Authors: Stephen Ames Berry
Tags: #Science Fiction, #Fiction, #General
Stephen Ames Berry - The Final Assault
In pursuit of the corsair K'Tran and upon direct orders from FleetOps, I proceeded into Quadrant Blue Nine with a task force of five starcruisers. We were preceded by the L'Aal-class cruiser
under the command of Commodore DTrelna. Ours were the first ships to brave this reputed "Ghost Quadrant" since an ill-fated scientific survey ship, some 1,582 years ago.
To the undoubted detriment of our respective commands, and the possible salvation of the Confederation, we each found what we were looking for.
Admiral Second S'Gan Commanding Special Task Force 18
Excerpt from BattleOps
"Were at final
jump point, Commodore," said L'Wrona from the navigation station.
DTrelna nodded, looking up at the data trail threading across the bottom of the main screen. "Last chance to turn back, H'Nar," he said to the captain.
"And do what?" said L'Wrona, his long fingers playing over the console, entering the jump coordinates. "Live like real corsairs? No, I'll take my chances with the v'org slime."
FleetOps would have been hard-pressed to cast two more-dissimilar figures as
senior officers: DTrelna short, fat, well into middleage, with the sharp nose and piercing dark eyes of a S'Htarian trader, and
L'Wrona, younger, slender, with the aquiline good looks of the old aristocracy. Having fought and won across half the galaxy, they were headed home now to face their final battle.
DTrelna looked around, eyes going from empty station to empty station. The cruiser's big bridge usually had between twelve and twenty crew. She had four now: K'Lana, manning communications; N'Trol, chief engineer, hovering over the jump status board; L'Wrona, manning K'Raoda's old station; and himself, now seated at the captain's post, a post he'd manned for seven years, before they made him a flag officer.
"Commtorps ready, K'Lana?" the commodore said, looking at the petite brunette.
"Jump-tied, Commodore," she said.
DTrelna touched his chairarm's comm-link. "This is it," he said, voice echoing through the long, almost empty miles of
"We're jumping into home system now. Luck to us all." He switched off.
"Jump at will, Captain L'Wrona," said the commodore, clasping his hands over his belly, eyes on the screen.
"Jumping," said L'Wrona, touching the "Execute" switch.
A slight tugging at the stomach as the stars on main screen red-shifted to familiar constellations. The data trail winked out, then resumed with new figures. As DTrelna watched, three silver missiles streaked by, scattering toward distant targets.
"Commtorps launched," said K'Lana.
The screen rippled, changing from outside scan to a tactical view of the K'Ronarin home system. N'Trol whistled softly. "Look at that! They must have half the Home Fleet on picket duty."
"Impressive," said DTrelna, looking at the hundreds of points of light standing between
and the innermost planet. Three of those lights began drifting toward the green blip denoting
"Unknown cruiser, identify," came a brusque voice over the deck speakers.
"Unknown, my ass," said the commodore, swiveling toward K'Lana. "We're putting out standard id on standard id frequency."
"Just a brief show for FleetOps records," said L'Wrona. "'Suspected corsair detected and destroyed.'" Glancing at the data trail, he walked to the tactics station and stood touching the gunnery-tie controls to ship's computer. "Their shields are at battleforce, they're closing at flank with gunnery scans locking on. They won't be firing salutes as they pass."
"So? Are you going to shoot it out with our own ships, H'Nar?" asked DTrelna, swiveling to look at L'Wrona. "Outnumbered fifty to one, their ships crewed, ours on automatic? Absurd." His voice lowered. "Remember why we're here."
"I know," said the captain, taking his hands from the console, clasping them behind his back. "One's first instinct is to fight, though."
"Unknown cruiser, identify," repeated the challenge. "Identify or we open fire."
"Plenty of fighting ahead, I'm afraid," said DTrelna, touching his chair's commlink.
returning from Quadrant Blue-Nine. You will advise FleetOps that we have launched commtorps tied to all civilian frequencies. If we don't reach Prime Base, our mission debriefing will be transmitted to every receiver in home quadrant, open band, loud and clear." He said it fast, spurred by a vivid image of gunnery consoles flashing red as Mark 88 turrets swung toward
then leaned back, watching the tacscan.
Two of the picket ships were within range now—heavy destroyers, together more than a match for one L'Aal-class cruiser. The silence lengthened.
"Someone down in FleetOps is making a Decision," said DTrelna, thick fingers drumming a soft tattoo on the padded chair arm.
said a different voice, smooth, neutral. "You are cleared for Prime Base. Line is so advised." A series of coordinates followed.
As DTrelna acknowledged, the commlink ended with a sharp burst of static.
"Welcome home," muttered the commodore.
"Coordinates laid in," said L'Wrona. "Ship proceeding on course."
"Not steering us toward a minefield, are they?" said N'Trol. The engineer walked to the flag station and stood staring at the screen. He was about L'Wrona's age and height, not as thin, though, and with features deep-tanned from long hours spent hullside.
DTrelna shook his head. "They can't afford crudity as long as those commtorps are flitting about home system." He pointed to the screen. "See, our friends are pulling back."
Up on the big board the lights marking the pickets were withdrawing to their original positions as
headed toward K'Ronar.
As they approached the planet, the tacscan changed, snowing first K'Ronar with Prime Base neatly marked in a winking green, then a line of red between ship and planet: Line.
"Hello, Commodore," said a soft, cultured voice over the commlink.
"Hello, Line," said DTrelna.
Ten thousand years before, at the K'Rona-rin Empire's technological height, a series of Twelfth Dynasty Emperors had, at enormous expense, constructed Line. The name came from the two-dimensional image of it projected by the tacscan of approaching vessels. Line was actually a great shield-sphere surrounding K'Ronar, a never-breached wall comprised of tens of thousands of satellite-based shield generators, approached through ever-varying minefields, missile and gun platforms, all controlled from ten miles of rock that sat in geostationary orbit over K'Ronar's north pole.
"Did you have an interesting mission, Commodore?" continued the voice.
"Saved humanity again," said DTrelna lightly, watching as the screen shifted to exterior scan, showing them approaching an endless sweep of silver set against the obsidian of space. He punched up a steaming cup of t'ata from his chairarm. "Been battling any alien hordes, Line?"
Part of the shield wall disappeared as
reached it. Moving on n-gravs now, the cruiser slipped through the Line.
"Alas!" sighed the voice. "We've had no fun since the S'Cotar fleet tried that foolishness at the start of the last war.
"Welcome home, Commodore," it added as the shield closed behind the ship.
"Thank you, Line," said DTrelna, looking at the brown-green world ahead. "Wish everyone felt that way."
"That computer's friendlier than FleetOps," said NTrol.
"Do you really think it's a computer, Engineer?" said the captain, joining the other two at D'Trelna's station.
"It's certainly not a human," said N'Trol. "No one'd be crazy enough to entrust the defense of K'Ronar to any man or group of men."
"Whatever it is, is irrelevant, gentlemen," said DTrelna, holding out a hand. "We're through—we're home."
Brown, touched by just a hint of green and blue, K'Ronar lay before them, an arid world of sweeping desert and rocky crags, its population now mostly confined to the greenbelt girdling the equator. She'd been a rich, lush world once, heavy in minerals, covered with forests and grassy plains. Man had taken the forests and the minerals, then, at his Imperial height, resculpted the land into a green arca-dia of forested peaks and deep blue lakes, interspaced by cities wrought of gleaming alloys and subtly hued duraplast, all crafted of a daring vision that had triumphed across a galaxy.
A slow strengthening of K'Ronar's sun, matched by Empire's long twilight, had left much of paradise a wasteland. Ruined cities of a hundred emperors now lay forgotten beneath the sands, while from the towers of A'Kan, proud capital to every dynasty since the First, the encroaching desert could be seen, held at bay just beyond the expensively maintained barrier of lakes and parks.
"We're on remote," said L'Wrona, pointing to the helm controls, which now responded to the landing programming of Prime Base's computers.
Piercing a wispy gray-white cloud layer,
came in low over the K'Zan Desert and turned north, following an ancient dry river bed.
" 'R'Shen, mighty daughter, who drank the blood of slaughter,'" said DTrelna softly, watching a scan of the cracked, brown wash.
"I didn't know you were a poet, J'Quel," said L'Wrona.
"I'm ashamed to say it's all I can recall," said DTrelna.
"Prespace, isn't it?" said N'Trol.
The commodore nodded. "An epic poem by S'Hko, commemorating a battle at that river. They fought with swords and bows then, gentlemen, and put an end to the Slavers' Guild. S'Hko says the waters of the R'Shen ran red for days." He looked up from the screen. "An important place, the R'Shen—men died there in a good cause."
"We're being landed in Seven Blue, area one three nine two," said K'Lana, turning from her console.
"What's that? A hundred t'lars from FleetOps?" said DTrelna. "Why not land us in the K'Zan and have us walk out?"
They came in over the southeastern perimeter of Prime Base, drifting on silent n-gravs past the defense perimeters—line after line of missile and gun emplacements, hardened, shielded, deep set in the sand—then over the landing field and ships of every size and type: cruisers, destroyers, scouts, interceptors, all sitting on the black duraplast field, sunlight shimmering on their hulls. Except for the occasional maintenance vehicle, nothing moved.
"War's over—everyone's gone home," said L'Wrona, shaking his head. "Combine T'Lan's done its job well."
"Let's see if we can fix that," said DTrelna as
settled with a faint whine onto an isolated stretch of duraplast. "And Combine T'Lan."
"Admiral G'Yar for the commodore," said K'Lana.
"Who?" said L'Wrona,
DTrelna touched the commlink. "Good afternoon, sir," he said to the face appearing in his commscreen.
"You and Captain L'Wrona will remain with the ship, Commodore," said the admiral, a sharp-faced man with a thin, disapproving little mouth. "Your crew will dismiss and muster out—personnel carriers are on the way."
"One will do, Admiral," said DTrelna. "They only hold fifty, Commodore." "Just the right number, Admiral." DTrelna smiled.
"You lost over two hundred crew?!" exclaimed G'Yar, eyes widening.
"They're not lost, sir. We know where they are."
The Admiral tried to say something, failed, finally found his voice and snapped, "You will remain with your ship, sir." The commscreen blanked.
"Just who the hell is Admiral G'Yar, H'Nar?" asked DTrelna, swiveling his chair toward the captain's station.
L'Wrona was watching the complink, frowning at the data scrolling slowly past. "According to this—and it's two years behind —G'Yar was a commander in Fiscal. Direct commission, no war service."
"A politico," said DTrelna. "He shouldn't be allowed to even sweep the floor in FleetOps, yet he seems to be Officer-in-charge."
"Ground vehicle approaching," said a pleasant, asexual contralto—ship's computer. "A personnel carrier, unarmed."
"Shipwide," said DTrelna, opening the commlink. "This is the Commodore. We're home. FleetOps says you're to be discharged —they've sent a carrier for you. Take your time, gather your things. Captain L'Wrona and I will say good-bye to you at"—he glanced at the groundscan—"airlock fifty-nine, deck eight."
"I've got to help bed down the engines," said N'TroI, leaving the engineering station. The armored doors hissed shut behind him.
Captain and commodore looked at each other, then around the bridge with its array of empty consoles. "You and me, H'Nar," said DTrelna into the silence, looking back at L'Wrona.
"A long and bitter war, J'Quel," said L'Wrona, rising. "I only wish it were over —that we were leaving this ship never having heard of an AI or the Fleet of the One."