Lotar.” I tell her. To my right and left, two hundred Valkyrion Knights stand to attention, right arms crossed across their chests in salutes. Despite this, the hangar still dwarfs us, it could fit ten times this number and still have room.
“Why are you here, Alexis?” I whisper as she falls in beside me. I haven’t seen her in four years, but before that we were nearly inseparable. Seeing her is like seeing someone come back from the dead.
“I have a reputation for loving danger, Highness. Who else will be closer to it than you?” Her smile would have matched a demon.
“That didn’t stop you from abandoning us last time.” Octavian growls at her, she throws daggers with her eyes, yet keeps her smile fixed. She tilts her head, and I break off with Octavian, giving leave for my retainers to return to their stations.
“Why are you really here?” I question, she stalks forward, falling onto a couch and putting her legs up against the rest. She sighs contentedly, then flashes me another smile.
“Alexis,” I warn her, colder than I meant it to be.
She taps her fingers, and for once a look of hesitation brushes her beautiful face. “Hannibal’s dangerous, Kaldratos. I know you mean to kill him. I’ve fought him, we clashed above Caeta.” A look of distaste crosses her face, and she looks away, as if she wants to hide from that memory. “He killed so many of us. It was easy for him. Everything Bellune tried, he checked as if he saw the future.” She looks up at me, the embers of the past still burning in her eyes. “He can’t be defeated, not by you.”
I feel like I’ve been stabbed through the heart, but I laugh at her. “Well, thank you for the vote of confidence.” I nod to Octavian, signaling that this is over.
She twists, on her feet in the blink of an eye. “This isn’t the time to be egotistical! If you fight him, hundreds of thousands will die. Maybe everyone in this damn entire Armada if you screw it up. Which you will. Because he isn’t like the rest of us. He doesn’t care about casualties, or lives lost. He used devastator rounds on Caeta, Kaldratos -”
“Highness!” Octavian snaps at her. “You abandoned us, do you really think you have the right to treat him with disrespect?”
She shakes her head, a rueful smile crossing her lips. “I see you’re still the loyal lapdog, Ocy.” She meets me with a silent plea. “Ten million people drowned or suffocated when the life support systems were destroyed. He’ll kill everyone that goes against him.” She sits down, quiet now.
“You expect us to believe that that’s why you’re back.” Octavian speaks before I can. “You conniving leech. You want to save Kaldratos? Then where were you when we went to battle that first time? Where were you when he was captured and nearly killed? Where were you when we needed you?” He spits and turns to me, “Highness, allow me the pleasure of arresting this traitor.” His eyes burn with a hatred I had never seen before. It takes me aback, I don’t know how to respond to his outrage.
But she does.
A sweet laugh meets my ears, and Alexis rises from the couch. She flashes a dazzling smile and taps her hip, her fingers tracing over her pulseblade. “I’d love for you to try, darling.”
I raise my hand, silencing Octavian’s reply. I stare Alexis down until she removes her hand from her weapon.
“Alexis, I think it’d be best if you left for a while. We’ll speak later, I promise.” She nods, but her body still looks prone to kill, like a predator before it strikes.
She sighs again and strides out, slamming the door.
“She shouldn’t have returned.” Octavian muses, calmer now that she’s gone. He bows his head, closing his eyes.
“But, she’s right, Kaldratos. You’re in no mindset to face Hannibal?”
I don’t answer. Even you, Octavian?
“I will support you, through whatever happens, Kaldratos. That’s just how we are. But you need to know that I don’t approve of what you intend. Ever since what happened with Catherina… You can’t win against Hannibal.”
I turn on him, my anger rises like a tidal wave. “And why not? I’m Champion of the Imperium. Killing is what I do best. I’ll kill Hannibal. I’ll kill them all, if I have to. I don’t care who gets in my way, Octavian. I will not lose to them. I will not be defeated and disgraced. I will not got back there a failure.”
Octavian steps beside me, a look of concern as well as irritation on his face. “Catherina needs more than a sword. We need more than a warrior, Kaldratos. You have millions of lives in your hand, millions depending on you to bring their loved ones back home. If you’re willing to lead a crusade of death, so be it. But when we follow you down that path, and it’s only you who comes out alive. Will you have truly won then?”
I’m about to answer, but Cassandra rushes in, she grips the door frame and yells for me. “Kaldratos! Octavian! Come! We’ve just received a distress call from Ceres, they’re under attack by Hannibal!”
The bridge is a frenzy. Communications officers are scrambling, contacting my Admirals, sending out the information to other Imperial fleets and Imperial Head Command. Ceres. It is a fortress Sector, relatively close to the frontlines, it acts as a shield for the Core Sectors. If Hannibal breaks through Ceres then he has a pathway to the heart of the Imperium.
I won’t let him win, not at Ceres. Not anywhere else. I will kill him.
I have to save her.
“He can’t win at Ceres,” Brandon states, cocksure of our superiority. Ahead of me, Byron’s face lights up on a screen, a concerned scowl crossing his face. The man looks as if he is made from marble, angular and perfect. A statue fit for a God.
“I wouldn’t be so sure.” He nods to me, “Highness, Hannibal isn’t one to attack Ceres if he didn’t think he could win. He has a love of doing what others say is impossible. I fear that if we do not intervene and aid the defenders of Ceres we will have lost one of the Imperium’s most important Sectors.”
Other voices join him in chorus, my Admirals, or my generals. Most agree, a few don’t.
“If we rush to Ceres, we’ll just die like the rest of them! No. We need to be rational. We need to join up with the Sword Armada and prepare a defensive for after Hannibal has conquered Ceres. We can-”
“Coward!” Roars interrupt Admiral Victoria Nelson. She glares at her accusers, but makes no comment.
“She’s not entirely incorrect.” Alexis whispers in my ear. I jerk, I didn’t know she’d come to the bridge. “But we don’t have that luxury. Forming with Grand Admiral Burns would take time, time that Hannibal would use to assess the situation and devise a way to destroy us.” She sighs and her face takes a haunted expression for a second. Tired rings round her eyes, her lips look scratched and parched. The worry has truly taken her.
“You don’t want me engaging Hannibal and you don’t want me running from him,” I growl at her. “What is it that you want me to do then?”
“Stay alive,” she smiles, “I’m not against you fighting Hannibal. I’m against you fighting and losing against him.”
“Highness?” Byron interrupts my conversation, “We need orders. What will we do?”
“We can save those people.” Cassandra cuts in, her voice low so only I and those close to me can hear. “There are a billion soldiers in Ceres, protecting the stations there and manning the defensive fortresses. With all of those factors, it’s the only time where we can say we’d have an honest advantage over Hannibal. We’d have the soldiers, the stations. All we need to do is defend.”
She’s right, it would give us an advantage that we cannot ignore. But, even so…. I look to Alexis. She is not one to run from a fight. All I heard over the years was how the Reaper would dive into battle, a surge of death and destruction on the Imperium’s enemies. For her to be this frightened of Hannibal’s abilities… What happened with Bellune?
I am Catherina’s Champion. It is my duty to protect her Imperium when she cannot. I am her shield and I am her sword.
“We’re heading to Ceres!” I declare, cries of joy greet my command. “Admirals, Generals. Make ready for war. The Invictus Armada will be victorious. We will crush Hannibal, ruin the Universal Collective and bring peace to Her Majesty’s Imperium. The future of peace begins with our actions in this hour!” The communications end.
I cannot shake this feeling of unease as I stalk from the bridge. The doors open, and two Valkyrion Knights escort me, their backs straight, hands ready on their rifles. Staunch in their loyalty to me and my cause. As I look at their helmets, unable to see their faces, I don’t even know their names. I turn to one of them, “Summon Hallind and tell him to meet me in the Strategic Center. We have a battle to plan.” The soldier salutes and strides away.
When I turn behind me, Alexis follows. “You know, it isn’t your duty to guard me, I have retainers for that.” I mock.
“I’m not guarding you, I’m making certain you don’t screw up.”
“Alexis…” Why did you come back? Why did you ever even leave?
“You know, most would be overjoyed that the famed Reaper is protecting them, for free. I get requests from Admirals and Generals and members of the Upper Nobility constantly.” She rolls her eyes, she brings up her hands, quoting the letters. “You can rise so high if you merely reach and strive for it. Join us and together we will soar.” She laughs. I do not. Her smile dies as she rolls her eyes at me.
“We’ll discuss this after the battle.” I tell her, striding towards the strategic Center, feeling more uneasy and confused than I did before.
If Octavian’s right and I am unworthy of facing Hannibal, then everyone here will be dead.
Valiance glows red as we come out of hyperspace. I can see the bowels of my ship, through all five hundred floors. The glow subsides as we reach our destination. Ceres.
“Launch SCOUT-FRAMES and prepare to meet any resistance. Contact all stations and inform them that I’m taking command of all forces within the Sector.” I command.
I turn to my Admirals, six of them within my Armada. “Stand by, formation orders will be delivered once I have an idea of the situation. For now, assemble in the flying wedge.” A strong center would allow me to tackle Hannibal if I was ambushed.
I look at the terrain of the Sector of Ceres. All that stares back is thousands of asteroids. I know that many of them are filled with hidden hangars and mine launchers. Ceres is said to be impregnable. It has never fallen, and was even a stronghold for the Malcarn family during the Ursa-Vile Massacre five hundred years ago.
Its reputation makes us arrogant.
“Highness!” Alexis’s worried voice breaks me out of my thoughts, “We can’t make contact with any of the stations or fortresses! None of the communications are reaching anywhere.”
“What?” I reply. That’s impossible. We only received the communication four hours ago. There’s no way he could have destroyed everything in the Sector in that time.
“Octavian, give the order for all Frames from Mackaevilar’s, Nelson’s, Sigrid’s and Terolline’s fleets. Hold Uress and Falene in reserve. Advance our fleet forward into the asteroid fields. Continue to try for communications with anything we can get ahold of.”
I have time to assess the situation. I should stop. If I make a wrong move here, people will die.
I clench my fist, closing my eyes. But if I don’t act then Hannibal will, and that could be worse. But if he’s taken over the stations already… If he’s already disabled the defences, or, worse, planning to use them against us.
I feel a hand on my shoulder and a cock-sure grin marking her face. “I was right,” she whispers, “He’s out-smarting you already.”
I brush her away, “I don’t need this right now.” I shale my head, looking forward as our ships flow forward, cutting through the darkness of space like shining silver swords.
“Then go and rest, we won’t reach Firaxis for another three hours, there’s no reason for you to wait here for nothing to happen.” I throw her a look, but she rolls her eyes. “I’ve been at war for four years, Kaldratos. I know what point you’re going for. You’re hoping that you’ll be able to use the Local Override Order to manually take control of the areas in the asteroid field within 100kilometre range, just in case Hannibal is coming for us.”
I grimace. Why does everyone always know what I intend. Am I that predictable?
“It’s not a terrible move,” she taps my shoulder. “It also isn’t the smartest. Give me and my Hands one hour and we’ll gather the information you need. It’s a better alternative than potentially leading five fleets into a trap. Besides, the formation will break apart when you enter the asteroids. This is the most effective way.”
I nod. She’s right. “Very well, but any sign of an enemy and you and your Hands return straight to our main line. We’ll continue along behind you, and I’ll redirect two seeker units to escort you.” She turns on her heels and strides away, excited like some child. Is it war she loves? Or the power one has when using a Frame?
Three Hours Later
“Still no signals. Sensors aren’t picking up anything either. There’s nothing being picked up. No energy signatures. No weapon signatures. It’s like the fortresses and hidden bases never existed.” Alexis’s voice echoes over the comms. The energy of the bridge is nervous excitement. We all live for war. We know it intimately, it’s what we’re good at. Having an opponent like Hannibal is something that we all wish for. Beating Hannibal is something we fervently desire. The eagerness in the air is palpable.
“Continue cautiously,” I command all ships. I watch the screen that shows our formations. “Deploy Sensory probes and drones. They’ll be able to pick up anything the Scouts missed.” The agitation doesn’t leave me. With every kilometer we move closer I feel more and more like I’m walking into a cage. His fleet is smaller than mine, he’ll have more maneuverability in the field. We should leave, but…
As we reach the edge of the near-Sector-wide asteroid field, my formation begins to break apart. There’s no way to keep a truly organised form when there are hundreds of asteroids blocking the path. Already I can see many areas where small groups of ships are nearly enclosed by the asteroids, cut off from support.
“Have Alexis return to the main lines.” I order, my eyes settle on my own Valiance and the small guard that makes up the ships that could come with me to Firaxis. I don’t even have a quarter of my fleet in my exact location. A multitude of asteroids block me from other units.
This was a mistake.
“Contact!” The call comes from several locations almost in unison.
The ships I saw, isolated and cut off, were all now met with groups of Frames against them. Thousands of them, all appearing from behind or inside asteroids. They place themselves on the asteroids and used them as cover. A zoom-in visual shows thousands upon thousands of Obliterators being used. Their cannons are devised to annihilate other WAR-FRAMES and smaller ships, though their damage against larger ships would be minimal, they can easily tear through corvettes and frigates, and severely wound destroyers.
“Highness, Byron Mackaevilar’s fleet has come under attack as well. His flagship, Galahad is under fire from several cruisers.” I clench my fists. Byron, I’m sorry. You’ll have to survive on your own. I turn to the screen again, seeing red light up all around my Armada. My soldiers are being engaged heavily at every location.
All except in my sector of the asteroid field.
I hear a gasp, someone curse, one person screams.
Ahead of me, several large asteroids just burst apart.
What stares back at us is death incarnate.
Fourteen of Ceres super-fortresses look at me and my fleet.
“Deploy the Valkyrion Knights! Have all ships withdraw while firing! We need -” I rock, lurching forwards as Valiance thunders.
“Port engines damaged!” Someone screams at me.
“They’re surrounding us!” Cassandra calls, ordering the guards to escort me to the hangar.
Who? But then I look to the screen, and what I see makes my blood run cold in my chest.
Four more of the super-fortresses tower above the flanks of my fleet, aiming their primary cannon, based off of the particle beam of Champion at Valiance.
My bridge staff cry out as one.
In front of us, the fortresses unleash death. The beams shoot forth, tearing through the vanguard of my fleet in large, sweeping arcs.
“Alexis,” I comm her, “Destroy the Fortresses surrounding Valiance before they can fire.” My voice is dead, I already know that my life is forfeit. With all four of them aiming for Valiance, even my dreadnought wouldn’t survive this.
Catherina. I failed you again.
“Form a cocoon around Valiance!” I hear Byron’s voice over the communications, “Protect His Highness from the Fortresses! All Frames, target and eliminate the fortresses at once!”
“We’re getting you out of here,” Cassandra grabs my arm and leads me away, calling for my guards, comming Hallind and ordering him to meet at my personal hangar with an escort of Valkyrion Knights.
“There is only one thing I can do to end this battle, Cassandra.” I tell her, knowing she won’t like the answer. Her head slumps forward, she knows it too.
“You have to kill him. You’re the only one who will be able to get through the defences. So, it has to be you that takes out the Basphenn and Hannibal.” I nod to her, and as I step into the elevator, with my guards by my side, I give her a smile.
“I’ll come back, don’t worry. You have command of the Valiance. Don’t lose my ship!”
The doors close.
Survive, Cassandra. All of you, live. I will do what I must, just stay alive!