Authors: Chris Bunch; Allan Cole
A screen brightened, showing the bridge of one of the Imperial ships.
"Captain," Sten began without preamble, "the convoy's yours. We're going to try to slow down the bad guys."
"Sir, I request—"
"Negative. You have your orders. Stay with the liners.
, out. Foss! Damage control."
"This is damage control, Skipper," came the drawl. "What do you need?" Sten found a moment to regret not knowing that officer—anybody who could sound that relaxed would be valuable.
"Dump the air."
The suits would make the men more awkward, but the vacuum would lessen the damage from a potential hit.
"Weapons! Are we in range?"
"A wee bit longer, Commander."
went into its first—and final—battle.
Possibly the Tahn had become cocky. Or, more likely, they found it impossible to take seriously the bloated hulk that was charging at them.
may have been a disaster of space architecture and a ship long overdue for the boneyard—but it was very heavily armed. It had a Bell laser system forward, Goblin launchers fore and aft, secondary laser stations scattered around the ship, and chainguns running the length of those horrible-looking hull bulges. The ship's main armament consisted of long-obsolete Vydal antiship missiles. There were two of them, mounted amidships, between the pagodas that were the command centers.
Kilgour watched the three blips representing Tahn destroyers arc toward him and thumb-activated the Bell assault laser in the ship's nose. The laser was as obsolete as the ship it was mounted on, being not only robot-guided but equipped with verbal responses.
"Enemy ship in range," the toneless synthesized voice said. Kilgour touched the engage key.
The laser blast ravened the length of the Tahn destroyer, and the weapons system decided that the target was no longer in existence. Without consulting Kilgour, it switched to a second destroyer and opened up.
"Target destroyed… second target under attack," the voice said, almost as an afterthought.
The laser ripped most of that second destroyer's power room into fragments.
"Second target injured… am correcting aim."
Kilgour slammed the override and new target keys. The destroyer was out of battle, and that was enough.
Possibly miffed at being told what to do by a human, the laser switched to stutter mode and lacerated the length of the third destroyer before reporting.
Three down, Alex thought. No more'n a zillion to go.
was through the destroyer screen, headed for the heart of the Tahn fleet.
There were three weapons not controlled by Kilgour. They were the huge Kali missiles designed for Sten's tac-ships. There had been three of them left in the tac division's armory, and Foss and Kilgour had jury-rigged rack mounts for them on the
. Foss had sworn there was no way to run the control circuitry into the weapons control center—it would be easier for him to set up a control helmet/center on the bridge itself.
Sten was fairly sure that Foss was lying, wanting to actually shoot back instead of just being a behind-the-scenes electronics wizard. But he didn't care. Alex would have more than enough hassle trying to make some sense of the elderly and frequently contradictory weapons-control systems already mounted.
Foss had the control helmet plug rigged into his space-suit. Sten stared at the central screen and blanched. The monstrous
filled the screen, and Sten thought they were about to collide before he realized that Foss had the screen at full magnification.
"Sir," Foss said. "I have a Kali on standby. Target… target… target acquired."
"Launch," Sten ordered, with no expectations.
The Kali wobbled away from the
without the initial guidance the proper launch tube would have provided. Then it straightened, went to full power, and dived toward the
took its first hit.
The Tahn missile tore through the skin of the bridge, went out of control, and then exploded less than fifty meters away from the ship. The blast was close enough to smash the entire bridge.
All that Sten knew was a stunning impact, finding himself hurled through the air to slam against a console and staring straight up at what should have been steel to see—see, without sensors—the Tahn destroyer's nose light as it fired a second missile.
His headphones crackled.
"Stand by." It was Kilgour. "We have an incoming… target acquired… ha-ho. Gotcha."
A Fox missile took out the Tahn rocket. Directly behind it, Kilgour had sent a Goblin. The Goblin scattered fragments of the Tahn ship across a wide area of space.
Sten wove to his feet and looked around the ruins of the bridge. Everyone was dead, down, or hurled out into space.
He recovered and keyed his mike. "This is the captain. Switching command to CIC. Damage control… seal the bridge."
He stumbled toward a hatch, undogged, and went through it.
Outside, in space, the Kali missile circled aimlessly. It had been given its aim point, but the operator had not completed his procedure. The Kali waited for further orders.
The bridge was a still life—"Technocracy, with Corpses"—for a moment, and then a figure moved.
It was Foss.
He looked down at the scrap metal where his legs had been. His suit had already sealed itself, surgically amputating the few bits of ligament and flesh.
Foss felt no pain.
He dragged himself on his hands toward the control panel. It was still semialive. He switched to a still-undamaged tertiary system and became his missile once more.
The Kali surged toward the
The Tahn antimissile officer had seen the hit on the
, seen the Kali begin its aimless orbiting, and told the
target acquisition systems to ignore the now-harmless missile.
The Kali came alive! The Tahn officer's hand was moving toward his computer's controls when it hit.
The missile struck the
in its drivetubes, ripping apart the AM2 fuel storage and sending the antimatter cascading toward the ship's bow.
vanished in one hellish, soundless explosion.
Foss had time to see the flash light the inside of the bridge, to watch it turn red, and to realize that the red was his own blood, spraying across his suit's faceplate, before his eyes looked beyond anything and he sagged forward onto his controls.
Before Sten reached the CIC, his new command center, the
, took three more hits.
Sten struggled on, praying there would still be something left to command.
Most unusual, he thought, seeing one of the corridors twist and warp in front of him. I am hallucinating. But I am not wounded.
He was not hallucinating. One of the Tahn rockets had hit near one of the ship's mainframes, and the
was bent and twisted.
Sten forced his way through the warped steel tube. His mind recorded observations as his ship rocked around him and explosions sent shock waves through the hull:
Here was a casualty clearing station. Shock blast had killed everyone inside it but left them frozen. Here was one of Sten's med officers, his arms still in the access holes of a surgical bubblepak. Behind him were his corpsmen standing ready. And the casualty inside the pak.
Here was an antifire-foam-flooded compartment, where the sensors had evidently gone wild and dumped foam on a fire that could not exist. Sten saw three suited forms struggling toward the exit through the foam but had no time to help them.
A temporary damage-control station, where an officer—Sten recognized the black-anodized suit arms that were used to denote command rank—was calmly ordering damage teams into action. Sten wondered if that was the drawling, unruffleable control officer he had been on the com with earlier.
And then he found the hatchway into the CIC, undogged the two hatches, and returned to command of the
Coms chattered at him, and specialists tried to keep the chaos in some sort of order:
"Forward Goblin launchers do not respond to inquiry. No verbal reports from stations."
"Secondary engine room reports damage now under control."
"All controls to forward laser station fail to respond."
There wasn't much left of the
to command. But still, filling a screen—and not a magnified view this time—was the bulk of the
. Lady Atago's flagship.
The battleship was vomiting fire, firing everything—anything—to stop the
There was an extremely unauthorized broadcast: "Ah hae y' noo, lass." The chortle came from the weapons station on the deck above. Then Kilgour launched two Vydals, one slaved to the missile under his control, and sent them surely homing into the
Fire fed on oxygen, and flame and explosion mushroomed down the corridors of the
. The explosion tore a wall chart from a bulkhead and sent it pinwheeling into Admiral Deska. His eviscerated corpse spun back into Lady Atago, smashing her helmet into a control panel.
She would not return to awareness until long after the battle ended. But command switched smoothly to the
own CO. The battle continued.
The next strike was on the
It was deadly, crashing through the armor plating into the ship's main engine room before the weapons officer commanding it touched the det switch.
A hell of sudden fire filled the engine room and then disappeared.
Tapia had been swearing at the engine temperature gauges, praying that they were lying and knowing they were not, when the rocket exploded. A tiny bit of shrapnel cut through a superpressure hydraulic line. Hydraulic fluid razored out at more than 10,000 feet per second.
The fluid cut Tapia in half as neatly as a surgical saw.
went dead in space, still holding its original speed and course.
The two ships, the
, slid toward each other. None of the Tahn warships could chance firing—the odds of a missile hitting the wrong target were too great.
The battleship loomed up toward the
And the cruiser's chaingunners found a target.
The chainguns that lined the two hideous midships bulges were useful only against ground troops or close-range in-atmosphere targets. But now, in deep space, the gunners had a target.
They held their firing keys down; their shells yammered toward the
and tore the battleship's sides open as if they were tinfoil.
Sten stood on his command deck wordlessly. There was nothing left for him to order.
Another explosion rocked the
, and Sten fought to stay on his feet.
A hatch slammed open, and Kilgour dropped down into the CIC. "Tha's nae left f'r me to do ae there," he explained. "Shall we b' boardin't th' clot?" He still sounded unconcerned.
A larger blast shattered around them, and Sten was down, losing consciousness for bare seconds. He recovered groggily and got back to his feet.
Where was his CIC officer?
Oh. There. Lying with a splinter of steel through his faceplate.
Sten numbly saw that there were still two screens alive in the CIC. One showed the fast-vanishing drives of the convoy, the other, the gutted hulk of the
, still vomiting fire at him.
Where was Alex? He might know what to do.
Sten stumbled over a suit. Kilgour lay sprawled at his feet. Sten bent and touched monitors. All showed zero.
Sten wove toward a still-functioning com panel. His gloved fingers found a switch, and he began broadcasting.
The universal signal for surrender.
And would they never stop? And would they never receive?
Sten slumped down on the deck and waited for the Tahn boarding party. Maybe they wouldn't board. Maybe they would just stand off and obliterate his ship.
And Sten did not care what they did.
He was very tired of the killing.
About the Authors
CHRIS BUNCH is a Ranger—an airborne-qualified Vietnam vet—who's written about phenomena as varied as the Hell's Angels, the Rolling Stones, and Ronald Reagan.
ALLAN COLE grew up in the CIA in odd spots like Okinawa, Cyprus, and Taiwan. He's been a professional chef, investigative reporter, and national news editor of a major West Coast daily newspaper. He's won half a dozen writing awards in the process.
BUNCH AND COLE, friends since high school, have collaborated on everything from the world's worst pornographic novel to over seventy-five television scripts, as well as a feature movie. In addition to their
novels, they are the authors of the Pulitzer Prize nominee,
A Reckoning for Kings
, a novel about the Vietnam war. They are currently story execs on Fox-TV's