Authors: Eric Thomson
"Ready." The ship passed the mouth of the narrows.
"Good. Prepare the last two missiles' warheads for independent wait-and-search. We'll launch them at the other end of this."
Understanding lit up in Pushkin's drawn face and Siobhan grinned wickedly at him, winking.
"You do not propose to follow, Commander?" Jhar was aghast. The enemy's radiation trail led straight through a perilous jumble of broken stones, jagged planet fragments and asteroids. "It is too narrow."
"And risk losing her? Reduce speed and follow the trail, helmsman." In his passion for victory, Brakal was giving less thought to his enemy's cunning and more to a headlong pursuit. Matched with his volatile temper, it produced a dangerous mix. Had Dunmoore not goaded him so, things might have been different, but staring professional ruin in the face, Brakal wanted her blood.
"Commander, I am picking-up faint electronic signals ahead."
Brakal's eyes widened as he suddenly understood. "Mines," he shouted, "Helm, all stop, back-up!"
But it was too late. The mines, set to explode the moment they sensed a starship's mass, went off in a blinding double flash. Unlike those armed with proximity fuses, these mines did not propel themselves closer to the target before exploding. It permitted them to remain undetected longer, though the damage they caused was less, but Siobhan had not expected them to cause much real harm to the
The energy backwash released by the twin nuclear blasts struck the cruiser's bow shield with enough force to throw the moving ship off course. It slewed around and came perilously close to an asteroid on it starboard quarter. Only the helmsman's quick reactions saved the
from a catastrophic collision. Brakal fumed at the unexpected, and to his mind, cowardly assault. He ordered his ship to plunge through the narrows, determined to end Dunmoore's insulting dance once and for all. As Siobhan Dunmoore, Captain of the Commonwealth frigate
had told her First Officer, angry commanders make mistakes, and Brakal began piling them on.
emerged from the narrow corridor through the swirling asteroids at a higher speed than it should have, and the Gun Master initially missed the two nuclear-tipped missiles waiting for a target their programming could recognize. By the time Urag picked them up on his sensors, both birds had fired their engines and were accelerating at several thousand kilometres a second. An alert gunner engaged them, scoring one kill. But the other struck the cruiser's starboard shield with the full force of its warhead. The cruiser shuddered and groaned, as energy fought energy, washing back through thousands of badly shielded circuits. Consoles erupted in showers of sparks. The helmsman fought for control of his ship and Jhar, without looking at the incoming reports knew they had been badly damaged.
"He's found our little gifts, sir," Chief Penzara reported, grinning. "Hope he gets an indigestion."
Siobhan smiled back, but knew it was far from over. A Gorgon-class cruiser was a lot harder to kill than either a transport or a corvette. Brakal would be hot on their trail in no time at all. And they'd be easy to find. The
, damaged in too many places, leaked enough radiation to leave a trail a blind sensor operator could spot.
A large planetoid, the largest so far, loomed ahead. "Cox'n take us down to that thing's surface at, oh, ten kilometres altitude." She was out of missiles, nearly out of mines and by all appearances, out of the best area of concealment. Time to change tactics again.
"There's enough residual gravity to stress the hull, sir," Pushkin warned.
"Noted, Number One, noted. In you go, Mister Guthren."
over flew a pockmarked surface replete with jagged, broken mountain spines, the result of the forces which tore the original planet apart, eons ago. A huge shadow loomed ahead. "Slow to one-tenth. Prepare for full stop."
Moments later they hung over a bottomless abyss, more than a kilometre wide and long enough to lose its ends out of sight. Torn, irregular edges hid the canyon until the last moment. Perfect. "Mister Guthren, full stop. Rotate one-eighty degrees, raise the bow twenty degrees and lower us into the crack. Mister Pushkin, deploy a passive probe to the crest ahead. Guns, be prepared for a point-blank broadside at my command."
"We have lost jump ability, Commander," Jhar reported, "as well as three gun emplacements to starboard."
"Fourteen dead, twelve wounded."
It was a heavy toll from a single strike, another of Dunmoore's cowardly acts. Like the mines, the lay-back missiles reeked of dishonor to Brakal's aroused passions. Any ability he possessed to calmly evaluate her actions as the goads they really were had long since vanished in a primal Shrehari haze of aggression. It was the ultimate irony that Brakal had succumbed to the weakness he so abhorred in his peers.
Alone among the officers, Jhar kept a measure of restraint and self-control, and saw with growing horror the trap into which Brakal sailed, damning his enemy and ignoring her true intentions. But the Commander was now deaf to his advice, as he always was when blood clashed with thought.
"You have her trail, Urag?"
"Yes, Commander. On screen."
"The probe has him, sir." Chief Penzara announced. "He's losing altitude. Probably following our trail, curious about why we're running so close to the surface."
"Curiosity killed the cat, or in this case the Shrehari." Siobhan smiled hungrily.
"Nearing, still at the same speed. On our horizon in sixty seconds."
Lieutenant Amiri's hand hovered over the firing button, his guns aimed at the spot over the crest where his computer predicted the
"Helm, thrusters, positive zee, slowly. Engage." Siobhan didn't want to be boxed in by the canyon. She intended to emerge almost face-to-face with Brakal and surprise the pants off him. With excruciating caution, the frigate rose from her deep, dark hiding spot.
"There he is!"
Plasma lanced out of all guns, tearing at the
's underside like a serrated knife. His shields glowed with crackling energy and then collapsed, opening his grey hull to the full punishment of the
's broadside. The humans saw Brakal's cruiser stagger under the onslaught, but to his gunners' credit, they returned what fire they could. It was enough to punch through the nearly motionless frigate's screens and wreak havoc on her physical envelope.
shuddered down to her very keel. Power surged and flickered, changing the battle red to full darkness and back again. Panels came loose as sparks flew from overloaded circuits. A thin, acrid haze of smoke began to fill the bridge while the distressing sounds of a wounded ship filled their ears. The image of the dying
flashed before Siobhan's eyes. It was so vivid she shuddered, a part of her praying she hadn't condemned her ship to death through sheer hubris. Then, reality returned as Guthren took the initiative and raised the ship out of the chasm to give them manoeuvring room.
was fleeing over the horizon, badly damaged and in need of emergency repairs before she could face the frigate again. This, and more flashed through Siobhan's mind as she ordered the pursuit, hunter and hunted exchanging places.
"Captain," Pushkin's shout broke through her trance, "engineering reports the jump drive controllers off line. We have no jump capacity. And the sub-light drive reads amber. It could go at any minute."
"Damn. How long to repair the FTL?"
"Unknown. They're still dealing with more immediate damage in life-support and ship's systems. We took it pretty bad just now."
"So did they. Even worse than us no doubt. Casualties?"
"Yes. I don't have a firm count yet."
"Thank you. Mister Guthren, get on their trail. Now we have no choice but to finish Brakal before he turns around and does the same to us."
Like two punch-drunk boxers in the last round of an evenly matched fight, the two ships staggered around the planetoid, each seeking to finish off the other, one to regain his honor, the other to buy time for an escape. The end, when it came, was as unexpected as a knock-out punch.
"Captain!" Lieutenant Amiri shouted. "There he is."
Like a wraith, the
's damaged hull rose in their sights. Brakal had turned his cruiser about to give the frigate a death blow, and had achieved at least partial surprise. He opened fire, his guns winking like obscene eyes. Dunmoore ordered return fire in the same instant and both ships hit each other at the same time. Except now, the earlier damage the humans had caused gave them the edge.
Shields collapsed on both the cruiser and the frigate in an orgy of released energies, exposing the hulls to the backwash of the first salvo, and the death-dealing punch of the next one.
"We're wide open, Cap'n." Pushkin's voice was loud, urgent and, he had to admit to himself, frightened.
She ignored him. "Fire again, Mister Amiri."
"Capacitors aren't ready yet, sir."
"They'll burn out!"
"Just do it.
!" Siobhan didn't give a damn for the restrictions which limited their rate of fire to the regenerating rate of the capacitors. Flooding them with sudden energy would cause damage, but she knew, if they didn't fire first, it would be immaterial. The
One after the other, a dozen heavy plasma rounds hit the cruiser's grey hull, eating through the metal with unimaginable energy, turning the once proud ship into a wreck. Clouds of crystallized gases erupted from the punctures as it began to drift away, all steering gone.
"She's lost power," Chief Penzara announced in an awed tone of voice. He turned to look at the Captain. "We won, sir."
"Not quite," Lieutenant Amiri interrupted. "I'm picking up three contacts headed in from Cimmeria. ETA ten minutes."
Brakal slumped in his chair, unable to understand how his ship, the proud
, could be sitting helpless under the human frigate's guns, how Dunmoore had out-fought him with greater cunning and ability. Around him, the cruiser groaned in its death throes, multiple fires sending smoke through all compartments. He had no power, no engines, no shields, nothing. The great Brakal had lost, really lost, for the first time in his life. It was not a sensation he liked. As with those who grow too mighty, the fall from grace is shock too great to be born.
"Your orders, Commander?" Gun Master Urag coughed, his throat seared by the acrid fumes that turned the ruined bridge into a vision of hell. Death hung a few kilometres off their bow in the form of a powered and armed Commonwealth warship, a bird of prey gathering itself for the final, violent strike.
"Huh?" Brakal shook himself. "Orders? Jhar, status report." When he got no answer, the Shrehari turned towards his friend and First Officer. The loyal and able Jhar lay on the deck, in a pool of his own blood. He was as dead as could be, decapitated by a section of torn bulkhead. Brakal fought down the bile of despair and horror. His mind tried frantically to determine how they had been brought to this state, but dismay robbed the Scourge of the Fleet of his customary ebullience and decisiveness.
Gun Master Urag watched him with growing sadness, seeing the destruction of a once mighty and respected commander, knowing this defeat meant the end for them all. Brakal had embodied the future of the Imperial Navy's officer corps, and thereby the future of the Empire itself. That future now seemed a chimera, a mirage on a hot day in Makkar County.
"Commander, we are dead in space, living off our batteries."
"And the humans?" The powerful voice was reduced to a whisper of disbelief.
"Damaged, but still powered up, though they leak radiation from many sources. Their main drives may be inoperative. Their guns, however, show no sign of being anything but operational. One more salvo and we are finished." Of course, Urag could not know the
had lost the use of its main guns thanks to Siobhan's emergency firing order. The frigate could no more destroy them than they could destroy it.
"We have already lost pressure on half the decks and our casualties..." Urag did not complete the sentence. He did not have to. One glance around the bridge gave a clear enough picture of the devastation elsewhere. The
Brakal sank back in his chair, brooding. But his dark mood stirred something hard within him, something that would not give the human total victory. His eyes narrowed, reflecting the light of an electric fire, and Urag almost believed the old Commander was back, that the initial confusion and shock had worn off. That belief crystallized when Brakal grinned savagely and stood up.
"Call the human. I wish to speak to Dunmoore."
is hailing. Brakal wants to speak with you."
Siobhan glanced at the Signals Officer in surprise, momentarily abandoning all thoughts of her next move. "On screen, Mister Kowalski." Her eyes met Pushkin's. He simply shrugged, mystified.
The viewscreen crackled and fuzzed for a few seconds, as the damaged systems by-passed burnt-out circuits and fought to complete the connection. Then, the face that had haunted her nightmares since Adnan Prighte's death glared down at her. Instinctively, Siobhan rose, adjusting her tunic. She felt a shiver of... Fear? Recognition? Sympathy?
? Brakal's face no longer showed the calm, calculating look she remembered. He seemed exhausted, desperate. Defeated. The roles had been reversed. Strangely, Siobhan could find no pleasure in it, like the student who finally defeats her
, her master, and finds herself utterly alone.
Siobhan nodded. "Commander. You have fought well. It was an honor to meet you again in battle."
"And you," he growled, his Anglic guttural and harsh. "You are a witch, Dunmoore."
Some would make that 'bitch', Brakal
, Siobhan thought, suddenly feeling light-headed. She acknowledged the back-handed compliment with another nod. "I have a good crew, Commander."
Brakal grunted. "I knew, the last time we met, that you were a true Warrior, with cunning and ability. But I did not then know how much of one you are. It does not please me to be helpless under your guns, but knowing your valour makes the humiliation more bearable. Few in either of our fleets could have accomplished what you did."
Suddenly, a harsh, hate filled shout in the Imperial tongue interrupted Brakal. Siobhan could not understand what was said, but she knew it was not congratulatory. The enraged face of a Shrehari officer briefly appeared on screen snarling, as he reached out for Brakal. Appalled, the humans watched as Brakal drew an impossibly big blaster from a hip holster and fired at Khrada, killing him. The act seemed to give the Commander some pleasure for his face looked less despairing as he turned back.
"Forgive me, Dunmoore. A minor disagreement with an official my government has seen fit to place on my ship. I had confined him, but it appears he managed to escape during the battle. He will no longer trouble me."
Siobhan smiled, aware of his comment's full meaning. The man had been
, secret police, the Shrehari equivalent to the SSB. "We sometimes have those too, Brakal. They are better dead than alive, for all the harm they do."
"Agreed, Dunmoore." The small smile of mutual understanding vanished as his face turned to stone. "You realize I cannot let you take my ship. I will therefore activate the self-destruct mechanism the moment we end this communication."
"Why warn me of this? You could destroy us easily with the explosion and turn our victory into defeat."
"Because you have earned the right to know, Dunmoore and the right to attempt your escape. I make war honorably, not like my government."
Siobhan a sudden chill. The
was well within the destructive range of an exploding Gorgon-class, and more damaged than Brakal apparently realized. She could no more take the
than he could take the
. But she could not tell him that, in an oblique plea to stop the self-destruct. It would not have been honorable.
"Then I wish you the same you wished Captain Prighte not too long ago.
Harkash nedrin rakati,
Brakal." Perfect accent, Brakal thought, as she raised her fist in the Shrehari salute. "Your name shall be remembered and honored. Fighting you has been an experience."
Brakal nodded formally, an indefinable expression in his dark eyes. He raised his hand and the transmission died.
"Mister Guthren, take us out of here at best speed." Siobhan's voice held a tone of urgency she had never used before. Real despair flared in her guts for the first time since Adnan Prighte's death. "We have to be out of his self-destruct radius within a minute."
"We have thrusters only, sir," the Cox'n replied, fighting his fear as he turned to face his Captain. "The sub-light and hyper-drives are off-line."
"Then move out on thrusters, best speed. Now!" Siobhan tapped the intercom. "Engineering, this is the Captain. We need sub-light drives on line within sixty seconds or we won't need them at all."
"Chief Weekes here, sir, Mister Tiner is already on it. I'll tell her about the dead-line. Out."
With sickening slowness, the frigate backed away from the wrecked cruiser. All eyes watched it recede on the main screen, convinced they were going to die, yet still holding on to the hope that they would get the sub-light engines on line in time.
"We're not going to make it, are we," Pushkin said softly, to no one in particular. "And with the approaching Cimmeria-based ships, we're caught between the unmoving object and the irresistible force."
"The devil and the deep blue sea, if you want to get nautical, Number One," Siobhan replied, her mental countdown twisting her guts with anxiety. Brakal's final revenge: make the humans know they would die, and let them fret in the short minute before oblivion. "Launch the log-buoy torpedo, Mister Amiri."
"Sorry, sir, the launchers took a bad hit. We can't launch anything."
"We're still within the deadly radius, sir," Chief Penzara said, as if the sight of the motionless
did not speak for itself.
"Well, sir," Pushkin took a deep breath. "It's been a blast. At least the Stingray will have gone down with its reputation restored. Pity only we know about it."
"It is, isn't it." Siobhan smiled ironically. She had gotten her revenge, her rush of glory and had given her crew their pride again. But in so doing, she had overreached and now, they would all pay for it.
"What is it cox'n?"
"For a moment, I could have sworn the sub-light engines were back on line. Wishful thinking, probably." Then, "No! Hot damn! We have sub-light power."
"Take us out, Cox'n!"
"Are we going to outrun his blast wave?"
"Let's hope so, Number One."
"We've been spotted by the incoming ships," Chief Penzara announced. "Changing course to intercept. One Gorgon-class and two Geckos."
"Here comes the deep blue sea..." Pushkin muttered.
"Plot intercept." Siobhan took only a few seconds to study the tactical schematic. "Dammit, we're going to need FTL capability to outrun them. They'll cut us off otherwise. What are the chances of two miracles in five minutes? Mister Guthren, how full is our sub-light engine power?"
"Entirely full, sir."
"Okay." She stood up clasping her hands in the small of her back. Siobhan's voice held a frantic note of urgency as her mouth struggled to keep up with her mind. "We'll have to break a few rules again. Accelerate to point-nine-nine cee. They won't be able to intercept us at that velocity, and we'll outrun their plasma."
"She's blocked at point-two, sir. Command doesn't like relativistic travel," Pushkin reminded her. "Plays havoc with the orderly running of the Fleets."
Siobhan leaned over Guthren's massive shoulder. "Cox'n, input access code Dunmoore Alpha-Two-Zero-Nine-Zero-One. Release restrictions."
The ship groaned under the thrust, but slowly accelerated beyond the max sub-light speed prescribed by both the Commonwealth and the Imperial Deep Space Fleet. On screen, the stars began to shift colour as the ship accelerated.
A streak of unstoppable mass, the
passed within fifty thousand kilometres of the astonished Shreharis and left them far in her wake. Though they could outrun her in hyper space, they could not bring her to battle. She was simply accelerating too fast in this universe.
"They've given up pursuit," Penzara finally announced.
"Smarter than the brutes look," Pushkin commented.
"Yes, but we'll have to maintain current speed until we're beyond their tracking devices, otherwise they'll simply jump after us." Siobhan returned to her seat. "Chief Penzara, has the
"Checking. No." He sounded confused as he turned to look at Siobhan. She glanced at the timepiece.
Suddenly she understood and began laughing, until tears flowed down her cheeks. All the tension, the fear and the anxiety of the last few hours flowed out. They'd done it: raked up one hell of a score sheet, fought the Scourge of the Fleet
survived. But the wily Brakal also survived to fight another day. The others looked at her, puzzled, wondering whether she'd finally lost her mind. Then, Gregor Pushkin's eyes lit up with understanding and he chuckled in counterpoint to Siobhan's uninhibited laughter.
"Oh the bastard," she said between outbursts, "he took a leaf out of my own book and threw it back at me. Out-pokered me totally." When she sobered, she said, "In a way, I'm glad he didn't blow himself up."
"Yeah, you got to respect a guy like that," Pushkin added, to her surprise. "What did you do to teach him the art of bluffing, sir?"
"A long story, Gregor, one that's best told over a long meal and some good wine. We're safe, and that's the essential." She tapped the intercom. "Engineering, this is the Captain. Well done, Mister Tiner. You saved the ship."
"Chief Weekes here," a sombre, sad voice replied. "Lieutenant-Commander Tiner died when the engines came back on line. She was in the port plasma flux tube for an emergency jump-start." His words took a few moments to sink in as total silence descended on the bridge.
"You mean she deliberately sacrificed herself?" Siobhan nearly choked on the question, unable to picture the nervous little engineer stepping into the tube and assured death.
"Aye, sir. There was no other way to do it. We don't have any engineering 'bots. Battle-Group didn't issue them."