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Chapter 11: Skies of Fire

2844.09.03 VST - The First New Man

I see the coming of those you believe will threaten your so-called existence, but you know not your nemesis. Just when you believe you have overcome your trials, then you will see and embrace your destruction. A tomb shall suffice, for those for whom all the galaxy was insufficient. I care not for your naive machinations, for they are as nothing compared to the vision of the future: our future, my future, the future of the New Man.

Iskander, Reflections (Holorec MCCCLIX bio, case a)

3179.06.28 VST

The desire for immortality is a human vanity, and, like all vanities, is a thing born of fear. To live free of fear: therein lies true godhood.

Iskander, Reflections (Holorec DCXXXXIII bio, case a)

It has been said that most civilisations encounter an outside context problem only once in their existence, and that they tend to encounter it in the same manner that a sentence encounters a full stop.

The war on Iskandria had been raging - and escalating - for more than two years, and fully ten months had passed since the beginning of Operation Arkadian Dawn and the Tripartite Confederation's most determined attempt to decisively drive the Koralon from the Arkadia / Helios system - an attempt made all the more difficult by the sudden betrayal of the Syntha to the south, and by the chronic divisiveness of the Tripartite armies themselves. From the craggy shores of the Iron Sea to the tip of the Nada Precinct, battle raged across Iskandria's twin continents in a grim battle of attrition, her surviving people cowering away from the nightmare which the Koralon had brought to the world, or conscripted into one of the many armies and militias which still clawed for a piece of the metropolis.

At 13:17 (Iskandrian local time), the Arkadia / Helios system experienced a minor, almost imperceptible temporal 'hiccup'. Some chronometers missed a second, and the delicate orbits of satellites orbiting Kyklops needed to be adjusted to compensate. On the planet's surface and aboard the orbiting fleets, very few people even noticed the phenomenon. Reports were dismissed as being a side-effect of the final departure of the survivors of the Koralon fleet, which had, up until that point, been lurking on the fringes of the system, making only the occasional raid against Tripartite shipping, swift hit-and-run attacks against the sluggish troop transports ferrying fresh troops to the planet's surface.

However, some scientists - most notably Doctor Bram Tarasov and the analysts assigned to the VASA sub-ether monitoring station attached to the Phaeros Subspace Beacon at the northern tip of Iskandria Major - were sceptical, and looked into the matter further. Officially, Doctor Tarasov's station did not exist - but, to the minds of certain individuals within VASA, one benefit of a concentrated amalgamation of comm-relays and sensor nodes like the Phaeros was that it provided a very convenient position from which to intercept and parse electronic traffic for the benefit of VASA's intelligence divisions. On closer inspection by Tarasov's analysts, the temporal hiccup appeared to have taken the form of a light-speed 'ripple', centred on the Helios grav-well. More intriguing yet, at the precise moment when the 'ripple' had reached the Koralon fleet, the aliens had vanished.

A few hours later, the first reports began to come in of interference and static affecting communication and sensor devices all across the star system. This interference increased over the course of the next hour, culminating in a complete blackout of sensor and communication systems by 17:09. A few seconds later, the interference dissipated without warning, as mysteriously as it had begun. Full communication and sensor coverage was restored.

Five hours and 28 minutes after the restoration of the comms, Kyklops was struck by a massive EMP blast. In orbit, the ships of the Joint Expeditionary Fleet lost all electrical power. Technicians and crew struggled to re-activate their ships' systems, but in many cases the impact of the EMP had simply burnt out their generators. Slowly dragged down by the force of gravity, many ships simply burnt up in the upper atmosphere. A few of the larger vessels survived better, frantically spitting forth escape pods as they descended, blazing, through the night sky, causing chaos and panic as their mighty hulls plummeted towards the planet below. Thousands were killed when the Junker Nero-class battleship Insignis Mortis ripped a burning path, miles long, through the streets of Precinct 9, and thousands more died from the radioactive fallout of the ship's shattered reactor core. Several of the northernmost sectors of Iskandria were scoured by a great tidal wave when the VASA Raptor-class vessel Zhuravl plunged into the waters of the Ophidian Straits, a few miles north of Nidros. Neither were the Syntha immune to the effects of the disaster: as the EMP swept across the southern reaches of Iskandria, hundreds of Androsynths froze in mid-stride, like statues, monstrous Cyclosynths reduced to monuments of silver. A number of strike teams siezed the opportunity to fall upon their suddenly paralysed adversaries, but, on a grander scale, most enemies of the Syntha found themselves too engaged in efforts to contain the panic and rioting to be able to take best advantage of the Syntha's moment of weakness. Even so, significant damage was done, but the Syntha were used to the ways of electronic warfare. Within minutes, the Androsynth armies were rebooted, and operational once again. The moment had passed.

Deeper into the void, towards the system's edge, the EMP shockwave left a number of vessels not only stranded without power, but trapped within the gravity well of the Helios. Unable to escape, they were slowly dragged into the heat of the white dwarf's crushing embrace.

In the wake of this destruction, the grizzled Grand Admiral Tobias Cranmer pulled together the scattered fraction of his fleet which had managed to regain power and return to safe orbit. Well aware the vulnerability of his surviving vessels, he gave the order to pull back from Kyclops and Helios, and move to positions deeper within the star system.

Casualties were enormous. In the panic that followed, many voices were raised, demanding a rescue fleet- demands which were quashed by Admiral Cranmer. In a private meeting with the other fleet commanders, aboard his flagship, the dreadnought Sabretusk, he revealed Doctor Tarasov's findings, as well as his own suspicion that what they had experienced was not a natural phenomenon, but rather, something more sinister. Some new Koralon ploy was suspected - the remnants of their fleet had, after all, fled the system mere hours before the cataclysm. Wary, Cranmer ordered communiques to be sent to the nearby Karnus and Rzhova systems to inform - and warn - them of what had happened, but only preparation of support fleets was requested. Cranmer made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that no grav-shunt to Arkadia / Helios was to be made without his express instruction. Junker and VASA authorities on Rzhova, their forces on high alert while they completed the methodical scouring of Koralon from the planet, responded quickly, confirming his orders, but no response at all was heard from the Karnus system. His suspicions deepening, Cranmer ordered recon probes and light scout ships to be dispatched across the furthest reaches of the Arkadia / Helios system, to seek out any Koralon fleet that might be manoeuvering in to take advantage of the Combined Fleet's weakened state, but no trace could be found of the aliens.