-HNS Phuur-Nan Task Force, Coruc-Tel System-
Commander Jos Ferdi paced around the bridge, each stomp keeping the otherwise laid-back bridge crew ever more nervous. He had been doing this every day since the start of this blasted war, when the Taiidan Republic, his homeland, was torn apart by the Vaygr hordes. The blitzkrieg was led by none other than the old Imperialists, who had the gall to call loyal servants of the people such as he traitors. He should be a happy man, now that the Republic has been liberated from the Imperial yoke, but he wasn't.
He was amongst the first to face the invasion, from the bridge of the Qwaar-Jet 2-class cruiser Eisenschild. The first Vaygr and Imperialist capital ships went down in seconds, no match for the quad ion cannon turrets fitted to the bow of the Eisenschild. Then more came. Every ship his men destroyed, two more hyperspaced out to take its place. They were the ones who held out the longest among the border forces, but eventually, all he could do was run. The allied lines collapsed so quickly that by the time he could stop running, he was already deep within Hiigaran space, his homeland brought under the jackboot of the Imperialists and their Vaygr masters.
His oath of service drove him to fight on. He asked his Hiigaran allies for aid, repairs for his ship and reinforcements for his crew, only to be met with betrayal. The Eisenschild was much too damaged to repair, they said. The ship was obsolete a hundred years ago, they said. He and his crew would be dispersed in the Hiigaran fleet to shore up the numbers, he was told.
And so Kapitän im Raum Jos Ferdi became Commander Jos Ferdi, assigned to a mining carrier in the middle of nowhere and fighting every day not to break his composure when his Hiigaran compatriots would lump him with the Imperialists and call him "Kharak Burner" when his people were the ones being burned.
"Commander?" asked the sensors officer. "You need to see this."
"Recalibrate the bow sensors," Ferdi said without looking. "If that thing acts up one more time I'll ask the captain to have it scrapped and rebuilt."
"Sir, I already did that," the Hiigaran said, bringing up the holographic sensors manager and dimming the CIC lights without Ferdi's permission. "We've got Vaygr signatures three hundred kloms from us, heading 055 angle plus 13."
"Battlestations! Next time just say it out loud without the introduction."
Alarms blared across the carrier as the crew rushed to their stations. Hurried whispers and footsteps soon filled the corridors.
"What do we have here?" Ferdi asked.
"Two Vaygr carriers, two destroyers and 40 plus strikecraft signatures, sir. They are holding position at this time."
"Get the training flight there and scout the enemy, maximum standoff range, come in from another vector than the carrier," Ferdi ordered. His recommendation of having the pilots train in shifts had paid off, as that meant at least a third of the task force's strikecraft were up at any time. "Scramble the rest, holding pattern."
"Then, summon the captain and tell the resource operation to hold their position."
"Sir, urgent report from the mobile refineries."
"They're under attack?!"
"Negative. They said everything harvestable in sectors Delta Zulu 3 through 5 are all gone."
"What? We'll deal with that later. Tell them they are to retreat to the carrier only if they see hostiles. Otherwise, they will stay right there."
It took a minute for the scouts to get into position, a lot slower than what Ferdi considered the usual. They were just nuggets, after all. They had to do a lot more growing to become something more than a kill tally on someone else's ship.
"Report," he said.
"This is Scout 3-1-1 to Phuur-Nan Command. We're in sensors range of the Vaygr fleet now.... They are wrecks, sir. All of them are dead."
"Any identifying features?"
"Average Vaygr ships, but the damage on their hulks is nothing like what we've seen in our manuals. A carrier and a destroyer have been cut right in half. That spoofed our sensors into thinking there's two of each."
"The fighters and corvettes are all dead, too. No survivors."
"Good. Secure the area and wait for further instructions," Ferdi cut the channel and left the ATC to their work. Now, the case of the missing resources. "Where is the captain?"
"We have sent a call to her room, but she hadn't responded."
"Very well, recall the resourcing operations, just to be safe. I'll have to go wake your boss from her beauty sleep," Ferdi sighed. Today was not his day. Well, it hadn't been his day every day for over 20 months now, but today was proving to be even less of his day than before. Just as he opened the door out of the CIC, Raonaid came running in and shouldered Ferdi square in the chest.
"Captain, please be more careful!" Ferdi said.
"Sorry, Commander," Raonaid said. "Give me an update."
"Captain, we have had an encounter with a Vaygr task force, but upon closer inspection, they are all wrecks. They seem to have been destroyed by a hitherto unknown weapon. With your permission I would like to send a salvage team to investigate."
"Do it. Anything else?"
"Yes. Our resourcing operations report their current work sectors, Delta Zulu 3, 4 and 5, to be completely devoid of resources."
"I presume the Vaygr have made off with the mineral wealth of that region of space before they left-"
"No way," Raonaid said. "It has enough material to build the entire Hiigaran Navy twice. It's not something you'd just put in your pocket and walk away with. Even with all their efforts, the Vaygr couldn't possibly have mined it dry during the occupation. There's simply isn't enough time for it.... Not to mention if they did get their hands on all those resources, we'd have been already dead."
"Boss?" asked the sensors officer.
"What is it?" Raonaid asked.
"I just did a mass scan of the system.... The survey data from before the war said the system should weight at least 820 yottatonnes. But the entire system right now has a mass of about 558."
"This isn't some clerical error, right?" Ferdi asked.
"No. I've double checked the databases. What should we do now, Boss?"
"Give me a direct channel to the refinery chief."
"This is Boss to Foreman 2. You said you are missing some resources?"
"Yeah, Boss. Nothing left but gravel out there. The cuts look straight and fresh, too, not much weathering. Whoever did it know their stuff, unlike those messy Vaygr idiots who leave bits everywhere."
"We'll find out. Stand down battlestations, everyone."
As the first shift ended half an hour later, Ferdi walked out of the CIC and handed it over to the second shift crew. He caught the captain looking over her logs in a corridor and went over.
"Captain, do you have a moment?" he asked.
"Is it about your assignment again, Commander?"
"Yes. I have petitioned to the Admiral for a transfer. I should be fighting together with my countrymen on the front. My skills would be better put to use there."
"I know. Heck, our carrier would have been more useful out there on the front than here. This is war, we don't get to choose. But speaking of the Admiral, she sent me a private transmission before the alert was raised. I was checking it out so I couldn't get to the CIC in time. Sorry about that."
"Am I authorised to know its contents?"
"Doesn't matter. The file was corrupted. I've requested a resend but no response so far. The weird thing was the file said it was sent the next month. I think the Admiral was just messing with us, she is a bit of an Enigma sometimes."
"Back in the Republic, we edit our file dates all the time, if we thought someone was eavesdropping on us."
"So it's extra-secret, I suppose? Well, until she sends me a fixed copy, there's no way to find out."
The task force took a day to salvage the Vaygr wrecks, both to look for an intact black box and to melt the hulks down for resources.
The mining crew visited several other promising locations, but the most they could get was a few thousand RUs between them. The mystery of the missing mass remained unsolved. A detailed report was sent back home and a science crew was called in, though they would not arrive for another week.