I could see the locus points forming around the Free Planets cruiser’s shields and knew what was coming. Twin tracks of pale blue ionization lanced toward my ship and the deck shuddered beneath my feet. Our return fire made the enemy’s screens flare and metal boiled from the outer frames where the primary shield had collapsed.
“Keep firing, Opturkarh,” I said urgently. “We’ve got to get closer.”
“He’ll roast our ass if we keep this up, Karhide.” Taris pointed at the holoview enveloping most of the operations platform below. I glared at him and snorted with impatience.
“We’ve hit him hard! This is no the time to back off,” I snapped, watching the tactical mainframe plot overlay.
The enemy cruiser fired and I counted the seconds before the beam would hit, cursing silently. The deck shuddered and I clutched the armrest.
“Caution. Levels three, four, and six are penetrated. Areas are isolated,” the housekeeping computer declared. “Caution. Secondary shield overload. Primary shield active.”
Taris looked up from the command seat on the operations platform below. “Its Engineering, Da.”
“We’re down on our secondary shields.”
“I’ll go and hold Makkee’s hand some other day. For now, all I want to know is when that ship out there is giving up. What’s the report? Tactical plot says we made direct hits.”
“So did they,” Taris growled.
“That last pattern must have hurt him.”
Taris glanced at the mainframe plot. “Target is stationary and locked into our fire control. Approaching optimal acquisition point. Ready to engage.”
“Cent Comp copy?” I demanded.
“Clear auxiliary tactical plot.”
The repeater screen lit up showing the enemy ship apparently immobilized by the running fight. But there was no indication of surrender from the battered hull.
We closed in. Their shields flared in overload under the impact of our projectors. I grinned savagely at the thought of roasting a few of my enemies. Theirs screens pulsed, flickered and vanished. Metal boiled, surrounding the ship in a dispersing cloud. Wreckage drifted around gaping holes. I wasn’t surprised when survival NS-5 needles emerged from the stricken starship.
I nodded to Taris. “You may cease firing, Opturkarh. And well done.”
“I’d like to board her, Lee,” Taris looked at me and grinned. “Souvenirs.”
“I’ll handle the souvenirs. You stay here and clean up this mess. Get ten men to Boat Bay Two. And Taris…”
“Right now, he’s playing dead, but he might change his mind. If he attempts to maneuver, you do what’s necessary. Copy that?”
“Yeah.” I chuckled and headed for the lift-well. Taris wouldn’t mind blasting away if he thought it would get me as well.
* * *
Docking the shuttle, the security detail followed me to Primary Flight Control. Standing there, I surveyed the wreckage of the enemy command deck. My own PFC didn’t look much better. The crew lay prone against torn equipment, moaning, clutching bleeding limbs.
It wasn’t nice.
The command chair swiveled, revealing a haggard young man. His clothes were rumpled and he looked the way I felt. He stood at attention and brought the tips of his fingers to his forehead in a salute.
“Opturkarh Salon of the Free Planets. I surrender my ship, Da.” He exhaled heavily, trembling.
“Karhide Zor-Lee of the Orieli Space Arm, at your service.” I didn’t return the salute. Not to a rebel. “Okay, Opturkarh. Care to give me your version of it?”
“Go to the pit,” he hissed.
“All in good time,” I grated, my lips bared into a snarl. “You’ve been a pain in the neck ever since I spotted your stolen ship. I haven’t spent all day chasing you just so we could have a quiet drink somewhere.”
He glared at me, defiant and proud. “I’ll see you rot first, you bastard.” He turned and touched a prism on his armrest.
“Caution. Self-destruct in final sequence. Commencing final count. Five…four…Caution. Self-destruct malfunction. Sequence terminated.”
Salon stood there as the realization of his failure slowly became clear, then he lunged at me. I stepped aside and whipped the edge of my hand against his neck. He blocked, twisted, and his right hand shot out and slammed into my face. Stars popped all around and I felt myself falling.
I made the switch from sleep to wakefulness in two steps. The first was becoming aware of the bunk and crisp sheets. That was pleasant. Second, I felt a stab of pain on my jaw and the brief moment of peace faded.
Why did I feel so alone and miserable? When was the last time I felt truly happy? What was I fighting for anyway? The greed and rot that was so much part of the Concordiat? Or was it nothing more than the drive to show all those ass lickers in the Orieli Space Arm how it should be done?
I didn’t know. Perhaps it was a bit of everything. There was one thing I knew with certainty. I was hated by my so-called brother – heels all of them – officers even more than by the enemy. They hated me because I was an eye gouger and a ball kicker, and because I got results.
Where are you now, my son?
I opened my eyes and looked around. I began wondering how long I’d been here and climbed off the bunk. Pulling on a shirt, I reached for the Command Console Screen.
“PFC!” I yelled, cursing my daydreaming.
Taris appeared in the screen looking worse for wear. “Da?”
“What’s our status?”
“We’re heading back to our initial contact point with the FP cruiser, Lee. Rendezvous in three hours.”
I stared at him, then grinned. “Well done. How long have I been out?”
“About four hours. I had Dr. Malfe give you something. You needed it.”
“You take a damned lot on yourself, Mister,” I grumbled, looking at him closely.
“Well, the last time I checked, you were in no shape to give orders to anybody,” he replied cheerfully. “And then there was the damage to –”
“Never mind. That was a smart piece of thinking, about heading back, I mean. You’ll make Karhide yet.”
“Hell, there’s no need to get nasty, Lee.”
I switched off and chuckled. I meant it, though. Taris was a fine exec and more than ready for his own command.
The Personal Transport system took me down to Sickbay. Dr. Daran stood up and hurried toward me.
“Some, ah, bad news, I’m afraid.” He dabbed nervously at his sagging jowls.
“Tell me about it, doc.”
“Well, it all boils down to, ah, their conditioning, Da. The fact of the matter is, I cannot break their conditioning in three hours.”
I grunted and paced around. Daran hovered near me, dabbing nervously at his face. “Doc, I need that information now. I cannot hang around while you tinker with their damned brains.” I saw him studying me and grinned. “What’s the matter?” I pointed at one of the empty medicrib bunks. “I bet you’d love to get me onto one of those, eh?” He turned white and I laughed. The man was a fool. The time for clowning was over. There was business to be done. I stared at Daran shuffling nervously, avoiding my eyes. I didn’t care if the fool hated me as long as he did his job.
“Okay, doc. Get Malfe up here. Then you can go and play with your instruments.”
“You mean that, ah, I’m relieved of this case…Da?”
He stared at me, mouth hanging. Then he dropped his eyes and his shoulders sagged. I watched him go and shook my head. After this, I promised myself that there were going to be some changes around here. I wasn’t running a cruise ship!
Humming a nameless tune, I sat down behind the CCS and pressed a button. “Security? Bring Opturkarh Salon to Sickbay Two.” I switched off and waited.
* * *
“You can’t mean it, Lee.” Malfe grabbed my arm, staring at me in horror.
“Why shouldn’t I mean it?” I said harshly. “What do you think this is anyway? Some afternoon picnic?” Peeved, I expected him to understand, not have his wounded sensibilities paraded before me.
“But not like this!”
“There isn’t any other way.” I slammed my fist against the desk beside the CCS console. “And there isn’t time to do it your way either. I can’t afford to screw around.”
We walked into the examination room and Salon looked up as we entered. I nodded to the two security types and they faded. I paced around for a while, hands behind my back. It might get Salon nervous, but I doubted it. He didn’t fit the part. I stopped in front of him and looked into his eyes.
“This is it, Opturkarh. No more leisurely tinkering with Dr. Daran’s probes. From now on it gets rough and nasty.” I paused and gave him a disarming smile. “But, should you choose to be cooperative and tell me what I want to know, I can be generous. Well, what’s it going to be?”
“Screw you,” he said.
I sighed and shook my head. “A hero type.” I pointed my thumb over my shoulder at one of the manned medicribs. “See that?” Salon glanced behind me and his lips tightened.
“One of your crewmen, Opturkarh. As you can see, I’ve got him all wired up there. You know what that means.” I studied his face and grinned. “Tell him, Malfe.”
“I’m sure that –”
“The medicrib –”
“I know what the thing does,” Salon grated.
“I’m sure you do,” I said and pointed at the man lying on the crib. “I’m not asking any more. I’m telling. He’s only the first.”
He looked at me and shook his head.
I walked to the crib and looked down at the strapped body. He was awfully young to be playing grownup games.
“Now, son. You heard what I said. Don’t make the mistake thinking that I’m joking. A demonstration.” My hand moved toward the control panel and hovered. I watched the anxiety build on his face and closed a contact. His face twisted into a grimace as the medicrib began to tear down his internal tissue. He gurgled through clenched teeth, then screamed as he convulsed against the straps.
I switched off the machine and glanced at Salon. “You want to talk?” I asked and he shook his head, taking in quick breaths. I closed the contact and turned, shutting out the screams. My conscience didn’t even twinge.
Salon was a disciplined officer and knew the rules. He stood there, face drawn as he listened to the screams of his crewman. The play of emotions was clear on his face.
I switched off the machine. “Ready to talk?”
“No more…no more,” the boy sobbed, his body shivering, muscles twitching. Blood oozed from his earns and nose.
“What was your post?”
“Your course before contact?”
He mumbled coordinates figures. I frowned and closed the contact. He leaped against the harness in shock and howled. Malfe hurried over and glanced at the console. He gripped my arm.
“Lee, you’re killing him!”
“If that’s what it takes,” I said calmly and shook him off. I leaned against the bunk.
“Those figures, son. They don’t seem right to me. Maybe you were trying to pull a fast one?”
“It’s the truth! I swear it,” he whimpered, then blanched when my hand moved toward the console. “No more,” he kept repeating, shaking his head from side to side.
Was he telling me the truth? There was nothing out there but an interference barrier – a singularity event horizon.
“What ship were you supposed to meet?”
“I don’t know!”
“The Syke…” he trailed away and I grinned at him.
“It couldn’t be the Syke system, boy. Ceti is a peaceful world of the Concordiat.”
“It’s Syke,” he whispered.
“How many ships in your group?”
“I don’t know.”
“Name some of your other bases.”
“I can’t! I don’t know where they are. I don’t know, I don’t know.”
“You did just fine,” I said and pressed a red pad on the console. I looked away from the body as Malfe stepped in front of me.
I cut him off with a wave of my hand. “Don’t say it, Malfe.”
“Not like this!”
“He was a rebel,” I snapped. “He deserved to die.” I took two quick steps and stood before Salon.
“I want to know everything, Opturkarh. As traitors against the Zaron Concordiat, you’ll die. How you die is up to you. I was just warming up with that boy. I’ll go through every one of your crew if I have to. And you’ll be the last one.”
“You’re lower than a canal slime,” he hissed. “An animal.”
“Negative, Opturkarh. This is war! There is no place for sanctimonious tirades in this game. What would you have done? Exactly the same thing. You’d justify it as a deplorable necessity, a sacrifice for the noble cause of the Free Planets, anything to overthrow the Concordiat yoke.”
“We’ll not fail, Karhide. History is against you. Everyone is against you,” Salon snarled.
“Nice sentiments, Opturkarh. I’m all chocked up. Let’s look at a few facts.” I ticked off the points on my fingers. “One. You were in some damn hurry when I spotted you. Two. Instead of picking a fight, you ran. Three. You must have carried something vital and couldn’t take the risk of having it fall into my hands. Four, and this is the clincher. You attempted to destroy your ship to prove it. Tell me, Opturkarh. How can I regain your civilized esteem when you persist in being uncooperative?”
“What you did there,” he pointed at the body in the crib, “was nothing but sadistic brutality.”
“Brutality? You cowardly son of a bitch! And you’re righteous and holy, right? I would like to know how you explained to your conscience all the men you killed when you defected with one of our ships. Ejected them into space! Brutality, eh? All in the name of freedom, a convenient hook on which to hang your morals while you pursue your so-called freedom.
“Your precious Alkarh Aron, hero of the Free Planets. He had my son for three days. I got him back eventually, but he didn’t last long. And the poor bastard didn’t even know anything. He wasn’t even in the military, a plain civilian. But that didn’t matter. Aron was acting for the Free Planets and all was forgiven. It was nothing but revenge for a grudge against me. Not man enough to get me himself, he got someone who was in no position to defend himself.” I stared at Salon and wiped my mouth. “Brutality, Opturkarh? You haven’t seen anything yet. Malfe! Bring in the next one.”
I breathed deeply and swallowed. I shouldn’t have gotten so emotional about it. The bastard wasn’t worth it.
“I’ll tell you what you want to know,” Salon said heavily. “Just leave my men alone.”
“No, Opturkarh. I have to be sure. You might tell me a fib and I wouldn’t like that. No. You’ve had your chance.”
“On my honor!”
I snorted. “Honor is cheap these days. Still, talk.”
“We…we were out to meet some brass from Zaron. I don’t know the names. I was to hand over a new set of operational grids to a Space Arm Alkarh who’s on our side. When you disabled me, I had them destroyed. That’s all.” He glared at me, then hung his head.
More traitors. I wasn’t surprised. “Coordinates?”
Salon gave me a string of numbers. “The interference barrier?” I stared at him. “This changes nothing, Opturkarh.”
“Better an honorable death than that,” he said, glancing at the medicrib.
I walked to the CCS and punched a glowing prism. “PFC?”
I gave them the numbers and grinned at Salon. “We might not be too late after all. If I had not made the intercept, you’d be reaching that singularity in some two days from now. We might still make it.”
“You’re mad!” Salon hissed.
“Yeah,” I nodded and waved at the security detail. “Take him away and don’t let him wander around.”
“Approaching the interference barrier, Lee,” Taris announced quietly.
I nodded. “Anything from the targets?”
“Nothing.” Taris barely glanced up from his screens. “They’re just sitting there.”
“Caution. Interference barrier, strength: point two. Advise course deviation,” Cent Comp noted.
“Slow approach,” I said. They were waiting for me, a scout and a heavy battlecruiser. I wasn’t particularly happy about the last item. Tangling with one of those wasn’t my idea of bravery, regardless of my mission priority.
“They’re requesting the recognition pattern.”
The operator pressed a glowing blue pad and looked up. “Code sent and accepted, Da. They request you maintain neutral status.”
“Figures. All stop, Opturkarh.” My attention was on the tactical mainframe plot where the enemy ships were skirting the singularity event horizon.
Columns of data flickered in the holoview overlay. A pulsing green blip that was the enemy battlecruiser broke away from the scout and slowly crawled toward me. I glanced at the main chronometer repeater line and pulled at my chin.
“The cruiser is requesting a visual, Da,” the comms officer said and looked at me.
“Time to make our move,” I said quietly and nodded at Taris.
I didn’t feel any vibration beneath my feet as the ship hurled itself toward the enemy. We fired twice before the blip veered a fraction – into the first ring of the interference barrier. I grinned, rubbing my hands with happiness.
“Scout breaking away,” Taris said, pointing at the holoview plot.
I glanced at the comms officer. “Notify all units in the area to be on alert for a PP-6 interceptor dart. Suspected Free Planets VIPs. Seek and destroy. And keep them informed of any course changes. Give them time and position.”
That nifty little thing would have to have a cast-iron alibi to escape the hell that was brewing for it. If I could keep the battlecruiser off my back for a couple of hours, I might conceivably catch the thing myself. I doubted it, though. The interceptor was all legs.
“The cruiser is still locked within the event horizon boundary, Da,” Taris announced.
I nodded, hoping the rebel had his engines burned out. Humming a tune, I watched the tactical mainframe plot. After a while, I glanced at the chronometer line. Only six minutes since breakaway and the PP-6 was fast drawing away.
“Interceptor changing course, sir. Coordinates…” The tactical officer rattled off a string of numbers. I followed the projection on the screen and frowned. Nothing out there but hard vacuum. Could it have detected a patrol ship so soon?
“Enemy cruiser has broken out of the interference ring and is on intercept course. ETA, thirty-one minutes at present speed.”
“PP-6 changing course again. Coordinates…” More numbers.
I scratched my head. What the hell was going on? Things were going according to plan, but it wasn’t my plan. I stared intently at the screen trying to read information that wasn’t there. I had a hunch so strong I could taste it. But was I right?
Had the rebel jettisoned an NS-5 survival pod with the VIPs, then scooted away hoping I wouldn’t chase it? A neat trick – if that is what happened. With the enemy cruiser hot on my tail hoping to pick me off before help arrived, I was running out of options. I glanced at the chronometer again and swore. Should I follow my hunch?
“Drop normal,” I ordered.
“I think it’s a trick, Lee,” Taris cautioned.
“Don’t give me a hard time now. Just do it, okay?” I stared at him. He turned and gave the order.
The screen blinked as the ship dropped out of subspace. Energy patterns flickered in hazy lines across the tactical mainframe plot. Data flashed in continuous streams in the overlay, but there was no telltale neutrino flow from an NS-5 power plant. The pod was empty. I ground my teeth in frustration. A blind bait and I had fallen for it. Precious minutes lost and possibly my ship as well.
“You may transit, Taris,” I growled testily. “Status?”
“The PP-6 is now sixty-seven minutes away. Loss of tracking in eleven minutes at present speed. Enemy cruiser ETA, eighteen minutes.”
Time for evasive maneuvers. I touched a prism on the armrest.
“Engineering, aye,” a grumpy voice answered from the bowels of the engine deck.
“Say, Tanner,” I said affably. “Can we get any more go out of this tub? I need it, bad.”
“Well, maybe. How much did you have in mind, Lee?”
“How much can you deliver?”
“I could override to one hundred and ten percent. But, Lee –”
“It’s not gonna last long.”
“It won’t have to. Override.”
“It’s your bucket,” the engineer said and switched off.
My ass as well. I looked up and Taris was staring at me. “You want to say something?”
He shook his head and bent over his station.
The extra speed might not be enough, but it was all I had. The PP-6 was even now drawing beyond the range of my sensors. As far as I was concerned, it might as well have vanished into hell. I just hoped those fools out there had tracked it. And me? Left to the tender mercies of the rebel battlecruiser.
I heartily approved of the enemy commander’s tactics, but wished the devil was pursuing somebody else.
“Da, message from Sector Command. They have the PP-6 on positive track. They have two light cruisers dispatched for your assistance. ETA in eighty-three minutes.”
“Great!” By then the only thing those ships would find would be a cloud of iron filings. “Opturkarh!” I snapped.
Taris stood beside me.
“Damn your eyes!” I bellowed. “Stand straight when I’m talking to you, you gutless fool. Where is your blasted pride?”
He stiffened with anger and his eyes locked with mine.
“Better. Practice it. That’s an order.” I placed a fatherly hand on his shoulder. “What would you do if you had the con? Speak up.”
“Reinforcements can be disregarded, seeing that they are too far away to matter,” Taris replied immediately.
“The enemy can outrun and outgun us, and we’re still carrying damage from our previous engagement. However, we can just about match him and he might sustain damage before destroying or disabling us. Seeing how the Free Planets are short of capital ships and trained men, this might induce their commander into caution.”
“I cannot see any alternative but to keep dodging him until help arrives. Sorry, Lee.”
“You’re no good to me,” I growled and shook my head. “Didn’t you just say that reinforcements can be disregarded? Think, man! By increasing our speed, we showed him that we have more than was in his manual. We might have other things. That will keep him guessing, and doubt is a sure way to hell. Besides, if we go, we take him with us, no?” I saw the confusion in his eyes and laughed. “Resume your post, Opturkarh.” I clapped him on the back. “Cent Comp? Set condition two.” I climbed into my seat and looked around me. I had to endure an hour of hell. So be it.
The ceiling changed to throbbing orange and banks of dormant displays flickered into life. “Status. Primary unit active. Fire control ready. Condition two active.”
I waited, listening to the whisper between the decks and the muted sounds of machines. The ship was getting primed to unleash its stock in trade. The men were tired and the ship was tired. What we needed was a year on some soothing warm world that had never heard of the Zaron Concordiat or war.
“Target at extreme firing range,” Cent Comp announced. “Recommend going to condition three.”
I glanced at the tactical mainframe plot and the blip of the enemy cruiser. “Secure from condition two. Execute condition three.”
The ceiling immediately changed from its glowing orange to pulsing red. There was movement around as men and machines settled in for battle.
“Condition three commencing. All decks secured. Primary fire control active. Primary and secondary screens on lock. Primary unit active. Status. Escape sequence active. Status. Condition three active.”
The enemy fired. On the screen, two tracks of blue death streaked toward me. The ship made an automatic shift in course and the energy pattern swept harmlessly by. In the next pattern, I was not so lucky. The deck shuddered under a direct hit and the crew grabbed for holds.
“Opturkarh? You may return fire.”
I carefully studied the effect my fire had on the enemy. He didn’t even bother avoiding the bombardment, intent on drawing closer where his more powerful projectors would make short work of my ship.
“Caution. Target at optimum range. Lead impact time, zero.”
Next time they fired, it would be a direct hit every time. I needed to roll out another plan if I were to get out of this.
“Mr Taris, drop normal.”
“Breaking out of subspace now.”
I watched the chronometer repeater line and the tactical mainframe, noting how long it would take the battlecruiser to emerge. After fourteen seconds, a faint shimmer of energy registered far ahead. I told Taris to transit back into subspace. For what I had in mind, I would need those seconds.
I looked around the command platform. Faces stared intently at displays. The quiet whisper between decks was broken by an occasional command.
The exec looked up from the fire control console. “Escape sequence fully operational?” I asked, studying his face.
“Set,” he said simply.
“Good. Cent Comp?”
The enemy ship had also transited and was drawing closer. This had to work first time, because there wasn’t going to be a second. I just needed to get away and leave the devil to himself. I sat back and quietly issued my instructions. The pending maneuver would be executed too quickly for human direction; machine against machine.
Cent Comp waited for the enemy ship to come into range and start firing. We took a few hits before dropping normal relational. I stared at the chronometer, my fingers tapping against the armrest. The indicator line crawled with maddening slowness. I clamped my mouth and waited. It either worked or that cloud of iron filings would be my ship.
Cent Comp fired and twin lances of energy lanced toward a point in space where the enemy ship was calculated to emerge. A second later, another pulse, then another. I stared at the tactical mainframe. The first pulse decayed and my fingers drummed against the armrest.
A shimmer on the screen indicated the emergence of the enemy cruiser. Twin tracks of death reached the point and the image in the screen wavered and flared. The ship dropped normal as the third pulse crossed its position. The enemy screens fluctuated as they tried to stabilize after emerging into normal space, but the sudden surge of energy from my projector overloaded them.
The sphere of incandescent gas was still expanding when we approached. I scanned the twisting patterns of plasma for possible survivor pods. There were none.
* * *
I lay on my bunk staring at the ceiling, my thoughts wandering aimlessly. The ship was heading back to base – rest, repair, and then? Back to war, hate and killing? And Salon? I couldn’t get him out of my mind.
I remembered how he stood facing the open hatch. Salon and what was left of his crew had seconds to live before being dumped alive into space. Not nice, but it was simple.
“Do you want to say anything, Opturkarh,” I asked him.
“I hope to see you damned real soon, Karhide,” he snarled, eyes filled with loathing.
I shook my head and nodded to the operator. The hatch closed and the outer Boat Bay doors opened. With a rush of expelled air, Salon and his men were gone.
I reached with my hand and touched a glowing prism. The ceiling dimmed to a restful green. What did they feel? A few seconds of excruciating pain, followed by oblivion. At least they were at peace now, which is more than I could say for myself.
I felt drained and weary. Like the ship, I was also in need of rest and repair. The crew were strangely cold and distant. Did they resent how I escaped from the enemy battlecruiser, or how I dealt with the rebels? I saved their stinking hides! It was either the cruiser or me, a simple equation of survival.
The image of my son drifted before me.