Authors: Diane Duane
Tags: #science fiction, #star trek
“Yes, sir,” Sulu said, and Spock nodded and turned back to his console.
Uhura looked up suddenly. “
is hailing us, Captain.”
“Put tr’Mahan on.”
The Artaleirhin commander appeared on a bridge that was now dark as well as cramped, damped down to blue-green crisis lighting.
“Captain, the fleet is on its way in, and will be in-system within thirty minutes. IDs and coordinates are being fed to you now.”
“Thank you,” Jim said. “Have you had a chance to speak to
about what we’ve been doing out here?”
“Yes, Captain. It is…unique.”
“Not as unique as you being able to feed us the coordinates of cloaked ships,” Jim said, “but we’ll discuss that later. Good luck to you, sir, and good hunting.”
“The like to you, Captain, and triumph over your enemies.”
The screen went dark.
Not that it’s all that easy anymore to tell just who those are,
Jim thought. “Battle stations, red alert!”
The sirens began whooping through the ship.
“Nine ships as promised, Captain,” Sulu said as Uhura passed him the information. “Configuration data is embedded. Four heavy cruisers incoming—
Elieth, Moerrdel, Arest,
two so-called ‘super-heavies,’
and three corvettes,
Those last ones are probably more lightly armed, and intended for supply and support work.”
“Those’ll be the easiest targets,” Jim said, sitting down in the center seat again. “For which reason I assume they’ll stay farthest out of the way if they can. But one thought. Mr. Spock—” He glanced over at the Vulcan. “—if I remember correctly, ‘sumpter’ is a word for a mount that’s carrying extra cargo.”
Spock nodded. “I will be scanning it for the new cloaking device waveform, Captain, as soon as the ships drop conventional cloak and come within range.”
“Good. If any of them are carrying another little surprise like the one they pulled out of their hats at 15 Tri, I want to know soonest. Mr. Sulu, off station-keeping now. Manage us a more or less circular course around the station, one eighth impulse. No rush at all.”
“One eighth impulse, aye,” Sulu said.
is signaling the smaller vessels to get ready to move,” Uhura said.
Jim hit the intercom. “Sickbay.”
“I see your balloon, Bones, and it’s a big fat one. Hope you’ve got everything fastened down.”
“No fear of that, Jim. You be careful.”
“Believe me, it’s on my mind.” The thought of what kind of weapons a “supercruiser” might be carrying concerned him, but even when outweaponed,
had speed and agility to count on—not to mention her crew, without whom no hardware was more than just a heap of wires and data solids. “Hang on tight, Bones. Out. Engineering!”
Scotty said. He sounded as if he wished he were elsewhere.
“Ready on impulse, Captain. But we’ve no warp.”
“Not if you want to use the warp engines again anytime soon. We’re not done with our recalibration. The new crystal has too many irregularities to deal with in such a short time.”
“Scotty,” Jim said, allowing himself to sound deeply disappointed. It was not entirely an act.
“Captain, don’t make me promise you something I cannot deliver!”
“No,” Jim said sadly. “I’d never do that. How’s impulse?”
“At a hundred and ten percent,”
Scotty said, sounding only marginally brighter.
“That’s where we need it,” Jim said. “One last check on weapons systems, Scotty.”
“Just finished now, sir. All systems are fully charged and all tubes loaded, ready to go hot.”
“Captain,” Spock said. “We are getting a tactical-systems feed from
The incoming ships are going to lower warp speeds, preparatory to dropping out.”
“I am having some slight difficulty converting distances with the desirable precision from the Artaleirhin data feed,” Spock said. “Closest estimate would be two point six three light-hours, closing fast.”
Jim nodded. Even just a few billion kilometers’ worth of warning was of value. “Feed Mr. Sulu the coordinate data. How are they tracking cloaked ships even that precisely at this distance?”
“I would very much like to know,” Spock said.
And so would the Federation,
Jim thought. But for the time being he put the question of his sealed orders aside. The point now was to both survive to be in a position to use them,
and to get
into a position where using them would be easy. “
There was a pause. Then Ael’s voice said,
“Ready, Captain. They are close.”
“We’re ready for them. Good luck, Commander.”
“And the Elements with you as well—”
She broke off. Jim raised his eyebrows. She sounded tenser than usual; revealing in itself, in an officer usually so self-contained and self-assured. Jim sat back and waited the last, hardest few seconds.
“The incoming fleet is beginning to drop out of warp, “Spock said, as calmly as if reporting the weather. “
have come out first.”
“The heavy guns,” Jim said, “ready to break up an ambush. Let’s see the tactical, Mr. Spock.”
Spock transferred the tactical view to the front viewscreen. Jim saw what he thought he would, the two big ships plunging into the system almost at right angles to the ecliptic, as Courhig had predicted. Already Jim’s heart was pounding with the thought that the Romulans had made one of the three great errors of this kind of warfare, that of dividing your forces before you have adequately assessed the danger—though there were some naval tacticians who claimed that any division of a fleet into subsections was already an error, whether the threat had been correctly assessed or not. By that standard, this incoming fleet was already in trouble, though whether they knew it or not was at issue, not to mention how the forces waiting here would exploit the error. If the Grand Fleet ships rejoined to work again as a more closely aligned group, that would be a problem.
But a mistake they made once, they might make again.
“The Grand Fleet vessels are all now in system,” Spock said, as the two tagged shapes of light that represented
slowed further, and one after another,
the other points of light popped in behind them, in a loose globular formation. “We are being scanned.”
“No response,” Jim said. “We shouldn’t be able to see them; let’s let them suppose we can’t.” He stared hard at the tactical. “Let me know if they make any changes in acceleration or vector suggesting that individual vessels or a subgroup may be about to break away.”
“No indications of that as yet, Captain. They are shifting formation somewhat, however. Heading directly for Artaleirh; none appear to be diverting toward us.”
“Keep an eye on them, Spock. Especially for any sign that some of them might be about to try to seed that star.” It was the smaller vessels in the group that made Jim most suspicious in this regard; the corvettes would almost certainly have more than one function here, since they would be only of secondary use in a fight among starships of any size.
Not that we won’t seed that star ourselves if we don’t have a choice,
Jim thought, and was once again left very uncomfortable by the concept. How must this moment feel for the people on the planet, knowing that either the enemy or their own side might suddenly make their homeworld uninhabitable?
“We have two of our cruisers out in abeyance at the moment to interfere with them should they start such a run, Captain,”
tr’Mahan’s voice said.
Jim let out a brief breath of relief that he hoped no one heard.
Dammit, we ought to be able to handle it ourselves,
he was thinking.
Damn crystal anyway!
“Good man,” he said to tr’Mahan. “We need to stay still for the moment. We’ll protect your fallback position here. If they make a move, they’re all yours.”
“I understand your reasoning, Captain. We are ready now. Here they come.”
Jim’s hands clenched on the arms of the center seat.
Ael stood behind her command chair, watching what lay there glittering in the dark blue light of the tactical display. Nine ships were arrowing down from the night at Artaleirh, and the thought of what that world might be about to suffer filled her with pain. But if they did not suffer it, much worse pain would yet befall all the people on that world, and many others.
If only this works…
“Course change as they go into lower sublight speeds now,” Aidoann said. “All their weapons are going hot,
They are initiating big hyperbolic least-expenditure curves, with Artaleirh as their common locus.”
They are giving us a chance to regret our intentions,
I hope we can return the favor.
“They plainly think this engagement will be over quickly,” she said to Aidoann. “So it may, but not as they intend.” Ael glanced down at the seat of her chair, considering that she might prefer to sit this one out. It was likely to get lively. But that would mean moving what lay there now.
I will not.
She glanced up at the screen. “Aidoann, hail the flagship. See that they have visual. I do not care if they return it.”
Aidoann bent over her console, spoke to it softly. The screen at the front of the bridge remained dark, but the slight hiss of carrier was audible. “
Aidoann said under her breath.
Ael nodded. “Imperial vessels, stand away from Artaleirh and take yourselves out of the system immediately, on pain of destruction. Your intentions here are known, and will be prevented.”
There was a long silence before an answer came back.
a voice said,
“you and yours will now pay the price of your perfidy. Speak to the Elements now; you’ll have no other chance. Then come out from where you hide and find your death. Else we will take its price from those you have deluded.”
She grinned. “By the Sword and its Element, I tell you I know it will not happen so. Take yourselves away from here and live, or stay, and leave your Houses sonless, motherless, orphaned!”
There was no reply, not that she expected one. “Now,” she said softly to Aidoann and Khiy and the others on the bridge, “they must make the first move, and so damn themselves.”
“And if their move works,
Aidoann’s voice was a little more testy than usual; the tension was working on her as well.
“We will at least send some of them ahead of us to make plain to the Elements the need for proper revenge,” Ael said. She watched the curves outlining themselves on tactical: there was no change in them.
“They’re going for the planet,” Aidoann said.
“We have always thought they would at first,” Ael said. “It is a feint. They seek to draw the straw before the
as it were, but that will not help them. For the moment, the
The curves continued to draw in toward the planet, closer every second. The bridge filled up with the warnings that the Grand Fleet vessels were broadcasting on every available wavelength to the planet below them, blanketing the place.
“This is the Grand Fleet of the Rihannsu Star Empire. All cities and settlements of the Rihannsu Imperial subject world
Artaleirh are herewith placed under martial law. All manufacturing facilities will henceforth be managed and operated under direct control of Imperial officers. All civil vessels are to ground immediately and prepare to be boarded and either disarmed or inactivated. Gatherings of more than three people in any public place are now forbidden. Hostages…reparations…a new military government…”
The recitation went on and on, a litany of such trammels to liberty as no free culture could possibly bear. Yet the Artaleirhin were expected to bear it. Their lives, which they had been allowed to run in various small ways as long as they fed goods and monies back to the homeworlds and obeyed the whims of their rulers, were now, if not forfeit, to be lived in cages, virtual or real, under the threat of the scourge or the blaster.
“Immediate acceptance of these terms is required. You may choose spokesmen to replace your political leaders, who will give themselves up to the authority of the Fleet to endure the rigors of Imperial justice. Your new spokesmen have one planet’s hour to signal acceptance. This is the Grand Fleet of the Rihannsu Star Empire—”
Ael looked around the bridge at her crew. They were staring at one another, and at the speakers from which the sound came, with expressions of bitter distaste. “This is what we could have become, my children,” Ael said, “had we remained too thoughtlessly true to our old loyalty. I will wear the scorn of such as these with pride, as an ornament far surpassing any mere battle honor.”
Aidoann looked over at Ael, then, and flipped a switch at her comm console. A voice spoke, a Rihanha’s voice, not amplified across multibands like the flat, self-assured voice speaking from the sky, but single, simplex and passionate.
“—needs not one hour for an answer,”
she was saying,
“no, not one breath! This is the Free Rihannsu world of Artaleirh. We are the tool of no empire anymore, and the toy of no Senate. We are our own world under our own sky, and we now
take that sky back to ourselves, in arms with those who know what freedom is worth, and who will help us be slaves no more. Live or die, we have nothing more to say to you, tools in the hands of tyrants!”
The announcement from the Grand Fleet ships persisted only a few moments longer, then simply broke off, in mid-playback, as if whoever had been playing the recording simply could not believe the response. Behind Ael, Aidoann listened to the silence that followed, and let go a soft hiss of anguish. “
she said, “if this doesn’t work, all those cities, all those many people—”