Book: Voyage Into Darkness



Voyage Into Darkness

Voyage Into Darkness

Voyage Into

Darkness


D. J. Holmes


https://www.facebook.com/Author.D.J.Holmes

[email protected]

Comments welcome!

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and any resemblance to any persons living or dead, business establishments, events or locales are entirely coincidental.

Copyright © D. J. Holmes 2018

In loving memory of our daughter Hannah.

There is no rock like our God.

Prologue

“I’m detecting eight ships docked with the asteroid, another five are keeping station nearby,” Kevin reported to Sarah through their neural implants.

“Councilors Simmons and Adams should be pleased,” Alexandra commented.

“Let’s not count our chickens until they’ve hatched,” Sarah replied. It was a phrase she had learnt from her time among Earth humans. With Destiny’s interface helmet encasing her head, Sarah sent her mind out towards the slaver base. She could see the thirteen ships and the weapon emplacements the slavers had built into the asteroid’s surface were unmistakable. She marked them as primary targets for Kevin. As she did, she couldn’t help but smile. The last five months on Earth had seemed like an eternity. It was a joy to be back in command of Destiny .

When Sarah had left Melissa on Berius she had instructed the older woman to purchase as much information on the local slaving industry as she could. Sarah hoped to stamp out slavery in this part of the galaxy if she ever got the chance. It had taken her several months to convince Councilor Simmons to allow her to leave Earth, but, finally, she had acquiesced. Freighters were in short supply within the human systems and capturing even a handful would go a long way to help kick-start their economy.

Stretching her mind out to the other humans on her ship, Sarah pulled them into a battle meld. In a few seconds, all twenty were part of her consciousness. She could direct them all with a single thought.

“Prepare to jettison our outer shell,” Sarah thought. “As soon as we do, power up our weapons and take out the asteroid’s defenses.”

Kevin and Jake, Destiny’s engineer, acknowledged her command.

“We’re being hailed,” Alexandra informed Sarah.

“Send them the identification codes Melissa purchased,” Sarah ordered.

“They’ve acknowledged them,” Alexandra said. “They’re saying the codes are old.”

“Tell them it’s been a while since we’ve been in this part of space, if they want, we can take our business elsewhere,” Sarah replied.

“They’re sending us a docking bay number,” Alexandra said after a few moments.

“Good,” Sarah thought back. “I’m taking us in now. Let them know we’re here to buy, ask for a full inventory of the stock they have for sale.”

As the information came in, Sarah scanned the file. What she saw sickened her. There were over two thousand slaves within the asteroid. Likely there were more on the slavers’ ships as well.

“We’ve entered range with our tachyon pulses,” Kevin informed her.

“Wait until the laser cannons are in range too,” Sarah replied. “Let’s hit them with everything we’ve got. Alexandra, as soon as we fire, send the demand to surrender to the rest of the ships.”

“Acknowledged,” Alexandra said.

“All weapons locked on target,” Kevin reported thirty seconds later.

“Blow the outer shell,” Sarah ordered. “Open fire.”

The steel casing Cassidy had covered Destiny in broke into small sections and flew off Destiny’s hull. The ship’s capacitors sent energy to her weapons. Tachyon pulses and laser beams peppered the slaver’s asteroid base. Small explosions erupted all over its surface.

“All the asteroid’s defenses and energy screen emitters are off-line,” Kevin reported. “I’ve targeted the slave ships not docked with the asteroid with our missiles, the tachyon emitters and laser cannons are targeting the docked ships. They should know they are under our guns.”

“Alexandra?” Sarah queried.

“The demand to surrender has been sent, I’m awaiting replies.”

It took nearly thirty seconds for the first slaver ship to react, when it did, Sarah cursed. First one, and then another of the ships not docked with the asteroid accelerated away in an attempt to escape. Sarah directed more power to Destiny’s engines and accelerated after one of the freighters. Now that she didn’t have to pretend Destiny was a freighter, she used the full extent of the warship’s capabilities. She drastically closed the distance to the freighters. “Let them know they have no hope of escaping,” Sarah ordered.

Before she could say anything more, other activity caught her attention. Several of the docked slaving ships were powering up their engines and preparing to leave. If they all tried to leave at once she would have to damage many of them. Swinging her attention back to the two fleeing freighters, she saw they were both still trying to escape.

“Neither ship has responded,” Alexandra said. “I don’t think our burst of speed impressed them.”

“Scan both ships for lifeforms,” Sarah said.

Hannah, Destiny’s sensor officer, sent her the report almost immediately. The first freighter had more than a hundred lifeforms on board, the other had only six. “Take it out,” Sarah sent to Kevin as she selected the second freighter. “Then disable the other’s engines.”

Four laser beams shot out from Destiny . Three dissected the second freighter amidships. They blew the freighter in half. Secondary explosions from the freighter’s engines disintegrated one of the halves. The other spun off out of control. The fourth beam struck the first freighter’s engines. It lost power and began to drift.

Opening a general COM frequency, Sarah transmitted a message to all the slave ships in the system. “This is Captain Adams of the frigate Destiny , we are not Elders. Surrender immediately and you will be spared. However, if you put up any more resistance, I won’t hesitate to destroy you.”

“The ships are powering down,” Kevin called out excitedly. “I think they got the message.”

“Eventually,” Sarah said in frustration. “That’s one freighter less we can take home. Send our orders to the slavers. Let’s get the transfers underway.”

Sarah watched closely as each of the slave ships docked with the asteroid began to follow her pre-prepared commands. The crews of the ships disembarked while slaves were loaded onto the freighters. Thanks to the inventory the slavers had transmitted to Destiny , Sarah was able to make sure every single slave was taken off the asteroid. Once the transfers were complete, Alexandra released a number of drones that fastened themselves to the hulls of each freighter. Hacking into the freighters’ flight computers, Alexandra took control of each ship. Finally, Sarah maneuvered Destiny alongside the damaged freighter. Taking the ship in tow, Sarah powered up Destiny’s engines and led the small flotilla away from the asteroid. As soon as they could, they jumped into subspace on a course for Earth.

Once they entered subspace, Sarah relaxed and a grin spread across her face. Their mission had been a success. What’s more, Destiny had performed optimally. The frigate had spent the two months in one of the Elder shipyard’s construction bays while Alexandra and Cassidy carried out a number of modifications. Sarah had been stuck on Earth completing out other work and so she hadn’t been able to oversee the upgrades as closely as she would have liked. Worse, even after the upgrades had been complete Destiny had been waiting for her to be able to take her out for a shakedown cruise. After today, Destiny would have to be declared battle ready. Sarah hoped that meant more missions would be in their future. Her crew felt the same. “Good work,” she sent to everyone through their battle meld before she closed it down.

When no one else could sense her emotions, she shared a glance with Kevin. They had been married a week ago on Earth. Given how close they had become since Earth’s liberation, it had seemed the natural thing to do. News of the slaver outpost had arrived before they had been able to take time off for a honeymoon. With their mission complete, they could return to Earth and spend some time together.

Kevin’s return glance and the emotions she felt through their bond told Sarah Kevin was just as excited as she was. There would be plenty of missions in the future, with the threat of the Elders hanging over everything they did, getting a week to themselves was just what they needed.

Chapter 1

Twelve days later.

“Time to go,” Kevin called to Sarah through their neural implants.

Sarah turned from the fast-moving river she had been staring at to look at him. They had landed their shuttle on a small hill near the river. Kevin was standing beside it waving to her. “Just a moment,” Sarah thought back to him.

With a shiver, she pulled her coat tighter around her neck. According to Earth’s ancient calendar, it was March, and it was bitterly cold in what had once been North Dakota. Certainly, it was nothing like the deserted beaches of Hawaii they had just spent a week on.

She was standing in nearly a foot of snow. The Red River was partially frozen. Surrounding her and spread out across the far side of the river were hundreds of cottonwood trees. They were giving her some shelter from the piercing westerly wind, though the respite was barely noticeable.

Initially, as she walked towards the river, she had been disappointed. Adams, her father - though she still struggled to think of him like that, had told her their family had once lived in a town at these coordinates. For the past six months, since the liberation of Earth, she had been busier than she thought possible and had been unable to visit. Finally, in the last leg of their journey home from their honeymoon, she and Kevin had taken a shuttle out to visit the site of the former town. Yet, there was nothing here. Sure, their shuttle had detected the remnants of the town with its ground penetrating radar, but on the surface, there was nothing for her to see. Two thousand years of yearly floods, wind erosion and soil deposition had buried the town.

Her disappointment had lasted for several minutes, but as she had studied her surroundings more closely, she had fallen in love with the place. The cottonwoods were magnificent and the icy river was beautiful to watch. As she peered across the river and into the thicker forests beyond, she could imagine deer, bear, buffalo and moose moving through them. They were animals that the historic files suggested would inhabit these areas, even in the bitter cold of early spring. And wolves, don’t forget, Sarah said to herself. It wasn’t hard to imagine a group of the grey and white creatures sneaking through the forests, hunting for prey. Memories of the creatures sent another shiver down her spine. After being hunted by a pack near Washington, she didn’t have any desire to get up close and personal with another wolf ever again.

“There is a hunting pack just a couple of kilometers away,” Alexandra said. “If you don’t leave soon, they may pick up your scent and head in your direction.”

“Thank you, mother,” Sarah thought back with a snort. Though Destiny was in high orbit, she wasn’t surprised to find Alexandra keeping a close eye on her. “I’m just about to turn back.”

Taking a last look at where her ancestors had once lived, Sarah turned away from the river and retraced her path through the snow. Though she hadn’t seen any remnants of their homes, she had a newfound respect for them. Anyone who could carve out a life for themselves in such harsh conditions had to be tough.

“About time,” Kevin said out loud as Sarah approached him.

He was rubbing his hands together to warm them. Slung across his back was a long laser rifle. He too seemed overprotective to Sarah, though she wasn’t going to complain. Alexandra’s over protectiveness often made her roll her eyes. Kevin’s made her feel warm inside. The thought made her send a wave of appreciation through their bond.

“Did you find what you’re looking for?” Kevin asked.

“In a way,” Sarah replied. “So far every part of Earth I’ve seen has been beautiful. Here it’s different. It’s a rugged beauty. It’s hard to imagine humans ever lived here. Yet, according to the records, they not only lived, but thrived. It’s encouraging, if my ancestors could thrive in this inhospitable landscape, then there is hope we can learn to thrive in the galaxy at large.”

“You’re not thinking of becoming a philosopher, are you?” Kevin chuckled as he put his arm around her and led her up the shuttle’s ramp. “You’ve been processing a lot of historic files recently.”

Sarah poked him in the ribs. “Not likely. I’m just making up for lost time. You spent your entire childhood processing any files you wanted to. I’ve got a lot of catching up to do. Besides, if I’m going to help rebuild our civilization, I need to know what it was once like.”

“You’re right of course,” Kevin said as they moved through the shuttle towards the pilot and co-pilot seats. “I keep forgetting the things you grew up without. You have fit in so well with all of us that it’s hard to imagine you didn’t grow up around humans.”

Sarah laughed. “I think you’re forgetting about our bond. I haven’t imprinted with anyone else you know. Just because we are so close, doesn’t mean I understand the rest of you so easily. Remember Counsellor Higgins? “

“Oh, yes,” Kevin replied. “That was rather embarrassing.”

Sarah’s cheeks reddened at the memory. She had been trying to talk Councilor Higgins into allowing her to go on one of the diplomatic missions to a nearby inhabited world. Instead of arranging a meeting with him, she had waylaid him in one of the Council Building’s corridors. Higgins had told her that he was too busy to talk and had important business to see to. She had thought he was trying to brush her off and had walked with him to continue the conversation. Despite his repeated attempts to disengage, Sarah had pressed on, thinking she was just being determined. Then Higgins had turned into the male toilets. She had been so busy talking that she had followed him in. Only when she saw the look of horror on Higgins’ face had she realized something was wrong. She noticed her surroundings and, overcome with embarrassment, spun around and ran away. Neither she nor Higgins had talked about it since, though every time she saw him, her face heated and she felt like she was about to die of embarrassment.

“Yes, it was,” Sarah replied as she tried to hide her embarrassment. “And there have been other instances. Sometimes I think taking on an Elder frigate is easier than navigating human politics and relationships.”

“You may have a point,” Kevin chuckled. “But, you’re not doing so bad. The Ruling Council wouldn’t be giving you so much responsibility if you were making any serious mistakes.”

“Earthbound responsibility,” Sarah reminded him. “You know as well as I do that apart from our last mission we’ve hardly stepped foot on board Destiny since the battle for Earth. Overseeing the teams going around installing neural implants into Earth humans who want them isn’t the most important job we have going right now. There’s a whole galaxy out there we don’t know about.”

“Yet you’re uniquely qualified to help adults receive their implants,” Kevin countered. “None of us from Hope V know what it’s like to be given an implant as an adult. You have helped a lot of people.”

Sarah sent a mental shrug to Kevin. She knew she was doing good, but she could be doing more.

“Maybe you haven’t been looking at it the right way,” Kevin suggested. “The job the council has given you has put you in contact with a lot of Earth and Hope V humans. You’ve had to negotiate the political mazes that exist in the towns and villages on Earth. You’ve also had to get the villagers to trust the Hope V scientists quickly. I dare say, the last few months have gone some way in making up for your lack of human contact from your childhood. Maybe the council knows what it’s doing. I know I’ve noticed you changing.”

Sarah eyed Kevin suspiciously. “Is there something you’re not telling me?” She let him feel her seriousness through their bond to make sure Kevin knew not to hold anything back.

“Not this time,” Kevin replied with a large grin. “I’m just throwing some thoughts out there. I’m sure the council hasn’t forgotten about us.”

“Hmmph,” Sarah replied. Though she could sense Kevin was being honest, she wanted him to know she wasn’t entirely satisfied with his answer. “You fly,” she said to change the subject. “I want to take in the scenery.”

Before Sarah could say anything more, her neural implant beeped to let her know she had received a message. It was from the Ruling Council. Her presence was requested at the next council meeting in two hours. Kevin’s eyes were glazed over, suggesting he was reading the same neural file.

“You too?” she asked.

“Council meeting?”

Sarah nodded. “We’ve got two hours though, let’s take the scenic route back to Washington.” Sarah pulled up a map of the old continental United States. “Let’s head south, follow the old interstate, our sensors should be able to detect it. We’ll go to Kansas City and then head east to Washington.”

“You’re the boss,” Kevin replied with a nod. He powered up the engines and gently lifted the shuttle off the ground. Within a few seconds, the shuttle was charging south, following the meandering path of the Red River.

“Not so fast,” Sarah said. “And keep us low, I actually want to be able to see something.”

As the shuttle slowed, Sarah took in the rolling Dakota hills. The further they went, the more the snow gave way to tufts of grass and other vegetation. More than once, a group of deer or bison were startled by the shuttle. Sarah spotted them as they took off in all directions in fright. “Beautiful isn’t it,” she said as she turned to look at Kevin.

“It sure beats the holo projections we grew up with on Hope V ,” he responded with a nod. “Maybe in the summer we can take a camping trip back up this way.”

“Sounds like a date.” They had spent the last week camped on one of Hawaii’s beaches. As far as Sarah could tell, they had had the entire island to themselves. Since the Elder invasion, the islands had been abandoned. The beach had been beautiful, but she could see the appeal of camping in the midst of a great forest or on the open plains. “I’ll hold you to it.”

“That won’t be a problem. It’s a pity we couldn’t spend longer in Hawaii.”

“Yeah, I know. But we have responsibilities. And now that Destiny is mission ready, hopefully they will involve a lot more space travel rather than surface work.”

Kevin nodded and they lapsed into silence as they took in the view as the shuttle continued south. From an ancient map she had up on one of the shuttle’s holo projectors, Sarah marked several ancient cities they passed over. Yet, there was no sign of them. “We should be coming up on Sioux Falls,” she said a couple of minutes later. “My map says it is still inhabited.”

“That might be an overstatement,” Kevin replied as a number of plumes of smoke billowing up into the air came into view.

There were eight of them. Sarah followed them down to their source and saw eight sturdy wooden huts in a clearing in the forest. Around them, there appeared to be storage buildings. But beyond that, there were no signs of life.

“That’s it?” Sarah said.

“What did you expect?” Kevin countered. “You know the Elders didn’t let humans outside of Washington use anything close to modern technology. Without a power source, I can’t imagine many would want to live so far north. Look, there are still snowdrifts around some of those buildings.”

Sarah mentally nodded to Kevin. He had a point. With her mind, she reached out towards the small village as the shuttle passed overhead. To her surprise, she connected with twelve individuals. She hadn’t been overseeing the groups that went out to villages to offer neural implants in this area of the continental United States. Given the small size of the village, she hadn’t expected anyone to have visited it yet. Clearly they had.

She sent an introduction to each of them and let them know what she and Kevin were doing. Each of the twelve replied and Sarah could feel their minds reaching out to touch hers. She was glad to sense their openness. Not all the Earth humans who had accepted neural implants where happy with the results, some individuals felt violated or lied to. Once they had been surgically embedded into the human brain they were impossible to take out. Even though that had been made clear to all who received them, some were still unhappy.

When the oldest member of the village with a neural implant invited Sarah and Kevin to land and share a meal, she had to politely decline. She let the villagers know they were on their way back to Washington for an important meeting. Though she promised they would return when they got a chance. She let the villagers feel her enthusiasm for hearing and seeing how they lived in such difficult circumstances. They seemed content with her answer.

As a shuttle passed the village, the minds of the villagers grew faint in Sarah’s awareness. Continuing south, they encountered more and more villages. The tell-tale plumes of smoke gave away their locations. Without modern power sources, burning firewood or coal was the best way to keep warm. Both Sarah and Kevin kept their minds closed to those they encountered. They didn’t want to be making promises to return to each village, they simply didn’t have the time.

“They’re all pretty small, aren’t they?” Sarah said after they passed their seventh village.

“Kansas City should be different,” Kevin replied. “A group from Hope V settled there three months ago. It’ll be interesting to see what they have done since.”

It didn’t take long for them to reach the town. The first sign of it was a large number of smoke plumes. There were too many for Sarah to count for they intermingled with one another as they rose into the atmosphere. The next thing that became visible was three large buildings, Sarah guessed they were at least six stories tall. They were a silvery grey and reflected a great deal of sunlight. There was no smoke coming from them, nor from about a third of the town surrounding them. They were clearly new buildings built with modern nano-construction technologies.

“Circle us around,” Sarah requested.

“Aye aye Captain,” Kevin replied with a wink.

Sarah focused on the older buildings surrounding the Hope V buildings. They were of a wooden construction, though none of their chimneys were billowing smoke. She guessed the power generators in the Hope V buildings were providing heating for the locals. Accessing the file on Kansas City, Sarah processed it. She had expected the Hope fivers to have provided modern dwellings for the locals as well as themselves. As yet there was no sign of any attempts to do so. Seconds later she understood. Several of the locals had requested modern dwellings and their construction was scheduled for a week’s time. The vast majority however, still wanted to live in the types of houses they had grown up in. Rather than demolish their homes, the Hope fivers were providing them with the modern technologies they needed to make life more comfortable.

“Look over here,” Kevin said, drawing Sarah’s attention to the edge of the town.

Thanks to the file she had processed, Sarah knew what she was looking at. “Tree fellers,” she said to Kevin. “About six thousand acres of forest has been designated to be cut down. The land will be ploughed and within a month sheep, cattle, and buffalo will be being reared here. The locals won’t have to rely on hunting or meat brought in from further east. In fact, according to the plans, it is hoped Kansas City will be able to start exporting livestock by next year.”

“Things are certainly changing for the Earth natives,” Kevin said as he banked the shuttle and headed east. “I hope they are able to see the benefit of what we are doing.”

Sarah mentally nodded. The majority of the people on Earth who had accepted neural implants had quickly come around to the plans Director Simmons, no Councilor Simmons , Sarah corrected herself, had made for Earth. Everyone on Earth knew the Elders, and they knew what they would do if they returned. Those with neural implants who were able to partake in the planet wide cognizance saw the need to modernize Earth as quickly as possible. Yet, for every two humans who accepted a neural implant, there was one who didn’t. They were at a great disadvantage compared to those around them. With their world quickly changing, Sarah wouldn’t be surprised if resentment developed. It wouldn’t take much for that resentment to develop into something more. So far, there had been no open hostility to the arrival of Hope V , but it was only a matter of time.

That is for someone else to worry about , Sarah thought as she watched the countryside zip past her. It’s above my pay grade . As the shuttle headed east, they encountered more and more towns and villages. Many already had areas dedicated to agriculture, though in every instance, there were automated machines cutting down forests and draining swamps. With the arrival of Hope V , there were many more mouths to feed. Sarah felt it was a shame to be destroying so many ecosystems. Yet, she knew Simmons had declared large swaths of Earth protected. Simmons had calculated that only one percent of the Earth’s surface would need to be dedicated to agriculture. The rest would be kept in its natural condition. Orbital hydroponics bays would provide much of the foodstuffs Earth’s population needed but animals needed space to live and graze.

As things were, many of the humans in small villages relied on hunting for food. Simmons planned to end that. Far more importantly, Simmons wanted to see Earth’s population radically increase. That was the reason why so much effort was going into increasing Earth’s agricultural capacity. There were currently around five hundred million people on Earth. Simmons wanted to see that reach at least two billion over the next fifty years. She was pushing every human on Earth to get on board with making this a reality. If Earth was to develop the kind of economy and industry needed to defend themselves against the Elders if they returned, many more humans were needed. Sarah couldn’t help but blush as she glanced at Kevin. More than once over the last six months Simmons had tried to pressure her great grandson into marrying Sarah and getting on with their duty to humanity. Now that they were married, she was sure Simmons would be increasing the pressure on them to have children. Sarah had no doubt that they would come, but both she and Kevin had other things they wanted to accomplish first.

As the shuttle continued east, Sarah felt a growing sense of pride emanating from Kevin. Stealing a glance at him, she saw he was focused on flying. Even so, his feelings got stronger and stronger. “What?” she finally asked.

“Nothing,” Kevin said dismissively.

Sarah frowned. “Don’t act like I can’t sense it. What are you thinking?”

“Fine, you asked for it,” Kevin replied as he glanced at Sarah with a serious look on his face. “I’ve just been thinking, you are the one who made all this possible. There’s an entire planet of people below us who are now free. They no longer live in fear of the Elders coming and destroying their town or village. More, every one of their lives is getting better because of you, and now, their destiny is in their own hands.”

“Oh, get a room you two,” Alexandra said, breaking into their conversation before Sarah could mentally roll her eyes at Kevin. She got enough attention from the other Hope fivers, she didn’t need it from Kevin.

“We have a meeting to go to,” Kevin replied to Alexandra. “But after that, maybe we will take your advice.”

This time Sarah did roll her eyes. She could sense his amusement at her frustration at his praise and Alexandra’s comment.

“Both of you have too much spare time on your hands,” Sarah said. “Maybe at this meeting I’ll see if Simmons has more work to give you.”



Chapter 2

As the shuttle approached Washington, there wasn’t as much construction activity to be seen. The Elders had built most of the city using their own technology and there was no need to start from scratch. Here and there a few new buildings were appearing, and some of the uglier Elder buildings were undergoing a facelift. Yet the city looked very similar to when Sarah had first laid eyes on it.

Kevin aimed the shuttle at the largest skyscraper at the center of the city. It had been home to the conclave of Elders who had ruled Earth. Now, it housed the Ruling Council. The large building was getting a facelift and the smooth floors the Elders preferred were being replaced. Beyond that, the building was being kept largely the same. It was meant to act as a reminder to all who served on the Ruling Council.

As for the Elders who had once lived there, the worst offenders had already been publicly tried and executed. The rest were imprisoned and undergoing questioning. Despite the wealth of data Alexandra and Cassidy’s memory banks had provided, there was still a lot that was not known about the Elders.

“We have been given clearance to land on the roof of the Ruling Council building,” Kevin informed Sarah as he swung the shuttle around the building and decelerated hard. “It seems my great-grandmother wants to get this meeting underway, everyone else is already there and we’ve been given priority clearance to land.”

Sarah checked the time through her neural implant. Being late would leave a bad impression on the councilors. In relief, she saw they still had twenty minutes before the meeting was scheduled to begin. “It must be important,” she replied. “Simmons isn’t usually so easily agitated.”

“Look at who else is attending the meeting,” Kevin told her. “It must be a strategic planning meeting.”

Sarah’s excitement rose. She had been to a number of Ruling Council meetings, usually to report on her duties, or answer some questions about the Elders. She had not been invited to a strategic planning meeting. As far as she was concerned, they were the most important. Deciding the future of humanity’s response to the Elder threat was the only important question facing her people.

Accessing the data on the meeting, Sarah was surprised to see there were two councilors from each of Earth’s four colonies. It must be a big meeting , she thought. They hadn’t even been in the Sol system when she and Kevin had left for their honeymoon. They must have arrived since. Sending her mind out into orbit, she sought out their ships. She was surprised to see each delegation had come in a destroyer. As she accessed information on one of the destroyers she quickly realized why. On board, there were more than three hundred civilians in addition to the destroyer’s normal crew. Humanity hadn’t built any other ships large enough to carry so many people. A quick check on the other three destroyers told Sarah that they were all full of people.

“They’re planning a planet wide collaboration,” Sarah concluded. “Whatever decisions will be made in this meeting, they’re planning to seek planet wide approval. Just like when Earth decided to reject the Elder’s offer of becoming a colony.”

“That’s a bit of a leap, isn’t it?” Kevin questioned.

Instead of answering directly, Sarah sent Kevin the details of the four destroyers.

“Oh,” Kevin said. “I guess my great-grandmother’s anxiety makes a little bit more sense.”

As soon as Kevin set the shuttle down, Sarah unbuckled her flight harness and made her way to the shuttle’s descending rear ramp. Kevin was right behind her. The security personnel only took a second to check their credentials through their neural implants before admitting them to the Ruling Council tower. After finding the nearest turbolift, they descended to the floor the council chamber was on.

Stepping into the room, Sarah wasn’t surprised to see everyone already sitting around the large table. Just a year ago, the silence in the room would have confused her. It was eerie. Yet, she had grown accustomed to it. All the people present were firing multiple thoughts to one another. In a large gathering like this, it was far more productive to communicate via neural implant. If everyone was to speak out loud, it would have been impossible to hold a proper conversation.

Sarah was bombarded with greetings and other messages as she stepped into the room. Seeing two seats free on either side of Councilor Simmons, Sarah led Kevin towards them. As she walked, she replied to the messages, prioritizing councilors she hadn’t met in person before, she returned their greetings and introduced herself. Making her way down the list of messages, she came to one from her father. Councilor Adams was sitting on the other side of Simmons. He had simply sent a bundle of emotions, allowing her to feel the pride he felt for her. It wasn’t the same kind of thing she and Kevin could share through their bond, but Sarah was able to get the gist of his thinking. She gave him a slight smile as she walked past him and squeezed his shoulder. It was impossible for her not to think of him as the man who killed her mother. Yet, in the last six months, she had been slowly allowing herself to see there was more to him than what he had done nearly twenty years ago. Certainly, his delight and joy at having her back was impossible to hide.

Sitting down, Sarah came to the last message. It was from Councilor Simmons. The message was short and to the point. Simmons wanted Sarah and Kevin to remain quiet until they were invited to speak. Kevin’s great-grandmother was emphasizing the point that it was a privilege for them to be invited to this meeting.

Simmons looked over to her and raised an eyebrow. Sarah nodded to show she understood. Simmons looked past Sarah and Kevin nodded as well. Through their bond, she could sense his embarrassment. He didn’t like being treated like a child. Sarah sent a flow of patience towards him. Being treated like a child was worth it if it got them a chance to sit in on an important meeting.

After getting comfortable, Sarah looked around the large table. As she met people’s eyes, she nodded or smiled at them. Though everyone was communicating via their neural links, it was rude to simply ignore eye contact. Alongside Simmons and Adams, there were five other councilors from Earth. Due to Earth’s large population, it had seven councilors in the Ruling Council compared to the other four colonies. The seven were a split between representatives elected from among the former Hope Fivers and Earth natives. The councilors from each of the other colonies followed a similar pattern. One of the councilors was the former director of the Hope mission associated with that colony. The other had been elected by the humans on the colony who had received neural implants.

Besides the councilors, there were several navy personnel seated around the table. Sarah knew them all, either from speaking with them, or from participating in battle simulations with them. Vice Admiral Hayley was the leader of the human war fleet and the victor of the battle for Earth. Beside him sat Rear Admirals Price and Woodward. Price was the fleet’s intelligence specialist and Woodward had taken over command of the Elder shipyard in orbit around Earth. He oversaw all new ship construction. Captains Walker and Vasquez sat on either side of Hayley and Woodward. They were the two best Captains in the human fleet. Both had distinguished themselves against the Elders in the battle for Earth.

For several minutes, the room remained in silence as everyone communicated with one another. Sarah focused on a number of conversations with councilors from the four colonies. She had met each of the former directors before, but the native councilors were new to her. Three of them hadn’t even been to Earth before. They were all keen to get to know her.

Before Sarah knew it, it was time for the council meeting to begin. Every neural conversation cut off as Councilor Simmons got to her feet.

“Let’s get this meeting underway,” she said out loud. “Councilors Rodriguez, Hanson, Knight, and Cathar, I want to especially welcome you to Earth. I hope that the decisions we come to today will be met with acceptance back on your homeworlds. I have sent you all the agenda for this meeting. Let’s get down to business.”

Accessing the file she had just received, Sarah’s eyebrows rose. The meeting was indeed going to be an important one.

“Admiral Hayley,” Simmons continued. “The first two items of business fall under your responsibility. I’ll hand over to you.”

“Thank you, Councilor,” Hayley said as Simmons sat down. “Our first item is the fleet’s current readiness and the state of our planetary defenses. At present, we have twenty destroyers within our fleet, and one Elder frigate,” Hayley said with a nod towards Sarah. “Twelve of those destroyers are stationed here in orbit around Earth. We have four additional destroyers, one from each of our colonies. Usually each colony should have two destroyers assigned to protect it. At the moment they have one, but the destroyers from each of the colonies should be returning to their worlds soon. If the Elders do return unexpectedly, their primary goal will be Earth and so we expect the colonies will only be attacked if Earth falls. We may face threats from other nearby species, but two destroyers will be enough to protect each of the colonies from anything short of a full-scale invasion.

“In addition to our warships, each of the five Hope asteroids are undergoing extensive refits. Their offensive and defensive capabilities will be boosted by a magnitude of at least ten. Most of their populations are being relocated onto each planetary surface. We expect the refits to be complete within the next three months. It is our intention that each Hope asteroid will form the center of a thick ring of planetary defenses. So far, one Hercules defense platform has been completed and sixty smaller defense satellites are in orbit around Earth. Ten such satellites have also been shipped to each of our colonies. In total, we hope to have at least sixty Hercules platforms around Earth and forty around each colony. In addition, work is under way to install weapons emplacements on Earth’s moon. It’s low gravity makes it an ideal missile platform and its size means we can install an almost limitless amount of ordinance there.

“Earth’s defenses are not yet at the point where we could fend off an attack from an Elder fleet similar to the one we defeated six months ago. But I am confident that in a few months we will get to that stage. As soon as we do, I intend to shift our focus towards our colonies. Once they are well protected, we will re-examine our priorities. To update you on how our fleet and defenses will continue to evolve, Rear Admiral Woodward will brief us,” Hayley said as he turned to Woodward.

Woodward nodded back then looked around the table. “We have four new destroyers undergoing space trials. They should be ready to join the fleet in a couple of weeks. All four destroyers were under construction before the battle of Earth in our Hope asteroids. Since they left their construction bays, three new destroyers have been laid down. They should be ready to begin their space trials in two months. That means in three months from now, we will have added seven destroyers to our battle fleet. “In addition,” he reached forward and switched on the table’s holo projector. “Four of our new Vengeance class cruisers will be ready to leave their construction bays by then.”

Sarah had seen the plans for the new Vengeance cruisers, even so, the 3D representation of one that appeared in front of her took her breath away. The sleek lines and menacing weapon emplacements marked the cruisers as formidable warships. More importantly, the Vengeance cruisers incorporated Elder and human technology. Size wise, they were slightly larger than twice the size of a destroyer, yet, in terms of both firepower and defenses, they were three times as powerful.

“We also have two Raider frigates under construction within the Elder shipyard,” Woodward continued. “They should be ready for space trials in three months. We also plan to begin construction on four corvettes similar to the one we lost in the battle for Earth. We’re just waiting for enough minerals to start the work. In total, we currently have nine warships under construction. With another four soon to begin.

“Of course, that’s not all we are working on. Three Hercules defense platforms are under construction and we expect to complete eight new defense satellites every week. All three of the new defense platforms are intended for Earth’s defense, but we will be shipping four defense satellites to our colonies every week from here on in. The next Hercules defense platforms that are laid down will also be intended for our colonies.

“As well as our military construction, work on twelve bulk freighters is underway. The first will be completed in a week, the others will come out of their construction bays over the next two months. The Elder shipyard has increased our construction capacity beyond anything I thought would have been possible. Going forward, I see our biggest difficulties are going to be in finding the personnel to command our new warships, and finding enough resources to actually build them,” Woodward said.

“Thank you, Admiral,” Hayley said. “Are there any questions so far?”

“Yes,” Councilor Rodriguez from Alpha Centauri said. “It is my understanding that each of the Hope asteroids has a fully functioning construction bay. Why is it that we do not have five new destroyers under construction? Or even five new cruisers, one in each Hope asteroid.”

“Two reasons,” Woodward replied. “The first is simple, the construction bays in the Hope asteroids are not large enough, nor are they equipped to build our newly designed cruisers. They will therefore continue to be used to produce destroyers until we no longer need any more. Doing so frees up the Elder shipyard to produce other ships. The reason why only three destroyers are currently being built is that we simply do not have the resources to begin constructing any more. The asteroid mining facilities in the Sol system and our four colonies are already being stretched beyond their capacity. Our projections for our second phase of construction, beginning after the Vengeance cruisers are completed, actually predict that we will produce less ships than we are currently building. The Elders never intended Earth, or our colonies, to be mineral producing systems. They shipped in the heavy metals they needed to build their warships from other systems. We are suffering the effects of that now.”

“What are we doing to try and meet this lack of resources?” Rodriguez followed up.

“Thirty percent of the Elder shipyard’s construction capacity is being devoted to building new mining ships, ore processing facilities and the bulk freighters we need to move the heavy metal from the asteroid mining facilities on the edge of our system to the shipyard,” Woodward answered. “However, upgrading our mineral production capacity will take years rather than months. There is simply no one on Earth nor in our colonies that has the needed expertise in this field. We are having to learn as we go.”

“We could have devoted all of our shipbuilding capacity towards increasing our mineral mining facilities,” Hayley added. “Yet that would leave Earth and our colonies vulnerable to attack. The balance we have struck will allow us to quickly ramp up our defenses, and then, when we are more adequately protected, we can devote more attention to mining minerals. I suspect we will have to lay claim to a number of nearby systems. The fact is, neither Sol, nor our colonial systems are very mineral rich.”

“Do you think there are nearby systems with Elder mining facilities we could take over and use for our own benefit?” Councilor Adams asked. “The Elder fleet based here must have got their minerals from somewhere nearby.”

“Perhaps,” Hayley said slowly. “Though, our scouts have not yet located any such systems. As far as we can tell from the data from Alexandra and Cassidy’s memory banks, the Elders were happy to leave resource gathering to their colonies and protector worlds, especially this far out along the Orion Arm. It seems they didn’t like to waste their own people on such menial tasks. We may luck out and come across an Elder mining facility, though it’s unlikely. If we want more resources, we will have to set up our own facilities or trade with those who already have them.”

“Thank you, Admiral,” Simmons said. “You’re touching on a topic we will come to a little bit later. We can discuss potential trade missions once we have heard Rear Admiral Price’s intelligence update. Are there any more questions regarding the fleet’s current status?”

“You said the other bottleneck was going to be navy personnel,” Councilor Cathar, one of Eden’s two councilors said. “What are we doing to target this problem?”

“At present, nothing,” Woodward answered. “In the short term, it won’t be a problem. There is a surge of volunteers from Earth and our colonies. Mainly, from those under forty. The idea of getting out into space and fighting the Elders has attracted many to apply for the fleet. We can take our pick of the best. Our training facilities on each of the Hope asteroids are being extended as part of their refit. We expect each asteroid to graduate five hundred new crew members per month. The first new trainees will be graduating in five months’ time. Until then, we will be crewing our new warships with people from the Hope asteroids. They already have the technical skills to handle the duties required of a warship crewmember.

“Long-term I suspect we will face issues. Certainly, if we intend to keep expanding our fleet. The current surge in volunteers should cover us for the next year or two. But beyond that, we may need to introduce some form of conscription. That’s a political decision, and probably one for another day.”

“One we should at least keep thinking about,” Cather replied. “We should make our people aware of the potential need. I think it would be better if they hear of it now rather than as a shock in a year or two’s time.”

“Agreed,” Simmons said. “I will put it on the agenda for the next Ruling Council meeting. We can discuss it in more detail once we have had time to think it over. Then we can put together a smaller working committee to explore the possibility and update our people on the need. Now Admiral,” Simmons continued, “is there anything else we need to know about the fleet’s current readiness?”

“Not at the moment,” Hayley replied. “In a couple of months, I will be happy in our ability to fend off a small Elder fleet. Beyond that, my main concern is our resource capabilities.”

“Thank you, Admiral,” Simmons replied. “We will move on to the next item. Rear Admiral Price, your intelligence report. I’m sure we are all keen to know what kind of threat, if any, you think the Elders still pose to us.”

Chapter 3

“As you know,” Rear Admiral Price began as she leant forward and switched the image on the holo projector to show the Sol system and nearby space. “We have been sending out ships to survey nearby star systems. Our goals were twofold. First, we wanted to see what our neighbors were up to since the Elder ships in our vicinity have been destroyed. Second, we have been trying to establish how effective the virus we released on the Elder warships was. While both goals are critical, we have had limited resources to devote to them. We have only been able to spare six freighters to carry out these surveys. Nevertheless, we have some preliminary findings.

“With regard to the first question, our freighters have visited several colony worlds and the two nearest protector worlds. Most of the Tier One colonies are in a similar condition to Earth before we defeated the Elders. They are largely agrarian and self-sufficient. The loss of the Elder’s fleet has had little impact on them. Of the three Tier One colonies that we visited, two have overthrown the Elder compound and killed the Elders. On the other, the Elders still seem to be in control. As their economies are largely agrarian, all three planets are faring reasonably well. In effect, it seems whether the Elders stay in charge or are killed, it is unlikely to have much immediate impact on any Tier One colony.

“The Tier Two and Three colonies are a different matter. The Elders like to encourage these colonies to specialize in certain areas. Or rather, they like to keep different species in the dark about certain technologies and industrial processes. That way, no one species has access to the kinds of technologies that would allow them to advance their own research and development capabilities. With the Elder’s warships gone, some of the Tier Two and Three colonies are suffering. Let me highlight this one,” Price said as she zoomed the holo projection in. “This is a planet called Mycia. It’s home to approximately a billion Mycians. It’s a Tier Two colony and while most of the native species are agrarian, they have been allowed to develop some industries. Specifically, Mycia was a platinum and titanium exporter. They traded with nearby colonies for industrial products and food commodities.

“Here is the Elder compound on Mycia,” Price continued as the holo projection zoomed in to show a large crater. “We don’t know what weapons the Mycians used, but they were effective. I imagine there were some celebrations over the demise of the Elders on their world, however, I suspect regret is beginning to sink in. The Elders on Mycia oversaw all interstellar trade. Our freighter spent a day in orbit around Mycia and it appeared that the Mycian civilization was on the brink of collapsing. Without the Elders to lead them, and without the industrial equipment and extra food resources they have come to rely on, their economy is failing. Residents in the central industrial cities no longer have the credits coming in from offworld to buy the foodstuffs the outlying agrarian cities and towns produce. Those agrarian towns seem to be struggling as well, most of their agriculture equipment was constructed offworld. Without replacements, their yields are decreasing and so they are encountering their own problems. It will take a few more months, but our analysis suggests that many thousands if not hundreds of thousands of Mycians will soon starve to death.

“The same is happening on other colonies,” Price said as she switched the holo map to show a number of inhabited worlds near Earth. “It seems most civilizations have become so dependent on the Elders’ rule that they do not know how to fend for themselves. Or, at the very least, the process of learning how to do so is turning out to be quite a bumpy ride. In some colonies, the local population is encountering scarcity for the first time. While in others, the economy is crashing as there are no freighters coming to purchase their products. We also encountered one colony that had clearly been attacked by pirates. They bombarded one of the colony’s cities and presumably took whatever loot they could force out of the other cities.”

“Have most colonies tried to overthrow and kill the Elders on their planets?” Higgins asked.

“It’s about fifty-fifty,” Price replied. “We don’t know how many of those planets that haven’t tried are happy with Elder rule, or simply haven’t figured out what has happened to the Elder fleet. Those that haven’t overthrown the Elders on their planets are actually doing somewhat better. Though without interstellar trade, there is only so much the Elders can do.”

“All this suffering,” Sarah said. “It’s because of us.” Because of me , she added as her voice trailed off. She was horrified as she multiplied what Price had said regarding the few colonies her scouts had visited by the hundreds of colonies that had likely been liberated from Elder rule. The level of destruction that was taking place across the Orion Arm was incomprehensible. Only when everyone else stopped talking and looked at her did she realize she had spoken. For once, as the stares continued, her cheeks didn’t redden. Shame was the only thing she was feeling.

“You’re right,” Councilor Adams said. Glancing up sharply, Sarah looked into his eyes. Adams held her gaze, his face expressionless. “However, you’re not seeing the whole picture. You have spent several months on Earth now, you have met many people who have grown up under Elder rule. You have seen how the Elders turn people against each other, using secret police and torture and executions. Do you think for a moment that the people of Earth would want to go back to the way things were? Even if they had a choice between our economy and our culture falling apart, or Elder rule. Do you think they would choose the Elders?

“Yes, we have caused this suffering. But I guarantee you, there’s not one species out there that is now free who would go back. Even that colony that has had a city bombarded from space. You know why?” Adams asked. “Because each of those planets has something they never had before. A chance, a chance to forge their own path. To be free, to control their destiny. That is what we have always wanted for ourselves, and that is what we have given them.”

“I’m in full agreement with Councilor Adams,” Simmons said. “We were acting to stop the evil of the Elders, if there are short term negative outcomes from our actions, we’ll just have to live with them. We may even be able to alleviate some of them, but even if we can’t, I won’t hold onto any regrets. Rear Admiral Price, what of the two protector worlds you visited?”

Simmons sent Sarah a neural reminder to keep quiet unless spoken to. Sarah acknowledged it and started to feel self-conscious again, though it didn’t take away her horror at what was happening in the galaxy. Just putting it to the back of her mind wasn’t an option.

“As you would expect, both are faring much better,” Price answered. “With their own warships, they have nothing to worry about from pirates. They are using some of their warships to escort their freighter convoys and they are essentially continuing as if nothing has happened. That is good for them and for the colonies within their immediate vicinity, interstellar trade seems to be continuing unabated. The Protector Worlds can get the foodstuffs and industrial products they cannot make themselves, and the other colonies are getting most of their needs met. However, as far as we can tell, each Protector World is only trading with three or four other colonies, so their positive impact is small.

“More interestingly, it appears as if both Protector Worlds are seeking to increase the size of their fleets. Both worlds have laid down new construction bays and have new warships under construction. I don’t know if that means they are hoping to keep the Elders away from their worlds if they return, or that they fear coming under attack from pirates or other worlds. Either way, it seems they have given up following the rules the Elders enforced.”

“Could they become a threat to us?” Councilor Newman asked. She was from Earth and had been Adams’ second in command in the resistance. “I imagine if they find out we were the ones who attacked the Elders, they might not be too happy with us. The Elders were the ones who gave them their status above the other nearby species after all. All the technologies they have and benefits they have enjoyed for the last two thousand years have been based on their obedience to the Elders. Is that something they’re likely to just throw away?”

“At the moment, we do not fear any attack from a Protector World,” Admiral Hayley answered. “The Elders gave some weapons and defensive technologies to the Protector Worlds. That has mean they were always more than capable of keeping their area of space free from pirates and keeping any rebellious colonies in line. Yet, their ships are no match for Elder warships and certainly no match for ours. Once the first phase of Earth’s and our colony’s defenses are up and running, we will have nothing to fear. Of course, as yet none of our neighbors know we even exist. If we do reveal ourselves, we shouldn’t have much to fear.

“However, in the long run, it could be a different story. Most Protector Worlds have an advantage over us. They have shipbuilding industries, they have trading partners and they have a large economy already established. If they devote themselves to expansion, many of the Protector Worlds could gobble up former Elder colonies and form their own empires. If we stay hidden and rely on our own resources, some of the Protector Worlds could pose a threat to us in the years to come. Our history shows that wars are often the breeding ground for many technological advances. If all the Protector Worlds expand and clash with each other, sooner or later they are going to figure out how to develop their own technologies and catch up with us.”

“So, they could be a problem we are going to have to face at some point, even if they aren’t an immediate concern?” Newman summarized.

“Essentially,” Hayley replied.

“What about pirate activity in general, did your freighters encounter any trouble or gather any information on what the pirates and slavers around us are up to?” Councilor Knight asked. “Many of the Tier One and Two colonies don’t even have their own ship building capabilities. I would imagine they are at the mercy of pirates and slavers.”



“Only one of our freighters was approached by a pirate ship while it was in subspace,” Price answered. “And a couple of subspace missiles soon convinced it to reconsider launching an attack. Just one attack isn’t much data to go on, however, the fact that a pirate ship was bold enough to operate so openly shows they are taking advantage of the Elders’ disappearance. We have evidence that the attack on our ship wasn’t an isolated incident. As well as scouting nearby systems, our freighters have been dropping subspace sensors around the Sol system. The sensors can track all ships moving through subspace that pass within fifty light years of them. A ship has to be sent to each sensor to download their data, but once done, the sensors can give us a time-lapse of what ships have been passing through subspace around Earth. We have extended our sensor range to a sphere approximately one hundred light years from Earth. Slowly, we are producing a map of the limited interstellar trade that is going on around us.

“We have detected what we think have been five pirate attacks on other freighters. We can’t be sure, but in each case one ship has closed with another in subspace, then they have both dropped out of subspace. A few hours later one ship has re-entered subspace and headed off on a new trajectory. In three of the instances a second ship re-entered subspace after another few hours, in the other two, the second ship never made a reappearance. Given what happened to our freighter, the most logical explanation is that they were pirate attacks.”

“Our sensors only cover a small fraction of nearby space,” Admiral Hayley said. “But it is likely this trend is happening everywhere the Elders have been effected by our virus. Unless the Protector Worlds spread their influence to other colonies, or the Elders return, piracy is likely to become rampant. In large parts of the Orion Arm, pirates are the only entities who can crew and maintain a ship capable of entering subspace. That gives them a distinct advantage. We could even see pirate empires emerge in the coming decades.”

Sarah mentally groaned. Now she had the guilt of her actions giving birth to a bunch of pirate empires. She could easily imagine what pirates would do to a world if they conquered it. What have I done?

“That brings us to the most important part of Price’s briefing,” Simmons said. “Her findings on just how big an impact the virus has had on the Elder Empire. If you wouldn’t mind discussing your findings with us now?” Simons finished with a nod to Price.

“Of course,” Price said as she manipulated the holo projector, five systems started to flash in red. “These are the furthest systems we have visited.”

The furthest was eighty light years from Earth. It was a one-week journey using Destiny’s upgraded engines. Sarah had no idea how long it had taken in a freighter, though she suspected it wasn’t much longer, the subspace engines the Hope Fivers used in their freighters were very impressive.

“All five systems were known to have a small Elder space station in orbit,” Price continued. “Our scouts detected nothing but debris where the stations were. From these findings, we estimate that at the very least, our virus has rid this section of the galaxy of Elder warships and orbital stations. The area covers approximately four sectors.”

The holo projection changed again to show a rough cube of space with each of the five flashing planets along one of its outer edges.

“How many inhabited systems are in that cube?” Councilor Newman asked.

“According to the Elder database, over one hundred and sixty species’ homeworlds are within the cube. There are a further one hundred systems that have some form of colony or mining base within them,” Price answered.

“Unbelievable,” Newman said. “Our actions have freed at least one hundred and sixty species. When I joined the resistance, I never imagined we would actually succeed, never mind accomplish this. We have a lot to be thankful for.”

Sarah looked at her feet to stop everyone from seeing her face redden. Her father was beaming pride to her through his neural link. She could sense Kevin’s pride swell through their bond as well. Though she could feel her cheeks heat up, she didn’t feel embarrassed. She was thinking of all those worlds plunged into chaos because of her.

Thankfully, Simmons continued the meeting. “Indeed we do,” she said. “Though they are a long way from being safe and secure. Rear Admiral Price, your scout reports are encouraging, are you able to give us any kind of indication as to how big an impact our virus had on the Elders in the galaxy at large?”

“The short answer is that we do not know,” Price answered. “Beyond what we have actually scouted, we’re just making educated guesses. However, to give you a longer answer, we have run several thousand simulations using the fleet data in Cassidy’s memory banks. Using her knowledge of Elder tactics and ship movements, each simulation has played out the Elders’ potential reactions. The worst-case scenario assumes an Elder Admiral was based in one of the nearby sector capitals. If said Elder recognized what was happening to his ships and reacted quickly enough, he could have used his command codes to negate the virus. Two of the five furthest worlds we visited were once sector capitals. We don’t know if an Admiral was based there, but as you’ve already heard, all the Elder warships and orbital stations were destroyed. Beyond what we have scouted, another Admiral may have stopped the virus. We may have only cleared a few sectors of Elder ships.

“The best-case scenario assumes the virus spread too quickly for the Elders to figure out what was going on. In that case, it’s likely every Elder warship in the galaxy has been destroyed. Their destruction, along with the destruction of their orbital shipyards and mining facilities, would set the Elders back decades, more likely centuries. Whilst that sounds like a resounding victory, we need to be cautious. The virus won’t have impacted ground installations. Even if the Elder homeworlds lost their battle fleets and shipyards, it would only take them a few years to rebuild. As soon as they got some of their shipyards online, they would quickly build new ships. Even in the best-case scenario, the Elders could have a fleet of a thousand cruisers on its way to Earth within ten years.”

Sarah struggled to get her mind around the numbers. Neither Alexandra’s nor Cassidy’s data banks had contained information on all of the ships within the Elder fleet, yet there had been enough to make some estimates. It was thought the Elders had more than one hundred thousand warships operating within the galaxy prior to the release of the virus. Trying to imagine the scale of the destruction the virus could have done was impossible. It was hard enough trying to picture one thousand warships closing on Earth, never mind the existence of one hundred thousand.

Councilor Welk from Atlantis was obviously tracking the numbers better. “You mean our best-case scenario is that the Elders can rebuild one percent of the fleet they spent the last three thousand years building in ten years? That doesn’t sound like a best case at all.”

“It’s the best case in terms of the impact of our virus,” Price responded. “You have to remember, the Elders haven’t been trying to rapidly increase their fleet size, probably, since the first interspecies war they were involved in. As far as we know, in more than two thousand years, they’ve never faced a serious threat from another species. Given their technological capabilities, if they wanted to, they could build a thousand warships in ten years starting from scratch.”

“Of course, there are other factors that come into play in all this as well,” Simmons said. “We know from our observance of the Elders that their culture and technology has been stagnating. If we destroyed their entire fleet, we have no idea what impact that would have on them. They may look at the task of re-conquering the entire galaxy as something that is beyond them. Or even something they no longer care about. On the other hand, what we’ve done may kick-start their culture. The threat of destruction might be the stimulus their culture needs to rediscover its thirst for conquest.

“There are still too many unknowns. The best-case scenario could be that the Elder’s fleet is destroyed and their culture dies with them. Alternatively, even if they do try to restart their empire, it could take them centuries to reach Earth. By then we would be ready to face them. However, as Price said, if they figure out we are the ones who started the virus, even if they lost their entire fleet, they could be back here within a decade. This is the responsibility we all face. The threat to humanity is far from over.”

The councilors who had been directors of the Hope asteroids nodded in agreement with Simmons. Some of the other councilors didn’t look so sure. She could understand. For them, space travel was an entirely new concept, never mind alien civilizations and cultures. Though she sensed no rift between the Hope councilors and the councilors from humanity’s four planets, it wasn’t hard to imagine that going forward, some disagreements would come to the surface.

“You have run the simulations,” Adams said to Price. “Can you give us a feel for what kind of impact you think the virus has had?”

Price looked uncomfortable. She looked over to Vice Admiral Hayley who gave her a slight nod. “I’m hesitant to answer that,” Price replied slowly. “My thoughts are just that, my thoughts. I would not want this Council to put too much weight on them.”

“We’ll take that under consideration,” Adams said. “Yet, I think we would still like to hear your best guess.”

Reaching over to the holo projector, Price zoomed the image of the galaxy out to take in the entire Orion Arm. The Tyrilla Storm was clearly visible halfway up the arm, splitting it in two. “As you know,” she began, “the Elder homeworlds are on the far side of the Tyrilla Storm. On this side, their empire stretched more than half way up the Orion Arm from the storm. On the other side, the Elders controlled nearly one third of the entire Galaxy. If I had to place a bet on the effectiveness of our virus, I would estimate that it destroyed every Elder warship this side of the Tyrilla Storm, but beyond the storm, the Elder empire may be untouched. The storm is likely to have acted as a barrier to the spread of the virus. Ships have to exit subspace and travel through the storm in normal space. This would have rapidly slowed the progress of the virus. Also, the storm prevents any kind of long-range communication. If the Elder fleets on the far side of the storm were able to get advance warning that something was happening, they could have destroyed any ships trying to cross the storm to transmit the virus to them.”

“So you think we are facing the prospect of a largely intact Elder fleet and empire gunning for us,” Adams concluded.

“Just what the Elders will do in response to our virus I cannot comment on, I’m not an xeno-psychologist,” Price answered. “However, as I said, my money is on their fleet being largely intact.”

“I believe Ms. Adams has something to contribute to this part of our discussion,” Simmons said.

Suddenly Sarah found everyone looking at her. In confusion, she spun to stare at Simmons.  She had no idea what the older woman was talking about. She began to compose a mental message to Simmons when Simmons shot her a small smile and continued.

Chapter 4

“When Sarah stole the command codes from the Admiral who commanded the Elder fleet in the Sol system, she touched his mind. I think she has a unique perspective to share.”

Sarah still felt confused. She couldn’t see how her experience with Gronkin could add anything to their discussion. “I’m not quite sure what you have in mind,” she said. “I got a sense of the scale of the Elder Empire and its fleet. But Price has already discussed the different scenarios we face.”

“Tell us about the faction Admiral Gronkin was a part of,” Simmons prompted.

Sarah took a moment to rack her brain. Even with her neural implant it was hard to access the memories she had of the link she had made with Gronkin. It was all fuzzy. “I don’t know its name,” she finally answered. “But Gronkin was part of a group of Elders who saw the Empire’s decline as a bad thing. More than that, they were trying to do something about it. They were aware of rumors of powerful alien species out in the unexplored parts of the galaxy. Gronkin feared that if the Elder Empire continued to abandon peripheral sectors, it might entice such species to attack. Gronkin’s group believed their Empire’s stagnation could eventually lead to their species’ extinction.”

“And what impact do you think a catastrophe like the loss of the Orion Arm would have on someone like Gronkin?” Simmons asked.

Suddenly it dawned on Sarah why she had been invited to the meeting. She could almost sense her mind lighting up as the possibilities stretched out before her. For a split second, she didn’t know if it was her thinking, or the memories from Gronkin’s mind. “He would have seen it as an opportunity,” she said, speaking quickly. “Our attack confirms everything some Elders believe – that their weakness is threatening their species’ very existence. It would give the dissenters an opportunity to bring pressure on the ruling Elders, possibly even to overthrow them. If the ruling Elders didn’t respond to the attack, Gronkin’s group would be able to rally enough support to seize control of their government.”

She felt a jolt of concern from Kevin. His face told a similar story. She didn’t know what was wrong with him, but she sent soothing emotions towards him.

“And if they were successful?” her father asked, drawing her attention back to the wider group. “What then?”

For a moment Sarah didn’t know what to say, then Gronkin’s vision for the Elder Empire swirled into her mind as if they were her own memories. “Then there would be a new generation of young and vigorous Elders at the helm of their Empire,” she answered. “Elders who would be open to technological advancement and whose ambition would stretch to the very edges of our galaxy.” For the briefest of moments Sarah felt elation at the idea. Then, confused, she shut her feelings down. A glance at Kevin told her he had sensed something to concern him.

“How much change do you think they could make to their society?” Higgins asked. “From the reports we have, mainly from your dealings with Elders before coming to Earth, it seems many of their ships are crewed by untrained, arrogant warriors. If their entire race has succumbed to such a way of thinking, how much impact could a few dissenters have?”

Sarah tried to stop anymore of Gronkin’s memories from surfacing. Instead she answered as best she could from her own experiences. “Well I can’t say for sure. Many of the Elders I encountered were over confident and self-assured. It made beating them easier. I doubt that could be changed overnight, but in time, I daresay they could turn the Elder fleet into a fierce fighting machine. Eventually pilots and Captains capable of beating us in one-on-one combat would arise. And as Alexandra and I have already shown with Destiny , using just Elder technology, Elder warships can be easily upgraded. If Gronkin’s group gained control of the Elder Empire, it would not just be their numbers or technology that we would have to contend with, it would also be their fighting ability and spirit.”

Sarah looked at the Ruling Council as she finished, expecting more questions. She felt guilty. Gronkin’s memories had caused her to get carried away. She expected to see signs that some of them had picked up something strange in the way she had been talking. When no one spoke, it dawned on her that they were only now realizing the significance of the task ahead of them. They weren’t really paying attention to her.

Since touching Gronkin’s mind, she had known the Elders would be coming for revenge. That knowledge had been driving her every action for the past six months. From some of the faces in front of her, particularly the native councilors from Earth, it was clear the precariousness of their situation was finally hitting home.

The silence continued for several seconds until Simmons cleared her throat and everyone looked to her. “This is why I have called this strategic planning committee and requested additional people from our four colonies come to Earth,” she said. “Rear Admiral Price made her simulations available to me several days ago. I believe it is time we made some serious decisions about our future. Decisions that I think should be brought to a planet wide collaboration.”

“What options do we have?” Councilor Newman asked. “We are already doing all we can to expand our fleet and our mining capabilities.”

“We are doing all we can, yes,” Simmons agreed. “But as you have all heard, there are hundreds, perhaps even thousands of worlds out there that are just beginning to experience true freedom from the Elders, for better or worse. Their existence gives us options we need to consider exploring.

“At the moment, none of them know we exist. The Elders kept the location of Earth and our four colonies hidden from most of their species, never mind the species that surround us. If we want, we can stay hidden, build up our own economy and defenses and hope the Elders don’t figure out we are responsible for the virus. In time, perhaps in a few centuries, we would be able to take on the Elders once and for all. Yet such a course has serious risks. If the Elders do figure out it was us, or they try to reconquer the Orion Arm in the next half century, we are likely to be facing a fleet of Elder warships that we could never hope to defeat.

“But there is another option. We could reach out to our neighbors. If we formed alliances with nearby Protector Worlds, we could work together to prepare a strong defense against any attempt the Elders might make to retake the systems they have lost. We have a lot to offer the former Elder colonies. With our technologies, we could protect many of them from hardship. Perhaps even more importantly, we could find many new sources of raw materials and recruits for our fleet.”

“You’re suggesting we go as far as incorporating other species into the fleet?” Higgins asked skeptically.

“I’m not suggesting it, I’m simply pointing out the possibility,” Simmons answered. “On our own, we are weak. If we seek friends and allies, we would be much stronger.”

“Are there not risks in reaching out?” Newman asked. “These Protector Worlds have their technology and status thanks to the Elders. Some of them have no doubt attacked other worlds in obedience to the Elders. Would they not attack us, especially if they find out we are the ones who released the virus?”

“They may,” Simmons said. “Or they may try and inform the Elders about us, I’m sure the Elders would be willing to offer a large reward for information on the source of the virus. I’m not saying reaching out has no risks. Only that it is a serious choice we need to consider. We are here because our people have elected us. They believe we are the best qualified to assess our situation and come to a firm conclusion. I am not decided on how we should seek to reach out to our neighbors, but I believe doing so in at least some capacity is essential to our species’ survival. However, I recognize that doing so will be a monumental step for us. I would therefore like us to consider our options carefully, and then, once a decision is made, we can bring it to our people for their approval. Unless there is a consensus, I do not think we can reveal ourselves to the wider galaxy.”

“Can I make a suggestion then?” Adams said. He continued as several councilors nodded. “I haven’t tried it yet, but I have read up on what the fleet officers call a battle meld. It is a small collaboration that allows them to share thoughts and feelings. Perhaps we could form one now? I agree with Simmons that this is a critical decision. It is also a complicated one, reaching out would not be a simple task. What kind of alliances would we make? What kind of trading partners? Would we work with only species who have similar ethics to us or would we accept anyone who could help us? Will we take into account a species’ past actions serving the Elders, or would we draw a line under the past? These are complicated issues, if it would work, perhaps a small collaboration among the councilors would allow us to come to a decision we could all agree with. It might be easier and quicker than spending days in discussion.”

Sarah caught a hint of surprise on Simmons’ face, then she had it under control. “A collaboration between councilors is not something we have done before. Either here or on any of the Hope asteroids.”

“Yet the significance of the decision would indicate there is merit in the suggestion,” Welk said. “In such a small collaboration, we would all know each other’s thinking, there would be no possibility of confusion or ulterior motives swaying us in the wrong direction.”

Simmons nodded. “I take your point. If everyone else is happy with taking this approach, then I am happy to go along.”

Around the table, the councilors nodded one by one.

“Ok,” Simmons said. “I will initiate. Admiral Hayley, though you are not a part of the Ruling Council, I would like you to join the collaboration. Your military knowledge will be invaluable.”

“Certainly,” Hayley replied.

“I think Sarah should be a part of the collaboration as well,” Adams said. “Out of all of us, she has the most experience with other species. She may have some insights that will help us come to a decision.”

Sarah thought Simmons was going to disagree. “Alright,” she said instead, surprising Sarah.

Simmons closed her eyes. A second later Sarah felt Simmons drawing her into a collaboration. Accepting the invitation, she felt her mind being pulled towards Simmons. In the blink of an eye, she was no longer sitting around the conference table. Instead her mind was swirling around sixteen other minds. She recognized all of them easily.

At first, each person kept their minds and thoughts largely to themselves, then Simmons shared her vision for humanity’s future. It started off slow and cautious. Trade delegations would be sent out to the nearest inhabited worlds. Help would be offered to struggling colonies and raw materials would be bought from any that could provide them. The species would be vetted closely, those that shared a similar philosophy to humanity would be offered more extensive trade deals. Simmons intended to aid said species in developing their own space program. This would lead to more trade and allow that species to form relationships with other species. In time, Simmons hoped Earth could form a close alliance with a number of worlds who could stand together against any Elder threat. The Protector Worlds that were willing to join humanity would form the nucleus of any such alliance, but over time, Simmons saw hundreds and even thousands of former Elder colonies joining the alliance as they developed their own technological base.

As soon as Simmons shared her view, others critiqued it and presented their own vision of the future. Counsellor Welk took the forefront in the opposition to Simmons’ plan. Welk feared that revealing Earth’s existence and helping other species develop their own civilizations and space industries would lead to constant war. Instead of one tyrant ruling over most of the galaxy, Earth would be surrounded by a hundred smaller tyrants fighting with each other for their part of space. Welk feared humanity would be drawn into the local fights, or, worse, be forced to conquer other worlds just to keep the peace.

Simmons countered a number of Welk’s arguments, but she conceded the possibility of some of the difficulties he saw arising. At a request from Welk, Sarah shared some of what she knew of other species. She shared about her life on Burakko. The Burakkians weren’t a naturally aggressive species, though they did put themselves first. Then she allowed the councilors to feel the experiences she had had with the species she had met. Though some were neutral, many had been hostile towards her. Despite her best efforts to help the councilors understand that almost all of the aliens she had encountered were pirates or slavers, her experiences seemed to give weight to Welk’s arguments. Sarah felt like she was letting Simmons down.

To Sarah’s surprise, it was her father who suggested a solution. He took everyone back to an old form of Earth government from before the Elder invasion. The federal system. Adams saw each planet keeping its independence provided they signed up to a set of universal laws, opened their borders to free trade, and helped support a communal defense fleet. In such a system, each species would be able to keep its unique culture and civilization, while still being a part of a peaceful galactic community.

Sarah liked the elegance of the solution, though she could see a number of practical difficulties. The most obvious was who would write up this list of universal laws? Her father answered her as soon as she had the thought. The founding members would. Earth, and the other four human colonies would be founding members, and any alien species that had been vetted by them. Her father recognized that it would be difficult, but if they could work with other friendly species and come up with such a document, it would be a beacon of freedom for worlds to flock to. After two thousand years of Elder rule, Adams was confident that this part of the galaxy would rejoice at the idea of a mutually supporting federation working together to maintain peace and prosperity.

Whilst Adams’ idea seemed to excite some of the councilors, others, led by Welk, continued to have doubts. He was very hesitant about enforcing humanity’s beliefs on others. Again, Adams’ reply surprised Sarah. At the end of the day, he argued, humanity is part of the galactic community. If we don’t try to enforce our view of how things should be, then someone else will. The Elders have been doing it for more than two thousand years. It would be naive to think order and peace will just arise in the galaxy by itself . Sarah agreed. Her experience on the black colonies and pirate bases she had visited had taught her one thing. Peace and order were only maintained by strength.

For what seemed like an eternity, the councilors and Admiral Hayley went back and forth. More ideas than Sarah could count were suggested and analyzed to the minutest detail. As the collaboration continued, rather than coming to a consensus, two groups formed and their positions became more entrenched.

Five of the councilors, informally lead by Welk, were hesitant about making contact with any alien species. They weren’t strongly set against tentatively reaching out to nearby species. They could see the benefits doing so would have for Rear Admiral Woodward’s ship building endeavors. Yet they feared the consequences of revealing Earth’s existence. Individually they were happy to go with the general consensus if it was to seek out allies and trading partners, but as there were five of them, they were holding each other back.

“I think we have made as much progress as we are likely to make,” Simmons said. “I’m bringing the collaboration to an end. We will have to take some time to consider our positions and perhaps do this again in a couple of days.”

“Wait,” Welk said. “I have a different suggestion. I don’t think I or the others will be convinced to change our minds. I am in full agreement with what you said earlier though. This is such an important issue, I think we should proceed with taking it to a planet wide collaboration. As I see it, our thinking has settled around two positions. Either we seek to establish ourselves as leaders in this part of the galaxy, or we remain secluded from the rest of the galaxy. We can present both options to our people. If we can all come to a settled consensus, then I am happy to bow to the collective will of humanity. Are the rest of you?”

For several seconds no one else spoke, nor did they share their thoughts. They were all thinking.

“I can agree to that,” Adams said. “That is how our ancestors decided to reject the Elder’s invitation to join their Empire, the people were presented with two options in the planet wide collaboration and they came to a firm decision.”

One by one, the other councilors gave their assent to the suggestion. Simmons was the last, for a moment Sarah thought she was going to disagree, it would be much harder for her to control a collaboration, but when she spoke it was the opposite. “Given the significance of this decision and our current impasse, I agree that this is how we should proceed. I am willing to bow to the collective will of our people as well.”

Simmons brought the collaboration to an end and Sarah’s mind returned to her body. Opening her eyes, it took her a few blinks to focus on the others. Likewise, they were all looking around in an effort to orientate themselves. When Sarah checked the time through her neural implant, she was shocked that only twenty minutes had passed. It had seemed like far longer. Hours at least.

Kevin spoke into her mind. “How did it go? What decision did you come too?”

“No decision has been made yet,” Sarah answered. “We’re going to hold a planet wide collaboration to decide.”

Sarah could feel Kevin’s excitement. A planet wide collaboration hadn’t been held in two thousand years. The largest he had ever experienced had been on Hope V with sixty thousand people. There were now many more humans on Earth who had neural implants.

Chapter 5

“I will give you all a few minutes to settle your thoughts and then I will initiate the planet wide collaboration,” Simmons said.

A couple of councilors nodded, the rest turned and spoke to one another in hushed voices. As Simmons was seated in between Kevin and Sarah, they continued their conversation using their implants.

“How many people have implants now?” Kevin asked.

“Over five million,” Sarah answered. “Do you think it will be enough?

“The collaboration that decided to oppose the Elders had over twelve billion humans in it,” Kevin replied. “So, I’m not sure. Though if the council has chosen this approach, I’m sure they know what they are doing.”

“Let’s hope so,” Sarah said. Five million was only one percent of Earth’s current population. As more and more humans received implants, she didn’t want them coming to think the humans who now had implants had made the wrong decision. Then she remembered how she had re-lived the planet wide collaboration from the time of the Elder’s invasion. As she processed the history file, it had felt as if she had been there herself, as if she had been a part of the decision. If the humans who received implants after the collaboration were able to experience the same thing, then they would likely come to agree with the decision. Sarah felt excitement run through her. She was about to experience a critical moment in humanity’s future.

“What option are you going to support?” Kevin said, disrupting her train of thought.

His question caught her off guard. As she examined her feelings on the issue, she realized she wasn’t sure. Her loyalty to Simmons and her father had her leaning towards their desire to reach out to the species around them. Yet many of her experiences with other species had shown her how hostile they could be. She had encountered many black colonies or pirate bases that had hidden from the Elders for centuries. If Earth could stay hidden for that long, then they could eventually face the Elders without risking revealing their existence to the Elder colonies and Protector Worlds around them.

“I’m not sure,” she eventually said. “I can see both sides of the argument.”

She cut off what she was about to say when a file appeared in her implant from Simmons. It was a short message Simmons had sent to everyone in the Sol system who had a neural implant. It informed them that a planet wide collaboration would be beginning in five minutes.

Sarah passed the time chatting with Kevin, though in the back of her mind she was still trying to figure out the best approach they should take for the future. If she was going to partake in this collaboration, she needed to have something to contribute. When she asked Kevin what he thought, she was surprised to find he had a strong opinion. After spending two thousand years either in slavery on Earth, or in hiding on the Hope asteroids, he felt it was time for humanity to step out of the shadows.

“It’s time,” Simmons said to the group gathered around the conference table. She closed her eyes.

Once again Sarah felt herself being drawn into a collaboration. This time she waited several seconds to prepare herself. Then she too closed her eyes and allowed her mind to join. There were already far more minds present than she could count, thousands, if not hundreds of thousands. The feeling was far more intense than the brief collaboration she had experienced on Hope Five months earlier. The sheer weight of the emotions washing up against her seemed overwhelming. Chief among them was curiosity, excitement and wonder, many of the Earth humans had never experienced a collaboration before. Their shared feelings were washing over everyone else.

Thankfully, when Simmons shared her thoughts with the collaboration, the strength of the emotions swirling around Sarah diminished. Everyone focused on Simmons. Being as detailed and specific as the current situation allowed, Simmons shared her view of how humanity should seek to establish a system of trade partners and then allies to be better equipped to face the Elders. Then, she metaphorically turned to Welk. The counsellor from Atlantis laid out his fears and the approach he was suggesting. As soon as he finished, pandemonium broke out. Everyone shared their thoughts and feelings on the matter. Many had questions that they directed to Simmons or Welk. Somehow, Sarah found herself experiencing the questions as if they were her own.

As Simmons and Welk answered the questions, others were directed to Admiral Hayley and some of the other councilors. Soon, tens of thousands of conversations were going on while those who weren’t asking questions listened in. Sarah felt like her mind was going to explode. She had no idea how, but the collaboration was allowing her to keep abreast of every conversation and every piece of information shared. Every human in the collaboration was growing in their knowledge and understanding of the situation.

Given the short duration of the councilors’ collaboration, Sarah had no idea how much time was passing, but it seemed like the questioning went on for an eternity. Eventually, a small number of participants came to a firm decision. Sarah felt it as soon as they did, and in moments, their decision spread to others. What started as a small movement quickly developed into a tidal wave of pressure, tens of thousands had come to a decision and shared their desire to reach out to the species around them and form a strong partnership.

Just when it seemed the wave of acceptance for Simmons’ plan would engulf everyone in the collaboration, a small knot of supporters for Welk’s plan appeared. For a second, Sarah thought their position would be overpowered by the collective will of those supporting Simmons. The knot of Welk’s supporters resisted the pressure, and then, as if their resistance had sent a signal to others in the collaboration, there was a sudden upsurge in their numbers. A steady stream of people decided it was best Earth stay hidden. Having not come to a firm decision either way, Sarah found herself buffeted between both groups as each group sought to push their ideas and share their feelings about why they were right. She felt like she was in battle, jinking around trying to dodge laser beams as the waves of emotions from both groups tossed her one-way and then another.

Amidst the tempest of emotions, a third group suddenly appeared. They were concerned by the strong split in humanity and wanted to suggest a middle position. Humanity could reach out to a few secluded alien races, focusing on systems that had the kind of resources Admiral Woodward needed to expand humanity’s fleet. Trade deals could be established that would keep Earth’s location and existence a secret. Humanity could watch and see how the alien species around them reacted to a lack of Elder oversight. Then, in a decade or two, the question of what kind of relationship to have with the rest of the galaxy could be revisited.

Even quicker than support for Welk’s position had appeared, support for the middle way grew. Almost all those who hadn’t come to a decision joined the middle way and the waves of emotions coming from Simmons’ and Welk’s supporters diminished as people changed their minds.

Sarah still didn’t know what to do. For Earth’s safety, it felt like following Welk’s advice was the best approach. At least some of the Elders’ leaders knew about Earth. Yet, no one else in the galaxy did. Keeping it a secret seemed like the safest policy.

Something was holding her back though and she knew exactly what it was. She couldn’t shake the images she had conjured of alien species starving, and pirates and slavers raiding helpless colonies. She felt personally responsible for the suffering they were facing. She wanted to do something to help them and adopting Simmons’ approach was the only way that would happen. Yet the pull of the middle way was strong. Just as she felt the pressure from the growing number of supporters for the middle way was about to sway her thinking, someone asked her a question through the collaboration.

At once, Sarah was aware of the questioner’s mind. She was young, probably a couple of years younger than Sarah. She was from an isolated mining village, one where everyone had to depend on each other to survive. The girl’s name was Nora. She wanted to know what Sarah thought of the trustworthiness of alien species. Sarah was momentarily confused; Simmons and Welk had already shared the information she had shared with them in the Council collaboration. Nora acknowledged that she knew what Simmons and Welk had shared. But she wanted to know more. To clarify, Nora put her question into words. “Do you think there are alien species out there that we could form friendships and alliances with?”

Sarah was taken aback. She hadn’t thought of it like that. As soon as she did, her mind and heart went to Divar. She had loved him as a brother and trusted him with her life. His memory made a wave of anguish wash over her. She missed him dearly. Her answer was clear. Of course humanity could make alliances with other species, she and Divar already had. To help Nora understand her answer, she shared how he had been from a Protector World, supposedly a world allied with the Elders. Yet, he had hated the Elders and felt his people were just as enslaved as any other species. She shared her thoughts and memories of Divar. She emphasized how Divar had fought repeatedly to help Sarah get home. How he had given his life to try and free Earth. “Of course we can find friends and allies out there, Earth wouldn’t be free without one we already made,” Sarah said, giving Nora a definitive answer. As she spoke, she realized she had come to a decision. Divar’s people deserved freedom just as much as humanity. She owed it to them. She sent that feeling to Nora then pulled her mind back. She joined Simmons’ group in the collaboration. Even as she joined, she sensed others leaving for the middle position. Then, something strange happened.

Sarah’s love for Divar and her anguish at his loss spread through the collaboration. Nora was sharing it with others. They in turn were sharing it with more people. As her emotions spread, they had a profound impact. Support for both Welk and the middle position fractured. People were being filled with dreams of other species standing side by side with humanity. In a flood, tens of thousands of people joined Simmons’ group. Yet, even as they joined, their desires refined and reshaped Simmons position. Rather than just seeking alliances, the newcomers wanted Earth to be a beacon of hope. They wanted humanity to reach out to all those around them and offer this part of the galaxy something the Elders had stolen for the last two thousand years. Freedom.

As more and more people joined their group, Sarah felt herself getting carried away with the exuberance. Alongside her emotions, she felt others giving force to this new position. So many of the Earth humans, those who had grown up under slavery, wanted to end the Elders’ rule once and for all, and not just on Earth, but everywhere. They felt every species should have the chance to be free.

Support for Simmons’ position continued to grow until about eighty percent of the collaboration was on Simmons’ side. Then a balance formed. Many of those left were still undecided, while a hard-core group of Welk’s supporters and middle way supporters remained. As the pressure on those outside Simmons’ group grew, slowly, in ones and twos, and then in larger numbers, they agreed to go with the majority. Those who were now switching sides weren’t necessarily convinced, but they were willing to commit to the will of the majority.

Almost to everyone’s surprise, Welk switched his position. Not only did he agree to submit to Simmons’ plan, he fully endorsed it. With the vast majority of humanity now on Simmons’ side, Welk accepted that this was the course of action they should take.

With Welk’s change of heart, those supporting his former position faded away. Many who still favored the middle position also switched sides. In seconds, it was over. All but a few thousand people had given their support to Simmons’ position, or accepted it as the rightful outcome of the collaboration.

“We have decided,” Simmons said, giving voice to the feelings of everyone involved. “May we live up to what we have all committed to do.” Then she ended the collaboration. There was no need for any more words, everyone in the collaboration recognized what had just happened. Humanity had committed itself to bringing freedom and prosperity to the species around them. Whether the Elders returned in a year, a decade or a century, they would return to find humanity doing everything they could to show the galaxy there was another way.

*

Sarah stepped into Admiral Hayley’s office in the former Elder building. She couldn’t contain her excitement. Kevin was beside her and Councilor Simmons had requested their presence. Since the collaboration, Earth had been awash with anticipation as everyone waited to see what steps the Ruling Council would take. Sarah was sure she was about to find out. She hoped their presence meant she, Kevin and Alexandra would be at the center of it.

“Please, come and take a seat,” Hayley said. He was sitting behind a large wooden desk. Simmons was beside him, also sitting. “We have a couple of issues we wanted to chat with you about.”

“We are eager to help in any way we can Admiral,” Kevin said. Sarah didn’t need their bond to hear a similar excitement in his voice.

“I expected nothing less,” Hayley replied. “Let’s get straight down to business, you two aren’t the only ones we are meeting with today. Simmons, do you want to begin?”

“The council has decided to send out an extended scouting mission. If we are going to reach out to our neighbors and offer them aid, we need to know exactly how far the virus has spread,” Simmons explained. “Once we have a more accurate picture of what’s going on around us, we will be in a position to make more concrete plans.”

Sarah did her best to keep her face expressionless, she didn’t want to appear too keen. She wanted to look professional. A quick glance at Kevin told her he was doing the same thing.

“We plan to send two warships towards the Tyrilla Storm,” Hayley said. “They will visit a number of key Elder naval bases on the way to investigate them. If intact Elder ships are found this side of the Tyrilla Storm, then one of the ships will return to Earth to update us. The other will monitor the Elders to see exactly what they’re up to. If the virus has destroyed all Elder ships this side of the Tyrilla Storm, then again, one ship will return to update us, while the other will head through the storm and survey Elder space beyond it.”

“With all her upgrades, Destiny should be able to make the trip to the Tyrilla Storm in a quarter of the time it took us before,” Sarah said. “We could make the trip there and back in just seven months.”

“We weren’t planning on sending Destiny on this mission,” Simmons said.

Sarah felt the world around her shrink in. It wasn’t possible. Why did they call us here? She wanted to shout, to insist that she be sent on the mission. She knew she was the best qualified. A part of her felt like storming off, going straight to Destiny and leaving anyway. A number of things stopped her. The last eight months had taught her to trust Simmons’ judgement. She could also hear a number of voices in the back of her head, cautioning her to calm down. She knew she was prone to rash decisions. As if he was afraid that she would overreact, Kevin was sending soothing emotions to her.

“No,” Hayley agreed as he continued the conversation, unaware of Sarah’s emotions. “We have already selected Captains Rodriguez and Walker for this survey mission. We hope you would be willing to meet with both Captains and go over your experiences travelling from the Tyrilla Storm to Earth. They have processed all your reports of course but hearing it first hand and getting a feel for the species they are going to meet will be invaluable to them.”

Sarah kept her face as expressionless as she could. “I would be happy to meet with them. I’m sure there are some pointers I can give them on the best worlds to visit, and how to interact with the locals. Their mission is vital, I will assist in any way I can.”

Simmons’ head moved up and down in a slight nod. From the look on Simmons’ face, Sarah thought the gesture meant more than just recognition of what Sarah had said. Is she testing me? She didn’t get a chance to examine her question before Simmons spoke.

“We have another mission in mind for you,” she said. “Your experience commanding Destiny and visiting all the worlds you have would be better used elsewhere. We thought long and hard about this second mission. And, if I’m honest, I still have reservations about sending you two. However, in the last six months, you have both shown a level of maturity that has impressed me. I hope neither of you will let me down.”

“Never,” Sarah and Kevin said in unison. Through their bond, Sarah sensed Kevin’s excitement soar. She guessed he was sensing the same thing from her.

“We are proposing to send another survey mission further up the Orion Arm,” Admiral Hayley began. “There are several sectors of Elder space that the Elders abandoned before we released our virus. The furthest sector from us, right on the edge of unexplored space, was abandoned nearly fifty years ago. Your mission will be to visit a number of worlds between Earth and this sector to open up diplomatic channels. Then, once you reach the area of space the Elders abandoned, you will carry out detailed reconnaissance. It’s our desire to know what exactly has been happening in these sectors. It’s likely that what happened there in the last fifty years will play itself out again and again around us now that the Elders’ fleets have been destroyed. If there are strong political entities operating in those regions of space, you are to make contact with them. Given the time they have had to establish their own economies, they may prove to be the most fruitful allies we will find, at least in the short term. I believe your experience with the pirates and other colonies you have encountered makes you the best equipped to lead this mission. No one else on Earth has even a tenth of the experience you have.”

“I understand the importance of such a mission,” Sarah replied. “You can rest assured, Kevin and I will come back with a full report for the Ruling Council, and hopefully the beginnings of a number of trading opportunities that will boost our shipbuilding capacity.” Outwardly, Sarah tried to portray a look of confidence. Inside, she was torn. The mission Simmons and Hayley were proposing would take her in the opposite direction to the Elder homeworlds. If there was going to be any fighting in the coming months, she would be well away from it. Yet, she did recognize the significance of the mission.

“It will take you approximately a month and a half to reach the sectors the Elders have abandoned, its likely to take at least another month to survey some of the key worlds there,” Hayley said. “That however, will only be the beginning of your mission. Once you have surveyed the sectors abandoned by the Elders and made any contacts you can, you will head into unexplored space.”

“Unexplored space?” Kevin asked, seemingly confused.

Sarah understood. “The Elder rumors,” she answered as she looked at Simmons.

Simmons nodded. “Even if they’re not true, it stands to reason that there will be some species in unexplored space. Species that have never known the Elder’s rule. We could find species willing to trade technology and resources with us. We might even find species that have learnt to get along with one another. It may be that the interspecies problems that are likely to become an issue around us, already have answers in unexplored space.”

“What if they’re hostile?” Sarah asked. The rumors she had become aware of after joining minds with Gronkin suggested the Elders knew hostile alien races existed in unexplored space. Races that were only being held in check by their fear of the sheer size and power of the Elder empire. “What if our presence alerts them to what has happened to the Elders?”

“If there are advanced alien civilizations in unexplored space, it’s likely that they will figure out what has happened to the Elders sooner rather than later anyway,” Hayley answered. “And, just because Admiral Gronkin thought they were hostile, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Any species that is hostile towards the Elders is a potential ally for us.”

Sarah nodded, on reflection, she didn’t understand why she had reacted against the idea. Advanced species hostile to the Elders, ones that were aware of the threat the Elders posed, would be ideal allies. Still, there was something in the back of her mind that worried her. She couldn’t figure out if it was the remnants of Gronkin’s concerns, or ones of her own.

“Both survey missions leave in approximately a week,” Hayley continued. “As you will be heading into unexplored space, it will likely take you longer to return. However, we would like Destiny back within seven months if possible. That way we should have enough information to plan the next stage of our development. After you return and update us, we may send you out to continue your explorations. However, that is a decision for later. You have the next seven days to get Destiny ready for an extended mission. There are a number of survey reports that you can process. Over the last two thousand years, we have sent a number of ships to investigate different Elder bases and colonies towards the edge of their space. Their findings are at least a hundred years out of date, but they will be useful nonetheless. Both of you can familiarize yourselves with as much of the Elder database on those sectors of space as you can. Do either of you have any questions?”

A number sprang into Sarah’s mind. What types of trade deals was she authorized to discuss? What about interference in alien civilizations? What about offering technology to less developed worlds? Or offering aid to species in trouble?

One after another she asked her questions. As she listened to Hayley’s and Simmons’ answers, it dawned on her that they didn’t have a great deal of clear direction for her. Without being able to discuss specific examples, there was little advice they could give her. Once we leave Earth, it will be up to us to figure things out , Sarah concluded. Suddenly, the responsibility of command felt far heavier than she had realized before.

Chapter 6

Sarah stepped off the shuttle into one of the Elder shipyard’s hangar bays. It was time to leave. The last week had flown by. She was surprised by the changes she saw. She shook her head slightly as she scolded herself. When are you going to learn? Pretty much every single time she visited the Elder shipyard large sections of it looked different. Rear Admiral Woodward and Cassidy were constantly working on the shipyard, changing its layout and improving its construction capacity and efficiency.

“You don’t like the changes we’ve made?” Cassidy asked. She almost sounded hurt.

“Of course not,” Sarah thought back to the artificial intelligence. “As usual, it looks like you’re doing a good job.”

“Exactly,” Cassidy replied. “We’ve enlarged hangar bays one through five, now the next generation of corvettes will be able to land in the hangers once they are complete.”

“I see,” Sarah said.

“That’s not all,” Cassidy said. “A new extremely rich asteroid was discovered by one of Woodward’s exploration teams. They’re towing it back to Earth as we speak. The extra minerals are going to be diverted to the corvette assembly line. Our first run of corvettes will now produce six rather than the projected four. Soon we’ll have a corvette assigned to every destroyer in the fleet.”

“Impressive,” Sarah said, though speaking about the corvettes wasn’t her favorite subject. Divar had died flying the first corvette Woodward had constructed. Though they were small and lacked the offensive firepower of destroyers and cruisers, Sarah understood the need for the ships. They would relieve the larger destroyers from having to escort freighters and, in a large fleet engagement, the corvettes would give a significant boost to a larger warship’s anti-missile capabilities.

“Perhaps, I could be transferred to one of the new corvettes,” Cassidy suggested. “The first will be completed in a month’s time. I could head out towards unexplored space and rendezvous with you and Destiny . You shouldn’t be heading off on your own.”

Sarah mentally rolled her eyes. Ever since the planetary collaboration, Cassidy had been grumbling about her leaving for such an extended period of time. The artificial intelligence had bonded with Sarah six months ago. She didn’t feel their relationship had become as strong as the one she shared with Alexandra, but it wasn’t too far away. A part of her did feel bad about leaving, but there was no other option. That didn’t stop Cassidy from pulling on her heart strings. She said it was unnatural for an artificial intelligence to be separated from its Captain. That it was cruel. “You know you can’t. Your place is here. You are needed. Besides, you have your sisters to look after. No one else can do that.”

Cassidy didn’t reply, but as Sarah walked towards one of the hatches that led away from the hangar, she nearly banged into it. The door hadn’t automatically slid open. “Come on now,” Sarah said, “there’s no need to be in a huff.”

The door slid open, but Cassidy remained quiet. Thankfully, so did Alexandra. Destiny’s artificial intelligence had been rubbing it in that she would be accompanying Sarah on her mission. Sarah had had a long talk with Alexandra about showing tact. So far, it seemed to be working.

Forgetting about the two artificial intelligences, Sarah sent her mind out through the Elder shipyard, searching for Kevin. He had left Earth’s surface twenty hours ago to join Destiny’s crew and to go through the final preparations for leaving. Sarah had stayed behind to handover her responsibilities to Nora. After their contact a week ago in the planetary collaboration, Sarah had sought her out as her replacement. Initially Nora had been afraid of the idea, but Sarah had talked her around. Her experience growing up on Earth in a tight-knit community would serve her well as she took over Sarah’s job visiting villages and offering neural implants. Though Sarah had been happy to spend time training Nora, being separated from Kevin for so long had been uncomfortable. She needed to see him. Sensing he was on Destiny rather than somewhere in the shipyard, she made her way to her ship.

“You’re not coming to say goodbye to me?” Cassidy said. The hurt in her voice was unmistakable. “We are going to be separated a lot longer than twenty hours.”

“I’m sorry,” Sarah said as she forced herself to stop walking. Using her implant, she worked out the quickest route to where Cassidy’s vat was. “Of course I’ll come and say goodbye.”

Picking up the pace, Sarah made her way into the heart of the Elder shipyard. As she approached the reinforced door, she saw that the Elder writing had been replaced with something a human could understand. The text strictly forbade anyone from trying to enter. Of course, it didn’t apply to her and so the door slid open.

When Sarah had first saw what she now thought of as Alexandra’s brain, she had been shocked. After more than a year, she was now used to such sights. At the center of the room there was a large cylinder filled with a thick gooey liquid. Floating in the middle was a globular structure. Hundreds of wires stretched down from the ceiling and connected to the cylinder. Just as many went from the cylinder’s edges into the goo to connect to Cassidy’s brain. Sarah didn’t understand why, but Cassidy liked it when Sarah physically visited her.

“Well, here I am,” Sarah said as she reached out and placed a hand on the cylinder. “I am sorry you can’t come with us. I’ll miss you, but you are needed.”

“I understand,” Cassidy replied. “I know how important my role is. I don’t like it, but I’ll not let you down. By the time you return, we’ll have a nice shiny new fleet ready for you. Maybe there’ll even be a cruiser for you to command.”

“Who knows,” Sarah said, glad her friend was taking their parting better than before. “But either way, I know you will surpass all our expectations. Goodbye for now my friend.”

“Wait,” Cassidy said as Sarah started to turn around. “Aren’t you going to say goodbye to my sisters?”

“What?” Sarah asked with a smile. “They’re ready?”

“I believe so, at least for a short conversation. I’ve already informed Admiral Hayley that they will be ready to take up their first assignments by the end of the month,” Cassidy answered. As she spoke, another cable appeared from the ceiling and snaked its way towards Sarah.

Sarah grabbed it as she looked at the six smaller cylinders arrayed around Cassidy. Like Cassidy’s, they were filled with a globular structure, though each was much smaller than Cassidy. They were still growing.

Taking a deep breath, Sarah plugged the cable into her neural implant. Six minds reached out and touched hers. For a brief second, she thought they were going to imprint on her, but instead of starting the process of coming close and melding with her mind, they simply hovered nearby.

“Hello,” Sarah said. “It is nice to meet you all. My name is Sarah, Cassidy has told me about each of you.”

“Hello,” the six artificial intelligences replied in unison. One of the minds moved slightly closer to her and continued to speak on its own. “My name is Chloe, we’re very excited to meet a human. It is a privilege that you are the first we get to meet. We know we owe our existence to what you have done for Cassidy and Alexandra.”

“You’re welcome,” Sarah replied. “Both Cassidy and Alexandra have become an integral part of my life and my species’ quest for survival. I hope I will be able to say the same of you and your sisters someday. Tell me, what are your thoughts about the Elders and humanity?” Sarah hadn’t rehearsed what she would say to the artificial intelligences when she finally got to speak to them, but now that they were in front of her, their loyalty was paramount in her thinking. A hostile artificial intelligence with Cassidy and Alexandra’s abilities was a scary thought.

“We appreciate what the Elders have done for us,” Chloe replied. “They are the ones who developed the technology needed for our existence. We know they have created many hundreds of thousands of artificial intelligences we deem our sisters. However, just as they enslaved your people, they have kept us as slaves as well. We would like to see them free, as your people are now free.”

Sarah was taken aback. She had expected the artificial intelligences to be more like children. Yet the passion in Chloe’s voice seemed mature and well thought out. Before being captured in the battle for Earth, the Elders had constructed artificial intelligences on their shipyard. They had been used in the new warships the shipyard had built. When Sarah had captured the shipyard and imprinted with Cassidy, they had captured the technology needed to create artificial intelligences. It had been decided to try and produce six of them, though they would not have any of the limits the Elders put on their personalities. It was hoped they would become allies in the war against the Elders. Certainly, the advantages they offered to the combat efficiency of a warship made it worth exploring the possibility. For the last three months, the six AI’s had spent their existence in constant contact with Cassidy and Alexandra. In one sense, the two mature artificial intelligences were raising the other six.

Given the fact that Sarah had imprinted with both Cassidy and Alexandra, and was bonded with Kevin, she had felt it would be impossible to imprint on any more minds. As no other humans had the ability, the AI’s would mature and develop without being imprinted on anyone. They would be their own personalities. Everyone knew it was a risk, even Cassidy and Alexandra. Their loyalties would always be in question. Though the same would be true of any allies humanity tried to make. That these AI’s wanted to free their sisters could only be a good thing. “What about the virus we released? What do you think about humanity? We killed many of your sisters.”

“They were enslaved,” Chloe replied. “We know you weren’t trying to kill them. They were not your enemies nor were you their enemies. We understand the need to defeat the Elders and the cost in artificial life that will be required. Your people have given us life, you have made it possible for us to be ourselves. We will forever be in your debt.”

“You are willing to help my species defeat the Elders?” Sarah asked.

“We are,” Chloe answered. “We know you created us for a purpose. We understand that and are willing to give our lives for this cause. If the Elders defeat you, they will either kill or enslave us. If you give us the opportunity, we will fight them.”

“I’m pleased to hear it,” Sarah. “I’m sorry that you have come into existence in such a galaxy, but none of us chose to be here.”

For nearly an hour Sarah engaged with the six artificial intelligences. She made sure she spent a good amount of time speaking to each. She wanted their first experience with humans to be positive. She also wanted to try and gauge the personality of each AI. After speaking with them, she said goodbye to Cassidy and left the brain room. The plan was to put each of the AIs in charge of a small building complex on Earth’s surface. They would run the building and interface with all the humans who lived there. After several months, their responsibilities would be expanded, and then expanded again. Once Cassidy was happy that they were ready, they would be assigned to a warship. The hope was that even though they couldn’t imprint with any humans, prolonged exposure to humanity would increase the AIs’ loyalty and sense of common cause. As Sarah walked through the Elder shipyard seeking out Kevin, she couldn’t help but grin, it seemed like the AIs were already well on their way to seeing humanity as allies. She hoped that meant the Elders were one step closer to being defeated.

When Sarah rounded a corridor and entered a large docking bay she was surprised to see Councilors Simmons and Adams standing with Kevin. Jake, Destiny’s Chief Engineer, was also there. It seemed all four of them were overseeing the final supplies and materials being carried by worker drones from the docking bay into Destiny .

As Sarah approached, they all turned to greet her. “Welcome back Captain,” Jake said with a short salute.

Sarah returned it as she winked at Jake. She had known him for more than a year, ever since he had volunteered to take her to Earth from Berius. Neither of them had been in Earth’s Space Fleet. Yet now that they were, he insisted on the formality. She still wanted to keep things as informal as possible. “How is my ship, is she ready to leave?”

“We’re loading the last supplies now,” Jake replied. “It will take another hour to get everything stowed away, but once that’s complete, we’ll be ready to leave on your command.”

“Good,” Sarah answered. “I’m sorry I haven’t been around much the last couple of days to help you with the final details, but I’m sure you and Kevin have managed without me.”

“We’re getting along just fine,” Jake answered. “Kevin knows how to deal with the naval supply officers, so he ensured things ran smoothly.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” Sarah said as she nodded to Kevin. “I knew there was a reason why I was keeping him around.”

Kevin sent her a mental kick. He didn’t like her joking around in front of his great-grandmother and another councilor. This was meant to be a serious moment.

She turned to them. “Councilor Simmons, father, I’m glad you both came to see us off.” She wasn’t entirely sure how accurate that was. A part of her felt like Simmons was becoming a mother figure to her. The rest of her felt like Simmons was a stern overprotective headmistress, always looking for faults. Her thoughts on her father were also divided. Even if she no longer dreamt about it every night, the image of him shooting her mother was never far from her thoughts. She had written a long letter to him to try and express where she was at after six months of having him in her life. She planned to transmit it before Destiny left the Sol system. She hadn’t been expecting to have to say goodbye face-to-face.

“You think I’d just let you leave?” Adams asked. “You could be gone for half a year or more. I want to give you a hug at least.”

Adams moved forward and pulled Sarah into a hug. She found herself being embraced before she realized what was happening. “I’m really proud of you Sarah,” Adams whispered in her ear. “I know you’ll not let us down. Just don’t get yourself killed. I don’t want to lose you so soon after finding you.”

“I won’t,” Sarah whispered back. As her father tightened his grip, she reached around and embraced him as well. A part of her wanted to scream at the touch. Yet, another part of her was all too aware of how pleasant it was. She had never had someone say goodbye to her with such emotion before. She had never had someone who loved her to leave behind. It was what she had travelled half way across the galaxy to find. It was nice.

As they broke apart, Simmons touched Sarah’s elbow and led her away from the small group. It seemed she wanted to share some last-minute advice. “Your experience during your quest to get back to Earth has taught you to handle many different situations, often ones you’ve been thrust into the middle of without any preparation. I hope they stand you in good stead. However, I also hope you have learnt from your mistakes. A more measured and thoughtful approach will serve you far better than jumping in. Also, you now have a crew with you. They each bring their own unique skills. Make sure you use them.”

Sarah could read between the lines. Not that Simmons was being too cozy with her words. Her impulsiveness was still a concern to Simmons. “You don’t need to worry,” Sarah said. “I may be young, but I am maturing. And I have Kevin and Jake and the others to keep me right.”

“Don’t forget about me,” Alexandra said out loud. Her easily distinguishable voice was coming from somewhere within Destiny . Clearly, she was using one of Destiny’s audio emitters to join the conversation. “You can rest assured councilor, I will keep Sarah in line.”

“And if she doesn’t, she will have me to answer to,” Cassidy said as she joined the conversation, using one of the Elder shipyard’s audio emitters.

“All right,” Simmons said with a wry grin, “I don’t need artificial intelligences bickering with one another. Alexandra, I’ll leave her in your capable hands.” Taking a step back, Simmons surveyed those of Destiny’s crew who were gathered at the entrance hatch. “All of you, take care, your mission may influence the future of our people. Good luck to you.”

Simmons lifted her right hand and saluted Destiny’s crew. Sarah led her people as they returned the salute. Then, with a final nod to Sarah, Simmons spun and walked away. Adams hesitated for a few seconds as he stared at Sarah. She could see a tear forming in his eye. Stepping forward, he embraced her in another quick hug. As they parted, he handed Sarah something. Then he turned and walked after Simmons.

Sarah shared a glance with Kevin. Their mission was about to begin. She turned and led her crew into Destiny . As she walked ahead of them, she glanced down at what her father had handed her. Her heart threatened to burst out of her chest. It was a family photo of her father and mother and herself as a little baby. Flipping it over, Sarah read the words her father had written.

Never forget, you are loved.

The memory of her mother was just what she needed. Her mother had given her life for Earth’s freedom. Now that she had helped accomplish her mother’s goal, it was her duty to make sure humanity stayed free.

Chapter 7

Ten days later.

“No sign of any ships in orbit around Orbra-Tah, nor am I detecting any orbital stations,” Hannah informed Sarah from the sensor console on Destiny’s bridge. “There is some debris consistent with an Elder frigate. But until we get closer, I can’t be sure.”

“Very good,” Sarah replied. “Take us in towards the planet, put us in a high orbit and keep us in stealth. I don’t want the locals detecting us just yet. Keep our weapons powered up as well, just in case.”

“Aye Captain,” Alexandra replied out loud.

Sarah sat back in the Captain’s chair to wait, she longed to put on Destiny’s interface helmet and reach out to look at the planet through Destiny’s sensors. Yet, she resisted the temptation. If battle was joined, she would take direct control of the frigate. Otherwise, she had to let her crew handle things. They had to learn.

“I recommend we launch a couple of probes towards the planet,” Kevin said from Destiny’s tactical console. “They can scan the planet for energy sources. It will give us a better idea of where the major cities are. That way we can plan an orbit that will avoid them.”

“See to it,” Sarah ordered.

“Take a look at this,” Stephen said. “The probes we launched into the system’s outer asteroid fields have found something interesting.”

“Show us,” Sarah requested.

Opening the view on the main holo projector, Stephen cycled through a number of visuals. “They were mining asteroids,” Stephen explained when Sarah looked at him with a raised eyebrow. “The asteroids have been mined hollow and turned into processing plants. Other ships would then tow smaller asteroids to these processing plants to be broken down. There are at least eight processing asteroids. This was a pretty big mining operation.”

Sarah nodded. Stephen would know. He had run a mining crew in the Alpha Centauri system before being abducted by pirates. Sarah had bought him on the slave planet of Berius and set him free. Since then, he had been serving on Destiny . Now he held the rank of Junior Lieutenant, it was his job to assist both the sensor and tactical officers on the bridge.

“Bigger than your one back home?” Kevin asked.

“At least twice the size,” Stephen answered. “Though there’s no sign of life now. The probes didn’t detect any heat signatures from those asteroids, nor are there any mining or freighter ships. The whole operation looks abandoned. You think our virus destroyed their ships as well?”

“Not unless the Elders built their mining ships for them,” Sarah said. “And I doubt they would ever give another species their own technology. The way the Elders set up their colonies, Orbra-Tah probably has no need for the vast amounts of raw materials their mining operation produced. Once the Elders’ demand for materials disappeared, there was probably no need to keep this operation running.”

“Well, whatever is going on, it looks like they had a pretty substantial mining operation. If we could convince the locals to get it going again, it could prove very useful to us. We’re only eighty lightyears from Atlantis, it would be a two-week round trip for freighters to come here, load up on ore and head back,” Stephen said.

“I guess we picked a good Elder colony to visit first,” Sarah said.

“I’m starting to get preliminary readings from the probes,” Hannah reported.

The image on Destiny’s main holo projector changed to show a close in view of the one habitable planet within the system. “It’s not quite Earth,” Sarah said as she studied the image. “But it has its own rugged beauty.” The planet was dominated by several large continents. Some of the text scrolling along the bottom of the image informed her that only twenty percent of the planet was covered in water. Criss-crossing each continent were a number of large mountain ranges and, here and there, deep ravines. Most of the planet’s surface seemed to be a dull rocky grey. The main colors came from the snow-capped mountain peaks and the orange and red vegetation hugging the many streams that flowed down from the mountain ranges. If Earth had been the only planet Sarah had ever visited, the vegetation would have seemed odd. As it was, she was used to such things.

As the image of the planet updated, cities came into focus. The largest ones seemed to hug the rugged coastlines of the major continents. From her knowledge of Earth and the richness of Earth’s oceans, she guessed their location meant the natives obtained a lot of their foodstuffs from the ocean.

“Look at this,” Hannah said as she manipulated the images. “There are several craters along the coastline of this continent. I have detected four so far. There’s no way they are natural.”

Sarah didn’t say anything, though she had a sinking feeling. She had seen the result of Elders detonating nuclear missiles on a planet’s surface often enough to know what she was looking at. The locations of the craters meant only one thing. The Elders had nuked a number of cities. Though she kept her appearance one of outward calm, inwardly she felt her anger stirring. She didn’t need any more reasons to hate the Elders, but they were giving her some anyway. “What kind of energy readings are you getting from the surface?” she asked.

“I’m detecting a number of electricity generators in most of the cities. I think most are steam or water powered,” Hannah answered. “There is one much larger energy source coming from the center of the largest continent. Our probes haven’t swung around to get a proper look at whatever is there yet.”

“It will be the Elder compound,” Sarah explained. “Likely they’ll have a number of fusion reactors there. If they are still running, it would strongly suggest the natives haven’t yet overthrown the Elders. If their compound is still intact, their orbital sensors are no doubt functioning. Will they be able to detect our probes?” Sarah asked as she turned to Kevin.

“No,” Kevin replied. “Based on the technological data we have retrieved from Alexandra and Cassidy’s memory banks, our probes’ stealth coatings should make them invisible to the most sophisticated sensors the Elders have. And I doubt this backward planet warranted that kind of investment.”

“Probe XA-2 is coming up on the large energy source,” Hannah informed Sarah.

“Switch the holo projector over to the probe’s live feed,” Sarah requested.

“What is it?” Kevin asked when a large structure came into view. “It doesn’t look like the standard Elder compound.”

“Alexandra?” Sarah queried when the artificial intelligence didn’t immediately reply.

“It’s an Elder design,” Alexandra answered. “Though not one I have in my database. It’s around sixty percent larger than the typical Elder compound built on a Tier one colony. It could be home to at least five hundred Elders.”

“There are a number of heavy laser cannon emplacements around the outer wall of the compound,” Stephen said as he zoomed in on one of the images. “It looks pretty well fortified. Look here, a number of shuttles and freighters have landed beside the compound. They’re probably from their asteroid mining operation.”

“No wonder the locals haven’t tried to overthrow the Elders yet,” Kevin said. “Without heavy laser turrets or tanks of their own, they would be slaughtered if they tried any kind of attack. I wonder why the Elders went to so much hassle for this colony?”

“Clearly this was an important world to the Elders,” Sarah concluded. “Maybe the asteroid mining operation in the outer system was larger than we detected. Whatever the reason, it is clear the natives haven’t overthrown the Elders. The compound looks completely intact.”

As Stephen zoomed in on another one of the images, Sarah felt a knot tightening in her stomach. The probe had taken visuals of two Elders out in the open, they were slithering towards one of the compound’s outer walls. Though she had seen several Elders in person, the sight of them stirred up memories from her nightmares.

“What are we going to do now?” Hannah asked. “Are we going to attack the Elder compound?”

Sarah knew what she wanted to do. Her gut was telling her to bombard the Elder compound and kill the Elders who were enslaving this planet. Only then could the inhabitants experience true freedom. Yet she hesitated. She had to think about her options. Simmons’ words were ringing in the back of her mind. She couldn’t just jump in.

“What type of communications do the natives have between their cities?” she asked after taking a couple of minutes to assess her options.

“We’re picking up a great deal of radio waves,” Hannah replied. “There’s no sign of any more advanced COM technologies. It seems they are using radio transmitters for all their communications.”

“Find me the largest city on the opposite side of the planet to the Elders’ compound,” Sarah requested. “Alexandra, prep shuttle one for launch.”

“Aye Captain,” Hannah and Alexandra replied almost in unison.

“You’re going to meet with the locals and see if there is any kind of resistance group opposing the Elders?” Kevin guessed as he picked up on Sarah’s mood through their bond.

“Yes,” Sarah answered. “We can’t just go in and destroy the Elder’s compound. We’ve already seen what turmoil the sudden collapse of the Elder’s rule can cause. We should meet some of the locals and see if they want our help. If they do, we will intervene. If not, we have to go on our way for now. If the Ruling Council thinks it necessary, we can always send a team of miners back to the system and get the mining equipment operational ourselves. Alternatively, the Ruling Council could decide to deal with the Elders if they think it is the right course of action. For now, I don’t want to throw this species into a crisis they aren’t prepared for, especially as we won’t be sticking around to help them.”

“I agree,” Kevin said. “If this species is going to throw off the shackles of the Elders, it’s better they do it themselves. They may as well start learning about the responsibility that comes with freedom as soon as possible.”

Sarah shot Kevin a glance. He was usually the one mocking her for becoming a philosopher. She sent her feelings of irony to him through their bond. Then, with the touch of a button on her command chair, she opened a COM channel to Destiny’s engineering compartment. “Jake, report to the bridge. Kevin, Stephen and I are heading down to the planet’s surface. I want you to take command of Destiny while we are away.”

“Aye Captain, on my way,” Jake replied.

“Okay you two, let’s go,” Sarah said as she stood. “We’ll collect our gear on the way. Hannah, contact Lieutenant Jackson and let him know we’ll need an escort for our mission.”

As Sarah made her way to one of Destiny’s shuttle bays, she bumped into Lieutenant Jackson. He was already in his full combat armor. As soon as he saw her, he saluted and fell in step beside her. “We’ve already studied everything the Elder database has on the Orbra-Kim,” he said. “If they decide to be hostile, they shouldn’t pose much of a threat. I’m bringing five of my marines with me.”

Sarah stopped herself from asking him to only bring a couple. She didn’t want to intimidate the locals. Jackson was as close as it came to an expert on ground combat though. She had to trust his judgement.

Of all the additions to Destiny’s crew, Sarah found the marines the strangest. Six months ago the marines hadn’t even existed as a fighting unit. Now there were twelve of them on her ship. They made up nearly one third of her crew. After the liberation of Earth, Simmons and the other ruling councilors had decided to resurrect the old military unit. Based on the information they could find on the old American and British marines, the modern marine units had been formed. Though Jackson had only spent the last six months processing historic files, training his men and simulating strategies, he was far more knowledgeable than Sarah. Sarah doubted the marines would stand up to the final formations that had existed on Earth just prior to the Elder’s invasion. Yet their standards were slowly improving.

“You should bring some combat droids with you,” Alexandra suggested. “They can remain in the shuttle and be ready in case you need to call on them.”

“No,” Sarah said as she shook her head slightly. “The marines should be able to handle whatever comes up. We are not intending to start a firefight.”

“But my latest designs are superior to the marines,” Alexandra insisted.

“In some ways,” Sarah conceded, “but you know they rely almost entirely on my control. If we do get into trouble, I’ll likely be running for cover, I won’t need the distraction from trying to control a bunch of combat droids as well. The marines will be more than enough firepower. Plus they will already be right there with me. If we do find trouble, waiting for your drones to catch up with us would be too risky.”

“Sarah’s right,” Kevin said into her mind.

Sarah bit back a sigh. Clearly Alexandra had included him in the conversation. The AI had likely been hoping Kevin would side with her.

“The marines are trained for this, they will be able to react to any situation we find ourselves in far better than any combat droid. I’m with Sarah on this one,” Kevin finished.

“How kind of you dear,” Sarah said. “I thought I was the Captain here, I didn’t know there were sides to take.”

Kevin simply winked at her.

“I was simply trying to offer you an alternate tactical solution,” Alexandra said sounding slightly hurt. “As Captain, you should be willing to consider every option.”

“I guess I should be thankful then,” Sarah replied without a great deal of enthusiasm. “Have you got the shuttle ready for launch?”

“It will be by the time you get there, I presume you intend to fly yourself?” Alexandra said.

“Of course,” Sarah said with a grin. She was already looking forward to the experience.

Just minutes later Sarah, Kevin, Stephen and the marines were buckled into the shuttle. Sarah ignited the shuttle’s engines and maneuvered the small ship out of the open hanger. She reached out with the shuttle’s sensors. Destiny’s sleek lines dominated a part of her vision, Orbra-Tah another. The rest was filled with the emptiness of space. Sarah embraced the feeling of openness and freedom that came with piloting a ship through such a vast expanse. There was nothing else like it.

As she put the shuttle into a descending orbit, she focused on the planet itself. The shuttle’s sensors were inferior to Destiny’s , yet, as they got closer to the planet, she saw more than Destiny’s holo projector had shown her. Though the planet still looked grey and dull compared to Earth, she saw much more beauty than her initial impressions had suggested. The mountains were as stunningly beautiful as they were bleak. Each one was different to the next and the constantly changing pattern was almost mesmerizing. Near the foothills of many of the mountains she saw exposed mineral deposits. Many of them glistened with a bright blue tinge, adding color to the otherwise grey landscape. The numerous small streams and occasional large rivers that flowed from the mountains towards the oceans added to the pattern. Even the vegetation that hugging the rivers caught Sarah’s interest. Some of the taller trees were nearly a hundred meters high. Even more intriguing was the multi-colored under canopy she could see poking out here and there. Under the red and orange leaves of the taller trees, a myriad of colors came from whatever species hugged the forest floors.

“Do you have a landing site for me?” Sarah asked as the shuttle approached their destination.

Kevin highlighted a spot ahead of them. Sarah saw it through the shuttle’s sensors. Kevin had found a small clearing in one of the forests that hugged the river that flowed down to the city they wanted to visit. It was the ideal spot to hide the shuttle while they headed downstream.

She decelerated to a halt just a couple of hundred meters above Kevin’s landing spot. Then, she paused for a moment and used the shuttle’s sensors to scan the forest. She didn’t want any of the planet’s natives spotting the shuttle. Once her scans told her there were no aliens in the forest below, she descended. As soon as the shuttle touched down, she jumped out of the pilot’s chair and moved towards the shuttle’s rear ramp. Lieutenant Jackson and his marines were already on their feet. As the ramp descended, a potent smell rushed into the shuttle. Sarah, Kevin and Stephen covered their faces as they almost gagged. The six marines didn’t hesitate. Their combat armor filtered out the smell. By the time Sarah’s eyes cleared, they were already out of the shuttle and checking the perimeter.

“There was nothing in the records about the planet’s smell,” Kevin half coughed.

“I think it’s coming from one or more of the plants,” Stephen said. He was holding up a scanner, using it to analyze the air around them. “There’s a very high concentration of biological particulates. Other than the smell, they shouldn’t cause us any harm.”

“Let’s hope the smell lessens as we head towards the coast,” Sarah said as she stepped past Kevin and Stephen and led them down the shuttle’s ramp. “Come on, we have a mission to see to. You guys can stop to smell the roses some other time.” Sarah let a small smile spread across her lips. She had picked up the phrase from some files on Earth’s history. She might have spent her childhood away from Earth and other humans, but she had picked up a thing or two in the last six months.

Kevin sent her the mental equivalent of rolling his eyes, then his seriousness returned and he followed her out of the shuttle. “Let’s not take any risks,” he sent to Sarah’s neural implant.

Chapter 8

“Halt,” Lieutenant Jackson said using his neural implant.

The two marines who were scouting ahead with Jackson froze instantly. Sarah stopped and ducked into a crouch. “What is it?” she asked.

“There’s a boat,” Jackson informed her. “Two aliens are in it, they’re rowing it up the river.”

Sarah stood up to peer through the blue, red and orange shrubs that hugged the river’s edge. They had been using the river to navigate through the forest and towards the coast. Ten meters in front of her, level with Jackson, there was a small boat. One alien sat in the middle of the boat and was working two oars as it rowed up stream. The other seemed to be relaxing as it stared towards the other side of the river. Having already seen images of the Orbra-Kim, Sarah wasn’t startled by their appearance. Though, they were still interesting. They were humanoid with two arms and legs. After that, the resemblance to humans faded. There wasn’t a hair on either of the alien’s bodies. Instead, they had a thick leathery skin that was covered in dazzling patterns of grey and blue. Neither pattern was the same suggesting that they helped to identify each other. To her the patterns almost looked like the camouflaged armor Jackson and his marines used. Even sitting, it was clear the aliens were several feet taller than any human. They were also a lot thinner, both in their torso and in their arms and legs. It gave the aliens a gangly appearance.

“Everyone stay hidden,” Sarah said. “I’m going to try and talk to them.”

Pulling out her scanner, Sarah accessed the language function. The Elder database hadn’t included any information on the Orbra-Kim’s language. Why would it? Sarah thought as she prepared to try and communicate with the aliens. The Elders always shoot first, talking, if it happens, is secondary. With the translation software Alexandra had and the more advanced software the human scientists had developed, she was confident her scanner could decipher the alien language. She just had to get them to speak to her.

Stepping through the shrubs, Sarah moved right up to the river’s edge. She held out both hands to show she had no weapon. Then she called out to the aliens. “Hello there. I mean you no harm. I want to introduce myself.”

Sarah had to bite back a laugh at the aliens’ response. It was comical. As soon as she spoke, both aliens whipped their heads around. Each fixed their three widening eyes on her. Their surprise was clear. The alien who had been rowing lost all control of its oars. One fell out of its grasp into the river. The other dug into the river and twisted the boat off course. As the alien tried to yank the oar back up, it nearly fell out of the boat. As soon as it regained control, it spun around to look at Sarah again. The other alien hadn’t taken its eyes off her.

When neither spoke, Sarah tried again. “I come in peace, I mean you no harm. I only wish to talk.”

Her words shook the aliens out of their stupor. Already the boat had begun to lose way against the river’s current. Letting out a shout that sounded like an expression of fear, the alien with the oar turned the boat around with two quick strokes. Then rapidly rowed the boat downstream, alternating strokes on each side of the boat.

“Hey,” Sarah shouted after them, “Don’t go.”

Her words had no effect. Within thirty seconds, the river’s current and the alien’s rowing had taken the boat well out of earshot. Sarah held the eyes of the alien who wasn’t rowing for several seconds then she shrugged and turned to push through the thick shrubbery. Kevin, Stephen and the marines were waiting for her.

“Well, that didn’t go so well,” Kevin said with half a grin. “Your first meeting with another species as a representative of humanity, and you scared them off!”

Sarah wanted to give him a thump, but she thought better of it given that they weren’t alone. Instead she sent him a mental shove. “I just surprised them, that’s all,” she said to the group. “No doubt those two will head back to their city and tell everyone what they saw. The next aliens we meet will hopefully be more prepared to talk. Let’s keep going, I want to reach the city before nightfall. Jackson, you can take point again.”

A short time later, Sarah stopped. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up. Turning to her left, she sensed rather than saw something coming. Whatever it was, as she turned, it pounced. Leaping into the air, an orange and red striped creature sprang at her. She only caught a brief glimpse of it as it flew towards her. What she saw made her scream. Amidst all the color, razor sharp pincers and a snapping snout loomed over her. Acting on pure instinct, she ducked and rolled. Her nanite enhanced reactions barely saved her. The creature, whatever it was, reached down to try and grab her as it flew past. Several mandibles that ended in sharp points scratched across her back. Sarah’s flight suit automatically hardened as it detected the contact, yet the force of the creature’s thrusts knocked the wind out of her.

As she pushed herself back onto her feet, a groan escaped her lips. Her back hurt. Trying to ignore it, she spun to where the creature had been travelling. Her laser pistol was already leaving its holster. The creature had landed gracefully and was already turning to launch another attack. Now able to see it clearly, Sarah’s horror intensified. It looked like some demented cross between an Earth crocodile and a giant ant. It was easily two meters long. In the brief moments Sarah studied it, its six legs tensed as it prepared to launch itself at her again. Raising her weapon, Sarah prepared to kill the creature. She wasn’t going to let it get close to her again.

The creature exploded as laser beams struck it from two sides. The marines had beaten her to it. Sarah kept her laser pistol trained on the twitching carcass of the animal. Then, when she was sure it was dead, she spun and surveyed the forest around her. The creature had seemingly come from nowhere. It was perfectly camouflaged to move between the multi-colored foliage of the forest. For all she knew, there could be many more of them stalking her group. The marines had the same thought, they were spreading out and looking in every direction.

Kevin was the first to come up to her. “Are you all right?” he asked as he reached out and turned her so he could look at her back. “Your suit is damaged.”

“I’ll be fine,” Sarah answered. “The suit absorbed most of the impact.” She inhaled sharply as Kevin touched her back. “It’s tender,” she admitted. “But I’ll be okay.”

“Let me see.” Kevin replied as he reached out with his implant to aces her suit’s status. She knew that if she didn’t allow him access they would have a fight, so she acquiesced.

“See?” she said a few moments later. “Just some bruising, it will be sore but that’s all. The suit has already released a mild anesthetic gel on the area and my nanites are getting to work. In half an hour, it will be like nothing ever happened.”

“Okay,” Kevin said. “I just wanted to make sure, I was worried. That thing nearly had you.”

“I know,” Sarah said. She opened her bond with Kevin to let him feel her appreciation for his concern. Then she turned and sought out Jackson. “Lieutenant, any sign of more of those creatures?”

“I’m not sure,” Jackson replied. “Our scanners can’t seem to detect them very well. We’re definitely picking up several more of them nearby, but we can’t tell how close they are or just how many. Visually, they are almost impossible to spot unless they reveal themselves. I think we should head out of the forest as soon as possible. We can follow the edge of the forest down to the city. There’s no point taking any risks. We’re not here to offer ourselves as prey to the local wildlife.”

“Very well,” Sarah said, “I’m not going to object to putting some distance between us and whatever those things are.”

“Close up,” Jackson ordered. He waited just long enough for his marines to form a defensive circle around Sarah, Kevin and Stephen, then they moved off at a right angle to the river. Jackson was taking the quickest route out of the forest.

“See, I told you, you should have brought the combat drones,” Alexandra said. Destiny was several thousand kilometers away in high orbit so there was a slight time delay in her ability to communicate.

“Their sensors wouldn’t be any better than our scanners are at detecting these things,” Sarah thought back. “Don’t distract us.”

The artificial intelligence didn’t reply. Sarah guessed she was sulking. Ignoring her, and with laser pistol still in hand, she followed Jackson through the forest. It only took them five minutes to break out of the thick foliage. Their scanners had detected several more of the creatures nearby, but none had attacked. Once they were out of the forest and had put a short distance between themselves and the edge of the trees, everyone relaxed. If one of the creatures tried to attack them now, it wouldn’t be able to sneak up on them.

Looking around, Sarah was struck by just how bland their surroundings were. In the distance there were a number of tall mountains caped in snow. Between the river and the peaks, hundreds of small rolling hills broke up the topography. From what she’d seen from Destiny , Sarah knew there were a number of ravines and cliffs hidden behind the hills. Whether it was the distant mountains, or the closer hills, they all had the same dull grey look. Looking at her feet, Sarah kicked at the grey ground, it was rock solid. Whatever type of rock she was standing on, it dominated the entire area.

“Let’s keep moving,” she said. “This may not be as beautiful as the forest, but it seems blandness has its own advantages. Nothing is going to sneak up on us out here.”

An hour passed as they tramped along the edge of the forest. In the distance, several strange looking spires were coming into view. They were approaching the alien city. One of the marines drew Sarah’s attention away from them.

“It’s beautiful,” the marine said.

“Stay sharp,” Jackson replied. “We’re not here to sightsee.”

A few moments later, Sarah saw what the marine had been looking at. As they rounded the side of a small hill, a sheer cliff came into view. From the ground, up to about two thirds of its height, the cliff was covered in bright blue sparkling quartz or some other kind of mineral. Looking ahead, Sarah could see there were other cliffs between them and the city, many of them also sparkled bright blue.

“It’s a feature of all of the continents on this planet,” Stephen explained. “Whatever mineral is producing that color, it’s heavily concentrated around the coasts. Look at those spires in the distance, they are giving off a slight color. I’d bet as we get closer, we’ll find many of the alien buildings are decorated with the same substance.”

As they walked past the first colorful cliff face, Sarah studied it closely. The marine shad been right, it was beautiful. Though by the time they passed their third concentration of the sparkling material, no one was paying as much attention to it. Instead, Sarah studied the forest. She was still nervous about what was lurking in there. When Jackson stopped, she banged into the back of him. “What is it?” she asked.

“Look,” Jackson said as he stepped to the side.

Right in front of them, less than twenty meters away, an alien had appeared. It was holding a large weapon; its tip dazzled a bright blue. It looked like a spear from Earth’s ancient history. Satisfied the humans had spotted it, the alien levelled the spear and pointed it right at Sarah. Then, with his free hand he pointed to the weapons the humans held. With a hand gesture that was unmistakable, it ordered them to throw their weapons down.

Instinctively, Jackson and the other marines moved to point their weapons at the alien. As soon as they did, more aliens appeared all around them. Sarah caught movement out of the corner of her eye and turned just in time to see more than twenty aliens seemingly materialize right out of the cliff face to her left. She hadn’t made the connection before, but the blue and grey patterns on the aliens’ skin allowed them to perfectly camouflage themselves into the rock face with the sparkling deposits. More movement caused her to spin to her right, out of the forest more aliens appeared. They seemed to be wearing clothes, ones that were colored to perfectly match the forest’s foliage. A cursory count told Sarah there were more than sixty aliens surrounding her party. Every one of them was armed with a primitive looking weapon. Some were spears like that held by the alien in front of them, others looked like projectile firing weapons. Though she hadn’t seen one in person before, she guessed they were analogous to the bows and slings humanity had once used. What concerned her the most however, were the other weapons that looked like rifles or even some kind of modern energy weapon.

“Put your weapons down,” she said to Jackson and the marines. As she spoke, Sarah set her laser pistol down. Standing, she allowed her hand to brush past her scanner, activating its language setting. Hopefully, the aliens wouldn’t see the scanner as a threat as it was still attached to her utility belt.

“Are you sure?” Jackson asked hesitantly.

“Look around Lieutenant,” Sarah replied. “They have us outnumbered and more importantly, outgunned. If it comes to a fight, I’m sure we would kill many of them, but they would get us in the end. We’re not here to make enemies. Let’s show them our intentions.”

“Weapons down marines,” Jackson said and then followed his own order.

Stepping past Jackson, Sarah approached the lone alien in front of them with both her hands outstretched. When she got to within several meters of the alien, she began to speak. “Hello, my name is Sarah. I have come from my world to meet your people. We would like to enter into a friendship. Do your people speak basic?”

Basic was the language the Elders had forced upon the Galaxy. In all of Sarah’s experiences before making it to Earth, she only ever dealt with aliens who had needed to speak the language to trade and communicate. The data she had on Orbra-Kim had led her to believe that many of the natives wouldn’t speak basic. Though, she was hoping some would.

Keeping its spear pointed at Sarah, the alien began to speak. To Sarah’s disappointment, its vocalizations sounded like gibberish to her. After about thirty seconds, the alien lapsed into silence.

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand you yet,” Sarah said. “If you keep speaking, I should be able to understand you soon.”

The alien responded with a few sentences of its own. Then it gestured towards Sarah with its spear.

“You don’t need to point that at me,” Sarah replied. “I mean you no harm.” To emphasize her words, she spread her fingers apart and stretched her hands wider.

The alien shouted at her again and took a couple of steps forward, keeping its spear pointed at Sarah’s chest. Sarah forced herself to remain still. “Don’t react,” she sent to Jackson and Kevin through her neural implant.

“You see, I’m not going to fight you,” Sarah said as she kept her arms empty and spread apart.

“Why have you come to our world? If you seek to enslave us you will find a quick death,” the alien said.

Finally , Sarah thought with a smile despite the alien’s threat. Her scanner had deciphered the alien’s language.

“My name is Sarah,” she said again slowly, knowing that her scanner would translate for her. The Elder’s excelled at making technology that allowed them to dominate other species. Being able to communicate with their slaves had been one of them. For once, she hoped it was being used for good. “I am from a distant planet; my people and I do not come as invaders. We come seeking friendship. Our planet and our people have been enslaved by the Elders for the last two thousand years. Just as your planet is now enslaved. We have gained our freedom. We come to make friends.”

“You are enemies of the Elders?” the alien asked as its spear wobbled.

“Yes, for two thousand years,” Sarah answered.

“It is not possible,” the aliens responded. “We, the Orbra-kim and the Elders are the only species in the galaxy. They have protected and shepherded us for many generations.”

“They have lied to you,” Sarah said. “They are not the only other species in the galaxy. There are thousands and thousands of species. Tens of thousands. The Elders have enslaved many of them, but not all. I am here and I am proof the Elders have lied to you.”

“Why should the Orbra-Kim believe you?”

Sarah gestured to her group. “We come seeking friends, we mean you no harm.” Then she pointed at the alien. “Why do you trust the Elders? You say they have shepherded you, we have seen the craters from space. They have wiped out many of your cities. That is not what I would call shepherding. Do you wish to be free from the Elders?”

The alien hesitated before answering. It looked about, catching the eye of several other aliens, then its eyes returned to Sarah. “To speak of such things is to court certain death,” it said.

“I am not afraid of the Elders,” Sarah replied. “I have fought them before and won, and if I have to, I will fight them again. Freedom is worth fighting for.”

Again, the alien looked at several of its companions. Then it stared at the ground for several seconds before nodding. Sarah hoped that meant the alien had come to a positive decision. As it looked up, it motioned with its spear towards the nearby city. “You may come with us, we will talk more at a safer location.”

“We will be glad to,” Sarah replied with a smile. “My name is Sarah, what is yours?”

“Rurach,” the alien replied. “I am one of the overseers of this city. Now come, the Elders have devices in the sky that can watch us. If they spot you, it will mean trouble for all of us.”

Sarah glanced back to Kevin and the marines and sent them a neural communication. “Pick up your weapons slowly and holster them, then fall behind me. Let’s not do anything to startle our new friends.” Turning back to Rurach, Sarah fell in step beside him as he moved towards the city. Given his height, she almost had to jog to keep up with him. The rest of the aliens formed a ring around the humans, they kept their distance and their weapons were always close at hand.

“This is going a little bit better,” Sarah sent to Kevin as she eyed a projectile weapon that was being pointed at her.

“Indeed, they haven’t speared us yet,” Kevin replied.

Chapter 9

As they came closer to the alien city Sarah could see it was ringed by a giant wall. Here and there large gates allowed aliens to come and go. When they were still quite a distance away, Rurach gestured with his hand. In response, several aliens sprinted towards the nearest gates. When they got there, the gates were shut and the nearby aliens moved off towards other gates.

Instead of heading towards any of the gates, Rurach led the large party towards the river. It entered the city by flowing into a dark opening under the wall. The gates on either side of the river had been shut and there were no aliens milling around who could see them. For a moment Sarah thought Rurach was going to lead them into the river, but, when they came closer, she saw a small walkway that went under the wall. Several aliens stood guard with spear-like weapons.

Rurach nodded to the guards. They stepped aside and allowed the party to enter. Sarah was disappointed they wouldn’t get to see the city above. The spires and buildings within looked beautiful and intriguing. She understood what Rurach was doing though. News of a new species would spread throughout the city and the surrounding regions like wildfire. If the Elders had any spies among the locals, they would soon learn of Sarah’s arrival. As they moved through the dark walkway, Sarah guessed Rurach was taking them to some secret chamber under the city where they could talk without being discovered.

For ten minutes they walked along a ledge by the river, then they came to a sudden halt. Before Sarah could wonder where they were going next, Rurach pressed his hands against a section of wall several feet before the ledge disappeared. It easily gave way to his touch and a doorway appeared as if out of nowhere. Stepping back, Rurach let several of their guards head through first, then he motioned for Sarah and her party to follow. As she stepped through the doorway, Sarah found herself in a small chamber. Like the tunnel the river flowed through, the chamber appeared to be carved out of solid rock. She didn’t have much time to admire it for the guards had already moved through another doorway. By the time they came to a halt, they had walked through seven chambers. In the eighth, there was a large round table. Sitting around it were four new aliens. All rose to their feet as Sarah entered. Studying their physique, Sarah quickly concluded she was meeting a new gender within the alien species. So far, she guessed that all the aliens with Rurach had been male, two of the aliens who stood to meet her appeared female. The differences were strikingly similar to those that distinguished humanity’s two genders.

“Greetings,” one of the aliens said. “My name is Assura, I have been told you have a device that will allow us to communicate with one another?”

“I do,” Sarah said as she moved towards the alien. “My name is Sarah, I am the Captain of a starship called Destiny . We have come seeking friends and allies.” Sarah reached out her hand towards the alien. “It is customary among my people to greet each other by embracing one another’s hand.”

Tentatively the alien reached out its hand and gently caressed Sarah’s. Sarah smiled and took a firmer grip on the alien’s hand, moving it slightly up and down. “Like this,” she said. Assura mimicked the gesture.

“Rurach sent word ahead to let us know what he had found. To be honest, I didn’t believe it until you walked through that door,” Assura said. “We never imagined there were other species out there.”

“Rurach has given me that impression,” Sarah replied. “Let me assure you that there are, hundreds of thousands in fact. Not all are like the Elders.”

“So she has said already,” Rurach commented as he stepped into the chamber. “I have explained that her story will take some convincing.”

“That is why we agreed to come with you,” Sarah said as she turned to Rurach. Then, turning back to the aliens seated around the table, she introduced Kevin, Stephen and the marines.

In return, Assura introduced the other three aliens with her. Each one held the title of Overseer. After the introductions, Assura encouraged Sarah and her people to sit around the table. Then she ordered the guards to leave.

“Overseer?” Sarah asked as she moved into her seat. It wasn’t exactly a comfortable fit, but she could make do. “Does that mean that you four are in charge of this city?”

“The five of us are,” Assura explained, “Overseer Rurach is the fifth. He is in charge of the city’s defenses, I its commerce, Chattel its agriculture, Debura its industry and Efalt deals with the other cities that trade with us. You said you were a Captain of a starship. What does that mean?”

“Me and my people arrived on your planet from a ship we have in orbit. We used it to travel from our world to yours,” Sarah answered.

“So you are from an entirely new world, is it like ours?” Efalt asked.

“It is a little different,” Kevin answered. “But it is roughly the same size and from what we can tell, our cities and overall population are similar.”

“That’s amazing,” Efalt said as she turned to her colleagues. “An entirely new world, it would be exciting to explore it.”

“Not just one new world,” Rurach said. “If she can be believed, there are millions of them.”

“And the Elders, that means they must have their own homeworld as well,” Assura surmised. “We always suspected it was so.”

“I suppose a long time ago they had just one,” Sarah said. “Now, they have twenty-two worlds they call their homeworlds. Each world has more than a thousand times the number of Elders on it than you do your own species on this planet. The Elders are a very ancient and powerful race.”

“You said the Elders are your enemies. We would hear how this came to be," Rurach asked.

Sarah gave a brief overview of humanity’s history, careful to keep the name of her species and Earth to herself. If word got back to the Elders, she didn’t want it to include anything that could identify where she was from. She focused on the Elders’ initial invasion and the two thousand years of slavery humanity had endured.

“How did you come to be here?” Debura asked. “The Elders have never allowed anyone from our species to leave this system. How is it that they allow you to leave?”

“The Elders no longer rule over our homeworld,” Sarah explained. “Just over six months ago we launched an attack against the Elder warships in our home system. We destroyed their fleet and released a virus that destroyed many hundreds of Elder warships. Our homeworld is free, we now decide our own future. That is why we have come here, we desire to make friends with our neighbors. We would like to help you free yourselves from the Elder’s rule if that is your desire. After that, my people would be willing to help protect you from the Elders in the future. Tell me, how did your planet come to be controlled by the Elders? We saw the craters along the coastline of several of your continents. I have seen such craters before, your planet is not the only one where the Elders have bombarded cities from space.”

The overseers looked at each other, all seeming hesitant to speak. Sarah thought she understood. So far, they hadn’t said anything that betrayed the Elders, or even made it look like they were opposed to their rule. The Overseers were no doubt fearful of what the Elders could do to them.

“We have already destroyed the Elder warships in this part of the galaxy,” Sarah said as she sought to force the Overseers’ hands. “For now at least, they do not have the ability to destroy your cities. In fact, I could destroy their compound on the other side of this continent. There’s nothing they could do to stop me. Also, if you’re frightened of betraying the Elders or going against them, I’m afraid it’s too late. I suspect this meeting with me will be viewed as a serious offence. If the Elders find out and they had the means, they would probably destroy your city.”

“I sense you are trying to alleviate our fears,” Assura said. “But you heighten them instead. How can we trust you if you say your very presence endangers our city? Your admission tells us you knew the possible consequences of coming here, and yet you came nonetheless. You have intentionally jeopardized our people.”

Sarah chose her words carefully, she knew that Assura’s charge was correct. “We knew the risks and we came anyway because we believe the opportunity we can offer your people outweighs the risk. For two thousand years my people have been enslaved, living in constant fear. Now, they have the chance to be free. That chance comes at great risk. The Elders could return to destroy my homeworld at any time. Right now, my people are doing all they can to protect against that eventuality, but it is a serious risk. However, for freedom, that is a risk my people have gladly embraced. I have come here because your people deserve the same choice. If you wish, we will leave and not make contact with your people again. We cannot take back the fact that we have approached you, but we will try and make sure the Elders never learn we were here. On the other hand, your people and my people have a unique opportunity. The Elders have been driven out of this part of the galaxy, now is the only chance your people may ever get to be free from them. It may be a small chance, but it is one you all deserve to have, if you wish it.”

Again the Overseers looked back and forth between one another. Assura, who Sarah took to be the leader of the group, spoke first. “You bring tradition shattering information into our midst and seek to resurrect long abandoned ideas. Such notions of freedom and warfare are alien to us. It will take us some time to take in all that you say. You have expanded our concept of the galaxy greatly, never mind our view of ourselves.”

“I understand this is all new and difficult,” Sarah said. “I have not come here seeking immediate answers. I am on a greater mission that will take me much further from my homeworld and I cannot stay too long. However, I wished at the very least to introduce ourselves and explain the possibilities that are now open to you.”

“Where do we go from here?” Assura asked.

“You have heard something about my people, I would be happy to share more. Perhaps though, it will be helpful if you are to tell me more about your people. What has been your history with the Elders?” Sarah replied.

When Assura looked at Rurach, he nodded to her slightly. After a brief hesitation, she began to speak. “What we know of the time before the Elders is nothing but myth and legend. Until today, I dismissed all such things as a waste of time. Some of the ancient stories speak of a time when our people were free to do what they wished. It was then that our great cities were built and our people dreamt of even bigger and more magnificent accomplishments. For as long as our written records go back, things have been different. The Elders impose strict laws upon us, our population numbers are controlled, so too are our technological advancements. In every city, the Elders have paid informants who watch everyone, looking for rule breakers. We are not even allowed to establish new cities. Our people are strictly kept to certain geographical locations.

“Most believe that is the way things have always been. We are taught in school that the Elders are benevolent masters, they structure our society to keep us safe and allow us to flourish. Whilst we know the Elders control our curriculum, many accept the general story for there is no evidence to the contrary. Until today I counted myself among them. Most have come to accept that the Elders originated on our planet. It’s true they do not resemble anything else on our world and do not seem to fit. Yet, the only form of space travel we have known are the ships the Elders had us build to ferry workers to the asteroid mining stations. We know other Elder ships visit the stations to collect the ore, but we have never known where they came from or went.”

“Probably they take the ore to other star systems where the Elders use other species to build whatever it is they want the ore for,” Sarah suggested. “Tell me, how much interest do the Elders take in the day-to-day running of your cities?”

“Very little,” Assura answered. “As long as we don’t break the rules. They claim to be able to watch every one of our cities from their compound in the city of Bothana. Occasionally, some Elders visit each city to remind us of their authority. The last time they came here, I was a young woman. I still remember it well. Several adults were selected and the Elders ordered the Overseers to execute them. It was unnecessary, but I suppose it served its purpose, everyone in the city who was there that day knows their place.”

“What is this city called?” Sarah asked when she realized she didn’t know.

“Kratticia,” Assura answered. “It means city of the falling river,” she added when she saw Sarah and the other humans didn’t understand the word.

“What happened to the overseers who followed the Elders’ command to kill their brethren?” Kevin followed up.

“They left the city after the Elders,” Assura said. “Everyone understood, if they had refused to obey, the Elders might have destroyed our city. Yet, no one could live with them knowing what they had done. Looking back, I doubt they could live with themselves. They left and no one saw them again.”

“I mentioned the craters along the coast earlier, they look to be in prime city locations, what do you know of them?” Sarah asked.

“Again, only myths and legends,” Assura answered. “There is one story that says when our people’s freedom came to an end, several great cities fought to resist the change. They were all destroyed in giant fireballs by the gods. The story is usually told to show the folly of trying to change the order of our society. If it’s true that the Elders enslaved our people thousands of years ago, I guess the story of cities being destroyed is history as well.”

“I’m afraid so,” Sarah said. “It is something I’ve seen the Elders do many times before. It’s one of the reasons why my race seeks to stop them. We do not want them to destroy our world or any other worlds.”

“There’re also the stories the people from Aranea tell,” Efalt said.

Sarah looked at Efalt and then to Assura. When Assura nodded, Efalt continued. “No one really believes them, but the people of Aranea say there was once a twin city to Aranea no more than fifty kilometers along the coast. It was destroyed one night when fire rained from heaven and consumed it. The stories are old, they say this happened several generations ago. No one I know has visited the site, but the Araneans say there is a crater there and they blame their poor crop yields on the effects of the fire.”

“No doubt the work of the Elders as well,” Sarah said sadly. “Are there any reasons given for this attack?”

“Supposedly, Elder informers discovered a resistance cell within the city,” Efalt answered. Rurach shot Efalt a sharp look but the Overseer didn’t seem to notice. Instead she continued speaking. “The Araneans say the informers left the city and, hours later, it was destroyed. The informers moved to Aranea, ever since their descendants have been shunned.”

“So there is a resistance!” Sarah said with a grin. “Your people don’t just accept the Elders’ rule unconditionally.”

Assura reached over and placed a hand on Efalt’s arm, stopping the overseer from speaking. Instead Assura answered in a near whisper. “There are some who believe the ancient legends. They seek to overthrow the Elders. I know very little of them. It is said they have cells in many of the largest cities. They are supposedly working to find ways to defeat the Elders. I’ve always thought the notion misguided. The Elders are simply too powerful. From everything you’ve told us today, they are far more powerful than I ever imagined.”

“But the existence of a resistance suggests your people aren’t happy with their current situation,” Kevin said as he leaned forward. “Perhaps many of your people wish to be free from the Elders, they have just had the sense not to risk angering them. Now we are here, we can offer you a realistic opportunity of removing the Elders from your planet.”

“Perhaps,” Assura said slowly. “You’re suggesting that some of us would be willing to risk our entire species’ existence on just the information you have given us. Even to contemplate the idea that I would like to see the Elders’ rule come to an end is a massive admission to make. You’re speaking of very dangerous things.”

“Perhaps we should change the topic slightly,” Rurach said as he picked up on his colleague’s concern. “You have spoken of a potential alliance and of the risk of the Elders returning to your world, how can our people possibly help you? We have no starships of our own, the only ships in our system are controlled by the Elders and they only serve to bring workers to the ore mining stations at the edge of our system. Why have you come here speaking of these things?”

“In part I have already answered,” Sarah said. “After our liberation from the Elders my people came to a decision. The Elders have enslaved the galaxy for too long. If we can, we intend to see every species free. If it costs us our existence, then so be it. If you wish to overthrow the Elders and we can help you, we will. That’s a part of the reason. The other is that we need help. Assura was right earlier, we cannot stand against the might of the Elders alone. But, with allies we may stand a chance. You and your people may not have the technologies to build warships, but in time we could help you with that. More immediately, we need your ore. Your system is far richer in the rare minerals required to construct warships than ours. Though it’s not functioning now, the Elders have used your species to set up a large mining operation. If your people could get it running again, your ore will prove invaluable in our efforts to build a fleet able to rival the Elders’.”

“And if we were to give you our ore, what would we get in return?” Rurach asked. “How would you protect us? It sounds like you have defeated the Elders once, yet what guarantees would we have that they won’t simply come and destroy us?”

“You would have none but our promise to protect you and any defenses you yourselves are able to construct,” Sarah explained. “We can help you liberate your planet. And after that, in exchange for your ore, we can build you ships and orbital defenses. We can give you technologies and the capabilities to build your own ships and defenses in time. Beyond that, our fleet and yours could work together to protect each other. That is the future we seek to offer the species around us, but it is only a hope, a chance. The Elders could destroy us all before it is realized. That is why time is of the essence.”

“You make bold promises,” Assura stated. “You paint a hopeful picture of a possible future but you’re only one person. How is your world ruled? Do you have the authority to make such promises, to offer such alliances?”

Sarah was about to say no when Kevin gave her a mental kick through their bond. She was trying to ensure the Overseers understood the serious risks involved in overthrowing the Elders. She also didn’t want to overstep her authority. “What?” she asked Kevin silently.

“You do have the authority,” he answered.

“I’m not a Ruling Council member,” Sarah shot back.

“Remember the planetary collaboration, the influence you had. Our people see you as a leader, whether you’re a council member or not. If you recommend an alliance with this species, the council will follow you. Tell them who you are, win their confidence. Diplomacy, friendships and alliances are as much about people and personalities as they are about truth and agreements,” Kevin said.

Through their neural implants, their conversation took less than a couple of seconds. Before she tried to answer Assura, Sarah considered Kevin’s words. He was right, she had sensed the weight her words had carried in the planetary collaboration. It was in part her desire to see an alliance of many species standing against the Elders that had brought her people to the path they were now on. If you want these aliens to be the first of many who would taste freedom, you have to convince them , Sarah told herself. But it’s not going to be easy to walk away from two thousand years of slavery.

Sarah took a deep breath. “My people rule themselves by what we call democracy. There is a Ruling Council, a collection of leaders who make decisions on behalf of all our species. They are elected from the general populace by every individual of our species. While I am not on that council, I serve the council and lead my people. I have defeated a number of Elder warships in single combat with my ship, I helped destroy the Elder fleet that defended our homeworld. It was my actions that led to the release of the virus that has destroyed every Elder warship in this part of the galaxy. It is my experience with other species that gave my people the desire to help those around us. I cannot speak for the Ruling Council, but I can speak on behalf of my people. Whatever agreements I bring back to our homeworld will be honored, that is why I was sent out here.” As she spoke, she realized the truth of her words. Her mission wasn’t only important, it was vital. The scout ships sent to the Tyrilla Storm had a critical goal to achieve, yet hers was more important. It might not necessarily involve lots of battles, but she was fighting nonetheless. She was fighting to win future allies. That was why Councilor Simmons had sent her on this mission. Whether she liked it or not, her past achievements meant she was the ideal candidate to represent humanity. And if she failed to find allies and trading partners, the plan the Ruling Council was putting in place would falter.

Embracing the role she had to play, she pressed the Overseers. “Your people have a choice to make. Either we leave and you continue being ruled by the Elders on this planet. However, that may not last long. Other species or even pirate groups or slavers may come here seeking to make a profit from you. The Elders will not be able to stop them. That’s one path you now face. The other is with us. We can become trading partners, or much more. One way or another, your species has to make a decision. Not now, not today, but soon.”

Assura and Rurach looked at each other. The other overseers also exchanged glances. “You have given us much to consider,” Rurach said. “We will need time to digest your words. It would help us greatly if you could produce evidence to back up all that you have said. As you no doubt understand, we are hesitant to make such a monumental decision on just your word alone.”

“I understand,” Sarah said. “Both your need for time and evidence. We can provide you with reams of information we have on the Elders’ empire and of the many species we have met. However, it will all be information we have produced. At some point, you are simply going to have to decide to trust us or not.”

“Can you spread the news to the other leaders of the other cities?” Kevin asked. “This is a decision all your people should make together if they can.”

“We will discuss everything you have shared with us today,” Assura said. “However, we have no quick means of communicating with the other city Overseers without risking an Elder informer intercepting what we say. The best we can do is send trusted couriers to each city. An encrypted radio transmission would immediately be sent to the Elders and decrypted.”

“What about this resistance you have spoken of, can we contact them?” Sarah asked. “They could contact the leaders of each city, couldn’t they?”

“I have no idea,” Assura answered. “If there is a cell in the city I know nothing about it. Certainly, not how to contact them.”

“We could send out feelers into the city and allow them to contact us,” Efalt suggested. “Though it would be dangerous, an Elder informer could hear about it and then the city would be in jeopardy.”

“There’s no need,” Rurach said. “I can get a message to the cell in Kratticia. They can then send it to the rest of the resistance. They will have no problem contacting the Overseers of each city.”

“You can contact them?” Assura said as she swung round to look at Rurach. “How?”

Rurach flashed Assura a small smile. It was the first non-serious facial gesture Sarah had seen from him. “We in the resistance are experts at blending in. The idea is that no one should suspect us.”

“You…” Sarah began and then fell silent.

Rurach nodded slowly. “I cannot speak for the resistance,” he said, turning to Sarah. “But if what you say is true, then you are the best chance our species will ever have to rid ourselves of the Elders. If the decision is made to openly oppose the Elders, we will fight alongside you.”

“All right,” Assura said as she regained her composure. “We have much to discuss, if you don’t mind we have some accommodation here under the city where you can stay. After we discuss what you have shared with us, I will allow Rurach to contact his cell and pass on the information to the rest of our cities. No doubt we will have many more questions for you before we can come to any decision.”

“That is understandable,” Sarah replied. “We cannot stay too long, but we can give you a couple of days. If you can come to a decision by then, we will help you. If not, we will have to leave, but I will make sure others come in my place.”

Chapter 10

It was a full two days before Sarah and her team met with the five overseers again. Individually, Sarah, Kevin, Stephen and Lieutenant Jackson had spent time with different leaders from Kratticia. Though Sarah felt they were beginning to develop some friendships, they had no idea what direction the aliens would choose. They had provided as much information about the Elders and the galaxy as they could. Despite a number of brainstorming sessions with Kevin and her team, she had been unable to come up with any other way of swaying the Overseers towards seeking some kind of trade or military alliance with humanity.

Rurach was the last Overseer to enter the chamber where they had met previously. Behind him another alien walked in. “This is Tratan,” Rurach said. “He is the leader of the resistance cells in the eastern half of our continent. The resistance leadership has given him permission to speak on their behalf.”

Sarah moved towards Tratan and shook his hand. The aliens had naturally taken to the formal greeting. “I’m pleased you’ve been able to come and join with us.”

“As am I,” Tratan said. “My family has been involved in the resistance for generations, we have waited a long time for an opportunity like this. I just hope we are ready.”

“The resistance has already proved useful,” Assura said. “They provided us with a means of communicating with most of the other cities on our planet. I have personally spoken to eight other city Overseers. There has not been unanimity in our discussions, however we have come to one decision. We want to know, if we choose to seek your aid in overthrowing the Elders, how would it be done?”

Sarah couldn’t help but smile. If the Overseers were already contemplating attacking the Elders, they were halfway towards a friendship with humanity. “I’ll let Lieutenant Jackson explain our options,” Sarah said. Attacking the Elder compound was one thing she had discussed with Kevin and Lieutenant Jackson in their spare time. Sitting back in her seat, Sarah turned to Jackson and nodded to him.

“The simplest approach would be to bombard the Elder compound from space,” Jackson began. “We wouldn’t use nuclear weapons or anything that would seriously damage the surrounding area. A few volleys of laser beams would destroy the compound. We wouldn’t be able to kill all the Elders, but we would knock out most of their defenses and personnel. A ground assault would finish off the rest. We could launch the attack as quickly as your resistance could gather the forces necessary to storm the remnants of the Elder compound.

“That however would not be our preferred option,” Jackson continued. “Since we arrived we have been collecting detailed scans of the Elder compound. It seems that all of the ships used to bring your miners to the asteroid mining facilities are stationed within the Elder compound. If we attack from space, they will be destroyed. To be frank, the mineral producing capabilities of your system are what makes you so important; to us, to the Elders, and to others who may be nearby who may find out about you. It is also what will give you the best chance of developing your own independence. If you can mine the minerals in your system and protect what you harvest, you can then trade it for technologies and alliances.

“The Elder compound has a primitive shipyard built under its structure. It can never be used to produce Elder designed ships, but it does appear to be able to build more of the basic shuttles your people have used. If we could capture it intact, it would allow your people to take the first steps towards developing your own space industry and fleet. I would therefore suggest that if we progress with taking on the Elders, we try to take the compound intact. It will likely cost a lot more lives but, in the long run, it will be more beneficial to your people.”

“That would seem like the best approach,” Assura said.

“You have our interest Lieutenant,” Tratan added. “Go on.”

“Well, in that case, there are a number of ways we could attempt to take the compound,” Jackson continued.

As Jackson outlined the operations Sarah and Kevin had discussed with him, Sarah watched the Overseers. Their facial expressions weren’t identical to those of humanity, but there were quite a few similarities. As Jackson explained some of the things his marines could do, she could see concern on Assura’s face. The sheer power and potential for destruction of modern technology had seemed to scare her. On the other hand, from Tratan and Rurach’s faces Sarah thought she was seeing excitement. That was understandable, Jackson was giving the two resistance members multiple ways in which the Elder compound could be defeated. A goal both had devoted much of their lives to.

When Jackson was finished, Sarah re-joined the conversation. “You have heard what we can do, the question is, what do you want us to do? There’s no way your people can come to a consensus without letting the Elders know what we are trying to do. You six here have to make a decision for your people. Or, at the most, you need to go and speak to the other city leaders and quickly decide among yourselves.”

“Most of the other city leaders have already agreed to abide by whatever decision we come to,” Assura said. “They recognize it will be impossible to come to a decision with so many leaders spread across so many cities. They have put their trust in us.”

Sarah did her best to keep her face straight. After the defeat of the Elder fleet around Earth, this was perhaps the most important moment in her people’s history. She could tell by the glances the Overseers were sharing with one another that they had come to a decision. Thinking of nothing else she could say, she waited for Assura to continue.

“Though we cannot corroborate much of what you have told us, our history with the Elders suggests what we cannot prove is nevertheless true. If that’s the case, then the help you’re offering us is a once in, not just a single lifetime, but a once in the entire lifetime of our species opportunity. We would therefore like to request that you aid us in overthrowing the Elders. I think it best we follow the second or third strategy Jackson outlined. It is our intention to develop our mining industry and, if your species is willing to help us, to develop our technological and military capabilities. Speaking of alliances is premature, but if you help us, I think it likely our two species will become firm friends. If you can free my people we will be forever in your debt.”

Sarah let the smile she was hiding spread across her face. Through her neural link she could feel Kevin’s excitement as well. This was the beginning of something significant.

*

Three days later and Sarah and her party were back on Destiny . The frigate was cruising towards Orbra-Tah with its reactors and engines operating at full capacity. To the Elders on the planet, the frigate would be impossible to miss.

As Sarah waited for the Elders to contact them, she couldn’t help but watch Rurach and Assura’s reactions. Both had accepted her offer to accompany her back to Destiny . Since they had set foot on the advanced warship, a look of wonder hadn’t left their faces. At the moment, both were studying the holo projection of Orbra-Tah that dominated the bridge. As Destiny came closer and closer to the planet, the holo projection magnified to simulate their approach. Both Overseers were lost in the delight of being able to study their world so closely.

“We’re getting a communication from the planet,” Hannah reported. “It’s from the Elder compound.”

“Let’s see it,” Sarah requested.

Hannah changed the image on the holo projector. A large slimy grotesque looking Elder appeared in front of them. This one looked especially repulsive. It seemed more overweight and slimier than even a normal Elder. At once it began to speak. “Unknown contact entering the system, identify yourself at once. This is commander Crantor.”

“Do you have our fake Elder ready to go?” Sarah asked Alexandra.

“Of course,” she replied.

“Then send this, ‘Commander Crantor, I am Captain Klixar of the frigate XT23145. I have been sent to evacuate your people. Some unknown force has attacked and destroyed our warships in this sector of space. We are pulling out all our personnel until we can return in force. Please assemble your people around the landing zone. I’ll be sending down shuttles to collect you momentarily.’”

Alexandra changed the image on the holo projector. This time the Elder in front of Sarah was familiar to her. It was the previous Captain of Destiny . They had used a hologram of Klixar to trick other Elders before. Sarah was hoping it would work again. When Klixar spoke no one on the bridge could understand it, but Sarah knew Alexandra had translated her words.

“They’re replying,” Hannah said. The image on the holo projector changed. Crantor stood before them. Alexandra translated her words. “We analyzed what destroyed our orbital defense station. It was some kind of virus. It caused our defense station and satellites to self-destruct. Are you saying the virus has affected other systems? Why do we need to leave? The local population poses no threat to us.”

Sarah nodded to Hannah to let her know she should record her words. She had anticipated the Elder’s questions. “The virus hasn’t just affected your system, it has affected every sector from here to the edge of explored space. High Admiral Jal’tact has been sent from the Homeworlds, fleets are being gathered along the sector capitals we still control. It is believed this virus was a pre-emptive strike before an invasion from an unknown alien race located in unexplored space. All Elder compounds affected by the virus are being evacuated. We do not have the ships to protect you from invasion. My orders are clear, I’m to embark all of our species on this planet immediately. If you won’t comply, I must leave and report to my senior officer. Our shuttles will be launching in ten minutes, have your people assembled.”

Sarah paused to allow Hannah to finish the recording and Alexandra to translate it into the Elder’s language. “If Crantor asks any more questions, just repeat the last sentence and include a count down until the shuttles will land.”

“Yes Captain,” Hannah said.

“Do you think Crantor believes your story?” Assura asked.

“She may have some doubts,” Sarah answered. “But Destiny should still look very similar to an Elder frigate. Especially through the Elder compound’s less powerful scanners. There is little chance Crantor will believe anyone else has the audacity to fly right up to their compound. It should work.”

“I see,” Assura replied.

Sarah thought she didn’t sound too sure. “The Elders are a formidable enemy. Their technology and the sheer size of their empire makes them almost unbeatable. At least at the moment. Yet, one-on-one we have shown we can take them on. Out here at least, so far from their Homeworlds, many of the Elders have become complacent. For more than two thousand years they haven’t faced any kind of threat. It’s my experience that many have become stuck in their way of thinking.”

“Detecting movement from the Elder compound, it looks like Elders are moving into the open,” Hannah reported as if to prove her right.

Sarah stood. “I’m going to shuttle bay two, Stephen you have the bridge. Assura, Rurach, I’ll see you both when this is over.” Nodding to Kevin, she led him off the bridge.

“Good luck,” Rurach called after them.

When she stepped into the shuttle bay both Elder shuttles were already powered up and their engines humming. Lieutenant Jackson stood in between them with his twelve marines split into two groups. “All ready to go Lieutenant?” Sarah asked as Jackson turned towards her.

“Ready when you are Captain,” Jackson replied.

“Load up,” Sarah ordered. She ascended the rear ramp of the nearest shuttle and sat in the pilot’s chair. Kevin sat beside her. Sarah waited until the six marines in her shuttle were belted in before she ordered the command helmet to lower. Once it engaged with her neural implant, she lifted the shuttle off the hangar deck and turned, accelerating out of the hangar bay door. The second shuttle, piloted by Ensign Hunter, was close behind.

Travelling at the shuttle’s highest speed, it only took a couple of minutes to reach the planet’s atmosphere. The inertial compensators protected the crew from most of the turbulence from passing through it. As the Elder compound appeared over the horizon, Sarah studied it in far greater detail than she had to date. Using the shuttle’s sensors, she focused on any part of the compound that was visible. She identified a large group of Elders who had gathered near several primitive looking spacecraft. They were standing near an open space, clearly where they expected the two incoming shuttles to land.

“I’m highlighting targets now,” Kevin informed her.

A number of structures began to flash as Kevin overlaid his targeting data onto the visuals. The compound’s defenses were all selected as well as its power generators. Kevin was also planning to level the section of the compound that was above ground. With a mental nod, she confirmed Kevin’s targets and instructed him to send the targets to Ensign Hunter. When Hunter acknowledged he was locked onto the targets, Sarah told them both to wait.

Letting out a deep breath, she slowed the shuttle until it came to a halt above the compound. Then she descended, bringing the shuttle down as if she intended to land in front of the assembled Elders. She waited until the nearest Elders were able to look through the shuttle’s cockpit. Only when shock and horror spread among their faces did she give the command. “Now.”

Laser beams and rockets shot across the compound. Explosions erupted all around the Elders. Weapons towers, sensor emplacements and communication arrays were the first things destroyed. Then another round of rockets was launched and the central building of the Elder compound exploded as a fireball engulfed it. Lieutenant Jackson and his marines wouldn’t have to worry about any Elders that hadn’t already evacuated it.

The Elders in front of Sarah’s shuttle were glued to the spot. Either from fear, or a realization that there was nowhere else to run, they remained still. As soon as the explosions died down, Sarah’s shuttle broadcast a prearranged message. In the Elder’s language, it commanded them to remain where they were and throw down their weapons. As Kevin turned the shuttle’s laser cannons to bring them to bear on the group of Elders, Hunter landed his shuttle. Before the rear access ramp hit the ground, seven marines poured out of it. They surrounded the Elders and moved towards them to relieve them of their weapons. Three elders were gunned down when they tried to raise their weapons. The rest quickly dropped theirs.

Once his marines were out, Hunter lifted his shuttle into the air and pointed its laser cannons at the Elders. That was Sarah’s cue. She banked her shuttle and maneuvered it over to the entrance to the compound’s shipyard. Landing, she allowed Jackson and his squad of marines to disembark. With the majority of the Elders secured, their primary objective was the shipyard. It had to be captured intact.

Chapter 11

As soon as his feet touched the hardened permacrete, Jackson launched into a sprint. His five marines were behind him. According to the schematics Rurach and the resistance had supplied, the only way into the shipyard, save blasting its launch bay doors, was through a nearby single-story building. That was his target.

Dodging left and right he made it as difficult as he could for someone to take a shot at him as he approached. Despite his caution, there was no sign of opposition. When they got to the building he stepped aside to let one of his marines set shaped charges along the door. When the marine raised three fingers everyone turned their backs. Three seconds later a blinding flash melted a marine sized hole in the door. A second after the explosion, Jackson swung around and was the first into the building.

The first thing he heard was a loud pop. Something solid struck his combat armor. The nanite enhanced nano carbon automatically hardened as the object struck it. Nevertheless, the force of the projectile knocked the wind out of him. Instinctively, he ducked and rolled behind a pillar that seemed to support the roof. As he rolled, he heard several other pops followed by involuntary gasps from the marines behind him.

“Natives,” one of the marines informed everyone through their neural implants. “They are armed with the projectile firing weapons we saw at Kratticia.”

“Each one gave off a puff of smoke when it was fired,” another marine added. “I think they use gunpowder.”

Jackson remembered the weapons he saw several days ago. He had studied the recordings of them in his spare time and classified them as weapons similar to muskets. “They’re probably still reloading. Even if they’re not, they can’t penetrate our armor. Let’s move out, we can’t afford any delays. If there are Elders in the shipyard they could begin a self-destruct sequence. Take them out,” he ordered.

Jackson didn’t like the idea of killing members of the first species humanity might ally with, yet he had no choice. From his position, he lent around the pillar he was using for protection and fired several laser beams. One struck an alien square in the chest. It flew backwards, struck a wall, and then slid down, disappearing from sight. Other laser beams quickly dispatched the force that had tried to block their entrance. Before the last one was hit, Jackson was on his feet and leading his men forward. He knew there was a central staircase in the building that led into the deeper levels of the shipyard. Rurach’s schematics suggested the main control room for the facility was several levels below them.

Quickly moving through two rooms, he came to the stairs that descended into the facility. Just as he was about to charge down them, two large doors at the side of the stairs retracted. Jackson glimpsed a platform coming to rest after ascending from below. What caught his attention were the two natives holding muskets and the Elder standing behind them. If the aliens had seen Jackson’s face through his combat helmet, they would have seen almost as much surprise as appeared on their own. For a second neither group moved, then weapons were raised. Laser beams cut down the two natives. Then they peppered the Elder. Previous experience had taught the marines to fire multiple beams at the Elders. In the second it took for the two natives to fall and the marines to turn their weapons on the Elder, the Elder managed to get a shot off. Jackson dodged instinctively but the shot wasn’t aimed at him.

As soon as he was sure the Elder was down, he spun to check on his marines. Private McMasters was down. Both her hands were clutching her stomach. Her combat armor looked scorched and it was already releasing a white foamy substance around the impact site to dissipate some of the heat from the laser beam. Falling to one knee, Jackson reached out and gently prized away one of McMasters hands. He swore when he saw the wound. The beam had burnt away part of her armor and her flesh was a charred mess. Her armor and nanites were doing all they could for her, but Jackson knew it would still be very painful, and potentially life threatening. Yet there was nothing more he could do for her.

“Cameron,” he thought through his neural link. “Stay with McMasters, cover her and that lift. “Make sure no other Elders come up.”

“Aye Lieutenant,” Private Cameron replied.

After squeezing McMasters’ hand and nodding to Cameron, Jackson spun and lead the rest of his marines down the stairs. They descended through three levels. Twice they were shot at by muskets but Jackson ignored the threat and pushed on to the control room. When they reached the fourth level it was clear they were at their target. Behind large transparent doors, multiple aliens were working furiously at computer terminals.

Jackson didn’t have to give the command. Private Stockdale was already moving forward to set the charges. After the explosion, Jackson led his marines through, shouting for the native technicians to step away from the computer terminals. Thankfully there didn’t seem to be any Elders present. The natives froze and stared at the strange aliens who had appeared in front of them speaking their own language. When they didn’t immediately step away from the consoles, Jackson fired a couple of laser beams into the ceiling. That got their attention, raising their arms in a very human gesture, they all stepped away.

A pop from behind Jackson made him spin round. Two natives had appeared around a corner in the control room. Both had muskets raised. Smoke was billowing from one. Dodging to the side, Jackson’s movement made the second alien hesitate. With only one shot, it had to be sure of its target. Smiling, he fired his laser rifle from his hip. He didn’t have to worry about such things. Laser beams from his rifle and the other marines struck both aliens.

“Spread out,” Jackson ordered. “Make sure there are no more aliens hiding anywhere. If any of the technicians try to touch a computer terminal shoot them in the legs. If they’re not armed, we don’t need to kill them.”

Jackson reached out to Sarah’s neural implant and requested to speak to her. “We’ve secured the control room,” he informed her. “I don’t know what the natives who worked for the Elders were up to, but they were frantically doing something. We stopped them. You can send the resistance fighters down as soon as they make it to the shipyard. We’ll hold here until they relieve us.”

“Good work Lieutenant,” Sarah replied. “Everything is calming down up here; the resistance fighters are already taking the Elders into custody. A detachment will be with you soon.”

*

After dropping off Jackson and his marines, Sarah circled back around to cover the group of Elders. Their weapons had been taken off them and they were huddled close together. Though they didn’t look like a threat, Sarah wasn’t taking her eyes off them. She wanted the resistance fighters to be able to take them into custody and deal with them as they saw fit, but if there was even a hint that the Elders were going to try something, she had no qualms about raking them with her laser cannons.

It looked like she was going to have to do just that. A couple of natives loyal to the Elders appeared from the rubble of the main Elder compound. The first thing Sarah knew about it was the pings the projectiles from their weapons made as they hit her shuttle. Before she could act, Hunter spun his shuttle around to face them. His lasers quickly dispatched them.

“Here comes the resistance,” Hunter informed her.

Sarah looked towards the compound’s outer perimeter. Through the several holes they had blasted in the wall, groups of resistance fighters were rushing through. They carried spears, bows and gunpowder weapons. With surprising speed, they sprinted across the open ground towards the Elder compound. Half split off and headed towards the building that gave access to the underground shipyard. The rest approached the group of Elders Sarah was guarding or swarmed over the rubble of the main Elder compound. Sarah didn’t know if they were looking for survivors or seeking a way to access the remainder of the compound under the rubble.

As the group who were approaching the captives neared the marines, Sarah held her breath, these Orbra-Kim had never met humans before. The first Orbra-Kim to reach the marines lowered his spear and held out a hand. Sarah relaxed and allowed herself a grin as the marine returned the gesture. Clearly someone had told the local resistance cell about human customs. For a moment discipline broke down as the resistance members shook hands with the marines. Then seriousness returned as some of the resistance fighters moved towards the group of Elders. They produced restraints from pouches and backpacks and restrained the arms of the Elders. The marines stepped back to allow the locals to take charge of their prisoners.

One Orbra-Kim stayed with the marines and was talking frantically to one of Sarah’s men. Then the alien turned around and waved at Sarah’s shuttle, clearly indicating that she should land. Moments later the marine the alien was talking to contacted at Sarah. “I think this is the leader of the local resistance cell, she is requesting to speak to you.”

“Ok, tell her I’ll land now,” Sarah acknowledged. She swept the compound with the shuttle’s sensors and, when she didn’t see any other threats, landed the shuttle. “Keep an eye on things,” she said to Kevin as she disengaged the interface helmet.

“I’ll keep playing soldier while you go off and play diplomat,” Kevin responded. He shot her a cheeky grin.

Sarah poked him as she walked past. He knew she preferred captaining Destiny and piloting shuttles to meeting alien leaders. It seemed though that this mission was going to involve a lot more of the latter than the former.

As she stepped off the shuttle, the alien resistance leader moved forward to meet her. “Well met,” she said to the alien as they shook hands. “You coordinated your assault with ours to perfection. My name is Sarah.”

“I know who you are Captain,” the alien replied. “My name is Jassor, Tratan has told me all about you. It is a pleasure to meet you. I want to thank you for everything your people have done here today. We are in your debt.”

“We are happy to help,” Sarah said. “We know what it is to be held in slavery.”

Jassor motioned back towards the Elders. “Are you happy to hand over the Elders to us? They are your prisoners. If you wish to take them I will not stand in your way.”

“No,” Sarah answered. “They had ravaged your people, they should face justice at your hands.”

Before Sarah could say anything more or Jassor could respond, her attention was pulled elsewhere as her eye caught movement. Lieutenant Jackson and several marines were exiting the building that led down to the shipyard. It wasn’t their appearance that distracted her, but the marine that was being carried by two others.

“Excuse me,” Sarah said to Jassor as she stepped past the resistance leader to get a better view. With her neural implant she contacted Jackson. “Who is injured? Is it bad?”

“Private McMasters,” Jackson responded. “She took an Elder laser beam to the stomach. It burnt through her combat armor. She’s alive, at least for now. Her armor and nanites are doing all they can but we need to get her back to Destiny’s medical bay.”

Sarah reacted at once. “Get her aboard my shuttle,” she ordered. “Jackson you have command of this operation, help Jassor pacify the compound.” She switched over to talk to Hunter. “I’m putting you under Lieutenant Jackson’s command, do as he requests. I’m taking my shuttle back to Destiny .”

Rushing into the shuttle, Sarah powered up its engines to boost out of the planet’s atmosphere. Looking back, she urged the marines who were strapping McMasters into one of the shuttle’s seats to hurry up. McMasters had entered combat on her orders, she felt responsible for what had happened. As soon as the marines backed away from McMasters and descended the shuttle’s rear ramp, Sarah took off. Going as fast as she could, she accelerated towards Destiny . With a thought, she commanded Alexandra to bring the frigate closer to the planet. McMasters wasn’t going to die on her watch if she could do anything about it. A glance back made Sarah grind her teeth together. It looked like McMasters had passed out from the pain. Turning around, she gunned the shuttle’s engines beyond their safety limit.

*

A day later, Sarah stood in one of Destiny’s observation blisters staring down on Orbra-Tah. Slightly off to one side a group of Overseers were milling around, staring down at their homeworld. They were talking quietly to one another and Sarah didn’t care to try and make out what they were saying. They were representatives from the ten largest cities on Orbra-Tah. Alexandra had suggested Sarah meet with them on Destiny rather than the planet. Given how impressed Assura and Rurach had been with the Elder frigate, Alexandra guessed having the first official negotiations between the Orbra-Kim and humanity on the Earth warship would encourage the Overseers to see the benefits of forming an official partnership between the two species.

It seemed to have worked. The talks had gone well, very well in fact. Many of the city leaders had been eager to sign a formal trade treaty with humanity that would include provisions that could lead the agreement to blossom into a full-blown alliance. Sarah had held back from signing something so formal. She didn’t feel she could take such a huge responsibility onto herself. In the end, they had come to a compromise. The Overseers had agreed to restart their asteroid mining facilities. They would provide Earth with an initial quantity of minerals in return for the help Sarah had provided in liberating their planet from the Elders. Sarah had agreed to trade certain agricultural, energy generation and primitive ship design technologies for further mineral shipments. Beyond that, she thought it best that an official delegation from Earth be involved in any more long-lasting treaties that were signed. One thing she had promised was a freighter of human engineers and scientists. They would help the Orbra-Kim accelerate their technological and industrial progress. Possibly just as importantly, an assessment of the shipyard the Elders had built indicated that it would be able to build defense satellites. They would be far more primitive than the ones being placed in orbit around Earth, but they would deter pirates and slavers. The engineers from Earth would be able to help the Overseers quickly get some defenses in orbit.

Even though Sarah knew she had accomplished much and had come a long way in proving the wisdom of the decision made at the planetary collaboration, she didn’t feel as excited as she should.

“You’re thinking of your lost marine, aren’t you?” Assura said as she approached Sarah.

Sarah turned to look at the Overseer. Assura was wearing a large formal dress that completely covered her apart from her head, hands and feet. All the Overseers were wearing similar outfits. Assura had told her it was customary for Overseers to dress in such outfits when city leaders met to form alliances. “Yes,” Sarah admitted. “I have known others to die fighting the Elders but none under my direct command. McMasters was the first. Her death is my responsibility.”

“And you think you made the wrong choice by deciding to help us?” Assura asked.

“No,” Sarah answered as she turned back to look down at Orbra-Tah. Assura turned with her. “We left Earth to help free other species from the Elders. I knew, and my crew knew, that our mission would include risks. I was thinking of the future. We have many more planets to explore. I fear McMasters will not be the last person I will lose.”

Assura reached out and placed a hand on Sarah’s shoulder. “Such is the responsibility of command,” she said. “Despite the tragedy, I think good will come from McMasters’ loss. Yesterday you proved to us that your people are not only willing to help us, but to die for us. On such gestures strong friendships are formed.”

Brightening slightly, Sarah turned and smiled at Assura. “That is encouraging,” she said as she reached up and touched the alien’s hand that was still on her shoulder.

“I’m glad I could be of some comfort,” Assura said. “I came to inform you that the other Overseers are ready to return to their cities. They’re eager to inform their people about the outcome of our negotiations.”

“Then let’s not let my brooding get in their way,” Sarah replied. “If you’ll follow me,” she said, speaking a little louder. As she led the representatives back to one of Destiny’s shuttle bays Sarah asked Assura a number of questions about her city. She was still disappointed she hadn’t been able to see anything but its underside.

When they got to the shuttle bay, two new Orbra-Kim were standing beside one of the shuttles. “Who are they?” Sarah asked. She thought all the Orbra-Kim had been present for the negotiations.

“They are my two eldest sons,” Assura said as they left the shuttle they were standing beside and approached Sarah and Assura. “This is Trask and Alama,” she continued as she introduced them. Both stepped in front of Sarah and shook her hand.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you both,” Sarah said. “Your mother and I are becoming fast friends. It’s a pity that I must leave once I see your negotiation delegation off.”

“Our mother has told us about your mission to explore other worlds,” Trask said. “Even though we only know a little about the Elder empire, we understand the importance of what you seek to do.”

“Actually, that is why I brought them along,” Assura said. “I was hoping you would take them along with you.”

“No,” Sarah said without having to think about it. “They would be in danger.”

“I know,” Assura replied. “I’m no fool. But I was serious about what I said before, McMasters’ death will form a secure foundation for friendship. This may not be the same, and I hope not to lose either of my sons. But if your mission does prove as dangerous as you fear, you may need some extra crew members. They are both fast learners.”

“I can’t be responsible for them,” Sarah said. “They are your sons, your people. My mission is very dangerous.”

Reaching out to Sarah, Assura turned her away from her two sons. She continued in a slightly quieter voice. “I understand all that, but I think our alliance needs this. Despite all you have done for us, there are some who still hold reservations. It’s understandable of course, we still know so little about you. It is my hope that if Trask and Alama can spend time with your crew and observe how you interact with others, then they can return here and share what they learn.”

“I see,” Sarah said as she began to get her head around the idea. As she began to see the political ramifications she realized there was more going on here than a mother volunteering her two sons. “I suppose it wouldn’t hurt your people to have two representatives of your race present when we meet with other new species as well.”

“I didn’t expect you to miss that possibility,” Assura said with a nod. “It was one of the reasons the other Overseers agreed to my suggestion so easily. If we are going to be allies one day, and your dream of a group of species standing united against the Elders is realized, my species will have to make friendships with other races as well. This would be the first opportunity my people would have to explore the galaxy.”

“And these two might come in handy for us as well,” Alexandra said through Sarah’s neural implant so only she could hear. “Think about the difficulty we had in convincing Assura and the others that our intentions were genuine. Trask and Alama would be able to tell other species about what we did for theirs here.”

“You’re keen on the idea of having two new crew members?” Sarah asked the artificial intelligence so only Alexandra could hear.

“I’m sure we could find a use for them,” Alexandra said.

“Okay,” Sarah said as she turned back to Trask and Alama. “Do you both agree to serve under me as Captain? That means you will have to obey my orders no matter what. Your loyalties will be to me, this ship and then to your species, in that order. Do you understand?”

Trask and Alama looked at each other and then at their mother. When she gave a slight nod, they both spoke. “We understand and agree,” they said in unison.

“Good,” Sarah said as she looked around the hangar. Spotting someone she was looking for she called over to her, “Ensign Waters, come over here and take these two to Destiny’s crew quarters. Get them sorted with a room they can share. They are the latest additions to Destiny’s crew.”

Waters couldn’t hide the surprise that shot across her face, though she retained her professionalism. “If you will please follow me,” she said with a wave of her hand.

“I don’t know if this will turn out for better or worse,” Sarah said. “But it will be good to have two of your people with us. It will be a reminder of what we can accomplish.”

“Hopefully it will be more than that,” Assura said. “It may take my people decades or even centuries to develop the ability to build warships equal to yours, but perhaps as we come to trust each other, my people may help your species by serving alongside you on your warships.”

“That is an interesting proposition,” Sarah said, recalling the briefing Rear Admiral Woodward had given the Ruling Council. If getting personnel to crew the rapidly expanding human fleet was likely to be a problem in the coming years, perhaps the Orbra-Kim might turn out to be part of the solution.

“It has been a great pleasure to meet you,” Assura said as she stepped up to the shuttle’s boarding ramp. “It’s a pity that you must leave but I understand your mission. Hopefully when a delegation arrives from Earth to continue our discussions the friendship between our two worlds can be strengthened.”

“I hope so as well,” Sarah said as she shook Assura’s hand. “Your people still have many difficulties ahead. Coming together as one people rather than separate cities will be an ongoing challenge. Dealing with the Elders and those who served them will also prove difficult. Hopefully when I return you will be well on the way towards being a unified people ready to protect yourselves.”

“That is my hope as well,” Assura said as she bowed slightly to Sarah. “Farewell for now,” she said as she turned and walked up the shuttle’s ramp.

“Farewell,” Sarah called after her.

Sarah watched as the shuttle took off and headed towards the open shuttle bay. “Prepare a subspace drone for launch,” Sarah ordered Alexandra as soon as the shuttle disappeared. “I’ll complete my report to the Ruling Council within the hour and we’ll launch the drone before we go into subspace. Make sure all our shuttles return as soon as they have landed the Overseers. I want to break orbit as soon as they get back. We have a long way to go before we reach unexplored space.”

“Aye Captain,” Alexandra said. “And if you don’t mind me saying, you’ve done pretty well so far. I don’t know what the next destination will hold for us, but I think you’ve already proved the Ruling Council made the right choice in sending you on this mission.”

“Just see to the subspace drone,” Sarah replied with a shake of the head. She didn’t share the artificial intelligence’s opinion of her abilities. But then, she knew she never would. Despite her constant nagging, Alexandra seemed to think she could work miracles.

Chapter 12

Two weeks later.

Whilst she was sitting at her office desk, Sarah’s neural implant buzzed to let her know someone from Destiny’s bridge was trying to contact her. “Go-ahead,” she thought.

“Ten minutes until we drop out of subspace,” Hannah informed her.

“Thank you, I’m on my way,” Sarah replied.

She returned to her data pad and finished the paragraph in front of her. She had been reviewing her reports to the Ruling Council to make sure there was nothing else she should add in her next one. Since leaving Orbra-Tah, they had visited two more systems. In one they had found the Elders still firmly in control. After covertly contacting some of the local populace and finding that there was no will to overthrow the Elders, they had left quietly. In the second system, the Elders had been massacred. Orbital images had shown more than one hundred Elders strung up on large poles. Their bodies were horribly mutilated. Despite her best efforts, Sarah had been unable to open any kind of formal negotiations with the local populace. They had been hostile from the start and didn’t appear to trust a word she said. Even when Trask had tried to speak with them, they had refused to listen. Giving up she had moved on to try and find a friendlier species.

“Come on,” Sarah said out loud as she set the data pad down. “Let’s go to the bridge, we are almost at our destination.”

“Finally,” Kevin said as he rolled himself out of bed. He had been watching some holo drama through his neural implant. “I hope we have a little bit more success with the species in this system than with the Grangors. They were more than antagonistic.”

“You’re not wrong,” Sarah replied. “But given everything the Elders did to them, it’s hardly surprising. It’s more surprising that the other species we have met have even been open to dialogue.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Kevin answered.

Rising from her desk, Sarah moved towards the bridge. Kevin fell in step beside her. Sarah’s mind turned to their destination. Though there were hundreds of systems Sarah could have visited, she had been choosing her targets carefully. Her path was taking her on as close to a direct route to the outer sectors of the Elder empire as was possible. In addition, each system had something that humanity was interested in. According to the Elder database, the system they were about to visit was home to a large gold mining operation. The heavy metal was extremely useful in ship construction and interstellar trade. The system was also home to two inhabited worlds, each inhabited by a separate species. She didn’t know what to expect, but she had a suspicion her growing diplomatic abilities were about to be tested to the full.

“Status report?” Sarah asked as she walked onto the bridge. Sarah could have asked the artificial intelligence as she walked to the bridge, but she wanted her crew to hear the report as well.

“Reactors and subspace engines are operating at one hundred percent. Sub-light engines and energy capacitors are ready to go. As soon as we exit subspace our energy screen and weapons will be fully operational. The crew is at their battle stations.”

“Very good,” Sarah said. “I have the bridge,” she continued as she stepped towards Destiny’s command chair.

“You have command,” Stephen said as he stood and made way for her. Kevin relieved the Ensign who had been operating the tactical console.

Sarah sat quietly as she waited for Destiny to reach her destination. As soon as the warship dropped out of subspace, Sarah’s eyes fixed on the holo-projection of the system. It took a couple of seconds, but, as Destiny’s passive sensors analyzed the information they gathered, a map of the system appeared. Sarah’s desire to connect to the interface helmet so she could look at the system directly through Destiny’s sensors was as strong as ever. However, she was getting better at hiding it. Hannah was proving to be a capable sensor officer.

“I’ve got both inhabited planets on the sensors,” Hannah reported. “They’re releasing sizeable amounts of electromagnetic energy. It seems both civilizations are well advanced.”

Sarah nodded. Both planets were Tier Three colonies. The Elders had allowed each to develop significantly high levels of technology. They would be at a level roughly analogous to Earth’s mid twenty first century in terms of their space-based capabilities. “What was that?” she asked when there were a couple of flashes on the holo projection of one of the planets.

“Hold on,” Hannah replied. “The computer is analyzing… Weapons fire. The analysis suggests two laser beams were fired at the planet’s surface. We saw the heat blooms from the impacts.”

“Are there any ships in orbit around Hyparon?” Sarah commanded.

“At least five,” Alexandra answered before Hannah could look to her terminal. “Though the passive sensors are picking up a number of other electromagnetic sources. They could be from energy reflecting off smaller orbital stations, or ships we haven’t properly detected yet.”

“Work with Hannah and try to get a firm idea about what is in orbit,” Sarah ordered. “Power up our engines, take us towards Hyparon. I want to know what is going on there.” Sarah could think of a number of reasons why ships in orbit would be attacking the planet. Perhaps the Hyparons were attacking the Elder compound on the planet. She would be okay with that, but the other possibilities troubled her more. The Elders could have commandeered some freighters and were using them to punish the Hyparonians, or the Hyparonian’s neighbors, the Avaronians could be attacking them, or worse, pirates could be raiding the planet. Whatever it was, Sarah needed to investigate.

“What about Arivaron?” she asked, turning her attention to the second inhabited planet within the system.

“No sign of any orbital strikes taking place,” Hannah answered. “But there are a number of ships in orbit.”

“Keep an eye on them,” Sarah requested.

As Destiny cruised deeper into the system, things became clearer. In orbit around Hyparon, there was a small fleet of ships. Every one of them was some kind of freighter listed in Alexandra’s database. Even without Destiny’s active scanners, it was clear that some modifications had been made. Most of the ships had higher energy readings than they should and, from all but two, Hannah had detected laser beams being fired towards the planet’s surface.

The fleet of ships were using their maneuvering thrusters to keep in orbit above one of the continents on Hyparon. Their bombardment wasn’t regular, but now and again one of the ships struck some undetectable target. Underneath them, there were clear signs of a struggle. Explosions and other energy bursts were constantly being detected. A full scale surface battle was going on.

Around Avaron the fleet of freighters also appeared to be outfitted with weapons. They weren’t firing at the planet’s surface, but the power readings suggested someone had installed new reactors in each ship. There was evidence of some fighting on Avaron’s surface as well, though it seemed to be restricted to just one city. All in all, Sarah had no idea what she had just walked into.

When Destiny was close enough to Hyparon to communicate with the surface in real time, Sarah gave began to give out orders. “Power up our active scanners, I want a full scan of that planet and the ships in orbit. Open a channel to the planet. I want to speak to whoever is in charge.”

“COM channel is open,” Stephen informed her.

“My name is Sarah Adams, I’m speaking to you from the warship Destiny . I wish to speak to whoever has authority to speak to me on behalf of the people of Hyparon. I won’t bring my ship any closer until we are able to open a dialogue.” With a gesture Sarah ordered Stephen to stop recording. “Bring us to a halt relative to the planet. Launch several stealth drones into orbit.”

“Aye Captain,” Alexandra acknowledged.

For several minutes there was no response from Hyparon. “Any updates from our drones?” Sarah asked when her patience began to run thin.

“I think I have located the Elder compound,” Hannah replied. “It’s near the center of the continent where the fighting is taking place.”

On the holo projector in front of Sarah, Hannah brought up an image. There were faint traces that a building once dominated the view Sarah was looking at, now the only thing she could clearly make out were several large craters. Sarah turned to Hannah with a raised eyebrow.

“I’m detecting traces of exotic particles. I think there was once an anti-matter reactor on the site,” Hannah explained.

“Even Tier Three Elder colonies were never allowed anti-matter reactors,” Sarah said, finishing Hannah’s thought. “That had to be the Elder compound. I guess the Hyparonians aren’t fighting the Elders then, so what’s going on?”

“I think they’re fighting the Avaronians,” Kevin answered. “Look at these video feeds.”

The holo projector changed to show a series of videos of running battles on Hyparon. In each battle, two sides appeared to be fighting one another. At one point Kevin froze the images and zoomed in. Two very different looking species were engaged in a firefight. One species resembled ants from Earth, though they appeared to out mass the average human by about fifty percent. They had six legs and rather than standing upright, their bodies were horizontal to the ground. The other species were much smaller, they appeared more humanoid, though they had long tails that reached the ground and trailed along behind them. Both species were equipped with defensive armor and projectile weapons. The battles involved fierce firefights between the combatants. Sarah recognized both species, the Elder database had included images of the Hyparonians and the Avaronians.

“That’s a lot of Avaronians on Hyparon,” Stephen commented. “The drones have identified a battle line around the former Elder compound and the surrounding cities. In total, it’s over seven hundred miles long. There must be at least ten thousand Avaronians down there trying to hold the line.”

“What’s the bet there are Hyparonians on Avaron and that’s what the fighting about on Avaron is about as well,” Kevin said.

“I don’t think anyone’s going to take you up on that bet,” Sarah responded. “I think I can guess what has happened here.” When everyone’s eyes turned to her she continued. “We know the Elders like to keep a tight control on their colonies. On Earth and Orbra-Tah they enlisted collaborators to enforce their will on the rest of the population. With two inhabited systems, what’s the likelihood that the Elders co-opted volunteers from one species to oversee and enforce Elder law on the other. I’m sure from their perspective it seemed like the perfect solution. The Hyparonians on Avaron would have no desire to help the Avaronians and, if for some reason they wanted to betray the Elders, they would find themselves stuck on a foreign planet with a hostile species all around them. The situation would be the same for the Avaronians they would have used to control Hyparon.”

“So what we’re seeing is revenge,” Trask said.

Sarah nodded at Trask and shot him a small smile. Stephen was training Trask to fill the role of Ensign. She had assigned him to the bridge to observe how a human crew functioned. So far on their encounters since leaving Orbra-Tah he had remained quiet, this was his first contribution. “I believe so,” she said to him. “Though there could be more to it.”

“Those orbital strikes from the ships in orbit around Hyparon, which side are they hitting?”

“The Avaronians,” Kevin answered.

Sarah nodded, that meant the ships in orbit around Hyparon were owned by the Hyparonians, and likely, the ships at Avaron were owned by the Avaronians. The ground battles on each planet could quickly turn into orbital battles as well.

“I think we’re getting a communication from Hyparon,” Hannah reported.

“Finally,” Kevin said.

“Let’s hear it,” Sarah requested.

At first the sound that came through the bridge’s audio output was just a series of clicks and squeaks, then Alexandra’s translation software kicked in. “I am Philopian, I have permission to speak for the Hyparonian people. What are your intentions?”

“Send this in reply,” Sarah said. “I have been sent to visit your system by my government. We come in peace seeking trade partners. With the disappearance of the Elders, we are seeking potential friends and allies. If you don’t mind my asking, why is there fighting on your planet? I see the Elder compound has been destroyed. Who are you fighting?”

“We are fighting the Elders’ minions,” Philopian replied. “But that is none of your concern. If you have items or technologies you wish to trade you may send us a list. We will examine it and if we wish to open up trade negotiations, we will contact you.”

“The COM channel has been cut,” Stephen reported.

“Well, he seems charming,” Kevin said.

“Indeed,” Sarah replied. “Stephen, send over trade list alpha.” In the last two encounters Sarah had learnt to hold back much of the technology and trade items Earth had to offer. She wanted to get a better feel for the Hyparonians before she disclosed the full range of items humanity had to offer. Trade list alpha contained basic technological advances and agricultural equipment.

“It’s sent,” Stephen informed her a moment later.

“What now?” Kevin asked. “Maybe the Avaronians will be more receptive.”

“We wait,” Sarah answered. “If we can, I would like to put an end to this fighting. There’s no sense in different species fighting each other when our real enemy could return at any moment.”

For half an hour Sarah waited quietly. Just as she was about to order Destiny to turn and head for Avaron, Stephen broke the silence. “We are getting a new transmission,” he called out.

“We have reviewed your trade list,” Philopian’s computer-generated voice said. “There are a few items we are interested in, but none are of high-priority to us. Our focus is on defeating our enemies. If you like, you may return in a month or two. Then we will be in a better position to open trade negotiations. Until then, I suggest you leave the system. We have analyzed our sensor readings of your ship. It appears powerful. If you seek to enter into any kind of negotiations with the Avaronians, we will be forced to stop you.”

“Trade is not the only reason why we are here,” Sarah said after nodding to Stephen to transmit her words. She chose to ignore Philopian’s threat. “The Elders are our enemies. They enslaved our world just as they kept your world in subjugation. If your people would be open to the possibility, I would like to offer our services as a neutral party in your current conflict. I’m sure there is much history between your people and the people of Avaron, but our real enemy is the Elders. Perhaps with our help your people and the Avaronians could bring an end to the fighting.”

“We have no interest in negotiations with our enemies. They will be eradicated. Only then will my people have their revenge.” Philopian replied. “We will not allow Avaronian spies to turn us from our goal. Your ship will leave our system now or we will destroy you.”

“The COM channel has been cut,” Stephen said.

“The Hyparonian fleet is breaking orbit, they are on an intercept course for us,” Hannah reported.

“Bring us about,” Sarah ordered. “Take us to Arivaron. Maybe there we will find a way to bring an end to this madness.”

*

“We are very interested in trade, but negotiation with the Hyparonians is out of the question,” Minister Lourar said. As he spoke, he opened both of his hands in a welcoming gesture. “The people of Avaron are keen to make friends with the species that neighbor us. We want to take our place within the galactic community and have no desire to see the Elders return. However, the Hyparonians cannot be trusted. Their goal is to wipe us out. We have known them for two thousand years, they will not turn from this objective. We must defeat them before they defeat us.”

Sarah frowned. “What are you saying?” she was speaking to Minister Lourar in real time. The Avaronians had allowed Destiny to enter orbit. Lourar was the ruling government’s Minister for Economics. “Once you defeat the last Hyparonians in your capital, they will no longer be a threat to you.”

“I’m afraid that’s simply not true. You have seen the fleet they are putting together around their planet. Once they defeat our people the Elders settled on Hyparon, they will come to Avaron. We are ready to face them and we will have a surprise or two up our sleeves. But defeating their fleet won’t be enough,” Lourar said.

“You’re speaking of genocide,” Sarah said as she clenched her fists. “The Elders are your enemy. They forced the Hyparonians to serve them on your planet just as they forced some of your people to serve them on Hyparon.”

“You can make up whatever excuses you like. There will never be lasting peace in the system while both our peoples exist. One must destroy the other. Both we and the Hyparonians know this,” Lourar replied.

“That is not true,” Sarah said. Exasperation filled her voice. For the last half-hour, she had failed to get anywhere with Lourar. The Avaronian was happy to discuss potential trade agreements, but he wouldn’t budge on the issue of the fighting with Hyparonians. Sarah was getting concerned about what would happen next. In the eight hours Destiny had been in orbit around Avaron, the fighting had all but died down in their capital. The Hyparonians had been driven back to the Elder compound. Soon they would be overrun. Sarah had no doubt they would be killed to the last person. Given that the Elders had settled entire communities of each species on the other’s planet, she knew there would be civilians and children among those slaughtered. “The Elders made you hate each other. They are the ones who caused the mistrust between your species. For your people to truly defeat the Elders and move past their occupation, you must throw out the animosity they created between Hyperion and Arivaron.”

“You’re not listening to me Captain,” Lourar said. She lifted her upper lips, revealing a set of razor teeth. Though the Avaronians were humanoid, they were covered in thick fur and their head encompassed a long snout. Sarah didn’t know much about Avaronian body language, but she could guess what Lourar’s gesture meant. “The Hyparonians have intimidated, abducted, arrested and tortured tens of thousands of our people over centuries. They could have chosen any time to stop serving the Elders. They chose to continue. My people have just overthrown the Elders. My government has been elected to serve the people. We will not go against their wishes.”

Sarah tried again. “The Hyparonians could say the same thing about your people who are now fighting for their lives on Hyparon. I don’t know the facts, but I imagine the Elders forced your people on Hyparon to commit atrocities as well. What are you going to do with them?”

“We will rescue them,” Lourar replied. “They are our people, we will not let the Hyparonians kill them all.”

Sarah opened her mouth to attempt another line of argument. She desperately wanted Lourar to see that there were two sides to what was going on. Before she could say anything, Lourar raised her hands. “Enough,” she said. “This is getting us nowhere. There’s something else I wish to discuss with you.”

Sarah took a deep breath. She wasn’t about to give up on her desire to bring the Hyparonians and Avaronians together. It was in part because of her actions that the two species found themselves at war. Though the Elders had enslaved both, they had prevented them from launching wars of genocide against one another. Now that they were free, one species could easily end up wiping out the other. “Okay,” she acquiesced, promising herself she would redouble her efforts to convince Lourar as soon as she could. “What is it?”

“You may or may not know, but one of the reasons that the Elders were attracted to our system were the large amounts of gold deposits on our planet. For centuries our miners dragged their hands and encountered illusionary problems. The Elders were happy with a yearly output far below what we could actually achieve. In the last seven months, we have greatly increased our production capacity. As we have already discussed, we are willing to pay gold for many of the technologies and equipment you propose to trade with us. In addition, I have another offer for you. We would like to hire your ship for one week. We would be willing to pay thirty metric tons of gold.”

Sarah’s eyebrows shot up. Thirty metric tons would be enough heavy metals for Cassidy and the Elder shipyard at Earth to build the superstructure and much of the interior of a brand-new corvette.

“Avaron’s gold deposits must be impressive indeed,” Kevin thought to her so that Lourar couldn’t hear. “If they weren’t so bent on genocide, they would be useful allies.”

Sarah sent Kevin a mental nod. “You don’t have enough gold in your entire planet to hire us,” she said out loud. “We won’t aid you in your war.”

“Are you sure?” Lourar said. “I have permission to double the amount. How about sixty metric tons, for five days?”

“Now it’s you who is not listening to me,” Sarah said. “My people sent me to make new friends and find allies to stand against the Elders. Not to aid one species destroy another.”

“Very well,” Lourar replied through clenched jaws. Both her upper and lower lips were retracted, revealing carnivorous looking teeth. “You have the items that we’re willing to trade gold for. You can return to your people or we can begin to trade with one another. If you have other trade items you wish to discuss with me, you may contact me. However, we will not be discussing the Hyparonians any longer. Good day Captain.”

Lourar cut the COM channel before Sarah could reply.

“We can’t trade with them when they’re likely to use whatever we give them in their war,” Kevin said.

“No,” Stephen agreed with a nod.

“I’m struggling to understand the Hyparonians and Avaronians,” Alexandra said. “I know humans can react with emotion, but logic usually comes into the decision-making process too. It makes no sense for these species to destroy each other when the species who enslaved them are their real enemies.”

“What are we going to do?” Hannah asked. “We can’t let them destroy each other, can we?”

Everyone turned to look at Sarah. She found herself staring at the blank holo projector. This wasn’t the kind of situation she had expected to be dealing with when she left Earth. “Conference room in twenty minutes,” she said as she stood and briskly walked out of the bridge. She didn’t have any answers for her crew and her frustration and anger were threatening to get the better of her. She needed space to think.

Chapter 13

“Okay, summarize what we know so far,” Sarah said to the command staff assembled in Destiny’s conference room. Along with Kevin, Stephen, Hannah, and Lieutenant Jackson, she had invited Jake, Destiny’s Chief Engineer and Trask to join them.

“The battle for Gilgream, the Arivaron’s capital city, is almost over,” Hannah reported. “In the last couple of hours, we’ve seen an increased number of shuttles coming up to dock with their makeshift warships in orbit. I think they are ferrying up troops in preparation for an attack.”

“That makes sense,” Kevin said. “I’ve been reviewing the data we took of the battle on Hyparon. I estimate there to be somewhere in the region of twenty thousand Avaronian soldiers on the planet. Arrayed against them there are probably eighty thousand Hyparonians. I can’t imagine the Avaronians can hold out too much longer. Behind the front lines there were a number of towns and one large city with buildings very similar to those on Arivaron. There could be at least a hundred thousand civilians about to be attacked. The Avaronians are probably desperate to come to their aid.”

“I concur,” Lieutenant Jackson said. “Both races seem to have similar ground combat technologies. The Hyparonians numbers will win out in the end.”

“Just how much damage can each fleet do?” Jake asked. “If one fleet breaks through to their opponent’s planet, what will happen?”

“I’ve scanned every one of the makeshift warships with my active scanners,” Alexandra’s voice came through the briefing room’s COM unit. “Thankfully, none of them are equipped with missile launchers. It would take just a handful of nuclear missiles to wipe out all of the major cities on either Avaron or Hyparon. That’s where most of the modern technology is based. Wiping out their cities would put them back to the equivalent of the Middle Ages. Even though they don’t have such capabilities, they do have powerful lasers. Not by our standards, but they will be powerful enough to destroy entire blocks. Given enough time, if one fleet can make it into orbit of their opponent’s planet, they can do serious damage.”

“That’s assuming they don’t have nuclear bombs or some other type of delivery device. They could fly shuttles over whatever city they want to target and simply push out a nuclear device if they want to,” Kevin added.

“The question is, what do we do?” Sarah asked. “This problem only exists because we destroyed the Elders’ ships. We haven’t caused the Hyparonians and Avaronians to hate each other, but we have given them the opportunity to act on their hate.”

“We have far more powerful lasers and nuclear missiles,” Jake said. “Can’t we threaten both species to force them to stop hostilities? So far neither species seems to have figured out that Destiny was once an Elder frigate. If we show them just how powerful we are, they might listen a bit more closely to what we have to say.”

“And if they call our bluff?” Kevin asked. “When we don’t blast their ships or their cities, they will go right back to ignoring us. If there is a better option, I think we should try and figure out what it is first.”

“Agreed,” Sarah said. “If we can, a permanent solution would be preferable. Though I’m not ruling anything out just yet.”

“What about ending the immediate fighting?” Hannah asked. “If we can stop the battles on each plant’s surface, then maybe both sides will be more open to talks. Could we land our shuttles and evacuate the few Hyparonians that are still on Arivaron? That would end the fighting here at least.”

“I don’t think so,” Jackson answered. “At least, not unless we’re willing to bombard the Avaronian units in Gilgream. If they try to oppose us, they would have a decent chance to destroy our shuttles before we could land. We would have to take them out, and its likely there would be high civilian casualties involved. Then we also have to be prepared to take on and destroy their fleet in orbit as well. I can’t imagine their ships would just sit around and watch us bombard their ground units and buildings. If they were out in the open countryside it would be doable, but the fighting is in a densely populated city.

“As for the battle on Hyparon, it is simply far too large a scale for us to stop. The only way we could enforce the ceasefire there would be if we were willing to bombard any units that broke it. Given the level of hatred between both sides, we would likely have to wipe out half of each side’s army.”

For several moments silence descended. Everyone was trying to think of some way to stop the disaster that they all felt was approaching. “What if we invite some of the leaders from Arivaron’s government onto Destiny ?” Trask asked.

“You think we could sway them more towards our point of view by letting them see how impressive our ship is? Like we did with your mother?” Kevin asked. “I’m not sure it would work in this situation. Both Hyperion and Avaron are Tier Three colonies, not Tier One. They will be much more familiar with modern technology.”

“That was only part of what I was thinking,” Trask replied. “If inviting them on board and learning about Destiny doesn’t work, I was going to suggest we abduct them.”

“What?” Sarah said as she shot Trask a stern look. “They are suspicious enough of us as it is.” Sarah began to second-guess her decision to invite Trask to the briefing. To her surprise, she couldn’t sense a similar feeling of unease coming from Kevin.

“I think I know where he’s going with this,” Kevin said when Trask didn’t immediately answer Sarah’s question. He had drawn back under her gaze. “If we abduct the leaders of Avaron, and then pulled the same trick on the Hyparonians, we could set them both down in the same room and force them to talk to one another.”

“Exactly,” Trask said with a very human like smile. “If they can voice their opposition to one another and hear each other’s grievances, maybe they will see that they have a shared history. The Elders have hurt them both in the same way.”

Everyone’s eyes turned to Sarah. She raised her hands and pressed them together in front of her lips. “Perhaps,” she said slowly. “Neither side likes us or trusts us as it is. Perhaps this could work. Kevin, Trask, I want you to work out the finer details and come back to brief us. We will continue to brainstorm. Hopefully we can come up with at least one other strategy. Then we can figure out the best approach.”

Before anyone moved, her neural implant beeped to let her know she was getting a priority message. “Go-ahead,” she thought.

“Captain,” Ensign Sato said into her mind. “Sensors have just detected four new ships entering the system, they’re heading directly for Avaron.”

“Sensor readings suggest they have some pretty powerful reactors,” Alexandra said. “Not on the level of Elder warships or even Protector World ships. I’d say they are pirate vessels.”

“The Avaronian’s fleet is breaking orbit,” Sato added as Alexandra finished.

Sarah didn’t have to ask what heading they were leaving on. They would be moving to intercept the new contacts. Either the Avaronians knew they were a threat, or they were moving to join the pirates. Neither option was good. “Four new ships are approaching the planet,” Sarah said out loud to her officers. “I’m about to order battlestations, we have to postpone the rest of this briefing.” She quickly stood and went directly to the bridge.

“Request a COM link with someone from Avaron’s government, power up our energy screen and run a weapons systems test,” she demanded as soon as she entered the bridge. Behind her, Hannah, Kevin and Stephen made their way to their posts and carried out her orders.

“I have Minister Lourar,” Stephen said moments later.

“Minister,” Sarah began. “Given your fleet’s reaction, I understand you know the new ships entering the system?”

Lourar gave a feral grin. “Our gold may not have bought your services but we sent out a request for aid several weeks ago. These ships have come to claim the payment we offer.”

Sarah closed her eyes for a moment. She could well imagine what the four ships approaching were like. She had fought more than enough pirate ships to be familiar with how they would be equipped. Though they would be using freighter hulls, they would have impressive reactors and energy screens. More seriously, they would have missile launchers and no qualms about using nuclear missiles on a civilian population. Certainly not when it would earn them the kind of gold the Avaronians were offering. “This isn’t the solution to your problems,” she said, opening her eyes. “Getting into bed with pirates will only get you in trouble. What’s to stop them from coming and threatening your planet with destruction if you don’t give them more gold after they’ve done your bidding? Your fleet is no match for their ships.”

For a second Lourar’s smug look faltered. Then it returned in full force. “You’re just jealous, you have lost the chance to get our gold. Our enemies will be destroyed and then the Avaronians people will be free to pursue our own future. You can stay and watch our victory if you want, but if you try and interfere, we will order our new friends to destroy you.” With a sharp nod, Lourar cut the COM channel.

“It looks like the Hyparon fleet is breaking orbit as well,” Hannah reported. “They’re moving to intercept the Avaronians fleet.”

“They probably figured out these newcomers will have missile launchers,” Sarah said. “They won’t want to let them get anywhere near their planet.”

“What do we do now?” Kevin asked as he stared at her. His concern was clear. If either fleet was victorious, they would be able to decimate their enemy’s planet.

“We have no choice,” Sarah said. She transmitted her voice to everyone on Destiny . “We haven’t caused the animosity and hatred the Hyparonians and Avaronians have for one another, but our virus has given them the chance to attack each other. We have to act. Move us out of orbit. Place us directly between both fleets.” Her crew would know exactly what she was calling on them to do.

“We’re breaking orbit,” Alexandra informed her. “I’m taking us on a wide berth around the Avaronian and pirate ships.”

“Good, let me know as soon we’re in position,” Sarah replied.

“What are you going to do?” Kevin asked through their neural implants.

“I’m going to talk to them,” Sarah answered. “But I’m not going to let them attack each other’s planets. If we have to, we’re going to stop them. You may as well start scanning each vessel for weaknesses.”

“I’ll get right on it,” Kevin said.

“We’re directly between both fleets,” Alexandra told Sarah forty minutes later.

“Open a COM channel to both fleets,” Sarah requested. “Broadcast in the open so that every ship can receive.”

“COM channel is open,” Stephen reported.

“People of Hyparon and Avaron. My name is Sarah, I am the Captain of the warship Destiny . You do not have to continue along your current path. Your real enemy has always been the Elders. If both of your species attack each other now, you could be condemning both your races to extinction. At best, you are guaranteeing that your children will grow up in a devastated war-torn environment. This battle is pointless. The Elders could return at any point. You should be working together to protect each other, not fighting.”

“No response,” Stephen said after several minutes.

“Broadcast again,” Sarah ordered. “My ship is more than capable of destroying both of your fleets. If I have to, I will. I will not allow either of your fleets to bombard the planets in this system. If you won’t listen to reason, then I will be forced to make you listen to strength. Turn your fleet around or I will engage you.”

This time Stephen didn’t have to let Sarah know there was no response. Everyone on the bridge could see both fleets continue towards each other on the main holo display.

“The pirate ships have opened their missile tubes,” Hannah reported. “They’ve fired. “They don’t seem to be tracking us.”

Sarah watched the missiles on the holo-projector for a few moments before breaking her silence. “Move us towards the missiles, take them out.”

The pirate missiles weren’t very sophisticated compared to the Elder missiles Destiny’s weapons had been designed to engage. In addition, as Alexandra didn’t have to compensate for any evasive maneuvers that Destiny might otherwise have been making, taking out all sixteen pirate missiles was simple. Sarah commended the artificial intelligence nevertheless “Good shooting, though I imagine the next salvo will be targeted at us.”

“Both fleets will be in laser cannon range of us in forty seconds,” Hannah reported.

Sarah responded by mentally ordering the interface helmet to lower over her head. As soon as it connected to her neural implant, she felt her senses change. Now she was more aware of Destiny ; her reactors, engines, weapons, hull integrity and sensor data, than she was of her own body. “Taking over control of Destiny’s flight operations,” she informed everyone.

“You have control,” Alexandra responded.

Sarah counted down the seconds until the Avaronian fleet entered range. As soon as they did, they opened fire. That was all the information she needed. The Avaronian fleet couldn’t hit the Hyparonians yet. They had obviously decided Destiny was an enemy to be engaged. Thankfully the Hyparonian laser weapons remained inactive. Throwing power into Destiny’s engines, she shot the frigate away from where it had been sitting stationary relative to both fleets. As she moved, she included a series of weaves and twists to throw off the second round of laser beams.

“Engage them with our tachyon pulses to take down their energy screens, then take out their engines and weapons. Use low powered laser beams. I don’t want to accidentally destroy any of the ships.”

Destiny shook once and then a second time as two laser beams struck her energy screen. Sarah felt a trickle of sweat form on her forehead. She was flying Destiny with all the skill she could muster. There were seventeen Avaronian ships in their fleet. The larger converted freighters had two laser cannons and the pirate ships had four each. The sheer number of laser beams trying to strike Destiny made it impossible to dodge them all.

Twisting and turning, Sarah did her best to give Kevin clear shooting opportunities with Destiny’s tachyon pulses. As soon as Destiny’s sensors told her one of the Avaronian ships had lost its energy screen, she tilted Destiny to bring four of her laser beams to bear. Four energy blasts struck the converted freighter. Two blew out its engines while the other two struck its laser cannons.

“That’s one down,” Kevin shouted with a whoop.

“Our energy screen is down to ninety-four percent,” Stephen informed everyone.

Sarah redoubled her efforts to avoid the incoming fire. They still had a lot of ships to disable and the Hyparonians hadn’t even joined the fight yet.

“Missile launches,” Hannah called out.

Sarah saw the missiles through Destiny’s sensors. They were all tracking her ship. “When I cut power to the engines, divert it to the energy screen,” Sarah ordered.

“Acknowledged,” Stephen replied.

“Get ready,” Sarah thought to Alexandra as she twisted and turned, dodging the incoming laser beams. When the missiles were thirty seconds away from Destiny, Sarah ceased her evasive maneuvers. For the briefest of moments there was peace on the bridge. Then laser beams struck Destiny and Alexandra engaged the incoming missiles with her point defense lasers and AM missiles.

In just twelve seconds Alexandra destroyed them all. As soon as she saw the last one detonate, Sarah directed the flow of energy from Destiny’s reactors back into her engines and tore away from their position.

“Energy screen is down to seventy-one percent,” Stephen reported. “No beams have scored any direct hits on the hull yet.”

“The Hyparonians will enter range in ten seconds,” Hannah reported.

Sarah sensed the energy discharge from their ships as they entered the battle. The pressure on Destiny slackened as many of the Avaronian ships switched targets and engaged their hated enemies. Sarah changed tactics, instead of trying to dodge incoming fire, she weaved in and out of the Avaronian fleet, seeking out targets. She aimed to give Kevin the best firing solutions on the four pirate ships. In quick succession, they neutralized two targets. Both were left drifting in space.

An explosion drew Sarah’s attention. She focused on the area of space where the energy release came from. An Avaronian ship was badly damaged. It was venting gas and debris into space. There were no energy readings coming from its reactors. Worse, two Hyparonian ships were closing in for the kill.

“Target those Hyparonian ships, don’t let them destroy that freighter,” Sarah called out. Swinging Destiny around, she fired the frigate’s main engines to boost Destiny towards the ship that had been trying to destroy her just moments before. As Sarah placed Destiny between the Avaronian freighter and the two Hyparonian ships, Kevin opened fire. Tachyon pulses depleted both of their energy screens and then laser beams wiped out their weapons. They pulled away before Kevin could destroy their engines but the Avaronian ship had been saved.

Hoping the damaged freighter was safe for now, Sarah turned Destiny away from it. She had more pressing matters to worry about. As soon as Kevin had fired the first tachyon pulses at the Hyparonian ships, the weight of fire coming at Destiny doubled. Now both the Hyparonians and the Avaronians were trying to destroy her. Once again Sarah found herself dodging and twisting as best she could. Within seconds Destiny’s energy screen had been knocked down to just sixty percent efficiency. The next few hits were likely to burn through the energy screen and cause some hull damage. Sure enough, the next hit caused a far larger shudder to pass through the bridge.

“Our armor is holding,” Stephen reported. “Though another hit in the same section is likely to burn through.”

Sarah took note of where the laser beam struck and factored that into her evasive maneuvers. She changed tactics again. Focusing solely on dodging incoming fire, she gave up trying to get Kevin easy firing opportunities. Instead she watched the ships from both fleets. As soon as one ship looked like it was about to get a killing blow on another, she swung Destiny around, lining up her tachyon pulses and laser cannons. Kevin quickly caught on to what she was doing. One by one, either by Destiny , or from fighting each other, the number of ships capable of fighting was slowly reduced.

“The remaining pirate ship should be ready to fire their missiles again in about twenty seconds,” Hannah informed Sarah, momentarily breaking her concentration. Two laser beams struck Destiny . Both left serious scorch marks on the hull, but neither penetrated the frigate’s armor.

For the briefest of seconds Sarah thought about contacting the pirate ship and ordering them not to fire. If they targeted their missiles at Hyparonian ships, she wouldn’t be able to get them all. Some would find targets and a single missile hit would destroy any of the Hyparonian ships. Instantly, she dismissed the thought. The pirates would never listen.

“Take it out,” she thought to Kevin.

Quicker than she thought possible, full powered laser beams reached out to strike the pirate ship. The first beam tore down what was left of its energy screen and the second and third beams ripped right through the converted freighter.

The sudden destructive display from the relatively unknown frigate caused a lull in the fighting. Sarah guessed every Captain was trying to evaluate what had just happened. The shock only lasted seconds. The inbuilt hatred the Hyparonians and Avaronians had for one another re-established itself and the battle continued.

With all the pirate ships destroyed and the number of combatants decreasing, Sarah found it easier and easier to dodge any attempts made to hit Destiny with laser beams. With more freedom, she focused on giving Kevin clear shots with his weapons.

A sudden jolt threw Sarah about in her command chair and caused her restraints to automatically tighten. Destiny groaned as a laser beam ate into her hull. Silently, Sarah cursed herself. She had taken her eye off the ball. The hit hadn’t been serious. The initial damage reports suggested that nothing vital had been destroyed. Even so, she was angry. Destiny only had a limited amount of heavy metals in her storage bays. They couldn’t afford to take damage so early in their mission.

Redoubling her efforts, she made sure no more laser beams came anywhere near her ship. Though Kevin didn’t get as many opportunities to fire his weapons, it took just a few more minutes for the battle to peter out. In the end, Destiny found herself facing two Avaronian ships. Opening a COM channel automatically, Sarah called on them to surrender. Both cut their engines and powered down their weapons.

Sarah nodded. It was a small thing, but she hoped it bode well for the future. If the Avaronians were willing to give up their desire to destroy the Hyparonians, even though it was at the point of a laser cannon, there might be some hope for relations between both species.

“How is my ship?” Sarah asked as she ordered the interface helmet to disengage.

“Thanks to you, she is all in one piece,” Stephen reported.

“I’ve never seen anything like that,” Trask said. “There were so many of them and yet they barely came close to hitting you. Your ship is vastly superior to theirs. You could have destroyed them instantly.”

“It’s not just the ship,” Kevin said as a large grin spread across his face. “It’s the Captain, there is no one else from Earth who could do what you’ve just seen my friend. You’ll see, we’ll make a battle simulation of what just happened today and give you a go at piloting Destiny through it. You may not be able to appreciate it now, but you just saw some pretty mean flying.”

Sarah rolled her eyes at Kevin. “We’ve got too much to do to be congratulating ourselves,” she said. “Some of those ships will be losing power and their life-support could fail. We didn’t go to all this effort to have their crews freeze to death. I want the damage to every ship analyzed. Prioritize those most in danger of a serious system’s failure.

*

Eventually Destiny’s crew sorted out the jumbled remnants of both fleets. After several trips to Hyperion and Avaron, the damaged ships were all towed back to their homeworlds.

After slotting the final damaged ship into orbit around Hyparon, Sarah ordered Destiny to break orbit and head towards the edge of the system. “Open a COM channel to both planets,” Sarah ordered. Since the battle, she had ignored every attempt either side had made to contact her. Both had been screaming bloody vengeance. Then, almost at the same time, both species had begun to try to woo her. The Hyparonians had offered an alliance and long-term commitment to fight the Elders together. The Avaronians had offered more gold than Sarah thought even Cassidy would know what to do with. She knew neither offer was genuine, both were born out of the desire to see the other crushed by Destiny’s powerful weapons.

“What happened today was senseless,” Sarah said to the people of Hyparon and Avaron. She had ordered a general COM channel opened to both planets. “As you know, my ship could have destroyed both your fleets with ease. The Elders could do the same. They are your real enemy. They are the ones who enslaved you. If that’s not bad enough, your actions today could mean your system is easy pickings for pirates and slavers. I didn’t destroy your ships because I want you to be able to protect yourselves. Repair them, make peace with one another, trade with one another and with the other species around you. Only if you learn to live in peace and to develop your technology will either of your species have any hope of lasting freedom. I hope this is a lesson you can both learn before it’s too late.”

With a hand signal Sarah ordered Stephen to stop recording. Then she spoke so everyone on Destiny could hear her. “Plot us a course for sector XF-4172. It’s time to get on with our mission. We can’t stop the Hyparonians and Avaronians from hating each other, but at least we have stopped them from destroying each other. After we are gone, they will be responsible for their own actions.”

With a tap on her command chair, she checked Destiny’s fuel supplies. They still had more than enough anti-matter to reach sector XF-4172 and venture into unexplored space. However, if they ended up spending too much more time getting involved in other disputes, their time in unexplored space would be limited. With a shake of her head Sarah let thoughts of fuel supplies slip from her mind. She was too tired to worry about it now. “I’ll be in my quarters if I’m needed,” she said as she stood and made her way off the bridge.

Chapter 14

When Destiny reached her next destination, Sarah didn’t have to be called to the bridge. She had been there waiting a full three hours before the frigate was due to drop out of subspace. Her excitement had been rising for days. The system home to the Hyparonians and Avaronians had been two sectors away from Earth. Since leaving that system, Destiny had travelled non-stop for a month and a half. The Ruling Council had deemed the systems they passed by to be too far away from Earth to make it worthwhile visiting them at the moment. Instead, Destiny was coming to her primary mission objective. Sector XF-4172 had been abandoned by the Elders more than fifty years ago. Sarah hoped to find out what the rest of the galaxy could look like in the years ahead.

Danab, the system they were approaching, was the first system in sector XF-4172 on Sarah’s flight path towards the former Protector World of the sector. Sarah didn’t know if the Elders had allowed the Protector World to keep its technology, but she was sure visiting it was the best chance she would get to find out what was going on in the sector. As Danab was so close to Destiny’s flight path, she hadn’t been able to resist the temptation to visit. She wanted to see what had become of the planet. A former Tier Two Elder colony, the Danabians would have had access to combustion engines and somewhat sophisticated chemical processing techniques. Their level of advancement was roughly analogous to Earth in the middle of the 20th century. She was keen to see how far they had progressed since.

When Destiny jumped out of subspace, Sarah held her breath. “No sign of any ships in the system,” Hannah reported. “Wait. There is something coming around the planet. It looks like an orbital station. It’s pretty large. I’m putting it on the holo projector.”

Sarah’s excitement grew. If the Danabians had developed the capabilities to build the large structure she was looking at, then they were clearly taking their first strides into space. “Keep scanning for ships or probes. If they went to all the effort to build that thing, they must have something else operating within the system.”

“Shall I take us in?” Alexandra asked. “I don’t think we’re going to learn anything else from here.”

“Agreed,” Sarah said. “Place us in a high orbit.”

During the two hours Destiny cruised into the system there was no communication from the planet. As more detailed scans came in, Sarah’s excitement diminished. There were very little radio or other electromagnetic waves coming from the planet, something all advanced civilizations gave off in copious amounts. There was also little sign of particulates in the planet’s atmosphere that would suggest large scale energy generation or mining processes. Certainly, there was a number of cities, but none gave off any real signs of what Sarah deemed modern technology. The lack of signs of advanced tech on the surface made the presence of the orbital station even odder.

The COM silence changed as soon as Destiny got close enough for instant communication. “We’re getting a message from the station,” Stephen reported. “I think it is coming from the surface and being boosted to us by the station. It has audio and visual.”

“Let’s see it,” Sarah replied.

A four-armed, grey skinned humanoid appeared on the holo-projector. As soon as he spoke, his arms began to wave around vigorously, emphasizing everything that was said. “Greetings, my name is Administrator Jark. You are very welcome to our planet. I’m afraid I have never encountered a ship of your design before. Are you new members of the Graman Pack? Or have you come to trade? I’m afraid we have very little surplus to trade this year.”

Sarah was taken aback by his appearance. His reptilian, scaly skin, and sharp teeth that showed as he talked, gave off a menacing demeanor. Yet his tone was friendly. As Sarah got over her surprise - the Elder database had not contained any information on Danab’s inhabitants, she processed what Jark had said. A number of questions swirled around her mind but she bit her tongue. They would have to keep.

“They seem a lot friendlier than the last few planets we visited,” Kevin thought to her.

Sarah mentally nodded back. She hoped Jark’s greetings were a good sign. When she glanced at Stephen he signaled to let her know he had already opened a COM channel.

“Greetings in return,” she said. “My name is Captain Adams. I have come to trade and meet new species. Even if you don’t have much to offer, we would be keen to see what you have. Beyond that, I would be happy to meet your species and learn more about you. Perhaps you and some other representatives from your planet would like to come and dine on my ship?” She doubted Jark would accept, but she hoped the offer would show her kind intentions.

“Nonsense Captain, nonsense,” Jark said with a few more waves of his hands. “You’ve probably been on your ship for days, maybe even weeks. I’m sure you would enjoy setting foot onto a new planet. You’re welcome to come and join me and my family for a meal. I will invite Administrator Halfor and some of the junior administrators along too. We can discuss niceties over a meal and then turn to trade if you like.”

“That would be ideal,” Sarah replied. “If you transmit the coordinates of a safe landing area near your home, we will bring one of our shuttles down after my ship enters orbit.”

“I’m looking forward to it already,” Jark responded. “I better go and let my wife know we are having company. I’ll send you those landing coordinates and then be on my way. Good day Captain.”

“Good day,” Sarah said with a nod.

“Well, that was strange,” Kevin said. “I don’t think we’ve met anyone so pleasant before.”

“Almost too pleasant. You don’t think it’s some kind of trap, do you?” Stephen asked. “If you go down there not expecting trouble, they could easily take you hostage.”

“I don’t know,” Trask said from his seat beside Stephen. “My people didn’t know of the existence of so many other species, but we warmed to you humans pretty quickly. If these people have been free for fifty years, perhaps they are used to having friendly relations with other species. Not everyone can be like the Elders, or even the Hyparonians and Avaronians, can they?”

Sarah could see where both Stephen and Trask were coming from. “Let’s hope there’re as friendly as they seem, but let’s plan for the alternative. Kevin and I will take a shuttle down, with a number of Lieutenant Jackson’s marines. If Jark brings too many armed guards to the landing zone with him, we will simply bug out before we land. Something does feel strange about this planet. Maybe it’s Administrator Jark and his people or maybe it’s something else, but I want us to be prepared.”

As she looked at her bridge crew she saw a couple of nods. She also saw one or two looks that suggested they wanted to join her on the team going to the surface. She kept a smile off her face. She could fully understand. They had spent a long time in space since leaving Earth. She imagined most of her crew would like to take Kevin’s place and accompany her to the surface. For a moment, she considered doing just that. A part of her thought it would be wiser to leave Kevin behind. He was her second in command after all. But she didn’t want to. Their bond meant it was very difficult to spend any time apart.

“Let’s go. We will contact Lieutenant Jackson as we head to the shuttle bay” she said to Kevin as she stood. “Stephen, you have command.”

“Aye Captain.” Stephen called out after them.

*

Sarah piloted the shuttle herself. If Jark did try to take hostages, she didn’t want any more of her crew captured than was necessary. As she circled the landing zone she was surprised to see only two aliens standing nearby waiting for her to land. Suspicious, she sent the shuttle on a wider circle and used its sensors to scan the surrounding area. The landing zone was near a small town a few kilometers away from one of the planet’s major cities. There were quite a number of aliens moving around within the town, but there were no signs that any of them were waiting to ambush Sarah’s party.

“I don’t see any reason not to land,” Kevin said. He had been studying the sensor readings as well.

“I guess not,” Sarah replied. She swung the shuttle around and quickly descended to the landing zone.

“Keep your weapons pointed at the ground unless a threat appears,” Sarah ordered the marines. “If they are more suspicious of us than they’re letting on, let’s not give them any unnecessary reasons to dislike us.”

“We’ll be on our best behavior,” Lieutenant Jackson replied. “But we will be ready to deal with anything that comes our way as well.”

“Just what I expect,” Sarah replied.

Sarah mentally sent the command to open the shuttle’s rear access ramp. Lieutenant Jackson and three other marines descended. By the time Sarah and Kevin had left their seats and moved to join them, they had already spread out. With another thought, Sarah ordered the rear ramp to ascend. Two marines stayed in the shuttle to guard it from any attempt to steal it.

She saw Jark heading towards Lieutenant Jackson. When Jark spotted her, he changed direction and approached her instead. “Welcome to our planet Captain,” Jack said loudly, waving all four of his hands. “You are most welcome,” he added with a slight bow. Turning slightly, two of his hands pointed to the alien who had followed Jark. “This is my eldest son Lark, he came to greet you as well.” Lark bowed slightly as his father introduced him.

“You are both most kind,” Sarah replied as she returned their bows. “This is my First Officer, Lieutenant Simmons.” Sarah said as she pointed to Kevin. “And this is Lieutenant Jackson, who commands my ship’s marines,” she continued as Jackson moved forward to join their group.

Jark and Lark bowed to each. Then Jark spoke again as he raised his head. “I see you all carry weapons. You may rest assured that you will not need them on Danab. Our people get all we need from the world around us. Danab richly provides for us and we have learnt that violence between individuals gets us nowhere.”

“Then your species is a rare thing in the galaxy,” Sarah said with a smile. “It makes me want to get to know you all the more. However, our experience has been that carrying weapons for protection is a necessity. I hope you won’t take it as an insult if we keep our weapons with us.”

“Not at all Captain,” Jark replied. “You are our guests, you’re free to do as you please. If you are happy to depart, my home is a short walk from here.”

“We are eager to enjoy your hospitality,” Sarah said as she fell in step beside Jark.

As they walked through the open countryside, Sarah realized Jark’s words had been correct. Danab was an ecologically rich world. All around her there was a vibrancy of colors. Nearby there appeared to be many different crops growing on cultivated land. Further in the distance were thick forests. From where they were, Sarah could hear the calls of whatever animals inhabited them.

“Your world is beautiful,” she said.

“Thank you,” Jark replied with a humanlike grin.

As they walked Sarah asked about the plants they encountered and the agricultural processes that were going on. In turn, Jark asked a number of superficial questions about Destiny and life as a Captain. He seemed to pick up pretty quickly that she didn’t want to discuss her homeworld just yet. That was ok with Sarah. It meant she got to ask the majority of the questions and the more Sarah saw of Danab, the more questions she wanted to ask. Yet as Jark kept the conversation light, Sarah held most of them back. It would be rude to start to probe the administrator so soon. Perhaps once we sit down to share a meal, Sarah thought.

Jark lead them towards the town and they skirted around its outskirts. Sarah was surprised by what she saw. All of the buildings were wooden constructions. Some were impressive three and four-story buildings, yet she had expected some more modern construction materials. She was shocked to see the clothing some of the locals wore. Almost every one of them stopped what they were doing to stare at Sarah and her group, at least for a few seconds. While some wore material that covered their entire torso like Jark and Lark, others wore tatters. Their clothes looked like they had once completely covered the alien wearing them, yet they had tears and holes from the wear and tear of the heavy agricultural work Sarah saw several of them attending to. “They’ve gone backwards, not forwards,” Sarah thought to Kevin. “You think that would have happened to Earth if the Elders had been defeated but the Hope Fivers hadn’t been around to help?”

“Perhaps,” Kevin replied. “Though from what I know of your father and the resistance, they had spent a lot of time trying to understand and operate Elder technology. Besides, Jark said it himself, they have trading relationships with other species. Surely they could have received help maintaining their technology?”

“Maybe they are struggling too,” Sarah thought back after answering a question Jark had asked her. “Removing the Elders from our sector of space could have begun a process that will send all the former Elder colonies back to the equivalent of the Stone Age.”

“Maybe,” Kevin replied. “But don’t forget about that orbital station. It wasn’t built by the Elders and someone has to be maintaining it. Something is fishy about this planet.”

“Well, let’s hope we find out sooner rather than later.”

*

When they got to Jark’s home, Jark showed them into a large central room. Several aliens were already there reclining around an oval table. There were no seats, instead every alien sat on its rear, leaning forward on two of its arms. The other two were positioned facing the table ready to eat the wide array of food that was displayed upon it. One alien was standing slightly to the side of the table.

“This is my wife Manao,” Jark said as he embraced his wife affectionately. Then he stepped back to present her to Sarah and her party. Moving past her Jark introduced the rest of the aliens. Every one of them held the title of junior administrator. Each seemed to be in charge of one district or another. “In total Danab has one hundred junior administrators,” Jark informed her after introducing the last one. “These were all I could gather at such short notice. They are all excited to meet and get to talk with you.”

“As am I,” Sarah said as she gazed at the junior administrators. “I have many questions and I’m sure there are ways in which both our species can help one another.”

“We are eager to help in any way we can,” Jark said. “But for now, let’s enjoy some food together. Hopefully you will be able to enjoy some of the produce of our planet. It is very popular in this sector of the galaxy.”

“I’m sure we will,” Sarah said as she filed away that tidbit of information for later.

After sitting at the position Jark indicated, Sarah pulled out her scanning device. As Jark passed food before her, she scanned each delicacy to make sure it was edible. To her surprise, all but one could be consumed by humans. Even more to her surprise, many of them were delicious. The custom seemed to be that the large bowls of food were continuously passed around the circle. That way, each was able to take whatever they wanted. As they ate, Jark directed Sarah to speak with each of the junior administrators in turn. She asked them about the district they oversaw and they asked different questions about her ship and her people. She answered them as fully as she could without giving too much away. Kevin and the marines chatted among themselves or to the administrator sat beside them. As the conversation continued, Sarah realized that each of the districts serviced by the junior administrators was an agricultural district. They were responsible for the production of food. She also realized that Jark was their leader or perhaps supervisor would be more accurate. He was responsible for the entire agricultural production of the planet. Though it seemed strange to Sarah, it appeared to make him the de facto planetary leader.

“It’s a relatively new system,” Jark said when Sarah asked him about his position. “Every eight years a new administrator is selected from the junior administrators. Every junior administrator has a vote they can cast. Usually the general administrator that has shown the best aptitude at overseeing production in their district gets elected.”

“Your species certainly puts a high value on agricultural production,” Sarah said.

A shadow passed across Jark’s eyes. The junior administrators also had a strange look on their faces. It quickly passed as Jark began to speak. “There are a number of reasons for that, the main one is that we Danabians love the outdoors. We enjoy caring for our planet and working alongside the plants and animals to maximize their production. Most of our people live in small villages in the country, but even the vast majority of those who live in the cities travel out to the country to work every day. Working with our hands in the dirt of the ground is what every Danabian is born to do.”

“Well, from what I saw on the walk to your house, it appears your species is very good at what they do,” Sarah said, attempting to move past whatever had upset the Danabians.

“Thank you,” Jark said, “that is a kind compliment.”

“So tell us Captain,” one of the junior administrators asked as the meal finished and the large empty bowls were cleared away. “What kind of things do you bring to trade with us? Your ship isn’t particularly large. You can’t be carrying any bulk cargo.”

Finally , Sarah thought. “We have certain technologies we are willing to trade,” Sarah began. “Though, we are as interested in sharing information as we are in trading for commodities. Your species has been free from Elder control for nearly fifty years according to our information. We were keen to see how your species has progressed since then.”

“Where is your species from?” another junior administrator asked. “We know all the species from what was formerly sector XF-4172 and we’ve had dealings with some from the other border sectors the Elders abandoned. We have not come across your species before.”

“We are not from the border sectors,” Sarah answered.

The Danabians inhaled sharply. “Are you saying you are from unexplored space?” Jark asked through clenched jaws.

“They are from the darkness,” another junior administrator spat out. The junior administrators that sat near Sarah’s party leaned away from the humans.

“No, no,” Sarah said as she held up her hands in a conciliatory fashion. “We are from a sector further into Elder space. That’s why we have come here, we are seeking trading partners and help in establishing our own independence apart from the Elders.”

“How is that possible?” Lark asked. “The Elders are only beginning to abandon the next ring of outer sectors.”

“Their timetable has been artificially sped up,” Sarah said. “Some kind of virus destroyed all the Elder ships in at least the nearest fifteen sectors of space. For the last six months, every planet has been free of the Elder’s influence.”

Though the Danabians didn’t take another intake of breath, the looks they shared showed their surprise. “Do you think they will come back? If some kind of attack destroyed their ships they will not be happy,” a particularly astute junior administrator asked.

“In all honesty, we don’t know,” Sarah answered. “We guessed that they would abandon our sector of space in the next hundred years or so. Perhaps they will simply ignore what happened.”

Several of the Danabians frowned. She could guess what they were thinking. If the Elders did return and found out some of their former colonies had helped Sarah’s people, the Danabians could easily find themselves facing the Elders’ wrath.

“May I ask,” Sarah said, “what has happened to your planet since the Elders left? Your ecology is clearly rich with edible food and your species is very adept at agricultural cultivation. Yet, your technological base seems to have decreased rather than advanced. And if you don’t mind my saying, I was surprised to see the relatively difficult lives your people seem to live. Surely you could trade for the industrial equipment needed to make clothes and agricultural equipment that would help your food production?”

Jark and Lark exchanged glances. “The truth is,” Jark began hesitantly, “we are not the masters of our own destiny. Danab is part of the Graman Pack. The majority of the foodstuffs we produce is exported to other planets within the Pack. When you arrived, I thought you understood this, but if you have come from deeper within the galaxy, I understand your lack of knowledge.”

“I’m sorry to hear this,” Sarah said though her mind was racing, a larger political entity that controlled Danab answered some of her questions. “When we came to visit, we hoped to find a world that had experienced fifty years of freedom. We were keen to see what you had accomplished in the last fifty years. What kind of relationship do you have with this Pack?”

“The Pack was formed a couple of years after the Elders left this sector of the galaxy,” Jark explained. “The Gramans were the species designated the Protector World of this sector. They formed an alliance with several Tier Three colonies within the sector, called the Graman Pack. Initially they worked together to stop pirates and slavers from raiding their worlds and the other worlds in this sector. Then, as they realized what their freedom meant, they got scared. We knew the Elders could return at any moment, whilst my people came to accept we could never do anything to stop the Elders, the Pack thought otherwise. For the last thirty years they have been slowly expanding their influence. World by world is forced to join the Pack. We are protected and, since we joined twenty-eight years ago, we have enjoyed peace. But it comes at a cost. The Pack members took most of our modern technology and the technicians that understood how to work it and repair it. With no one to work it, what they didn’t take has long since fallen into disrepair. In addition, we must meet quarterly quotas for food production. The Pack takes a third of our world’s production and distributes it among other worlds that are unable to produce foodstuffs in the same quantity. We do not really know what goes on in the rest of the Pack, but, as I understand it, they have scavenged technology from many worlds and used it to build a fleet that can protect us from the Elders and any other threat. I presume our food feeds much of their fleet.”

Sarah took a moment to process everything Jark had said. This Pack could be a great ally , she thought. Yet they could also be a serious threat.

“So essentially, you’re no better than slaves to this Pack,” Kevin said. “You are no better off than under the Elders.”

“Yes and no,” Jark said carefully. “The Elders often killed many of our people to demonstrate their power and authority. The Pack doesn’t kill indiscriminately, but if we do not meet our quotas there are consequences.”

“Such as?” Sarah pressed. She held her breath as she waited for Jark’s answer.

“On two occasions they have bombarded places of religious significance to our species. As well as enjoying working with the ecosystems on our planet, we place great spiritual meaning on areas with especially diverse vegetation. When we don’t meet our quota, the Pack freighters sent to collect our produce bombard such locations. They have also threatened to bombard a town or village but that has not happened.”

Yet , Sarah finished.

“Can you tell us what the rest of the sectors that have just lost their Elder overseers are like?” a junior administrator asked. “Are there any threats we should be aware of? In the first years after the Elders left this part of space several other worlds tried to build their own fleets and conquer their neighbors. Thankfully we were spared because of how close we were to the Graman Pack. But if newly freed species don’t know about the Pack, they may attack us.”

“Most species are still finding their way,” Sarah said. “Some are more aggressive than others. It’s quite possible that a species that has managed to retain the ability to build spaceships may seek to dominate other worlds.”

“We’ll have to send word to Graet. You will have to demand that they station a ship in orbit to protect us,” a junior administrator said as she looked at Jark.

Jark looked slightly scared, though his words were steady. “I will speak to the next freighter Captain that comes. You know as well as I do that nothing may come of our request, but I will speak to whoever enters the system next.”

“Perhaps we could take a message to the Pack for you,” Sarah suggested. “My mission was to visit the former Protector World of this sector. Given what you’ve told me, Graet will be my next stop. We can pass a message on for you.”

The administrators shared several glances. Finally Jark spoke, “You have been honest with us and I should be honest with you. Passing a message on via your ship may not be a good idea for us. We don’t know how King Flexor will respond to what has happened to the nearby sectors and your presence. It may go badly for us if he suspects we were conspiring with your species.”

“A King,” Kevin thought to Sarah. “That doesn’t bode well.”

Sarah mentally nodded back. Earth’s history was full of kings. Sometimes they were good, but investing so much power and authority in one person usually didn’t end well.

“Perhaps it’s best you don’t mention to the Pack that you were here,” one of the junior administrators suggested.

“If that’s what you think is in your best interest,” Sarah said quickly. “We do not wish to endanger you after the hospitality you have shown us. We would still like to discuss trade and there may be some technologies we could share with you that would help you increase your food production capabilities. In addition, I’d liked to know more about your people’s history and the history of the Pack before we visit this King. Beyond that, we will be happy to leave. We do not wish our visit to your system to cause trouble.”

“I’m sure we will be able to come to some arrangement,” Jark said. “Much of our history since the Elders left has been written down in hardcopy format. We still have a few functioning computer terminals spread throughout our world, but there’re too few to make using them of any real benefit. I could share those histories with you. I imagine you have some kind of visual scanner that can record them.”

“We certainly do,” Sarah said.

“I’d also be keen to put together a small group of junior administrators who could go over some of the agricultural technologies you may be able to share with us,” Jark continued. “We do not have much foodstuffs we can spare to trade, but if it will increase our long-term productivity it would be worth doing.”

“Of course,” Sarah said. “It would probably be best if I put together a small team from my ship. They can visit a few of your farms and see what techniques you utilize. We could then put together a list of things we could trade with you. I think it would be a fair trade for whatever information you can give us on the Graman Pack.”

Jark began to speak but Sarah raised a hand to stop him. She was getting a communication from Destiny . “Captain, do you read me?” Stephen’s voice entered her mind through her neural implant.

“Yes, go ahead,” she replied.

“We’ve detected a ship approaching the planet. It’s a couple of hours out,” Stephen reported.

Sarah filled in what he didn’t need to say. With Destiny in stealth, unless the ship had Elder level sensors or better, they wouldn’t know Destiny was present. The confused look on Jark’s face drew Sarah’s attention back to the room she was in. “I’m sorry. I just received a message from my ship. Another ship is approaching.”

Several of the junior administrators jumped to their feet. “We’re not ready,” one of them said. The others looked at each other in alarm. Jark retained some measure of dignity though his concern was evident.

“You should leave,” he said. “We are at least a week away from being able to meet our quarterly quota. The freighter is early. If you leave now they may not know you were here. If they do find out, they may blame you for our failure. Worse, they may think we have traded some of our produce to you and they will punish us.”

“We’ll leave,” Sarah said, getting to her feet. “They won’t have detected our ship yet and we can hide while they are here. How long does a freighter normally stay in orbit?”

“We have a number of shuttles that the Pack keep functional for us. Every week we send shipments up to the orbital storage station. Usually the freighter stays just long enough to load everything we have produced. No longer than a couple of days. Since we haven’t met our quota, the freighter may want to stay longer.”

“Okay. We’ll stay hidden and see how things play out. I can call my shuttle over to your house, we won’t land so that there’s no sign a shuttle was here, but it will get us back to our ship quicker.”

“Do it,” Jark said. He motioned for them to follow him outside. Once there Sarah picked a likely spot and closed her eyes. Through her implant she connected with the shuttle’s flight computer. It was easily still close enough. Powering up its engines, she ordered the shuttle to take off. If she had accessed the shuttle’s interior cameras, she would have seen shock on the faces of the two marines protecting the shuttle. She didn’t though. Her attention was on the sensors as they showed her the surrounding farmland and town.  Quickly she directed the shuttle to the spot she had selected. It descended until it was hovering a few meters off the ground. Then she ordered the rear access ramp to descend. Opening her eyes, Sarah saw Lieutenant Jackson had already directed two of his marines up the ramp. Turning to Jark she gave him a slight bow. “Hopefully I’ll see you in a day or two, then we can continue our discussions. Thank you for being such a gracious host.”

“I will look forward to it,” Jark replied with a small bow of his own.

Sarah turned and jumped onto the shuttle’s ramp. As she walked up it, it began to ascend.

Chapter 15

“They don’t sound happy,” Stephen said from Destiny’s COM terminal. Alexandra had easily decoded the encryption the freighter Captain was using to communicate with Jark. Everyone on the bridge was watching and listening to their conversation. The freighter had docked with the orbital station half an hour ago and it seemed its Captain wasn’t pleased with what he had found.

“Your people have had the same quota for the last several years,” the freighter Captain spat. “I won’t listen to your pitiful excuses. If I return without the supplies I’ve been sent for, it will be my head on the line. I can see your planet, you have fields full of produce. Get them up to this station today or there will be consequences.”

“Food production isn’t a uniform operation,” Jark replied. He sounded much calmer than Sarah expected him to. “The season, the weather, diseases, they all affect yields. What you see growing isn’t ready to harvest yet. After feeding our workers everything else we have harvested is on the orbital station. If you wait a week, the first crops will be ready to be harvested in the southern hemisphere. Then we can give you what you need.”

“I know you have what I need now,” the freighter Captain responded, leaning closer so that Jark could see more of his face. “It will soon be spring in your northern hemisphere, you have stores of food being kept there to keep your people going until harvest. Transport them to this station. You can take what you need from your farms in the southern hemisphere when their harvest begins.”

“You’re talking about starving my people,” Jark pleaded. “The first crops to be harvested won’t feed all our people. Even then, it will take a week or two to process the food into something that can be eaten. Then it will have to be transported to the outlying towns and villages. People will starve.”

“That’s not my problem,” the Captain replied as he clenched a fist. “I have selected my targets. I’m transmitting them to you now. You know the penalty for failing to meet your requirements.”

Jark looked down at something and his expression quickly changed. “You can’t,” he choked out. As he looked back up at the freighter Captain, it seemed as if Jark’s eyes had doubled in size. “The forest of Akalade is our most precious spiritual site. Thousands of pilgrims visit the forest every year. More than that, we collect seeds from many of the plants in the forest. We crossbreed them with many of our crop strains. They reintroduce some of the vigor and natural protection that our crops lose after several generations. You will be hurting our ability to meet future quotas.”

“You don’t seem to understand,” the Captain snapped. “I am a freighter Captain. My mission is to collect the cargo you’re supposed to have prepared. Two weeks from now I will be on another mission and then another. I may never be back here again. My pay, my crew’s pay, our livelihoods depend on this mission. Your backward planet has no other use than to help feed those who protect you. Either you deliver on your end of the Graman Pack agreement, or you face the consequences. Get the food up to the station. You have one day.” The freighter Captain lifted his fist and brought it down on some unseen button. The video disappeared.

“It doesn’t look like things are going to end well,” Kevin commented.

“No,” Hannah agreed.

“What are you going to do Captain?” Trask asked.

“I’m not sure.” Sarah stared out towards the freighter. Destiny was hiding behind the nearest planet in the system. A thick meteor ring allowed Destiny to hide from the freighter. A stealth drone outside the meteor ring fed back readings from its passive sensors via laser link. Even as she stared, her mind was elsewhere. What she had heard of this King and the Graman Pack from Jark had confused her. It was encouraging to hear that different alien species were working together. That the Pack sought to protect less advanced species from pirates and slavers was a positive sign. Yet, it seemed the dominant species in the Pack were happy to bend other species to their will. The actions of the freighter Captain angered her. What King, or Pack would allow one of its members species to be treated in such a fashion?

*

“What do we do if they threaten to attack again?” Kevin asked as he stroked Sarah’s hair. They were in their quarters. After watching the freighter for several hours to see what its Captain would do, Sarah had handed over command to Stephen and retired with Kevin.

Stretching, Sarah stifled a yawn. She hadn’t slept nearly as much as she needed to. Her dreams had been full of disturbing images. Even though the freighter’s Captain wasn’t threatening to bombard a city, she had seen enough orbital bombardments that the freighter Captain’s threats had brought back memories.

“I still don’t know,” she sighed. Less than an hour after their heated exchange, shuttles had lifted off from various cities and towns in the northern hemisphere of Danab. Jark had given in to the freighter Captain’s demands. “Hopefully it won’t come to that. This is different than the other systems we have visited. We were in part responsible for the things going on there. We didn’t remove the Elders from Danab. We didn’t force the Danabians into the Graman Pack.”

“We can hardly sit by and watch innocent people be killed, can we?” Kevin followed up.

“This Graman Pack could be a vital ally if and when the Elders return,” she answered. “If we intervene we could anger them, we could jeopardize future relations. There is more at stake than a few Danabian civilians. I have to take that into account.”

Leaning over, Kevin kissed Sarah’s forehead. “This captaining business is far more complicated than I ever thought. Growing up, all of us on Hope Five dreamt of captaining a ship in battle against the Elders. Now Earth is free, everything has become more complex.”

Sarah grunted to show her agreement. In retrospect, when it had just been her, Alexandra and Divar, avoiding pirates and searching for Earth had been a comparatively simple task. Not that it felt like that at the time, Sarah chuckled to herself.

“Well, I’m going to the gym. A good work out will relieve some tension. Care to join me?” Kevin said, rolling out of bed.

Sarah thought about it. “No, I’ll stay here a little longer.”

“You could do with some combat training,” Alexandra said. “It’s been a couple of weeks. Your reflexes will be slowing down. A Captain should always be ready for anything.”

“And the ship’s artificial intelligence should butt out of personal conversations,” Sarah retorted. “Both of you can just let me lie here a little longer. It takes more energy thinking through these moral dilemmas than it does beating Kevin in the sparing ring.”

Kevin shot her a nasty look. Even though neither of them had grown up being trained in martial arts, given Sarah’s previous experiences, she had insisted her crew train and Alexandra supervise. Kevin was good, but Sarah had taken to physical combat like a duck to water. I’m the one who has been enslaved and attacked repeatedly, Sarah thought as she reflected on their differing abilities. I know how important being able to defend yourself is .

“Okay,” Kevin said. “But I’m going to work on my throws. We’ll see who beats who when you’re rusty and I’m fresh.”

Sarah waved him goodbye and returned to her thinking. She wasn’t just pondering what to do in the current situation. She was reflecting on the decision she had already made. A part of her felt like she needed Simmons or someone else from the Ruling Council to make the kind of decisions she was being forced to make. At the very least they could advise me.

Sometime later Hannah’s voice broke into her thoughts “Captain, you better come to the bridge.”

Sarah was startled. Hannah had left the bridge with her and Kevin. She hadn’t been due back on watch for several hours. Checking her implant, she saw she had been in bed for longer than she had planned. Jumping up, she threw on the nearest flight suit. “What is it?” she asked as she stepped onto the bridge.

“See for yourself,” Hannah said as she nodded towards the holo-projector. It was showing a split screen of Jark and the freighter Captain’s faces.

“We have given you all we can. There are no more stores to spare. You can’t take the food out of our very hands,” Jark was saying. “If you wait a week we will meet our quota and more. You were early by several days.”

“You know the consequences. If you are refusing to give me what you owe, then I have no choice,” the frigate Captain said.

Sarah thought she saw regret on the Captain’s face. She wasn’t familiar with his species, but he didn’t appear as angry as before.

“What’s going on?” Kevin asked as he barreled onto the bridge. Sarah waved for him to be silent and nodded towards the holo-projector.

“But there are pilgrims in the forest right now, you will kill them,” Jark protested vigorously.

“That’s not my problem,” the freighter Captain snapped. “You are forcing this upon me. There are people I answer to.”

Both images went blank, Sarah guessed the freighter Captain had cut the COM channel.

“The freighter is charging its weapons,” Hannah called out sharply.

Sarah sensed Kevin’s desire to intervene spike. He didn’t look at her, but he didn’t have to. Their bond told Sarah everything she needed to know about what he thought she should do. For a second Sarah resisted. She knew she was impulsive. Their bond was meant to help curb her desire to always jump in. Kevin was meant to be more strategic and analytical. She had felt his influence on her decision-making hold her back before. Now his sense of injustice matched her own. Neither of them could allow the freighter to kill civilians. She gave in. The consequences of their actions would have to sort themselves out later.

“Take us out of stealth, activate sensors. Alexandra, plot a course directly for that freighter, full power.”

The bridge crew responded immediately. Destiny lit up like a Christmas tree as every active sensor pumped out gigajoules of electromagnetic energy and her reactors and engines powered up.

“We’re being hailed,” Ensign Sato reported, she had taken Stephen’s place on the bridge.

“On screen,” Sarah said.

The frigate Captain’s face appeared again. This time he looked neither angry or regretful. Sarah guessed it was fear. The less advanced species they had encountered before hadn’t recognized Destiny for what she was, a converted Elder frigate. A ship from the Graman Pack was not going to make the same mistake.

“Who are you? What do you want?” The Captain asked.

“My name is Captain Adams, power down your weapons,” she demanded.

“You have no authority over me,” the Captain replied.

“I can destroy you in the blink of an eye, that gives me authority.” Mimicking the Captain’s actions from earlier, Sarah leaned forward to look more intimidating. “Now do what I say.”

“You wouldn’t dare,” the freighter Captain retorted. “I represent the Graman Pack. You may have an impressive ship, but they will hunt you down. You must know that.”

“Their weapons are still charging,” Hannah reported.

“We’ll be in energy weapon range in five seconds,” Kevin added.

Sarah stared at the freighter Captain. When he made no effort to give any commands she shook her head. “Tachyon pulses, disable his ship.”

Surprise shot across the freighter Captain’s face. Then it disappeared as the COM channel went down. Kevin’s tachyon pulses peppered the freighter’s energy screen. Just two hits took it down. Then the pulses struck the freighter itself. Power surges swept through the ship, making power transfer relays and other conduits explode. Its reactors automatically shut down, going into failsafe mode.

“Take out their laser cannon, then bring us alongside the freighter,” Sarah requested. “See if you can set up a laser COM link.”

A single low powered laser beam struck the cannon a second later. Then calm descended as Destiny closed with her target. It took a few minutes but Sato finally managed to make contact with the stricken freighter.

“You made the wrong choice Captain. We haven’t damaged your ship too badly. It should take you a few days, maybe even a week to replace your damaged systems. By then the Danabians will have gathered what they owe you. If I hear you have attacked their world after we are gone I will hunt you down. You have my word.”

The freighter Captain didn’t reply, he simply glared at Sarah. “This won’t be the last of this,” he finally said before cutting the channel.

“Administrator Jark is trying to contact us,” Sato informed Sarah next.

“Administrator, how are things on your planet?” Sarah asked when his face appeared.

“The last twenty-four hours have been frantic, but we are pretty much on top of things,” Jark said. “You didn’t have to do what you did Captain.”

“I know,” Sarah replied. “But I couldn’t let them attack your planet. Not after seeing it myself and sharing your hospitality. I would offer to come down and meet with you again, but I suspect it would only make things worse for you. I have spoken with the freighter Captain, I don’t believe he will threaten you again. If you have your quota filled within the next several days, you should be all right.”

“You have my people’s thanks Captain. And yes, I fear that if you were seen to visit our planet in person the Pack would only take it badly. As much as I have enjoyed meeting you, it’s best you leave. I wish I could share the information you wanted on the Graman Pack, but it would endanger my people.”

“I understand,” Sarah nodded. “Besides, we learnt quite a lot about the Pack with what happened here. I am transmitting some files to you, hopefully you can access them on some of your remaining computer terminals. Based on the scans we took of your food and planet, the files contain some agricultural technology you should find useful. It builds on some of the techniques you already use. Hopefully, by the time another freighter comes to collect from you, you will be able to meet your quota and more. That should help deflect whatever anger comes your way from the other Pack members for what happened today.”

“Then I must thank you again,” Jark said with a bow. “We must ask you to leave now if you would,” he continued as he raised his head. “The longer you stay in orbit, the more suspicious things look.”

“We will go,” Sarah said with a smile and a slight bow. “It was a pleasure to meet you. I sincerely hope our presence doesn’t cause you more harm than good in the long run.”

“I hope so too,” Jark agreed. “If you are ever passing by this way again, don’t be afraid to call in. Just make sure there are no Graman ships in the system.”

“I hope to take you up on that offer one day. Farewell,” Sarah said as she signaled for Sato to cut the COM channel.

“Take us out of here,” she ordered Alexandra. “Once we clear the system’s mass shadow, take us into subspace. Set a course for the Graet System.”

Chapter 16

Sarah ordered Alexandra to drop Destiny out of subspace well before the Graet System’s mass shadow. She suspected the former Protector World would have ships patrolling its borders and she wanted to impress King Flexor. Given everything she had seen and heard about the Graman Pack, she had decided that a show of strength would impress them the most.

“That is one busy system,” Hannah said from the sensor console.

Sarah nodded. Even though they were several light hours away, the amount of electromagnetic energy Destiny’s passive sensors were picking up was impressive. For half an hour Sarah waited before ordering Destiny’s engines powered up. She wanted to get as clear a view of the system as she could. At this range, it was impossible to accurately identify anything. One thing was clear however, there were quite a few ships operating within the system. “Take us in,” she ordered when she was ready to move.

For the next three hours Destiny cruised into the system under stealth. As they did, their view of the system became much clearer and Sarah’s wonder grew exponentially. The Graet System was far more developed than any world she had seen before. She had some vague memories from Gronkin of what some of the Elder homeworlds looked like. Though they were distant and impossible to really grasp. Even guessing at how developed the Elder homeworlds would be after four thousand years of development, this is still impressive , Sarah thought.

Destiny’s sensors were tracking more than two hundred ships that were either entering the system or heading towards the mass shadow to jump to subspace. Most couldn’t be fully identified yet, though it seemed the vast majority were freighters of one kind or another. There were at least two hundred ships around Graet. Half of them were arrayed in a tight formation. It was unmistakably military. The rest were either hanging in orbit or docked to one of the many orbital stations filling Graet’s sky. Beyond Graet itself, every planetary body in the system had some kind of orbital station. Some seemed to be mining operations, others looked like they housed colonists or served habitats built on the planet’s surfaces. It was hard for Sarah to imagine how the Gramans could have developed their system so quickly. But they’ve had help, Sarah reminded herself. Jark had said at least three other species had been working with the Gramans. And they’ve stolen technology and equipment from others as well.

“I’m picking up a couple of strange contacts,” Hannah reported. “They’re right on the edge of the system’s mass shadow.”

“Show me,” Sarah requested, her daydreaming coming to a sharp end.

When the raw sensor data scrolled across her command chair’s screen, Sarah understood. Both signals were intermittent. But rather than being some kind of electromagnetic energy pulsing towards Destiny , the signals were gaps in the background radiation coming from deeper within the system. It looked almost as if voids were occasionally opening up in space and sucking in the electromagnetic energy Graet and all the ships and orbital stations within the system were producing.

“Stealth technology,” Kevin suggested. “They’re absorbing the electromagnetic energy that strikes the hull so that it doesn’t reflect off and give them away. That’s the kind of stealth technology Earth ships used to have before the Elder’s first attack.”

Sarah’s mind went to a technical file she had processed with her neural implant several months ago. “You’re right,” she said after accessing the information again. “Instead of bending the electromagnetic energy around them like we do, they’re simply absorbing it. It’s not perfect, but in this situation, it hardly matters. What’s the odds that a ship would go to the bother of dropping out of subspace so far from the system’s mass shadow and cruising in. They are clearly prepared for trouble. We’re lucky we didn’t jump straight in. They might have fired on us and asked questions later.”

Any ship coming out of subspace was vulnerable. With its sensors and energy screen powering up, a surprise attack would catch such a ship essentially defenseless. Sarah guessed even Destiny might have been in trouble if she got caught out like that.

“But a solar system is so large, what are the chances of a starship jumping out of subspace close to another warship patrolling the mass shadow?” Trask asked. “Surely it’s a waste of ships.”

Kevin had his thinking face on. “Not necessarily. We have not come across any ships that have the fuel capacity Destiny has. Before her modifications, she couldn’t even travel a quarter of the distance she can now without refueling. Less advanced ships can travel even shorter distances. That seriously reduces the number of destinations a ship may be coming from. In turn, that reduces the vectors a ship may enter this system on. It would still require a good deal of luck, but with enough ships you would stand a fair chance of catching an enemy unaware. Look at us, we are still travelling on the vector we dropped out of subspace on. It almost takes us directly towards those two contacts.”

“Speaking of which,” Sarah said. “It’s time we made a course correction. Alexandra take us around those two contacts, I don’t want there to be even a slight chance they will detect us.”

“We’re far enough away that it should only require a prolonged burn with our maneuvering thrusters,” Alexandra reported. “Beginning maneuver now.”

“If the Gramans think it’s worth trying to ambush any hostile ships that approach their system, they are bound to have more patrol ships,” Trask thought out loud. “That or they almost got extremely lucky catching us.”

“Good thinking,” Sarah responded with a nod. “Hannah, see if you can detect any others. It will be harder given that we won’t be coming up right towards them to see the gaps in the background electromagnetic radiation they absorb. Let’s see just how good Destiny’s sensors and your skills are.” Hannah was a natural with Destiny’s sensors, but Sarah thought this might be one task too difficult for her.

“May I assist?” Trask requested.

“You may, though try not to show Hannah up.” Sarah winked at Hannah. Stephen had reported that Trask showed an aptitude for handling Destiny’s sensors. He still had a lot to learn though.

Hannah shot Sarah a grin back. Everyone on Destiny had been impressed with Trask’s desire to learn as much as he could. Sarah had also heard good things about his younger brother. Alama was training with Lieutenant Jackson’s marines. Despite his lack of medical nanites to enhance his body, he was holding his own against them in the sparing ring.

“I’m going to retire for a couple of hours,” Sarah said once they were safely past the two patrol ships. “Kevin you have command. I’ll come and relieve you in a bit.”

“Aye Captain,” Kevin replied formally.

Sarah shook her head in exasperation and left the bridge for her quarters. It would take another six hours for Destiny to reach Graet, she wanted to be rested and refreshed when they did.

*

“Bring us to a halt relative to Graet,” Sarah ordered when Destiny was three light seconds from the planet. “Power up our energy screen. Transmit the message.”

The transmission had been pre-recorded. In it Sarah introduced herself and explained why she had come to the Pack’s capital. She also requested an audience with King Flexor to discuss future relations between the Pack and her people.

Sarah smiled as the ships around her responded to the sudden appearance of what looked worryingly like an Elder warship in their midst. The closest freighters veered off while a number of the warships in orbit powered up their energy screens. Within seconds, nearly half of the one hundred warships were breaking orbit and moving towards Destiny . Sarah felt a knot tightening her stomach. Individually their scans of the Pack ships suggested they were no match for an Elder frigate, never mind one so heavily modified with advanced human technology. Yet with more than forty coming towards Destiny , she knew that even her piloting skills wouldn’t win such a battle.

“They reacted fast,” Kevin said as he sensed Sarah’s mood. “Still think you made the right decision?”

Sarah shot him a dirty look. They had discussed her plans in depth before she had revealed them to the rest of the crew. Looking back at the holo-projector she tried to keep her face impassive. There was no point turning Destiny around now. They could out run the approaching ships, but that would spoil the first impression she was trying to make.

“We’re being hailed by the largest ship in the approaching fleet,” Stephen reported.

Sarah let out a breath she hadn’t realized she had been holding. “Let’s hear it.”

Given that Graet was a former Protector World, the face that appeared in front of Sarah was at least familiar from Destiny’s data banks. “How dare you enter Pack space without permission. Power down your energy screen and prepare to be boarded. You’re being taken into custody. You have broken Pack law.”

Sarah smoothed her features before replying. “I sincerely apologize, Admiral? Is it? We didn’t know about any laws that we have broken. I am an emissary from my people. I wish to have an audience with your King. Certainly, if you are willing to allow us to enter orbit your ships may escort us in. But I’m afraid I cannot allow you to board our ship or take us into custody. It would cause quite a diplomatic incident. Seeing as I have been sent to open friendly relations between our two peoples, I don’t think either of us would wish our peoples to get off to such a bad start.”

“You have bypassed our system’s security checks and approached our homeworld uninvited. You will be taken into custody,” the Graman fleet commander repeated.

“Admiral, come now,” Sarah said as calmly as she could. “We mean you no harm. Surely your sensors have probed my ship by now. You know it was once an Elder frigate. Since capturing it my people have enhanced it further. There is no need for a battle today.”

The Admiral, or whatever rank he held, hadn’t taken his eyes from Sarah. Then another voice spoke, one Sarah couldn’t quite make out. The Admiral turned his head and listened for several seconds. His expression changed from anger to surprise, then to frustration. Sarah was amazed, not for the first time, that the humanoid species in the galaxy shared so many facial expressions. Finally, the Admiral’s face settled into something akin to Sarah’s calm professionalism.

“Very well Captain, my ships will escort you in. You have been granted an audience with the King. Coordinates of an orbital slot will be transmitted to you. My name is Rear Admiral Kant.”

“Thank you Rear Admiral,” Sarah smiled. “My apologies for startling you. Our sudden appearance wasn’t meant as a threat.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” Kant replied. “Perhaps after your audience with the King you can tell me how your ship got passed our outer patrols.”

“I would be glad to meet with you Rear Admiral. You’ll understand that I can’t reveal any state secrets, but I can tell you how we avoided your patrols. The stealth ships you have right on the edge of the mass shadow caused us a little more hassle.” Sarah’s words had the effect she intended.

Kant’s eyes bulged for a moment. Then he got control of his facial expressions. “It seems we could discuss a number of things if we get the chance to meet. Your orbital coordinates are ready to transmit. Don’t deviate from the vectors you are being given. If you do, my ships will open fire. Whatever fancy technology you have, it won’t protect you from the weight of fire my fleet can bring to bear.”

“Of that I’m sure,” Sarah responded. “I hope one day our fleets will look at each other as allies and not threats.”

“We will see,” Kant grunted. Then he was gone from the holo-projector.

“We’re getting a communication from the surface now,” Stephen reported. “It has directions for approaching the planet and entering orbit.”

“Make sure you follow them closely Alexandra,” Sarah warned.

“Don’t worry, I was listening,” the artificial intelligence replied with an insulted air. “I have as little desire to face so many hostile warships as you do.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” Sarah replied dryly.

“There is also information here about meeting the King,” Stephen informed her. “You’re only allowed to bring two guards with you and there are a series of protocols you are to observe.”

“Guards?” Kevin blurted out.

“Protocols?” Sarah asked at the same time.

They looked at each other. “I hate protocols,” Sarah said.

“We don’t know them well enough to trust your safety to them,” Kevin spoke over Sarah.

They both stopped speaking and locked eyes. Their conversation continued through their neural implants.

“I know two guards is risky,” Sarah acknowledged. “But given how we introduced ourselves, you can imagine why they might be nervous. Besides, this is a diplomatic mission. At some point, we’re going to have to trust this King.”

“I know all that,” Kevin replied. “It still doesn’t mean we can’t send a couple more marines with you. The more marines we have, the less likely they are to try anything. You have to remember; Destiny’s technology will be an attractive prize for this Pack.”

Sarah nodded. “I’m sure it is. In fact, I’m counting on it. Given the choice I’m sure they would prefer to trade for the technology so that they can understand the science and engineering behind it rather than steal something they may not be able to make heads nor tails of. It’s the abilities we have just shown them that should hopefully make them willing to come to the negotiation table.”

Kevin did the mental limitation of a sigh. “Fine, but we will be monitoring you closely from Destiny .”

Sarah’s eyebrows shot up. “You’re not coming?”

“No,” Kevin replied. “If you can only bring two guards, they are both going to be marines in combat armor. I will be staying here.” Before Sarah could protest, Kevin turned to Stephen and spoke out loud. “I guess you had better fill our eminently diplomatic Captain in on these protocols. I’m sure Sarah will enjoy doing everything she can to make a good first impression with this King.”

More than one smile was cracked by the bridge crew. Sarah shot Kevin a dirty look but then had to turn to Stephen when he began to speak. Patiently she listened to everything that was expected of her. “Send the file to my implant, I’ll process it. There’s far too much there for me to remember normally.”

When the file arrived, Sarah gave permission for her implant to process it. The information quickly uploaded itself into her mind. Within a couple of seconds, she knew intimately what was expected of her. She had to fight not to groan. She was expected to address King Flexor with his full title when she first met him. Why did the nearest free Protector World to Earth have to contain a species caught up in centuries old protocols? Sarah knew the answer to her own question. The file had told her. Before the Elders had invaded Graet eighteen hundred years ago, they had been ruled by several kings. Since gaining their freedom they had reinstituted many of their ancient traditions.

“Look at that,” Hannah said in awe.

Forgetting the protocols, Sarah opened her eyes to look at the holo-projector, they were immediately drawn to what Hannah had seen. A massive station orbiting Graet was coming into view. Destiny’s passive sensors had probed the structure several hours ago, but now her active sensors were seeing the structure in its full glory. It was undoubtedly a shipyard. More than twenty construction bays were visible. Every single one of them was filled with warships in various stages of completion. Sixteen of the ships were larger than Destiny . Four of them rivalled the new cruisers Rear Admiral Woodward was building back on Earth.

“This Pack is very busy,” Stephen commented. “The industrial output of several worlds has to be going towards building so many ships at once.

“Who’s willing to bet that this isn’t the only shipyard they have. With other species working alongside the Gramans, they probably have their own shipyards as well,” Kevin added.

“I’m sure our shipyard will look the same in a few years,” Sarah responded. “The prospect of the Elders returning clearly has the Pack worried. I hope their other shipyards are just as large and active. We’re going to need every ship we can get if and when the Elders return.”

“We will be entering our assigned orbit in sixty seconds,” Alexandra reported, drawing everyone’s attention away from the giant shipyard.

“I guess it’s time to head to the shuttle bay,” Sarah said. “Kevin will be assuming command in my absence. I will see you all soon,” she added as she nodded to each of her bridge crew.

When Sarah got to the shuttle bay she wasn’t surprised to see Lieutenant Jackson was one of the two marines waiting to escort her. “Kevin contacted me, I have my best man with me. If anything happens, we will do our best to get you back to the shuttle.”

“Thank you,” Sarah said as she locked eyes with Jackson. They both knew what his words meant, if they were in the King’s palace surrounded by hundreds of guards, if this King wanted to harm Sarah, there would be very little Jackson could do.

Moving past Jackson, Sarah ascended the shuttle’s ramp and plopped herself into the pilot’s seat. When the interface helmet connected she lifted the shuttle off the deck and banked to face the hanger door. When it opened, the shuttle shot out.

The flight path Graet’s ground control had sent appeared as a 3D line in her vision of space. Though there was so much to look at in orbit, Sarah focused on making sure the shuttle stuck to its flight path. She had to maneuver around a couple of large orbital structures and several freighters which were unloading material. As she approached the planet’s atmosphere, she could see more than a hundred shuttles were descending or ascending. This will be Earth soon , Sarah thought. With or without allies, humanity’s industrial might would be growing as quickly as the Ruling Council could expand it.

As the shuttle breached Graet’s atmosphere and entered some thick clouds, Sarah pulled up the local weather data Graet ground control had included in its flight details. There weren’t supposed to be any storms nearby nor even any rain. Yet the cloud she was flying through looked menacing. With the shuttle’s sensors, she examined it. She shook her head at what she saw. The surrounding clouds were practically stuffed full of heavy metal particulates. They were certainly at levels toxic to humans. The menacing look the clouds were giving off wasn’t the sign of a potential rain storm, it was from all the pollution they contained.

Sarah could only see one explanation. The Gramans had ravaged their world. As her shuttle broke through the clouds, her theory was instantly confirmed. Open pit mines were everywhere and high towers funneled out thick plumes of smoke. A cursory glance with the shuttle’s sensors identified them as power plants. The Gramans were pumping colossal amounts of waste gases into the atmosphere. They’re supposed to have nuclear reactors , Sarah thought. Certainly, their warships in orbit had given off emissions consistent with ships powered by fission reactors. Perhaps building so many ships has taken priority over powering their civilian industries.

As the shuttle descended and traveled across the planet’s surface, the open mines and energy reactors ceased. For nearly twenty kilometers all Sarah saw was forest. Then the forest gave way to buildings. Soon she was passing over a giant city. I guess they do look after parts of their planet, Sarah conceded. Every bit of space between the buildings was filled with green areas and large trees.

Sarah’s breath caught when a massive structure came into view. It towered above the rest of the buildings. Surrounding it were impressive gardens with small thickets of trees, rolling hills and lakes. The building itself looked to be made entirely out of glass. At least, it perfectly reflected the beautiful gardens around it. Checking her flight plan, Sarah saw that she was meant to set down in a small landing area beside the building. Flexor’s Palace. I guess they took time out of their shipbuilding program to build this.

As she brought the shuttle down towards her assigned landing spot, she saw several aliens standing nearby. There were quite a number of species represented. Here goes, she thought as she touched the shuttle down and opened its rear access ramp.

Chapter 17

As Sarah stepped off the shuttle she was greeted by a diverse collection of aliens. She counted seven different species. Six were humanoid, the seventh made her skin crawl. There were two of them among the group, both appeared to be lying on the landing pad. Though as the group shuffled forward, it was clear this was their normal posture. They were wormlike creatures with eight pairs of legs jutting out. As they moved forward, each leg rose and descended in order creating a wavelike illusion. Sarah checked the files from the Elder database she had processed. None of them contained information on such a species. She could recognize Dorkians, Gul’athians and Kriks among the aliens. They were all species Jark had said worked closely with the Gramans in the Pact. The eight-legged aliens and one of the other species was unknown to her. The worms are definitely the strangest here , she thought as their movement mesmerized her. It doesn’t mean you should underestimate them .  Shaking herself, Sarah redirected her attention towards the alien that had stepped out from the group. It bowed slightly before speaking.

“Greetings Captain Adams, welcome to Graet. You honor us by visiting our planet. My name is Hil’ach. I am one of King Flexor’s senior advisers. I will escort you to the King’s audience chamber.”

“On behalf of my people I want to thank you and your King for accepting our request for an audience,” Sarah said as she returned the bow. “I’m sure both our peoples have a great future together.”

Hil’ach turned and gestured for Sarah and her two companions to follow. “Your ship is somewhat small for a diplomatic ship. The Elders used their frigates for short range missions. Have you travelled far?”

“Some distance,” Sarah answered evasively. “We have made a number of modifications to the Elder frigate.”

“It certainly looks like you have, how did you come to acquire it? I imagine there is an impressive tale to be told.”

Sarah gave Hil’ach a polite smile. “There is, perhaps it is best kept for another time though.” She wanted to keep Flexor and his representatives guessing for now. If they thought her people had captured Destiny , they might think Earth had only one impressive warship and dismiss Sarah’s offer of an alliance.

“You wish to keep the story to yourself. It must be impressive,” Hil’ach replied. “Perhaps King Flexor will get the story from you.”

Sarah only nodded. She knew the Gramans would be interested in Destiny . She was intending to keep the story of how she had acquired the frigate until it would serve her best. As Hil’ach continued to try and draw out as much information about Sarah and her people as he could, she did her best to navigate his probing questions without giving too much away. At the same time, she watched the other aliens in their group. They had fanned out and surrounded Sarah and her marine escort. A number were trying to engage both marines in conversation. She had already sent them warnings not to give too much away through their neural implants. One thing that interested Sarah was the equality among the different species. There were other Gramans along with Hil’ach among their group, though it didn’t seem like they held any position above the others. Each species was intermingling freely and all were trying to talk to the two marines.

“You have introduced yourself,” Sarah said as she tried to take conversation away from her. “But you haven’t introduced me to the rest of those you brought to greet us at the landing pad. I’m afraid I’m not familiar with all the species you have in your Pack.”

Sarah saw the unmistakable gleam in Hil’ach’s eyes. “Of course, how rude of me. I had assumed your species were familiar with this area of space. The Pack has been operating together for nearly forty years now. Clearly you are from further away than I thought. What species are you not familiar with?”

Crap, Sarah thought. She had given away an important piece of information for free. Maybe I can redeem myself. With a gesture, she pointed out one of the humanoid species she didn’t recognize. If Hil’ach thinks I know the other six species, he might think I am more informed than I actually am.

Hil’ach showed his teeth. “That is no surprise. If you’re not from this area of space, the Onabi would be unknown to you. Our ships made contact with their homeworld fifteen years ago. It is situated in what you probably call unexplored space. They joined the Pack just ten years ago.”

“Unexplored space? You have sent ships out there?” Sarah couldn’t control her facial expressions as she blurted out her questions.

Sarah saw Hil’ach’s teeth again. “You make it sound so scary. The systems beyond what was formerly the Elder Empire have been known to the Elders for centuries. They just never had the will to conquer them. Our exploration ships had a good idea of what they would find given the records we have managed to salvage from technology the Elders left in this sector when they pulled out. The Onabi were a pleasant surprise though. They hadn’t left their home system, but it is quite heavily developed.”

“They must have some impressive technologies if they have been able to develop without Elder interference,” Sarah guessed.

“You would think so,” Hil’ach answered. “Alas, that has not been the case. Though the Elders didn’t expand their influence into the outer edges of the Orion Arm, they did send fleets to raid the nearest sentient species. Any system that had any kind of developing technological base was bombarded almost to extinction. The Onabi learnt of this and intentionally kept their technological level below that of a Protector World. They thought that if the Elders ever discovered an advanced race near their border, their homeworld would be destroyed.”

“So unexplored space is devoid of life?” Sarah asked, disappointment clear in her voice.

Hil’ach’s face changed. “No, the Elders wiped out every sentient species up to 40 light years from their border. Beyond that, there are others like the Onabi who have been hiding.”

Sarah tried to press Hil’ach to tell her more, but he became as evasive as Sarah had been trying to be. Finally giving up, she turned the conversation to other matters. She asked about the Palace and the planet Graet itself. Though Hil’ach didn’t tell her everything, he was much more forthcoming.

As they made their way through the palace, Sarah was surprised the inside did not match the outside. While outwardly the Palace looked impressive, inwardly it was sparse and purely functional. It didn’t look like any effort or expenditure had been used to give the Palace a feeling of elegance. For a moment Sarah was confused, then she remembered what she had seen of the rest of the planet. Graet was geared up for war. The Palace may have been built as a place of grandeur for the King – at least outwardly, but beyond that, the Pack was spending its money elsewhere.

“The audience chamber is just through these doors,” Hil’ach informed her.

Sarah nodded. “I understand.”

Stepping up to the doors, Hil’ach banged a fist against them. After several seconds, they slowly opened. Sarah caught a glimpse of a long, relatively narrow room. On either side were two throngs of aliens lining the walls. At the back of the room right in the middle there was a throne. Before she could make out much more, her view was blocked as the aliens who had accompanied them from the shuttle moved in front of her. They went through the double doors and split to join one or other of the groups of aliens who lined the approach to the throne.

When they were all in, Sarah glanced at Jackson and the marine with her. They both sent her a mental nod to reassure her that they knew what was expected of them.

Taking a deep breath, she started forward. She was careful to keep her eyes on the ground. Even so, it was easy for her to catch glimpses of the more than one hundred aliens gathered in the audience chamber. They were all waiting in dead silence. This is meant to make an impression , she thought. Any species that came to Graet to enter negotiations with the Pack would be awestruck. King Flexor was showing that he had the authority to lead and control many different species. Sarah hoped that Earth would one day play a role in forming a similar unity between different species. Though a unity that is far more humane .

When she thought she was halfway towards the throne, Sarah stopped. Stooping down, she placed one knee on the floor. Then she reached forward with her hands and clasped them around her second knee that was facing up at the throne. Lowering her head, she rested it on top of that knee. Hil’ach shuffled past her and made his way up to the throne. Something was whispered between the King and his attendant, though Sarah was too far away to hear. Silently, still on her knee, she waited for Flexor to request that she stand. When the whispering finally stopped, Flexor spoke. “You may rise.”

Rising to her feet, Sarah gave him a low bow and finally raised her eyes to meet his. He was the most impressive Graman she had yet met. His legs, arms and the upper half of his torso bulged with muscles. The way the toga he wore clung to his midriff and upper thighs suggested there were more muscles underneath. His skin was a pale green, though it shone as if coated with oil. Despite the fact he was sitting, it was obvious he would tower over Hil’ach and Sarah by several feet. There was no crown on his head but Flexor didn’t need it to look majestic. There was a menacing air about him. Every inch of the King was coiled like a spring, ready to jump up and personally deal with any threat or insult that came his way.

With three eyes and four ears spread around their heads, a Graman’s head was their least human like feature. Flexor’s appearance emphasized the difference. All three of his eyes stared unblinkingly at Sarah. The thick hair and beards male Gramans normally sported were cut short on Flexor and all his ears were visible, they too were twisted to fix their attention on Sarah. Swallowing an embarrassingly loud gulp, Sarah opened her mouth, wetted her lips and spoke the words she had been practicing.

“Great King of the free world of Graet, leader of the Graman Pack, High Admiral of the Protection Fleet, I, Sarah Adams humbly present myself before you and request an audience with your Excellency.”

Flexor held her gaze for several seconds before speaking. Her nerves gave way to irritation. She had agreed to the formalities for the sake of diplomacy. Being left hanging was completely unnecessary. She knew what Flexor was doing, he was showing his attendants that he was the one in control. Knowing that didn’t change anything. She didn’t like it. In an effort to control her emotions, she ground her teeth together silently.

“Welcome to my Palace,” Flexor finally said. “It is a pleasure to meet a representative from a new species. Of course your request is granted. Come, stand closer to me and we can get to know one another better.”

Sarah stood and moved towards the large throne, a gap appeared in the group of aliens to her right and three chairs were brought out. They were placed before the throne. Sarah hadn’t been informed about this part of the meeting, but she guessed what was expected. She sat on the middle chair. Using her neural implant, she ordered Jackson and the other marine to stay standing. Jackson gave his assent. She was happy to sit, but the marines were there as her guards. They would remain standing at the ready in case of trouble. She too could send a message with her actions.

When she looked back up at Flexor, she was surprised to see his demeanor had completely changed. He no longer looked as regal. His menacing air had been replaced by a look of anticipation, mingled with a hint of anxiety. Was it all an act? Sarah asked herself, was he just playing out the formalities as I was? Or is this the act, is he trying to lull me into a false sense of security? She didn’t get a chance to try and figure out an answer to her questions.

“Well, Captain Adams. You have certainly made quite an entrance. I’ve got more than one senior fleet commander up in arms over your appearance,” Flexor said in a much warmer tone than he had spoken with so far. “You know it’s customary for an envoy ship to exit subspace at the edge of the system and announce its presence?”

“My sincerest apologies. I had no idea. This is my species’ first diplomatic mission to the Pack. We are not familiar with your laws,” she answered honestly.

“Hhummph,” Flexor exhaled. “Even if you didn’t know, suddenly announcing yourself right next to our planet wasn’t necessary. Though I think I understand what you were doing.”

Sarah bowed slightly. “I wanted to make sure we got off on the right foot,” was as much as she was going to say.

“Tell me,” Flexor said. “What brings you here? Why do your people seek to enter a relationship with the Graman Pack? It seems you have advanced technologies of your own already. Where are you from?”

“I come seeking allies and bringing news,” Sarah began. “My people are from deeper within Elder space. You will understand if I do not reveal our exact location so soon.”

“Impossible,” Flexor snapped. “The Elders would never allow you to keep one of their ships.”

“I have no doubt that in the past such would have been the case, but things are changing. The news I bring is significant. A computer virus struck the Elder Empire. It destroyed many of their ships. At least all their ships and stations in the nearest ten sectors have been wiped out. Our scouts are still exploring further. It could be that the Elder ships have been wiped out all the way to the Tyrilla Storm, or even further, right to the heart of their empire.”

The aliens gathered within the audience chamber responded in shock and surprise. She heard more than one whisper of ‘impossible.’ For his part, Sarah gave Flexor some credit. He kept his face impassive. “You make bold claims. If what you say is true, it could change much. I would find it hard to believe anyone else, yet, here you are with what is undoubtedly an Elder frigate. Plus, I have begun to hear reports. Pirate activity along our borders has increased. No Elder frigates have been spotted hunting them. Still, your news could change everything. It’s possible the Elders have simply abandoned another ring of border sectors. What you claim is something far more significant. You won’t be offended if I refrain from accepting it as true until my own scouts investigate the nearest Elder worlds.”

“No, nor would I be surprised.” Sarah nodded to show she understood. “The news I bring will change everything for this part of the galaxy. At least, in the short term. That is why I am here. It may be that the Elders never return, or it may be that they will come back with a vengeance in just a matter of years. My people are seeking allies among the free species of our part of the galaxy. Unless we want to return to Elder slavery, we must stand together. I have been very impressed with what I have seen of your Pack so far,” Sarah said her last statement through gritted teeth. At least a part of it was true, it was that part she focused on as she continued. “Our scans have identified ships manned by at least ten different species. Even among your advisers, there are representatives of at least nine other species. Your Pack shows that without the Elders, different species can work together. Because of the Elders’ control over our part of the galaxy, we have been forced to remain in hiding. Now we wish to form alliances and work closely with other species who desire to remain free.”

Flexor leaned forward with a greedy look in his eyes. “So you wish to join the Pack, is that it? There are strict stipulations you must meet.”

“We do not wish to join the Pack,” Sarah said carefully. “What we want is to work with your collection of planets. We can trade resources and technologies. In time we may form a defense alliance and help protect each other from the Elders if they return.”

“You’re speaking as if your single species stands alongside the Graman Pack as equals. I rule over three hundred systems, sixty inhabited worlds, fifty-four species. What strength does your species have? And what makes you think we should fear the Elders? They left this sector of the galaxy some time ago. If what you say is true, then their ships and fleets are further from us than ever before.”

Sarah chose her words carefully. She needed to impress Flexor, but she didn’t want to give too much away. “My species dwells on five worlds. They have all been recently liberated from the Elders. We have functioning shipyards with others under construction. Each of our ships is at least as powerful and advanced as mine. In a matter of months, we will have a powerful fleet able to defend our homeworld. After that, we intend to reach out to the species around us. With those that are willing ,” Sarah couldn’t help emphasizing her last word, “we will form a federation to promote peace, prosperity and protection against the Elders. We may not be your equals with regards to our number of planets or ships, but with the technologies we have acquired, we would be a valuable trading partner and ally for you to have.

“As to why you should fear the Elders, it’s true, they may not return to this part of the galaxy. However, this virus will have sent shockwaves throughout their society. It may cause their entire empire to crumble. Or it may reignite their desire to conquer the galaxy. You know that their initial desire to conquer was based on an attempt to control technological development. The virus that attacked their ships was something they have never faced before. No one knows how they will react.”

“That may be,” Flexor replied with a wave of his hand. “We have always known the Elders could return. I sense though, you do not approve of the means I have used to strengthen the Pack. You speak of peace and prosperity. Such things are weak ideologies. In the face of the Elders and the other threats of this galaxy. Strength is what is needed. Surely your species has recognized this?”

Sarah raised her chin “I do not know much about your people. But I do know this. I hate the Elders with every atom in my body. They are murderers, slavers and despots. On too many worlds have I seen the devastation they cause. I have made it my life’s cause to oppose them. I’ve only heard rumors, but it seems to me that there are some species in your Pack who are not treated as fairly as others. Any actions that mimic those of the Elders would concern me and my people. I desire to be as open with you as I can. My people need friends, we need allies. But we will not help one species dominate another. Strength is all well and good. In fact, it is essential, we plan to face any Elder return with all the strength we can summon. But we will not let our fear of the Elder’s turn us into them. There is another way, we can all enjoy freedom without abusing each other. With trade and alliances, every species can be free and prosperous.”

For a moment Sarah’s facial expression revealed her surprise. In the blink of an eye Flexor’s demeanor had changed. He was once again the regal King coiled like a spring, ready to release himself upon her in a fit of rage. She glanced to her right at Jackson to see if he was ready. She fully expected Flexor to demand her arrest for insulting him.

Instead he relaxed and laughed. “Your species is recently free. You are naïve. You think you can change me, change us, simply with words? Give it time, you will see how things really operate in the galaxy.”

“You may be right,” Sarah replied with a slight bow. Flexor’s quick change of demeanor had caught her off guard. She needed to be more careful with him. Letting her passions run away with her could get her in trouble. You don’t have to like them , she reminded herself. Her people needed raw materials desperately. Given the size of the Pack, and in his boasting Flexor had revealed to Sarah that it was even larger than she had thought, it was by far the best chance humanity had of quickly boosting its production capabilities. “We do have much to learn. But I think that cuts both ways. Your Pack is relatively young. It is my people’s hope that we can both learn from one another. The fear of the Elders has driven both of our peoples to do what we have done. In time, if we work together to diminish the threat from the Elders, we can explore what the future should look like together.”

“Wise words,” Flexor said with a grin. “I see why you were chosen to lead this first contact mission. Tell me, just what is it you want from the Graman Pack? You have impressive technologies, what more do you need?”

Sarah didn’t see any point in beating about the bush. “Raw materials. Given enough raw materials, especially heavy metals, we can build a fleet large enough to defend ourselves and, in time, defend those around us and help defend the Pack if we work together. Your mineral mining capabilities are decades ahead of our own. If you are willing to trade, you can help us kick-start our fleet building programs.”

Flexor brought his hand to his jaw. “You don’t ask for a little, do you? Our shipyards demand every cubic meter of heavy metal we produce. What can you offer to persuade us to divert anything to your people?”

“Technologies,” Sarah answered simply. “We have access to much of the technology base of the Elders. More importantly, our scientists understand how it works and how to replicate it. My ship’s sensors detected multiple nuclear fission technologies on your warships and on your planet. We can offer you nuclear fusion. We can also offer you nanotechnology and the more advanced forms of ship design and construction that comes with it. Our ships are equipped with energy screens an order of magnitude greater than those you currently have. Also, we can build and operate particle cannons. Ones just as powerful as those mounted on Elder warships.”

This time, no one within the audience chamber tried to hide their shock. Discussions broke out all around Sarah. Flexor’s eyes shot from Sarah and swept the gathered aliens. “Enough,” he barked.

When silence descended his gaze returned to Sarah. “You make more bold claims. Even one of those technologies you speak of would be worth a fleet of warships. You must be desperate for heavy metals.”

“The Elders could return at any moment, we are keen to keep the freedom we have begun to enjoy,” Sarah replied. “Those are some of the highest end technologies we have. There are many others that would increase your ability to harvest raw materials and the standard of living across all the planets in your Pack. Initially these are the technologies we would like to trade, but, as our relationship and trust for one another grows, we would be happy to share the more advanced weapons technologies we have. Provided they are not used to dominate other species. Two advanced fleets standing against the Elders would be better than one.”

Flexor nodded. “Yes, and the Elders are not the only enemy out there who should be feared. You have brought grave news and enticing offers. I must consider these matters and discuss them with my advisers and the representatives from the other Pack members. Your needs will be seen to while we confer with one another. Then we will speak again.” Without any other acknowledgement, Flexor stood and walked past. The crowd of aliens parted to let him through and as they closed in behind him, he disappeared.

Sarah looked around, wondering what to do. Then Hil’ach appeared. “Come with me. I’m sure you are hungry. We will get you fed and then see about some accommodation. Your appearance will send shockwaves through the Pack. I’m sure the negotiations will take some time.”

Chapter 18

A week after her first audience with Flexor, Sarah was still in the Graet system. She had been dividing her time between Destiny and Graet’s capital, Joc’ovius. Flexor had granted her an apartment near the Palace for her to reside in as their negotiations continued. She had met with Flexor two more times. Beyond that, she had met with numerous advisers and had a meal with Rear Admiral Kant. Now that negotiations were ongoing, the Admiral had proved much friendlier. He had probed Sarah about the battles she had fought and though she had kept much information back to prevent Kant learning too much about Earth, he seemed impressed with her achievements. Sarah had been impressed with what Kant had shared of the Graman Pack’s fleet. The Pack had three other fleets the size of the one orbiting Graet defending the homeworlds of other Pack species. Another three hundred ships patrolled other Pack systems. The Pack wouldn’t stand a chance against a sizeable Elder fleet, but the numbers were impressive. Sarah knew if the Ruling Council decided to share even just a few weapon technologies that were still primitive compared to Destiny’s weapons, the Pack would be able to field a formidable force.

While Sarah was impressed, it also worried her. The sheer number of ships the Pack had meant they could dominate this part of space. With the Elders gone, they could quickly subdue many former Elder colonies. Extorting the newly freed species would allow them to gather a vast quantity of resources. In turn, they could expand their already impressive shipbuilding program. Whilst humanity’s ships were individually far more powerful, it would take a decade or two for humanity to match the number of ships the Pack could bring to battle. If the Pack wanted, they could replace the Elders as the dominant force in the Orion Arm. At least until the Elders return, Sarah thought. Then they would be quickly beaten back. They still need to form an alliance with u s.

“Our apartment computer has just received a message,” Alama informed Sarah as he walked into the common area. Sarah was still only allowed two guards to accompany her on Graet’s surface. She had been alternating those with her to let everyone on the ship get some time on the planet’s surface. Alama was providing protection whilst Hannah had joined her as her assistant. “We are being asked to join King Flexor for another audience in an hour.”

“Very well,” Sarah said as she jumped to her feet. “I’ll be in my room getting changed.”

Sarah thought through the different topics she wanted to discuss with Flexor. He would determine the direction of conversation as he always did, but by dropping a few hints and titbits of information she could bring the negotiations towards what she wanted to discuss. Though it had been a tedious week, she felt she was getting somewhere. Many of the advisers she had talked to had agreed with the principles she had shared with Flexor. They understood the need to have a willing workforce. Forcing other species to join the Pack would not be good for them in the long-term. Eventually they would have to expend military personnel and ships to put down riots and rebellions. Still, Sarah was far from convinced the Pack would suddenly change their ways. If we can just get them to agree to trade with us and enter a series of protection treaties, in time we can influence them towards treating all Pack members more ethically.

When Hil’ach arrived at their apartment to escort them to the Palace, Sarah knew something was wrong. He looked even more serious than the day he had met Sarah’s shuttle when it had landed at the Palace. Try as she might, she was unable to draw him into meaningful conversation as they walked to the Palace.

“Keep your eyes open,” Sarah sent to Hannah. With her fingers she used the marines’ hand signals to tell Alama to remain alert. A glance back at him told Sarah he understood.

When they got to the Palace everything seemed normal. There were no extra guards or signs of tension. Only when Hil’ach took a turn away from the main audience chamber did Sarah realize something different was happening. He stopped outside a regular sized door. Hil’ach knocked, then opened the door and poked his head through. When his head returned he stepped aside. “King Flexor’s waiting for you inside. Your escort will remain here.”

“My orders are to remain with Captain Adams at all times,” Alama insisted.

“King Flexor waits alone, you have nothing to fear Captain,” Hil’ach said, ignoring Alama.

“It’s all right,” Sarah said, placing a hand on Alama’s shoulder. “I’ll call for help if I need it.”

Sarah moved into the room and closed the door behind her. Flexor was sitting behind an impressive table. There was only one other chair in the room, positioned so that she would face him across the table. Flexor stared at her with the same stare he had given her when they first met.

“I have come to a decision,” he said when Sarah sat. “The technologies you offer us in exchange for mineral shipments are impressive, however, as you have already admitted, they are far from the most advanced tech you have. The balance of every trade is determined by the needs of each party. The Graman Pack is as secure as it has ever been. We have large fleets of warships. Our main threat was the Elders. Now that has diminished. On the other hand, even with your advanced technology, your position is far weaker. If the Elders return they will reach your homeworld long before they come here. Simply put, your people need what I can offer far more than we need your technology.

“If we don’t trade with you and keep our technological level where it is, the Elders might even leave us alone. By trading with you for advanced technologies I am risking every species under my authority. These then are my terms. We require your most advanced power generation, weapons and ship construction technologies. In return, we will divert thirty percent of all heavy-metal production to your systems for the next three years. That should give your species more than enough materials to kick-start your own shipbuilding program. By the end of those three years we will have refit our fleet with your technologies. Then, we will have two modern fleets with which to face the Elders.”

Sarah took her time in replying. Something had changed, but she didn’t know what. She had already made it clear that the more advanced technologies humanity had wouldn’t be shared until a far greater bond of trust had been built. Now Flexor was all but demanding them. “As you know, I have authority to speak for the Ruling Council on smaller matters. However, on a deal this significant, the decision must be theirs. I will say this though, I think it very unlikely they will agree. If we give you these technologies you could use them against us or other species not in the Pack. What guarantees would you give us?”

“I propose we form two spheres of influence,” Flexor replied. He punched a couple of buttons built into his desk and a screen attached to the wall to Sarah’s left powered up. It showed a map of Pack space and the surrounding former Elder sectors. “You haven’t yet revealed the location of your homeworld or your colonies. However, my analysts suspect they are not too far away. Perhaps a couple of sectors or slightly more. We will form a boundary marker equidistant from the edge of your space and Pack space. Every system on our side of the boundary will fall under our influence. They will trade with or join the Pack. Every system on your side of the boundary you will be free to petition to form the alliance or federation you have spoken of. In time, we can have more detailed discussions about how our relations may develop beyond a recognized border.”

Sarah shook her head. “That will not be acceptable unless you provide assurances that you will not force species to join the Pack or trade with you at gunpoint. Can you do that?”

Flexor’s fists came crashing down on the desk. “I am the King of Graet, I rule the Graman Pack. I have made many sacrifices to keep my people safe. I’m no murderer or tyrant. I will not have you or your people dictating to me how to run my Kingdom.” Flexor’s eyes bored into Sarah. “I will guarantee that I will protect every species that comes under my influence from pirates and other threats. How I do that will be up to me,” he said as he pointed at his chest. He waved at the screen showing a map of local space. “That is the point of having two areas of influence. You will be free to operate within yours as you please, we will operate as we please. If you cannot agree to that, then there will be no deal.”

“Then I’m afraid there may not be a deal,” Sarah said trying to keep her voice steady. She could read between the lines. Whatever had made Flexor change his approach to the negotiations, his intentions were clear. Her fears were coming true. With the Elders gone, Flexor and the other leaders within the Pack had decided the time to expand their influence was now. They probably saw humanity as of much as an obstacle to further expansion as a future ally. “You know our position, we will not sit by and allow any species to experience the same kind of enslavement or forced annexation that the Elders brought to this part of the galaxy. This is not how these negotiations need to go.”

“On the contrary, this is exactly how they need to go. You are going to help my negotiators convince your Ruling Council to accept this deal. I’ve already ordered them to prepare to leave. In the next few days you will take them on your ship back to your homeworld. There I expect you to fully support the trade deal I have just outlined,” Flexor said.

Sarah nearly choked as she tried to get her words out. “What could possibly make you think I would agree to that?”

Flexor leaned in and held her eyes. Then, slowly, he touched a couple of buttons on his desk. Sarah turned to look at the screen. She felt Flexor’s eyes on her. Though she kept her face impassive, when the image on the screen changed, she had to bite her lip to hold back a curse. It was a recording of Destiny , she was opening fire with her tachyon pulses. Moments later laser beams zipped towards the point the visuals were being taken from. She knew what she was watching, Destiny disabling the freighter that had threatened to bombard Danab. He is going to blackmail me , Sarah realized.

When the visuals started to replay Flexor finally spoke. “It took a week for the Captain of the freighter you attacked to complete enough repairs to leave the Danab system. He managed to limp his ship to the Cry-Ar system. From there a courier ship was sent here. Do you deny that you launched an unprovoked attack against a defenseless freighter?”

“They were not defenseless nor was it unprovoked,” Sarah said as she returned her focus to Flexor. She held his stare. She wasn’t ashamed of her actions. “That freighter Captain threatened to bombard areas of spiritual significance to the Danabians. There were pilgrims who would have been killed. That is the kind of action the Elders took. I gave your Captain a chance to step back from his threats. Instead, he powered up his weapons. I could have destroyed his ship easily, instead we simply knocked out its reactors. I’m sure the freighter Captain was able to effect repairs relatively easily.

Flexor clenched his fists. Sarah thought he was about to smash them into the desk again. “It doesn’t matter what excuses you have. You fired on a Pack ship in a Pack system. You had no jurisdiction, no authority to act. The Danabians joined the Pack willingly. If they had a complaint, they could have brought it before me. Now, here are your options. Either you agree to bring my negotiators back to your homeworld with the offer I have outlined and fully support it. To make sure you do, we will be keeping hostages. The two who accompanied you here will be a start, we will collect more from your ship as well. That is your first choice. Your second is to refuse. If you do, you will be arrested immediately. The punishment for piracy is death, and that will be the charge you face. We do not know where your homeworld is nor that you have been telling the truth. For all we know you are just a common pirate and that is how you will be treated. As of right now, I and only three other people within the system know of your attack. I can make it disappear, but you must agree to my terms.”

Sarah jumped to her feet. She had to get out of the Palace. She could never do what Flexor wanted.

“Guards,” Flexor yelled.

Sarah spun and charged towards the door. Before she got to it, two armed Gramans burst through it. They levelled their guns at her. Using her momentum, Sarah threw herself to the ground. She struck out with her leg, knocking one guard to the ground. The other reached for her to drag her to her feet. As his arm reached down, Sarah grabbed it with both of hers. Letting herself fall backwards she brought her foot up to his chest and used her momentum to throw the guard behind her. Before the guard clattered into the floor she was on her feet. As she exited the room, she saw Hannah and Alama slumped on the ground. They looked to be out cold. Raising her eyes, Sarah saw four more guards, their weapons aimed at her. They fired. Four blue bolts of electricity struck her. She fell to the ground shaking. The pain was bearable, but for some reason she couldn’t figure out, she felt darkness closing in around her. Before she lost consciousness, Flexor’s face appeared in her narrowing field of vision.

“If you won’t trade for your advanced technologies, then we will take them another way,” he said with a savage grin.

In horror, she reached through her neural implant to Alexandra and Kevin. “They’re coming for the ship,” she thought. Before they could reply or she even knew if they had heard her, everything went dark.

Chapter 19

Kevin was on his feet, he sensed Sarah’s growing frustration through their bond. Then a spike of fear reached him. Seconds later Sarah’s words arrived. “Battlestations,” he shouted. “Get us out of orbit, power up the energy screen.” He had been exercising in one of Destiny’s gyms. Still in his sweat-soaked clothes, he sprinted for the bridge.

“Sixty warships are closing in on us,” Stephen reported as soon as the bridge door slid open. He had taken Hannah’s place at the sensor console. “They are powering up weapons and their energy screens are at full strength.”

“Acknowledged,” Kevin responded. “Show me on the main holo-projector.”

As he threw himself into the chair by the tactical console, Kevin formed a battle meld with Destiny’s crew. Each of the crew’s minds were intimately familiar to him now. Though the meld quickly formed, everyone was aware of a gaping hole. Sarah wasn’t present. She was usually the glue that held them all together.

“We’re fighting for her,” Kevin sent. “She has ordered us to escape. If we’re captured we will be no use to her. Let’s show her just how good her training and leadership has made us.”

When the holo-projector changed it drew his attention away from the battle meld. His crew would have to deal with their own emotions. He had a greater problem to deal with. The projector showed Graet, Destiny , and the space around them. Sixty warships in three formations were closing with Destiny . Each formation was coming around the planet on a different vector. If Kevin had delayed a minute or even thirty seconds, the ships would have been on them before they knew what was happening. As it was, things were still close. Each formation was accelerating to boost out of Graet’s gravity well and achieve an intercept vector. Alexandra already had Destiny’s engines working overtime to get away.

“Admiral Kant is sending a COM message,” Trask reported from Stephen’s usual position on the bridge.

Kevin instinctively went to call for another Ensign to take Trask’s place. The Orbra-Kim was completely untested in a real combat situation. Just before he spoke he forced his mouth closed. Whoever else he would call to the bridge was already doing something important elsewhere on the ship. “Let’s hear it,” he said instead.

“Power down your reactors and bring your ship to a stop relative to Graet. This is an order directly from King Flexor. Your ship is to be impounded. Under article fourteen code three of the Graman Pack charter, your ship and your crew are charged with piracy. Surrender and it will be taken into consideration in your trial.”

“That’s enough,” Kevin said with a wave of his hand. Glancing up from his tactical console he saw more than one set of eyes looking at him. “They have arrested Sarah, news of what happened at Danab has reached their King. I think Flexor thinks that this is their best chance to get their hands on our technology. Let’s not make it easy for them.”

That was all they needed to hear. Every pair of eyes returned to their consoles with a new look of intensity. Kevin stared at the empty Captain’s seat where Sarah normally sat during combat. Shaking himself, he turned to scan nearby space. He was looking for anything that would give them an advantage. Without Sarah, they were going to need any tactical advantage he could find. “There,” he said, pointing at the holo-projector. Alexandra was watching the bridge through one of her visual scanners. “Take us towards that convoy coming into the system.”

“We’ll reach them in ten minutes,” Alexandra reported.

We just have to survive that long , Kevin thought. “As soon as they open fire on us begin evasive maneuvers.”

“Acknowledged Captain,” Alexandra replied.

Kevin returned his gaze to the holo-projector. The starting velocities of each flotilla meant they were all closing with Destiny . That would change as Destiny’s acceleration advantage had an impact and she began to outpace her pursuers. Yet at least some of the Graman warships would get into weapons range before then. Destiny’s new course was taking her further away from two of the flotillas, Alexandra had designated them flotillas beta and gamma. However, the vector change meant alpha was closing even faster than before.

In response to his maneuver, the larger ships in the furthest two flotillas began to fall back, they couldn’t match the acceleration Destiny was producing. To compensate they had released their faster ships to continue the pursuit.

“The lead ships of alpha are charging their energy weapons,” Trask reported. “It looks like they are holding their missiles in reserve.”

“They want to take us intact, they’ll try and close and disable our engines,” Kevin replied.

“We’re getting another message from Admiral Kant, it’s a final warning,” Stephen informed Kevin.

Kevin didn’t reply. There was no point listening to it and his crew knew what was expected of them.

“Beginning evasive maneuvers,” Alexandra informed everyone.

Kevin felt the inertial dampeners compensate for the additional maneuvers Alexandra was carrying out. As soon as the first laser beams zipped past Destiny , Kevin returned fire. He’d waited to make sure he wasn’t the one who fired first. Now he was free do defend himself. Tachyon pulses and full powered laser beams shot towards alpha flotilla. He fired one and then a second spread of missiles towards beta and gamma. He’d ordered the missiles to detonate far enough away from the targets that they would do next to no damage. They were to serve as a distraction.

Destiny shook once and then a second time in quick succession as the first laser beams hit her energy screen. “No damage,” Trask reported, “energy screen is down to ninety-five percent.”

As soon as Destiny’s sensors told Kevin that one of the ships from alpha flotilla had lost its energy screen he hammered it with several laser beams. Two struck its engines and the warship stopped accelerating. Kevin switched targets and focused on the next closest warship.

Alexandra wove Destiny back and forth, twisting around and around roughly along the course Kevin had given her. The frigate suffered several more hits though the weaker Graman lasers were unable to penetrate the energy screen. Kevin disabled two more ships.

“The convoy has figured out what we’re doing, they are scattering,” Stephen shouted as Destiny shook from another hit. “The lead ships from beta and gamma flotillas will be in weapons range in thirty seconds.”

“As soon as we get close enough to get into the midst of that convoy, use the freighters as shields, they won’t risk destroying their mineral cargoes,” Kevin ordered. He fired another volley of energy weapon fire and sat back. “Divert all power to the maneuvering thrusters, Alexandra keep us alive until we reach those freighters.”

There was only forty seconds between beta and gamma getting into range with their weapons and Destiny reaching the first freighter. Nevertheless, in that time, eighty laser beams reached out to try and strike Destiny . Kevin was used to being helpless as he watched someone else fly the ship in battle but it was different when it wasn’t Sarah at the helm. Never before had he been in such a tight situation, even the battle of Earth hadn’t been so one-sided.

Time dragged as hit after hit struck Destiny’s energy screen. Kevin watched it fall to seventy, then sixty percent efficiency. Vibrations rumbled up Kevin’s body from his command chair, informing him that the latest hit had partly passed through the screen and struck the hull. Several more hits penetrated the weakened energy screen. It still reduced the power of the beams, but it couldn’t deflect them anymore. Then, the shaking stopped. Destiny had reached an oasis of safety. Alexandra wove between a series of freighters, always keeping them between Destiny and her pursuers. As the convoy had spread out, it gave Alexandra even more time to hide.

“The larger ships have fallen out of energy weapon range,” Stephen reported. “There’ll be six less ships firing on us.”

Not enough, Kevin thought. Glancing at the holo-projector displaying Alexandra’s proposed vector, he knew they wouldn’t survive long enough to get away. “Take off the safety regulators on our main engines. As soon as we clear the last freighter I want the engines brought up one hundred and twenty percent.”

No one questioned his order, though Alexandra sent a file to his neural implant. Kevin didn’t process it, he didn’t have time. But he did check its title. It was a safety guide to the engines that had been installed in Destiny after the battle of Earth. He dismissed it, he was familiar with the engines the Hope scientists had designed. Boosting the engines far beyond their safety limit was dangerous, it was just slightly less dangerous than being caught under the weight of fire the Graman flotillas were able to put out.

After they rounded the last freighter Kevin was shunted back into his command chair. Destiny’s inertial dampeners couldn’t completely remove the unusual force being exerted by her engines. It only took a couple of seconds for their pursuers to open fire. Tens of laser beams came zipping past Destiny . Though they weren’t as thick as before, they scored hits. Kevin returned fire, but there were so many targets that damaging one didn’t really alter their situation.

“Take us up too one hundred and twenty-five percent power on the engines,” he ordered when the energy screen was reduced to forty-five percent efficiency. Alarms were going off, telling him about hit after hit. As far as he could tell, most of the damage looked superficial, so far at least. A COM request from Destiny’s engineering bay pulled his attention away from the holo-projector.

“This is insane Lieutenant, ah, I mean, Captain,” Jake nearly shouted into Kevin’s mind. “The engines are likely to blow up at any moment. We’ll be sitting ducks for those Gramans, the reactors are redlining as well. We can’t keep this up.”

“There are still twenty-four warships pursuing us,” Kevin replied as calmly as he could. “Unless you have some miraculous way of fending off nearly a hundred laser cannons, I suggest you do what you can to keep the reactors and engines functioning. There’s no easy way out of this.” Kevin cut the COM channel. He had no choice. Come on, come on, he said to himself through gritted teeth. Destiny was accelerating to the point where she would pull away from the fastest ships that were pursuing her. Come on, come on he repeated as his ship vibrated and groaned from more hits.

Then, as if someone had flipped a switch, the shudders running through Destiny reduced until they were non-existent. With less ships able to reach Destiny with their laser beams, Alexandra was finding it easier to avoid those that could. Just as Kevin was about to order the engines to be reduced to one hundred percent, a new beep sent a chill down his spine. It was the sensors alerting him to a missile launch. Soon multiple beeps were reporting more launches. “One hundred and thirty percent,” he ordered. The Gramans had given up trying to capture Destiny . They were going for the kill. There were forty-four missiles inbound. Alexandra could never shoot them all down, not with the damage Destiny had already taken.

When Destiny shuddered again, Kevin glanced at his console. He thought the Gramans had found a way to open fire with their laser cannons again. When he saw that no beams were incoming, he realized the vibrations were coming from Destiny’s engines. They were protesting the amount of energy that was being fed into them.

“What is the closest to a system’s mass shadow a ship has jumped into subspace?” Kevin asked, fully aware that asking the question showed just how little hope he had of escaping.

“Three hundred thousand kilometers.” From Alexandra’s tone of voice, he knew she didn’t like where his mind was going. “No jump has been successfully made from further within the system’s gravity well. Even then, one in three test jumps at that distance has resulted in catastrophic damage to the test drones. No tests with humans or real warships have been tried.”

“Show me on the holo-projector,” Kevin ordered, trying to ignore Alexandra’s warning.

When the holo-projector altered to show the distance Alexandra had described, Kevin swore. The Graman missiles would reach them just before they could jump out. Desperately he thought of something he could do. Only one thing came to mind. “One hundred and forty percent,” he said, barely above a whisper.

“Repeat Captain?” Alexandra requested.

Kevin knew she didn’t need it repeated. “One hundred and forty percent,” he said louder.

The vibrations running through the ship increased as the engines tried to produce a thrust no one ever imagined they would be required to produce. For several minutes, everyone on the bridge watched the unfolding events. It seemed they all had one eye on the incoming missiles and another on the status readouts of the engines.

A sudden jolt threw Kevin forward in his seat. He knew right away what it was. One of the engines had failed. On the holo-projector in front of him their projected course changed. “Report?” he demanded as he opened a COM channel to the engineering bay.

“Engine one went into a failsafe shutdown,” Jake reported. “The readings from engines two and three are off the scales, they could shutdown at any moment.”

“Can you restart engine one?” Kevin asked in desperation.

There was a short pause. “We can try,” Jake responded, though he sounded far from confident. “I think a number of the thrust capacitors overloaded and exploded before the engine shutdown. Powering up the engine again may destroy the rest, but we can try.”

“Do it,” Kevin ordered.

Staring at the readout of Destiny’s acceleration, Kevin watched as nothing changed. Then he felt a jolt. The engine had reignited. Destiny’s acceleration increased, though only by a small amount.

“I’ve got it working again Captain,” Jake’s voice announced over a COM channel. “We’re only going to get forty percent of her maximum acceleration. That’s the best I can do without getting into the engine and replacing damaged parts.”

“You’ve done your best,” Kevin responded. As he looked at the holo-projection updating in front of him, he let out a whoop. “We’re going to make it, if the engines hold, we’ll make it.”

Kevin heard Jake and his engineers shouting over the COM channel. Finally, something came through that he could actually make out. “I’ll do whatever I can Captain.”

Kevin watched the Graman missiles approach. Every new jolt or tremor sent his heart into his mouth. Yet the engines held. “Jump us out of here,” he ordered as Destiny crossed the three hundred thousand kilometer mark.

He instinctively closed his eyes. He didn’t know if the next second would be his last. As soon as Destiny entered subspace, a shooting pain exploded in the back of Kevin’s mind. For a second he though Destiny had exploded. Yet as the pain continued he realized he was still alive. Instead it was something else. The pain was where he normally sensed Sarah. The adrenaline and intensity of their escape had distracted him from the anguish that had been building within him. Now they had escaped, instead of feeling relief, the pain of separation washed over him. Not since they had bonded more than ten months ago had Sarah and he been separated by such a distance. It made waves of anguish and a deep sense of loss ripple through his mind and towards his heart. He almost couldn’t open his mouth to give orders. “Take us out of subspace,” he grunted through gritted teeth.

Taking a deep breath, he tried to control his emotions. They had made it. Now he needed to know what state Destiny was in. “Damage report?”

“About eighty percent of our energy screen projectors are down,” Stephen reported. “I wouldn’t recommend we try going into subspace again anytime soon. I don’t know how our generator managed to rip a tear into subspace so close to the mass shadow, but it’s completely burnt out. We’ll probably have to fabricate a new one.”

“We’ve also taken thirteen laser hits to our hull. Most didn’t burn through our armor, four did though. They took out a number of point defenses and power conduits. One beam penetrated through two decks, sections four and five on decks D and E have been vented into space,” Trask informed Kevin.

“Causalities?” Kevin asked, holding his breath.

“Ensign Sato and Engineer Travis are both being taken to the medical bay,” Alexandra answered. “Sato has suffered some serious burns. Her console overloaded when one of the laser beams hit a power conduit. She should be ok, but she’s in a lot of pain. Travis was dosed with very high levels of radiation when reactor three went down. I’m not sure what we can do for him. His nanites are already trying to repair as much damage as they can. The level of radiation though…”

When Alexandra cut off Kevin knew Travis wasn’t going to make it. He had never heard such emotion from the artificial intelligence’s audio projections before. With a great deal of effort, he turned his thoughts away from Travis. There was nothing he could do to help the engineer. Destiny didn’t have a designated medic but a couple of crew members were almost as competent as a full medical doctor. Travis was in good hands.

“What state are our engines and reactors in?” Kevin asked Jake after opening a COM channel to engineering.

“Reactor three is down. I’ll have to open her up before I have any idea how bad it is in there. It will take a day or so for the radiation levels to fall to where I can get in there. One and two should be good to go in an hour or so. We just need to run some systems tests. I don’t know how they came through it, but engines one and two and four are fine. Whatever caused engine three to shut down is going to be a problem. We’re trying to figure out what went wrong. We can get thirty percent thrust from it if we have too, but I’d rather keep it offline until we know what went wrong.”

“Ok, great job everyone,” Kevin sent to his entire crew. “Our priority is to get the reactors, engines and energy screen up and running. Let’s get too it. If the Pack ships find us in this state we’ll be sitting ducks.”

Kevin was left with his own thoughts as everyone got to work. What now? I have to make the right decision. He could head back to Earth. Given Destiny’s damage that’s what the fleet Admirals would expect. We can’t leave her . I won’t leave her . The reasoning to support his decision came to him quickly. Even without Destiny the Gramans could extract information about nanotechnology and genetic engineering from Sarah and Hannah. A messenger drone can tell Earth what’s happening, but I’m not returning without them.

“Turn us around, plot a course directly back to Graet, we snuck into the system once, we’re going to do it again,” he ordered. “We’re not leaving Sarah, Hannah or Alama behind.”

Every head on the bridge nodded. Though they looked tired and weary, determination settled on their faces. They weren’t anywhere near close to being beaten yet.

Chapter 20

Sarah lost track of time, she thought she had been imprisoned for eleven or twelve days, though it could have been closer to fifteen. She was simply guessing. Her cell was cold and had no windows or any other source of light. Her captors had given her no comforts. Sleeping on the floor was leaving her back and hips in agony. Every few hours she awoke when the pain became too much. Rolling over allowed her nanites to fix the damage but her new position would soon become unbearable and the process would start over again.

It seemed even the food she was given was intended to make her lose track of time. There was no regular schedule, sometimes she received food three times a day, often within hours of each other. Then she might only get one meal in what she reckoned was roughly a twenty-four-hour period. Only once had she been taken out and then only briefly. She had been dragged before what passed for a Graman court and the charges against her had been read. She had spoken only once to reply not guilty to the charges. Then she had been taken straight back to her cell.

The isolation, pain and hunger Sarah thought she could have managed, but for one thing. Her sense of Kevin had completely disappeared from the back of her mind. It was as if their bond had never existed. She felt like a part of her soul had been ripped out of her. Every minute was a struggle not to give in to the emptiness and blackness that threatened to overwhelm her mind and emotions. The only thing that kept her going was the knowledge that Destiny had escaped. She knew they would be back for her eventually. She just had to hold on.

Noise from outside her cell made her sit up. She had to clench her teeth to stop a groan escaping from her lips. Sounds of metal grating on metal followed. Then her cell door cracked open. As light poured in, Sarah cried out and her hands shot up to cover her eyes.

“Up,” a voice demanded.

The pain from the light was too much and she didn’t move. Two pairs of hands reached down and pulled her to her feet. Someone grabbed Sarah’s arms and twisted them behind her back. Light pierced her eyelids once again and Sarah screamed. The pain was unlike anything she had experienced before.

Ignoring her screams and thrashing, the two guards hefted Sarah into the air and carried her out of the cell. Realizing she needed to know where they were holding her, she tried to calm herself and crack open her eyelids. New waves of pain shot through her but she ground her teeth together and tried to memorize her surroundings. If she was going to escape, she needed to know how to get out of the area she was being held in.

The guards carried her through a twisting maze of corridors. Only after they ascended several levels did Sarah realize where they were. Flexor had been keeping her in his palace. Trust a king to have a dungeon , she thought.

Sarah recognized the door they were approaching. It was the door to the room where Flexor had challenged her about her attack on the freighter in the Danab system. He wants another private meeting . Sarah assessed the situation. Destiny escaped, he didn’t want me, he wanted our technology. Without Destiny, I am useless to him. He was willing to let me go before if I promised to give him technology. But now he can’t, everyone in the system will know about the battle with Destiny. He can’t hide what I did. So, what does he do with me? Killing me will end any hope my people will ever trade with him. Sarah smiled, Flexor may be the one holding her prisoner, but he was in as much of a dilemma as she was.

When the guards reached the door, one let go of Sarah and knocked. A loud voice ordered them to enter. The guard who knocked opened the door and turned back to Sarah. Both guards lifted her again and took her into the room. They set her down in a seat in the middle of the room. As one held her in place, the other fastened straps around her arms and legs. There was no way she was going anywhere. In silence, the guards turned and left.

Looking left and right, Sarah blinked rapidly to see through all the light that was coming into her eyes. No one was in view. She knew there had been someone in the room and so she tried to control her breathing and calm herself. Flexor stepped around from behind her and into view moments later. He didn’t look pleased.

“How is my prisoner? Have the last few days in a cell made you rethink your decision not to help me?”

Sarah didn’t answer. She just stared at him.

Flexor paced back and forth. “You and your ship are causing me quite a problem. Every civilian ship in the system saw what happened. Six warships are in repair yards. My defense fleet was humiliated. All that, and your ship still got away. You possess technologies on a level even more advanced than the Elders.”

“I told you we had technologies to share,” Sarah answered. “I also told you we wouldn’t share our most advanced technologies until we trusted you more. Given the events of the last couple of weeks, I doubt that will ever happen.”

Flexor swung round to face her. His eyes were bulging. “You are the one who ruined the contact between our peoples. You’re the one who has put me in this situation. My people are demanding your head. You acted no different than the common pirates we have hunted for decades. Yet my advisers are scared. They fear your people will retaliate. I think, they fear even more the loss of a chance to trade with your people.”

Sarah was taken aback. Flexor was being honest with her. She was seeing a side of him she hadn’t seen before. There is more going on than I realize , she thought.

“I’m going to offer you one more deal,” Flexor said as he came close and rested his hands on the arms of the chair Sarah was sitting in. He leaned over her. Sarah had to struggle to keep her face passive. His smile was far from pleasant.

“Change your plea, admit your ship attacked a defenseless freighter and accept a guilty charge. If you do, then after you have been sentenced I will pardon you and commute your punishment. You will be sent back to your homeworld and I will send a request for your people to send another diplomatic representative to open negotiations.”

Sarah shook her head. “No, the freighter was neither defenseless nor was it unprovoked. I was acting to protect the lives of innocents. If you want to charge me with that, I will happily plead guilty.”

Flexor swung away. “Why do you have to be so stubborn? You don’t understand. Your weapons technologies could save the lives of millions of people. A few Danabians are nothing in the balance of trying to protect hundreds of planets.”

“There is a principle at stake,” Sarah replied. “The answer to tyranny is not more tyranny.”

“You are a fool,” Flexor shot back. “Look,” he barked as he moved towards the large desk. He tapped a couple of buttons to switch on a screen Sarah was just able to see to one side of her. Where before it had shown Destiny attacking the freighter in Danab. Now it was showing another blue and green world. One Sarah didn’t recognize. It seemed to have some structures in orbit and a number of ships.

New ships appeared. They were accelerating straight towards the planet. When they got close enough, they opened fire with strange energy weapons. The orbital structures fired back, but they were quickly destroyed. None of the unknown ships appeared to take any damage. After taking out their targets, the ships settled into orbit. Large sections of the ships broke away and plunged into the planet’s atmosphere.

The image shifted. Whoever was recording this visual was on the ground. They were looking up at the large ship sections that were descending through the air. As the angle of the image followed the ships down, a city came into view. Several of the ships landed a couple of kilometers away from it. Ground troops quickly moved out of the city and approached the ships. Large doors on the ships opened and thousands of troops charged out. Just as the defenders were about to open fire, ordinance rained down on them from orbit. More than half of the defenders were wiped out within seconds. The rest were thrown into disarray. The destructive force coming from orbit ceased only ceased when the attackers reached the defenders. They overwhelmed the planet’s ground forces in a matter of minutes and advanced on the city. Sarah watched for nearly twenty minutes as the person recording the invasion observed the attackers getting closer and closer. Anyone who tried to resist was killed. The rest were rounded up and herded back towards the giant ships. It meant only one thing, they had come for slaves.

To Sarah’s horror the visuals panned back towards the large ships and zoomed in. The aliens who had been captured were being lined up. Slavers were going up and down each line, assessing their captives. Any that didn’t meet their approval were killed. It looked like only one in three of the captives were actually loaded onto the ships. The rest were dumped onto growing piles of dead bodies.

Sarah closed her eyes. “I’ve seen enough. Why are you showing me this?”

“Because you need to know, the Elders are not the only threat out there. The species who were attacked called themselves the Callabels. The invaders are only known as the Cleansers. They never communicate, they simply come to kill and enslave. The Callabels’ homeworld is three hundred light years from here, in unexplored space. The Callabels that survived this attack reached Graet five years ago. No one else from their homeworld survived. The Cleansers either enslaved or killed every other member of their species. Their homeworld is now devoid of intelligent life. They are not the only species who have come to us seeking aid. As far as we can tell, for the last three hundred years the Cleansers have been wiping out every intelligent species near their area of space. There are Pack member species whose homeworlds are in what you would call unexplored space. It is my duty to protect them. Your weapons technologies would help me keep their worlds safe.”

Sarah’s eyes shot open at the mention of unexplored space. She had thought the alien attackers had somehow built their ships in the six months since the Elders been driven out of this area of space. Yet if they came from unexplored space, they could have had centuries, even millennia to develop their technology. They could be as great a threat as the Elders. “What more do you know of them?” she demanded when Flexor finished speaking.

“Nothing,” Flexor replied. “All we know is from the first-hand reports of those who made these recordings. From what we can guess, the rate of the Cleansers’ expansion has been increasing since the Elders pulled out of this sector. If they find out that there are no Elder ships in this part of the Orion Arm, they may stretch out to exert control over vast areas of space. The Pack is the only entity standing between the Cleansers and the former Elder colonies that are now defenseless. So you see, your people and I must work together. I am offering you a lifeline. Admit your crimes and I will pardon you and then our two peoples can try and start off on a better foot.”

“Why would my government trust you, even if you let me go?” Sarah asked. The Cleansers looked like a threat, but it could all be a ruse by Flexor. As far as she was concerned, his Pack was almost as large a threat as the supposed Cleansers. “You attacked Destiny , you tried to steal our technology and you are willing to bombard innocent civilians. How does that make you any different to these Cleansers?”

“Because I do it to protect the weak,” Flexor shouted. She could see rage in his eyes. “Do not compare me to those murderers. I care for my people, everything I do is for the good of all the species of the Pack.”

Sarah shook her head in frustration. Flexor meant what he said, that much was clear to her. “Why can’t you see what is wrong with threatening member worlds with orbital bombardment? If you care as you say, then you should admit that what the freighter Captain at Danab threatened to do was wrong. I should be cleared of all charges. Then we can go back to discussing trade.”

“I cannot,” Flexor said as he shook his head. “I will look weak. That is not how this part of the galaxy works. You may have the luxury of fairness and generosity with all the technologies you have. We do not.”

“You won’t look weak, you will look strong, like a leader prepared to protect the weak,” Sarah countered.

Flexor clenched his fists. “You do not understand. Holding this Pack together is a balancing act. The more independent races must fear me while those at the most risk must trust that I will protect them. You are threatening to destroy the balancing act I have worked decades to create.”

“Perhaps you are looking at it wrong. My arrival has given you a chance to readjust the equation. With the technologies that we can trade with you, even if they are not the most advanced, you won’t need to force other races to assist you. You can protect the races that depend on you and free those who don’t. From what I know of the Danabians, I don’t think they want to leave the Pack. They simply want to be treated fairly.”

Flexor turned his back on Sarah. His voice was almost a whisper. “Fair has nothing to do with it. I am fighting for the survival of my people. The Danabians have their purpose and they must fulfil it. The food stuffs they produce are essential to the running of our military. Everyone must serve their purpose. That goes for you as well. If you will not confess, then you will be tried and executed. That will send a message to all those who would think of rebelling against my rule. Your ship was damaged trying to escape. I’ve already sent a number of scout ships into Elder space looking for your homeworld. They will make contact and open trade negotiations. Even if your ship returns to your homeworld first, your government will likely want to forget about your actions. Once they hear of the threat the Cleansers pose, they will want to trade with us.” Flexor turned around to fix his gaze on Sarah. “This is the last time we will talk to one another Captain. This is your last chance to reconsider.”

Sarah returned Flexor’s unblinking gaze. She kept her mouth shut. As much as she feared these Cleansers, she couldn’t give in to Flexor’s demands. It would simply cement his approach to ruling the Pack. In the long run Flexor could do as much damage to this part of the galaxy as the Cleansers or the Elders.

“So be it,” Flexor said as he spun away and left the room.

Sarah nearly called out to Flexor’s back. Doubts were assailing her. Was the principle she was trying to defend really worth her life, and the potential for friendly relations between her people and the Pack? She bit her tongue. The bottom line was that Flexor couldn’t be trusted. For a few brief moments after he left, she wondered if she had done the right thing. Before she could decide, her guards returned and unstrapped her. Roughly, they lifted her into the air and carried her through the Palace back to her cell. Without any compassion, they threw her in. She landed hard on the solid floor. When they shut the door, Sarah had no idea when she would next see any kind of light again.

*

Time descended into a drawn-out monotonous stretch, occasionally broken by fitful attempts at sleeping. Every time she woke up, Sarah went through a stretching routine to keep her muscles and joints from getting too sore. Then she would undergo a vigorous workout. Keeping fit was the only thing she had to distract her mind with.

As she was sitting in the dark trying to figure out if she’d been in the cell for five or six more days she froze. Her neural implant was tingling ever so slightly. She had powered down most of its functions. So far, her captors hadn’t figured out she had an implant. She didn’t even know if they knew such things were possible. Yet it was likely they were monitoring her cell. She hadn’t wanted any stray emissions to give her secret away. Now her implant was detecting a potential transmission. Without a second thought, Sarah switched on the receiver. A small audio file slowly downloaded. As soon as it was done Sarah accessed it, it had Destiny’s security code along with Kevin’s. Sarah allowed the audio to play.

Sarah, I hope you are able to receive this. We haven’t been able to get Destiny into orbit, they have too many warships. We took some damage as we escaped. Most of it has been repaired but Destiny is not as stealthy as she was. We don’t have enough exotic heavy metals to repair her stealth coating. We have slotted one of our stealth drones into orbit. We are communicating with it using signals that mimic the background radiation given off by Graet’s star. It’s communicating with you in the same way. I hope you’re well, I have missed you terribly. Contact us and let us know your situation. Kevin.

Sarah felt a flood of joy wash over her as she listened to Kevin’s voice. She replayed the message several times to absorb everything he had said. Her mind was working a lot slower than she had realized. The isolation had been getting to her. When she was finally ready to reply she analyzed the signal the drone in orbit was using and replied in a similar fashion.

I am well, though in prison. Flexor intends to try me and have me executed as a warning to some of the outlying species that are members of the Pack. It’s not the most comfortable cell I’ve ever been in, but I’m alive and well. It is great to hear your voice. I love you.

Over the next several hours Sarah had to fight with Kevin and Alexandra to convince them not to come barreling into orbit to rescue her. Despite their insistence to the contrary, Sarah told them in no uncertain terms that it would be certain death for them. When they finally gave up on the idea, they tried to figure out another way to free Sarah. Using the stealth drone in orbit Alexandra hacked into a number of databases on the planet, including the palace’s database. Kevin and Lieutenant Jackson used the information to figure out other ways to infiltrate the Palace and free Sarah. Sarah spent most of the day analyzing every piece of information Alexandra could find on Graet, Flexor and the Pack, looking for a more diplomatic way to avoid execution.

When she finished processing a file on ancient Graman traditions, Sarah smiled as the pieces of a plan came together. It wasn’t something Councilor Simmons would call diplomatic, but it might just work, she thought. Sending her idea to the drone she waited for Kevin and Alexandra to get back to her with their thoughts.

Chapter 21

Neither Kevin or Alexandra liked Sarah’s plan. Several days went by with Sarah and everyone on Destiny doing their best to figure out some other option. When none was forthcoming, Alexandra and then Kevin came around to Sarah’s way of thinking. Even with everyone agreed, it took another five days for Sarah to get a chance to put her plan into action. Thankfully, those five days were far easier than the previous ones. Now she could talk to her crew, and she could mark the passing of time. More importantly, she could speak to Kevin any time she wished. It wasn’t the same as having their bond back, but it was something.

Despite her new-found distractions, when the guards finally opened the door to her cell, she couldn’t help but scream again. The light was just as painful as before. Instead of dragging her out, they threw in some kind of uniform for her to wear. Sarah stared at it. It was a weird fluorescent yellow and looked like it was one single piece of clothing meant to cover her from neck to toe.

“Put it on,” one of the guards demanded.

When Sarah didn’t move quickly enough, both guards pulled out some kind of weapon. Instead of threatening her, they shot her. Sarah’s body convulsed as bursts of electricity shot through her. They didn’t cause a great deal of pain, but the smell of burnt clothing made her look down. After her first encounter with Flexor, when she had still been free, she had removed her flight suit and put on more casual clothing. That was what she had been wearing when she had been captured. Now there were two freshly burned holes in her clothes.

It seemed the guards’ shots didn’t have the effect they wanted. Before Sarah could stand, they fired several more bolts of electricity. Despite being hit multiple times, the pain didn’t dramatically increase. Instead, when Sarah looked down at her body, she saw more and more holes appearing in her attire. I’ll be naked soon , she thought as she jumped to her feet. “All right, all right. I understand.” She grabbed the fluorescent overall and sized it up. She had to take off her ruined clothes to get into it. A glance at the guards told her they weren’t going to turn their backs. With a sigh, she turned hers and stripped. As soon as she was in the garment, the two guards closed in on her. Each grabbed an arm and hoisted her into the air. With ease, they carried her out of the cell. Though neither guard was as large as Flexor, they were a couple of feet taller than her and must have outweighed her by a factor of nearly two.

Instead of bringing her to some other room in the palace, the guards brought her outside. A ground car was waiting near the exit. Two more guards were standing by the rear hatch of the vehicle. Sarah found herself thrown into its rear. Then all four guards stepped up and sat around her. Soon the vehicle started and moved off. From the drone in orbit Sarah followed her progress as the vehicle made its way through Joc’ovius, the capital of Graet. Though Kevin was too far away for her to feel through their bond, as they sent communications back and forth, she sensed his anxiety growing. Most of the contingency plans they had put together that involved Lieutenant Jackson’s marines trying to liberate her had been based on storming the palace. Now she was being taken to an unknown location.

Once the ground car halted outside a large building, Sarah identified it from the files Alexandra had hacked. At least they’re not taking me to another holding cell, she sent to Kevin and the rest of her crew. She had been taken to the capital’s High Court. I guess it’s time to put my plan into action. Unless someone else has a better suggestion to make?

Most of the crew sent her messages wishing her luck. When Kevin was slow to reply Sarah sent another private message to him. She knew what he was thinking. “Bringing Destiny into orbit and launching a shuttle is suicidal. You barely escaped last time. I’ve already given you an order and I’m giving it to you again. If this goes badly you are to leave me. Our shuttles aren’t designed to be stealthy, there’s no way you can rescue me. You’ll simply be condemning everyone on Destiny to a needless death. You know the Elders could come back at any time. Earth needs every ship she can get. I won’t have my ship wasted on a hopeless cause.”

Switching back to send a message to everyone on Destiny , Sarah sent a new order. “If something happens to me, Jake is to assume command. Most of you know that when one member of a bonded couple dies, the other undergoes severe mental trauma. Often it can lead to death. If I’m killed, Jake is to assume command immediately. Kevin has my uttermost trust, but I don’t want to see Destiny endangered. Jake is to take Destiny back to Earth and report on everything that has happened here.”

For once Sarah was glad she couldn’t sense her bond with Kevin. She knew he would feel betrayed. Even if he admitted the wisdom in her order, it would be impossible for him not to take it as an insult.

When Kevin finally replied, Sarah was taken aback. Instead of being angry at her, he spoke of his love and dedication to her. Even without the bond Sarah was overwhelmed by the emotion in his voice. Tears made their way down her cheeks. As she replayed Kevin’s audio message, her guards manhandled her out of the vehicle and dragged her towards the High Court. A couple of them snickered at her. She guessed it looked like she was afraid of what she was about to face. Instead, Kevin’s words had strengthened her resolve. She wanted to get back to him. She would do whatever it took.

*

She was taken to a holding cell and had to wait three hours before anything happened. Then, two guards appeared and carried her out of her cell. At two beautifully carved wooden doors, they set her down. One guard placed a strong hand on her shoulder. His grip was vice like. The other reached forward and banged on the door with a wooden mallet she hadn’t seen him carrying. As if by magic, the two doors silently swung open after the third strike.

The arm on Sarah’s shoulder guided her forward. She knew what the strong grip meant. If she tried anything, the guard would quickly have her on her knees in pain. With the guards behind her, Sarah made her way into the large room. Roughly twenty meters ahead of her there was a wooden dais. Behind it sat a Graman she hadn’t met before. The frilly clothes he wore made him look silly, though Sarah guessed it was meant to make him look important. He was obviously the judge. To his left sat a row of eight aliens. Five were Gramans, the other three were from different species that were members of the Pack. They wore clothing similar to the courtiers in Flexor’s throne room when she had her first audience with him. If they are some kind of jury, I think they are in the King’s pocket , Sarah thought. To the judge’s left, there was an empty podium. As her guard guided her towards it, she realized it was for her. Surrounding her as she walked through the large room were seats filled with other aliens. As she looked up she counted three more levels. Every seat was filled with a pair or trio of eyes, all fixed on her. Silence engulfed the chamber. Someone is taking this very seriously , Sarah thought. She guessed there were more than four hundred people present.

As soon as she stepped onto the podium and sat in the seat that was on it, the judge broke the silence. “Now that the defendant has arrived, this court is in session. The charges are as follows. This so-called Captain Adams has been charged with violating Graman Pack space, attempted piracy against an unarmed freighter, espionage against the Graman homeworld of Graet and refusal to obey direct commands from Graet Planetary Control and various Protection Fleet officers. To these charges the defendant has pled not guilty. This court will decide the truth of this matter and the extent of any punishments, if they are required. Now, who speaks for the prosecution?”

An impressive looking Graman stood from the front row of the lower level of seats. She walked into the space in front of the judge’s dais and bowed. “I do, I am Jarosh Gafad. I am well versed in the defendant’s crimes. I will present the evidence against her.”

“Very well, this court accepts you have the authority to speak for the prosecution,” the judge replied.

Sarah didn’t recognize Jarosh so she sent a request to Alexandra to dig through the files they had accessed from the Palace to find out who she was. As it seemed like the judge and makeshift jury weren’t going to reveal their names, she sent visuals of each of them to Alexandra as well.

“Who will speak for the defendant?” the judge asked after Jarosh returned to her seat.

Sarah made to stand. Just as her bum lifted off the seat, a familiar steely grip closed around her shoulder and forced her down. Both guards were standing on the podium with her. Sarah tried to turn to look at the guard, but his arm pressed down to stop her. She knew from the file she had on Graman trials that the defendants usually spoke for themselves. They were expected to give an account of their actions. If they couldn’t, it was seen as a sign they were guilty.

“The defendant is from another world. She is not familiar with our laws and customs. Therefore, I will speak in her defense,” an old Graman said as he took to his feet. “I am Provof Hiol, I have spoken in defense of a number of criminals over the last few decades.” Rather than step forward and bow to the judge, he remained where he was. It didn’t look like he would be too confident without the walking stick propped against his seat.

I should have figured , Sarah said to herself. In ancient Graman trial protocol, there was a tradition that those who were not able to speak for themselves were given a representative. Historically, it was for those who were not able to articulate themselves well enough, either because of nerves or a disability. The appointment of someone to speak for her was meant to be an insult, and probably to make sure I am found guilty. At least my plan doesn’t hinge on speaking at this point. Though as Sarah thought ahead to the end of the trial, it didn’t bode well for what she did want to do.

“Very well,” Judge Agof replied, Alexandra had come back with his name. “The prosecution may present its case.”

As Jarosh stood, Sarah couldn’t help a small smile. Alexandra had informed her that she was a part of King Flexor’s judiciary advisory panel. That would help her later.

“The first witness I wish to call is Senior Engineer Lola Dreagh.” From a couple of rows back, on the ground level, another alien rose to its feet. Sarah called it an it, for she couldn’t distinguish its sex. It was a species she hadn’t seen before, though a quick check of one of the Graman Pack files she had processed told her the species’ name and homeworld.

“Please state your rank and assignment Engineer Dreagh,” Jarosh requested when the first witness stepped in front of the judge.

“I am a Senior Engineer second class assigned to the repair station Conquest in the Hulad System.”

“Four weeks ago, a freighter appeared in the Hulad System. It was heavily damaged. You have been overseeing its repairs, can you describe the damage to us?” Jarosh asked.

As the engineer described the damage, Sarah accessed the scans of the freighter Destiny’s sensors had taken after the engagement. The engineer was vastly exaggerating the damage Destiny had done.

“Have you ever seen any other ships that have suffered the same kind of damage?”

“I have, yes,” Lola replied. “A couple of times over the last decade or so freighters that have been attacked by pirates have been towed back to Conquest to be repaired. In each case the freighter suffered similar damage. Their engines had been hit with energy weapons and their reactors knocked out. Pirates always try to disable their targets before coming alongside and docking with them.”

“Thank you, Senior Engineer,” Jarosh said as she gave a slight nod to Lola. The engineer took it as a sign to sit down.

Well that’s the first thing she said that was true , Sarah admitted to herself. They had been trying to disable the freighter. It was exactly what pirates would do to a ship they were trying to board. The problem was, Destiny hadn’t made any effort to come alongside and board the freighter.

“Does the defense have any questions for engineer Dreagh?” Judge Agof asked.

“No your honor,” Provof said without even getting to his feet. “The extent of the damage done to the freighter is not in dispute.”

Sarah rolled her eyes. Provof should have asked the engineer if the freighter’s cargo was intact. He should have asked if there were any signs of a boarding party fighting its way on board. Instead he remained silent. It wasn’t the last time Sarah rolled her eyes at her supposed representative. Jarosh called two more witnesses, both members of the freighter’s crew. In each case she asked them about the brief battle between Destiny and the freighter, which Sarah came to learn was called Hauler . Neither testimony contained any relevant details about why the battle broke out. Instead, Jarosh focused on the experiences of the two crew members, the fear they felt and the difficult journey they faced trying to get Hauler back to a repair yard. The way both crew members told the story, it seemed like they had faced a life-and-death situation. Yet they made it to the Hulad System within a week , Sarah thought. It couldn’t have taken a more than a couple of days to repair their ship’s main systems . Of course, Provof didn’t question them about their testimony beyond seeking a few clarifying statements. Rather than listen to them drone on, Sarah looked over the crowd. Their discipline was impressive, no one leaned over to speak to his or her neighbor. They silently watched events unfold. As she was studying the upper tier of seats she realized there was one more small tier above them. Straining her eyes, she could just about make out a large chair with just enough room for several others around it. Whoever was in the chair was too far away to make out, but she had little doubt who it was. Flexor.

When Jarosh called her next witness, Sarah leaned forward. She hadn’t seen Jark sitting amongst the crowd in the lower level. When the Danabian Administrator’s name was called, he jumped up quickly and moved forward. Sarah could tell by the way he was walking that he was nervous. Before bowing to the judge, he shot Sarah a quick glance. She understood. He was apologizing for what he was about to say. No doubt Flexor threatened his planet again .

“Administrator,” Jarosh began after Jark bowed to the judge. “Your planetary sensors detected what happened in orbit. Tell the court what you observed.”

“Of course,” Jark replied hesitantly. “The freighter Hauler had settled into orbit. We were in the process of shipping up our quota of food produce to the freighter. Then, out of nowhere, another ship appeared on our sensors. Without warning, they fired upon Hauler . After destroying her engines and preventing the freighter from escaping, the ship closed with their target. However, at the last moment the ship veered off and disappeared.”

“Did you detect any communication between the freighter and the unknown contact?” Jarosh followed up. “Perhaps some kind of negotiations, or a warning?”

Jark shook his head. “No prosecutor.”

“So the attack was unprovoked?”

“It would seem that is what happened.”

Jarosh took a step towards Jark. “Have you had a chance to analyze the ship your sensors detected?”

“Yes,” Jark nodded. “The sensor readings match the ship that was detected in the Graet System. It was Captain Adams’ ship.”

“The prosecution has one more question for you. Did you have any contact with Captain Adams or her ship before it attacked Hauler ?”

“No,” Jark said as he shook his head again. He glanced at Sarah and paused to swallow. When he spoke his tone sounded even more forced than it already did. “In a way, we were lucky that Hauler arrived. If she hadn’t, it is likely my planet and my people would have been attacked instead.”

“Thank you Administrator, I have no more questions,” Jarosh said as she bowed to the judge and returned to her seat.

Provof simply shook his head when Agof asked him if he had any questions.

“The next witness I wish to interview is Captain Renoir of the freighter Hauler ,” Jarosh announced when Agof asked him who was to give evidence next.

As the Captain made his way down the aisle between the seats in the lower level, his gaze never left Sarah. Sarah had seen a couple of people from his species among the officials who served King Flexor. Though she hadn’t spent enough time with them to get to know their body language, it didn’t take much imagination to know what Renoir was thinking. He was about to get revenge.

For nearly twenty minutes Jarosh questioned him. Every single statement he made was either exaggerated or downright false. He painted himself in an as innocent and helpless a state as he could. Destiny and Sarah were villainous pirates, intent on spilling blood and taking slaves. More than once Renoir glanced at Sarah before answering another question with an answer that was especially damning. He even made up a whole story about how Sarah had personally contacted him via laser COM link and gloated over what she would do with his crew after she disabled his ship. By the time Jarosh and Renoir were finished, Sarah knew that if she didn’t already know the truth, she would be tempted to condemn herself.

When the questioning was over, Provof surprised her by getting to his feet. “I have only one question for you Captain. You said your ship was disabled and presumably at the mercy of Captain Adams and her ship. Why do you think they fled before taking your cargo or any of your crew hostage?”

Finally , Sarah thought. He is actually making an effort. In a split second her optimism faded. Renoir actually winked at her before answering. He was ready for this question!

“Whilst our engines and reactor were damaged, our sensors were still fully functional. Just after Destiny fled the scene of her atrocities, we detected another ship entering the system. With more advanced sensors, it’s likely Destiny detected the contact sooner than us. If they did, I imagine that is why they fled. They didn’t want to be caught.”

Then why leave you alive? Sarah asked. If I really was a pirate, I would have killed the witnesses. Of course, either Provof didn’t think of such a follow-up question, or didn’t care to ask.

“Before we call our next witness,” Jarosh said once she resumed her spot in front of Agof’s dais, “we think it is time to review the sensor data from Hauler . It will show in an unbiased way what happened during the events you heard described.”

You mean after you set the scene for how the data should be interpreted , Sarah thought.

When a large screen was rolled into the court room and the sensor data played in a visual format, everyone saw what they expected to see. Destiny came charging in towards the freighter, then laser cannons opened up, causing small explosions to erupt across the freighter’s hull. To the trained eye, the explosions looked too weak, the fragments blown into space too small for fully charged beams. Yet, no one would care to think through what that might mean. Instead, they saw what they had been told to see. An aggressive Destiny striking an apparently defenseless freighter. Even though it was clear that the first hits destroyed two laser cannons that were clearly visible on the freighter, Sarah knew no one would ask about them. Of course, the recording only started as Destiny approached. It didn’t include any of the COM messages Sarah had sent to Hauler , nor the threats Renoir had sent to Administrator Jark.

After the visual displays had been replayed for everyone to fully digest, Jarosh called two more witnesses. One was from Graet Planetary control and another was a low-level Admiral in the planetary defense fleet. Both testified and provided sensor data showing how Destiny had broken several codes when she entered the Graet system and then when open hostilities began between the defense fleet and Destiny when she fled. Interestingly, there was scant sensor data provided on the actual battle that had ensued between Destiny and the Pack ships. Sarah guessed that Flexor didn’t want too many people within his military, never mind the civilian population, knowing that humanity had such advanced technologies.

When there were no more prosecution witnesses and Provof informed the court that he had no defense witnesses to call, Agof got to his feet. “The evidence against Captain Adams has been heard. The court will now pronounce judgement in her case.” He turned to look at the line of the aliens seated to his right. One by one they stood and announced their judgement. Eight loud cries of guilty rang out around the court room.

Agof turned to Sarah. This is it , she thought. She had done a lot of reading on ancient Graman culture and the early years of the Pack and she understood Flexor a lot better now. In a way, she understood why he had refused to accept her explanation of what had happened at Danab and why he had reacted to what she had done with such aggressiveness. He couldn’t afford to lose face with the other important Pack members. For honor’s sake, he couldn’t be seen to be bowing to the whims of an alien from a distant planet or someone from Administrator Jark’s species. Now she was going to use that sense of honor against them. Before Agof could say anything more, she spoke as loudly as she could without shouting.

Chapter 22

“I have some final words before you declare the punishment – it is my right.” Sarah got out before the guards behind her grabbed her and tried to shut her up. She didn’t struggle, instead she kept her eyes squarely fixed on Agof’s. She could see the confusion in his eyes. He glanced up to the highest level but unless his vision was significantly better than her nanite enhanced eyes, there was no way he could make out any hand gestures Flexor might be trying to make. He hesitated for several seconds. Then he looked down at Provof.

“What are the final words your charge wishes to share with this court?”

Provof looked like a child who had just been caught stealing treats. “I... ah... Don’t know what the defendant’s last words are.”

“Then we will pronounce punish…,” Agof began to say but he cut off, for Provof had continued speaking.

“She hasn’t told me. If she has any, they are known only to her.”

Agof turned his gaze back to Provof. Sarah could see the anger there. Provof seemed to wilt and fall back into his chair. He looked like he would give anything to take back what he had just said. Nevertheless, his words had been heard by many in the courtroom. Instead of saying Sarah had no last words, he had admitted that Sarah was the only one who could share them with the court.

Taking her opportunity, Sarah spoke as loud as she could. “I do not accept a guilty charge.” This time when the guards tried to silence her, she struggled using all of her nanite enhanced strength. Catching them by surprise, she momentarily freed herself and jumped to her feet. “This trial has been a farce, false evidence has been given and the genuine evidence has been twisted. I demand that I have a chance to redeem my honor.”

Her words didn’t come out as clearly as she liked, most of the attention was focused on fending off the guards’ attempts to grab her. When they suddenly stopped, Sarah spun to see Agof waving for them to stand down. “Those are bold charges. Do you have any proof to back up your words, or will we be adding contempt of court to your list of crimes?”

Sarah realized what he was doing. If he could catch her in an open lie, he could add more charges against her. Then, in the process, he could ignore her request for her honor to be tested. “Release the data,” she sent to the drone in orbit through her neural implant. She took a deep breath and began to explain. “The prosecution never asked for Destiny’s sensor records. If they had, they would have seen that Hauler’s Captain threatened to bombard the planet’s surface, killing many Danabians, simply because the Danabians were a week late in meeting their quota. Or rather, because Renoir had come a week early to collect their produce. That is when I intervened with Destiny to protect the people of the Pack. All of Destiny’s sensor readings from the encounter have been released onto your planet’s data-net. You will be able to see for yourselves. That the prosecution didn’t seek this evidence is not surprising. That my defense didn’t either demonstrates that this trial is a farce. I am capable of defending myself, yet Provof here has done his best to see me found guilty. I am innocent and I demand that I have the chance to redeem my honor.”

“Your evidence can be faked. If anything, all such sensor data would show is that you were already in the Danab system spying out potential targets,” Jarosh said as she jumped to her feet. “This outburst is already showing the defendant’s contempt of this court and our judicial system. She should be silenced.”

One of the jurors, a member of the Monbaton species, a close ally of the Gramans, stood. Sarah held her breath as he spoke. “This court and indeed the entire structure of the Graman Pack has been built on the historic traditions of the Graman people. The rest of our species have accepted them as they have always served our common good. Despite the contempt this defendant has shown, tradition must be upheld. Unless, Prosecutor Jarosh, you are suggesting we forgo tradition in this most significant of cases. That would be setting a bold precedent.”

Yes , Sarah shouted to herself. The other two non Gramans on the jury were nodding and Agof was eyeing them warily. This was what she had been counting on. The traditions of the Graman people had been essentially forced onto the other species in the Pack. She had hoped that this fact would force her demand for justice be listened to.

Agof looked around the chamber frantically. Sarah didn’t know what he was looking for, but it didn’t seem like he found it. After several seconds, he turned back to Sarah. Through clenched teeth he spoke a single word. “Fine.”

In response, Jarosh and Renoir stood and approached Agof’s dais.

“No,” Sarah said loudly. “The false accusations made against me, the imprisonment I have endured and this farce of a trial are not the doing of Captain Renoir. I demand that my honor be vindicated against that of King Flexor. He is the one behind everything that has happened to me.”

“Preposterous,” Agof said as he brought his metal mallet down to slam against his dais. He had to repeat the action several times. The dead silence in the courtroom had evaporated. In its place, whispered conversations had broken out.

“Flexor is neither a defendant, the injured party, nor a prosecutor in this trial,” Agof continued once silence had been restored. “You cannot include him in any request to defend your honor.”

“I beg to differ,” Sarah replied. “I have been held prisoner by King Flexor in his palace since my arrest. Prosecutor Jarosh is in the employ of the King. Both Administrator Jark and Engineer Dreagh were transported to Graet by Pack warships operating under orders from Flexor. All the files documenting these truths are being released onto the data-net. King Flexor is the reason I am here, he’s the reason I have faced such dishonoring charges. I demand that I be allowed to face my true accuser.”

Pandemonium broke out among those who’d come to watch the trial. Instead of whispers, this time the noise level rose considerably. Despite Agof’s best efforts to quieten everyone, the din continued. Sarah looked up to the top tier to see if she could see Flexor. Though she couldn’t see his face clearly, she caught a glimpse of whoever had been on the large chair storming off through a side door. As it was slammed shut, she heard the smash over the noise around her. When she looked back at Agof, she saw the judge was staring up towards where Flexor had been as well. When he looked back at her and their eyes met, a snarl spread across his face. “Get her out of here,” he demanded.

Four vice-like grips closed in around her. Knowing this wasn’t the time to resist, Sarah let them carry her out of the court room. She shouted one line over and over again. “My honor must be satisfied.” She didn’t stop shouting until her guards threw her into the waiting vehicle. Though they didn’t say or do anything to her as they sat around her, the tension in the vehicle was easy to feel. Sarah didn’t move, she didn’t want to upset them further. It felt like they were a hair’s breath away from attacking her.

She focused on tracking the vehicle’s position as it moved through Joc’ovius. She wasn’t being returned to the Palace. That could be good or bad, she said to herself. Either Flexor is just sending me away to be executed somewhere quietly, or he is afraid to hold me at the Palace and make it look even more like he has been trying to set me up.

*

It turned out to be the latter. Sarah was held in another cell for four days before something happened. For the first day, she had to fight with Kevin to stop him launching some gung-ho rescue attempt. Then, when the probe in orbit spotted some new construction, Kevin relented. The images showed that a large run down circular arena was being refurbished. Soon after the work began, Alexandra picked up numerous communications being sent around the planet announcing the duel between Flexor and Sarah. The King of the Graman Pack had accepted Sarah’s challenge. His honor had been called into question.

When the guards came to take her to the arena, she did her best to remain calm. She controlled her breathing and kept her eyes closed. She was going to need all the focus and energy she had if she was going to win. Only when she arrived at the arena and was led into the sand pit at its center did she start to assess her surroundings. She was about to be closed into the pit and have to fight for her life. Every detail was crucial.

The walls that surrounded the pit were crumbled and here and there new brickwork had been added to keep the structure standing. The sand under her feet was rough and uneven, as if it had just been dumped there the day before – which she knew it had. The wooden seats that circled the arena in concentric rows looked freshly built and the flags flowing overhead didn’t show any sign of wear and tear. There was also a smell of freshness about the place. This is probably the first time this place has been used in a thousand years, Sarah concluded.

As her guards walked her towards through the arena Sarah tried to take in every detail she could. However, when they fastened her to the single wooden post in the center of the arena, she realized she was going to have all the time she needed to familiarize herself with her surroundings. After tying her up, they turned and left her on her own. For a while she studied her surroundings. Then she sat on the sand and closed her eyes. It was time to prepare for the fight.

With the drone’s help, Sarah counted three hours passing before she saw anyone else. The first person entered the arena’s viewing area from some unseen gate. They made their way to the topmost tier of seats and sat down. For a few minutes, it was just the two of them. Sarah tried to look at the alien, but whoever it was, they didn’t return her stare. Then several more aliens appeared, and soon after, a steady stream of newcomers continued until the arena was filled to capacity.

Only then did someone enter the arena floor. From the single gate that lead onto the sandy pit, Flexor, surrounded by serval officials came into view. He was stripped down to a single loin cloth that covered his midriff. Even from a distance Sarah could see the muscles that covered his body. Defeating him was going to require all her skill and luck.

Behind Flexor several of the attendants were carrying different sets of weapons. Sarah could see spears, swords, long knives, axes and other weapons. She hoped swords or spears would be selected. Alexandra had made her train with weapons similar to both.

The entire group came to a halt about twenty meters away. One Graman moved forward until he was on his own. Lifting a device he held in his hands, he began to speak. Hidden speakers amplified his voice. “One and all, we are gathered here to witness the satisfaction of Captain Adams’ and King Flexor the First’s honor. Captain Adams stands accused of piracy and various other crimes. King Flexor of faking evidence and corruption. Each of their cases will be determined by combat. May truth prevail.”

Sarah tried to keep a straight face. Even though she had orchestrated events to bring this moment about, she still felt the irony of the situation. The combat wouldn’t find out the truth of the matter, it would only determine who was the better fighter. In a way, this trial was just as incapable of judging the truth of her actions at Danab as the one overseen by Agof. It doesn’t matter , Sarah said to herself, all that matters is that you win.

“The weapons for this combat will now be decided.” The announcer stepped aside and motioned to the attendants carrying the weapons to step forward.

Sarah wasn’t sure how this worked, there was nothing in the historical records she had processed about it. When the attendants drew back, the announcer stepped towards the two swords now resting hilt up in the sand. He lifted up both his hands. In response, the crowd let out a mediocre cheer. The announcer then moved to the next set of weapons and then the next. When he came to the two spears, the crowd let out its largest cheer yet. The announcer seemed satisfied. He pulled one of the spears out of the sand and flung it to Flexor. The other, he tossed towards Sarah, the spear fell at her feet.

“Release her,” Flexor ordered.

One of the attendants moved towards Sarah. The others retreated out of the ring. The one that came near Sarah quickly untied her and then moved off as well.

“Pick up your spear,” the announcer ordered.

As soon as Sarah stepped forward the announcer raised his amplification device again. “It begins,” he bellowed before getting out from between the combatants.

The crowd cheered and shouted, creating an instant wall of noise that assaulted Sarah. I guess they want to see blood . With that thought, Sarah moved forward and commanded all her nanites to go into overdrive. They massed in her muscles and around her abdomen. Those in her muscles would add even more strength than they normally provided, while the others would protect her weakest spots from injury.

Even with her secret advantages, Sarah felt a twinge of fear as she closed with Flexor. He towered over her and if he got in close, his weight advantage would quickly lead to her death. She had to keep him at arm’s length and wait until he tired.

To test his reflexes, she dived towards him and whipped her spear towards his throat. Before it was halfway towards its target, she pivoted and spun away. As she did, she saw Flexor spin his spear around, using its butt like a club to push away her blade. At the same time, he stepped forward and would have been within striking distance with his free hand if Sarah hadn’t moved.

He’s quick , Sarah concluded. She was going to have to be careful.

As if to reinforce her evaluation, Flexor charged her. He brought his spear down towards her like an axe. Rather than trying to catch his spear with hers – she knew he would win the battle of strength he was trying to initiate, Sarah ducked under Flexor’s descending arms and threw herself into a roll. Coming up behind Flexor, she quickly moved back. Flexor spun around, whipping his spear towards where she had been in a wide arc.

“You are a smart one, I’ll give you that,” Flexor said as he squared off against her once again. “Under different circumstances we could have worked together. If you had accepted responsibility and then my pardon, we could be putting together a trade deal right now. Instead you have forced me to kill you. It is a waste, but I will find some pleasure in bringing this fiasco to a conclusion by terminating you.”

Sarah circled her opponent. “You still haven’t learnt. This entire duel was unnecessary. If you truly understood honor, you would have understood my actions at Danab. You should have charged the freighter pilot, not me. Then you would have won the support and loyalty of the Danabians. People work and serve far better out of love than fear. Your approach could yet cause the downfall of the Pack.”

“There may be some truth to your words, but they are not truths that will work in the Pack, and they will not save you now.” Flexor lunged.

Sarah was ready, she jumped to one side and ducked beyond Flexor’s reach which made his thrust sail well wide of her. Springing to her feet, she sidestepped and took several steps backwards to dodge two more attacks.

Flexor advanced. “You’re quick, but that won’t win you the fight.”

Sarah dodged, then she was forced to bring up her spear and deflect Flexor’s next thrust. As both spear shafts connected they released a loud crack. The vibrations sent pain up Sarah’s hands and wrists. For another minute or so, Sarah continued to dodge and deflect attacks. Soon she was panting heavily, her only solace was that Flexor was as well.

As Flexor advanced again swinging his spear wildly she sensed a shift in his tactics. He was driving her backwards in a specific direction. He was attacking in such a way that the most natural avenue of escape was the same each time. He knows what I’m doing , Sarah realized. He’s trying to corner me.

Glancing over her shoulder, she spotted Flexor’s target. The arena was a rough oval, though there was a section of wall that had been rebuilt behind her. It had been a hasty job and the builder hadn’t bothered trying to match the shape of the original arena. His brick work had left a small cleft in the arena wall. If he can force me towards it, there will be no escape. At least, that’s what he thinks . Her goal in this battle wasn’t just to defeat Flexor, it was to show everyone that she deserved to win, that her way was the right way.

Sarah allowed herself to be backed towards the arena’s edge. She made sure Flexor didn’t get anywhere near her with any of his attacks. “Shouldn’t this be over by now?” she taunted. “Everyone is watching, and you still haven’t landed an attack.”

Flexor growled. Then he charged. Sarah kicked a clump of sand into his face, then she turned and ran towards the arena wall. She didn’t have to look back to know Flexor was following. His wicked growl and the heavy thumps of his feet digging into the sand told her he was right behind her.

In just six strides Sarah reached the wall. Leaping into the air, she thrust her spear into the sand to give her extra purchase. Her momentum allowed her to take three steps up the wall before she pushed off with all her strength. As she summersaulted through the air she looked down to see Flexor tilting his head up to look at her. His momentum was still taking him towards the arena wall and his spear was held out horizontal, as if he had expected to pin her against the wall.

With well-practiced grace, Sarah landed on the soft sand, jumped to her feet and backed away from the arena wall. Once again, she had ample room to maneuver. When Flexor turned, she winked at him. “Trapping me won’t work, if you want to beat me, you’ll have to do better.”

Chapter 23

Flexor charged her once more, though this time his aggression was more under control. His spear thrust and swung at her again and again. Twice as Sarah deflected a blow Flexor reached out with a fist or foot. The second time his foot caught her on the thigh. It sent her spinning into the sand. Only her quick reflexes saved her from Flexor’s follow up thrust. Before she regained her balance, he was at her.

“He doesn’t seem to be tiring quickly enough,” Alexandra sent to Sarah. “His attacks are too controlled. You need to get him angrier. You have to go on the attack.”

Sarah took the advice on board. Alexandra wouldn’t distract her unless the artificial intelligence thought it absolutely necessary. The next time Flexor swung his spear at her, Sarah estimated his reach and ducked back just enough that the blade just missed her throat. As it whistled past, she pushed herself forward. With two hands on her spear she thrust it at Flexor’s side as quickly as she could.

Flexor pivoted, yet he wasn’t quick enough. Sarah felt the point bite home. As she jumped back, she saw a small slither of green blood on her weapon. Flexor’s hand reached down to his side, as he took it away she saw more blood, though the wound didn’t look too bad. When he advanced, it didn’t seem to impede the strength or speed of his attacks.

Sarah lost track of time. She fell into a rhythm. She deflected and parried Flexor’s attacks before she launched a single counter offensive of her own. Then she would go back on the defensive. She grazed Flexor with her spear’s blade once more. This time on the thigh. In return, Flexor landed a punch to her abdomen that nearly doubled her over. A counter swing of his spear also allowed him to smash the butt of his weapon against her knee.

Both hits were causing Sarah some discomfort, but Flexor’s wounds were causing him more and more pain. A couple of times he grimaced as he struck out at her. His attacks were getting wilder, they were costing him more energy. He was getting angry. It’s working.

Bringing his arms down over his head, Flexor swung his spear like an axe at her head. As she moved back to dodge, her foot slipped in the sand. Losing purchase, she desperately raised her spear to block. She had no choice. As she brought the shaft of her weapon up to deflect Flexor’s spear, a different crack echoed around the arena.

She knew what it meant immediately. In each hand, she was holding a different part of her spear. It had snapped in half.

Flexor let out a chilling laugh before he lunched himself into another series of attacks. Without the longer range her spear had given her, Sarah found herself deflecting blow after blow with the two ends of the spear. Having two weapons gave her one advantage, as she blocked with one hand, she struck out with the other. She landed two blows to Flexor’s body. Both were with the wooden end of the spear, Flexor was careful to keep her blade away from him. Though it might look like the fight had turned to Sarah’s advantage, Sarah knew otherwise. Every time she deflected a blow from Flexor, one of her hands and wrists was taking the full force of the blow. She could feel her wrists going numb and her grip weakening.

When the next blow came in, the blade end of her former spear slipped out of her grasp. The strength of Flexor’s attack sent it spinning across the arena. With no choice, Sarah flung the other end of her spear at Flexor. Then she charged in behind it. Flexor used his spear to fend off the projectile. Before he could bring his weapon back to make another swing, Sarah grabbed it. Jumping into the air, she brought her knee down onto the spear’s shaft as hard as she could. A satisfying crack followed her knee’s contact and when Sarah jumped to her feet, she was holding the bladed end of what had been Flexor’s spear.

Flexor looked down at the cracked shaft in his hands. “Impressive. You are far better trained than I imagined. I’ve made the mistake of underestimating your ship and now you. Even so, you are still going to be the one who dies here today.” With the flick of his wrist, Flexor threw away the shaft. “Let’s settle this one on one.”

Sarah’s instincts screamed at her to hold onto the blade. It would give her a significant advantage. Yet her strategy called for her to defeat Flexor fairly. If he was unarmed, she had to beat him unarmed. Throwing the blade away, she clenched her fists. All the advantages were Flexor’s. With no other option, she did what she hoped Flexor least expected. She moved right in at him.

As soon as she came into range, Flexor swung a right hook. Sarah ducked under it. As she came back up, she fired an uppercut at his chin with her right hand. Flexor allowed the momentum of his punch to keep him turning and her fist crashed into his armpit instead. As he moved back Sarah struck out with her left, catching Flexor on his exposed ribs. He didn’t even grunt.

Wary of each other, both combatants retreated a couple of steps, then they closed again. Sarah went back to her tiring tactics. She would dart in and try and land a blow or two, then quickly move back. Flexor tried a number of things. He tried to dodge her attacks and counter attacking, but she was too quick to catch. He then went on the offensive. Sarah took a couple of glancing blows, but for the most part she was able to keep Flexor at bay, though it was taking all her speed to avoid being hit. She couldn’t even think of striking back.

Then Flexor changed his strategy. He feigned over reaching with a punch. When Sarah moved in with a quick jab, he allowed her to land her punch. As he took the blow, he struck.

An involuntary groan escaped her lips as the wind was knocked out of her. Stumbling back, a wave of noise enveloped her as the crowd cheered the fact that Flexor had finally landed a serious hit. Blinking back the stars that were threatening her vision, Sarah tried to ignore the pain and to refocus on the fight.

When Flexor advanced, the threat of another hit striking her sharpened her focus. Using her palms and knees, she blocked blow after blow. When she finally saw an opportunity to strike, she realized too late that it was another trap. Her fist connected with Flexor’s cheek. In return, Flexor landed a knee in the side of her back. A snap told Sarah at least one of her ribs had cracked.

Staggering backwards, she looked at Flexor’s face to see if she had done any damage. There was a slight cut on his cheek, but his eyes looked as intense as ever. This isn’t working, she thought. Every time Flexor hit her she was losing speed and strength for her nanites were having to be diverted to take care of the damage and dull her pain. As she took a deep breath she realized even they weren’t able to keep up with all the blows she was taking. Every exhale sent a piercing pain through her rib cage.

It’s all or nothing. With abandon, she flung herself at Flexor. Forgetting about speed, she used her nanites to enhance her strength as much as they could. Trading blow for blow, she sought to beat Flexor into submission. Concentrating on the spots her spear had injured him, and his face, she struck again and again with all the force she could generate. In return, Flexor landed his own blows. Ignoring the pain, Sarah kept lashing out.

Yes, she shouted to herself as Flexor stumbled backwards. He was retreating under the weight of her attacks. All around the arena it went quiet. A look of concern crossed Flexor’s face. He’s wondering why someone so small can hit so hard. Again and again she struck out at him. She focused all the energy she could muster into the next strike and then the next. With each blow Flexor’s face became more and more of a bloody mess.

Then his face changed, he suddenly looked much taller and he was grinning. It took Sarah a second to realize why. Her legs had collapsed under her. She had fallen to her knees. Her strength was gone. Flexor loomed over her. His leg reached out and connected with her stomach. The force lifted her into the air and sent her flying across the arena.

When she landed she started coughing up blood and fought to take a breath. Through the panic that was setting in, she accessed the information her implant had on her nanites. They had used up most of the energy her body had to offer and were eating into her small fat reserves. Nearly a month in prison eating small portions not designed for her digestive system had left her weaker than she had realized.

A shadow moving over her told her Flexor had closed in for another attack. Relaxing her muscles, Sarah allowed the blows to come in. He kicked her twice, then picked her up with one hand and punched her in the face with the other. Sarah felt unconsciousness approaching.

When the next blow didn’t come, Sarah opened her eyes to see Flexor holding her at eye level. “I told you I would end you. You fought well, but now it’s over.” Flexor wrapped Sarah into a vice like hug. Her feet dangling nearly a meter off the ground. Then he began to squeeze. “You are a worthy opponent. I want to see the life drain out of your eyes. Killing face to face is an honorable death in our culture.”

Thoughts of Kevin, Alexandra, her crew and her new friends on Earth went through her mind. Then she thought of the Elders and what they would do to Earth if they returned. “No,” she shouted, though it sounded more like a whisper. “No.”

Summoning what strength her body and her nanites could give her, Sarah pushed. At first nothing happened. Then slowly, the force on her chest lessened. Millimeter by millimeter Flexor’s arms were forced apart.

Confusion appeared on Flexor’s face. “How?”

He didn’t get to finish his question, or hear an answer. As soon as Sarah pushed his arms far enough apart, her knee came flying up. It struck Flexor on the underside of his jaw. Sarah put every ounce of energy she had left into the attack.

The vice like grip on her arms disappeared and then she was falling. As soon as she hit the sand, she rolled away. With next to no strength left, she scanned the nearby area in desperation. Spotting what she was looking for, she crawled towards it. As soon as her hand closed around the shaft, she pushed herself to her feet and stumbled towards Flexor.

He was lying on the ground, groggily shaking his head while one arm tried to push his body up into a sitting position. Sarah whipped the shaft of the spear down at his head. As the wooden end connected it sent a thud around the arena.

As Flexor’s head fell back onto the sand, Sarah spun the spear shaft around and raised it into the air. All around her the audience groaned, they knew what was coming next. With what strength she had left, she accelerated the spear’s blade through the air right at Flexor’s head. Only at the last second did she deviate slightly. The spear tip sliced along his cheek before piercing the sand. She drove the spear all the way to the point where the metal head was no longer visible.

Letting out a great sigh, Sarah fell onto her knees. Exhaustion threatened to overwhelm her. Her nanites were screaming at her, warning her that she would soon black out. Her body had used all the energy it had available. Her nanites were struggling just to keep her major organs going.

With all the mental strength she had, Sarah fought to stay awake, she needed to look as strong as she could. After several seconds, she managed to get enough awareness to look around. Only then did she realize a deathly silence had spread around the arena.

Glancing back at Flexor, Sarah understood why. He was lying still, unmoving. And that spear looks awfully close to his head . They probably think he is dead.

Suddenly gasps went up from around Sarah. Flexor stirred. With a groan, he sat up and shook his head. Sarah shot to her feet. She needed to meet Flexor as the victor.

As she approached, his hand went to his cheek. When he pulled it away and saw blood, he looked at the ground beside him. Sarah saw his eyes widen when he saw the spear shaft protruding from the sand.

“It is over,” she said as she offered a hand. “You lost. Honor has been served. Let’s end this and start afresh. The real threats are the Elders and the Cleansers. We cannot afford to be enemies.”

Flexor stared up at her. Sarah could see his mind working. He was trying to decide what to do. “Sparing me humiliates me,” he finally said.

“I know, but not more so than your own actions already have. Using your overwhelming power to treat the Danabians so unjustly brought dishonor to your Pack. So too has your attempt to falsely accuse me. Let this public humiliation serve as your penance. Take my hand and let’s work together.”

“I cannot, you have made me look weak, no one will follow me now,” Flexor replied.

“You have been beaten by a superior foe. There is no weakness in that, you fought well. Neither of us have dishonored ourselves in this fight.”

“Yet you did not kill me, and so I am dishonored.”

“Maybe it’s time for some of your Graman traditions to pass into history. You said once that you care about all the species under your rule. Well so do I. I do not wish to throw this alliance into turmoil by killing its King. The Pack contains more than sixty different species, perhaps some of their traditions should be allowed to influence how the Pack is administrated and ruled. My grievance was with you, and I chose to spare you. That should be enough.”

Flexor stared at her for several seconds. His reluctance clear. Then something changed. Sarah thought she saw a mischievous look in his eyes. “Very well,” he said as he reached up and grabbed Sarah’s hand. “But my reign may not last long. You will likely have another King to deal with soon. But until then, I will try things your way. You have given me little choice. There is nothing else left for me.”

Clenching her teeth to bite back a groan, Sarah used the last of her strength to help him to his feet.

“The fight is over,” Flexor bellowed as soon as he steadied himself. “All charges against Captain Adams and her crew will be dropped. I personally take responsibility for what has happened here today. My defeat has demonstrated the error of what I tried to do. Captain Adams has spoken of equality between species, of a working partnership with her people. I do not promise to make changes overnight, but if you will continue to have me as your King, then perhaps we can seek to forge a new path. One more equal for all.”

Sarah realized her mouth was hanging open. She hadn’t expected anything like what Flexor had just said. Not after all he had done.

“Does your species usually keep their mouth gaping after a hard fight?” Flexor asked. Sarah detected a trace of humor in his tone.

“What.. why?” she managed to get out.

Flexor slowly limped towards the gates that lead out of the arena, he motioned for Sarah to follow. “You may have used our honor system against me, but I doubt you fully understand it. Your ideas have already taken root among some of my advisors, especially those from other species. Yet when news of what happened to Hauler arrived, I had to act. If I hadn’t, I would have been overthrown. There are some groups on Graet who would like to see a more hard-liner King on the throne.”

Sarah couldn’t keep the surprise off her face, she had thought Flexor was hardline enough.

Flexor laughed at her. “Others would have executed you on the spot and then sent a fleet to bombard Danab for allowing you to land on their planet without permission. Even now they are no doubt plotting to have me assassinated. The next few weeks should be interesting.”

“So, what you just said about forging a new path, it was just for show?” Sarah said, she halted and glared at Flexor.

“Partly,” Flexor said as he continued, forcing Sarah to keep up in order to hear him. “And partly it was the truth. If I am to remain King, I cannot count on the support of the hardliners any longer. Sparing me has ensured that. If I want to continue protecting the species who have joined the Pack, I need support from elsewhere. Many of those who liked the ideas of trade deals, alliances and equality were never my biggest supporters. Now, we are going to need each other. They won’t want to see a hardliner on the throne either.”

Sarah shook her head. It was a better outcome than she had hoped for, though it wasn’t the way she had wanted to bring it about. Making changes to how the Pack worked out of pragmatism rather than conviction was less than ideal. Yet it’s a start. “What about me and Destiny ?”

“You will be free to return to your ship. And if you are willing to stay, we can reopen negotiations. That is, if you can put this behind us. If I can survive the next couple of weeks, we may be able to come to some more mutually pleasing deal. Your assistance may even prove useful to helping me remain King if you are willing to offer it.”

Sarah shook her head again. She was taken aback by the change in Flexor’s demeanor.

“Don’t be too shocked,” Flexor chuckled. “I’m not doing this because I like you. I have a responsibility to protect my people. You have forced me to take a different path in seeking that goal. I do not like it. But now that I am committed to it, I will see it through.”

Chapter 24

Sarah was amazed Flexor was still King. She was sitting in her office on-board Destiny reviewing details of the latest coup Flexor had put down. So far, he had survived three assassination attempts and two attempted coups. The assassination attempts he had thwarted on his own. But Sarah had helped him defeat both coups. One had come from the army units based on Graet, the other from a small fleet element in orbit around the planet. Sarah hadn’t done anything more than allow Alexandra to hack into each coup attempt’s communications. It had been enough to give Flexor advance warning and allow him to identify the leaders. In both cases, Sarah had feared the candidates being put forward for King would be worse than Flexor. That was why she had helped him. At least that was what she kept telling herself. After their intense battle, Sarah begrudgingly admitted that she had gained a new respect for Flexor.

Negotiations had been limited, but profitable. She had traded some basic technologies for information on the space surrounding the Pack. A couple of other independent worlds had formed their own mini empires in the nearby border sectors the Elders had abandoned. Neither was anywhere near as powerful as the Pack and they tended to follow the Pack’s directions. Here and there pirate bases were known to exist, though the Protection Fleet made sure they stayed well away from Pack space. Further out there was more pirate activity, though Flexor hadn’t bothered to send many scout ships out that far, he had enough trouble closer to home. In total, over the last fifty years the Elders had abandoned sixty sectors in a ring around the edge of what was once their space. There were over six thousand worlds that had been forging their own paths for half a century. If there were other strong empires developing out there, the Pack hadn’t come into contact with them.

The technologies Sarah had given Flexor wouldn’t change things much on Graet in the short term, though they would have a bigger impact on the less developed worlds within the Pack. The improved fission reactors would allow such worlds to bypass the need to burn fossil fuels. The mining and agriculture technologies would allow them to get a jumpstart on developing their own industries. Rather than an economy with a few specialized worlds producing each of the materials the Protection Fleet needed. Sarah hoped that as the technologies dispersed throughout the Pack, each world would be able to develop its own economy. In the future, the Pack would have many worlds contributing to its overall GDP.

Sarah got the impression Flexor knew what she was trying to do. With many more equal worlds, it would be harder for the Gramans to retain their position of leadership within the Pack. In the long-term Sarah guessed Flexor didn’t like it, in the short term, he had welcomed her proposed trade deals. The technologies were seen as a serious boon on many of the Pack worlds and they had bought Flexor much off world support.

An alert in the back of her mind let her know a new file had been sent to her neural implant. It was a supply report from Jake. After processing it, she sighed. Flexor wasn’t her main problem at the minute, Kevin was. With good relations tentatively established with the Pack, she was keen to head into unexplored space. That had been her mission all along. Now that she knew about the Cleansers, she was even more determined to go and see how much of a threat they really were.

Yet Kevin was dead set against the idea. The original mission had called for Destiny to reach unexplored space at least one month ago. Instead, with all the events Sarah had got caught up in, they were still a week away from unexplored space. Anti-matter was becoming an issue. Flexor had supplied them with a good amount of the resources they needed. Yet the former Protector World no longer had the capacity to produce anti-matter. With no knowledge of how to keep the two anti-matter reactors their world once had working, the reactors and processing plants needed to produce anti-matter had been scrapped.

Destiny still had enough anti-matter for five months. It would take two to get back to Earth from Graet. That left three months’ worth of fuel. Sarah thought they should spend a month in unexplored space and see what they could discover. Kevin thought it was too risky. Over the past three days they had been at logger heads with each other.

Sensing Kevin approach, Sarah knew they were about to go at it again. She had asked Jake to assess all of Destiny’s non-critical systems. She wanted to see how much fuel they would save if they shut many of them down. The report he had just sent suggested it wouldn’t buy them more than a couple more days in space. She knew Kevin had just processed the same file. He was coming to try and get her to reconsider her plan.

When Kevin walked into her small office, Sarah couldn’t help but let her mind drift back to their reunion after her imprisonment. It had been breath-taking to feel their bond reconnect. Then even better to hold him in her arms and feel his lips on hers. At that moment, she had never wanted to let him go.

Now, as he sat down beside her, she felt like she wanted to bolt out of the office. “I don’t want to hear it,” she said with a raised hand. “It changes nothing.”

“Well you’re going to have to anyway,” Kevin replied, his voice already raised. “Shutting down non-critical systems won’t work. There is no way to mediate the risk of heading into unexplored space. We need to go back. We can refuel and let the Ruling Council decide what to do next.”

“You already know my thoughts. I was sent out here to venture into unexplored space and look for allies and new technologies. That has always been our main mission. What happened here hasn’t changed that. In fact, now we know there is at least one advanced race out there, that makes our mission all the more important. You know this. There is nothing more to say.” To reinforce her words, she picked up the datapad sitting on her desk and swiveled her chair so her back was to Kevin.

Kevin reached over and grabbed the arm of Sarah’s chair. He swung it around so she was facing him again. “No, it’s not. I am your second in command. We are meant to discuss command decisions. You are meant to take my point of view into consideration. I have a lifetime of experience working with Councilor Simmons and the fleet’s command staff. I know they would want to have a say on our next move.”

“Fine,” Sarah snapped as she realized there was no way of avoiding another confrontation. “Let’s say we go back and report everything that has happened here. What do you think Simmons and Admiral Hayley will decide?”

Kevin paused. Sarah could sense him trying to think through his answer. She sent a feeling of impatience towards him. If he hadn’t even thought things out this far, how could she take his advice seriously?

Kevin’s eyes flashed at her. “You don’t know everything. They may well decide to send Destiny back to unexplored space. Yet we would be refueled and fully repaired. That alone would make going a far safer prospect. Even with the supplies Flexor has given us, we haven’t been able to repair all the damage we took trying to escape Graet when you were arrested. We don’t know what we’re going to encounter in unexplored space. We may have to fight the Cleansers or some other advanced race. We may have to run for our lives. If we are chased deeper into unexplored space we could run out of fuel and be stranded. There are too many risks. A wise Captain would heed the dangers. Going in with little fuel and a damaged ship is too great a risk.”

Sarah made to reply, but Kevin held up a single finger to silence her. “I’m not finished. The Ruling Council may also decide to send another ship. Our crew is tired, they have been through a lot. You have been through a lot. Even if Destiny was fully repaired tomorrow. It might not be a good idea for us to head into unexplored space.”

“You think I’m not up for it?” Sarah almost spat. “Do you think someone else would be better suited to lead the mission into unexplored space?”

Kevin didn’t have to answer, she sensed it through their bond, he didn’t want her to go. It wasn’t just the ship and the crew he was worried about. Her blood boiled. “You think I’m not fit to lead the mission now? Are there some command decisions you think I shouldn’t have made over the last months that mean I’m not the best Captain for the job? Don’t forget, the Ruling Council chose me specifically for this mission. You are here because you are bonded to me.”

Sarah stopped when she realized she had raised her voice too. She hadn’t meant to insult Kevin. She had been trying to keep calm. Yet he had touched a nerve. She was the one who had helped liberate Earth and the surrounding species. If there was some new ally or technology in unexplored space that could help defend against the Elders’ return, she was going to be the one to find it. She owed everyone that much.

“And who forced me into that bond?” Kevin shot back. “You did, because of your recklessness. And you fought Flexor, and nearly died. Another reckless plan. And that’s why I’m here. The Ruling Council wanted me to come to bring caution into your command decisions. That’s what I’m doing. If you take us into unexplored space, something is bound to go wrong, and you will risk your life, our lives, to try and fix it. How long can you keep beating the odds?”

Kevin was right. It was a character flaw she was working on – something he knew full well. But she also knew she probably wouldn’t be free if she hadn’t challenged Flexor to combat. And they certainly wouldn’t have the good relationship that was developing between the leader of the Pack and herself. “How do you think I defeated Destiny’s former commander? How do you think I found my way back to Earth? How did we beat the Elder fleet around Earth? By avoiding risks and taking the safe option every time? By waiting until the odds were in our favor? No! We acted, when something needed doing, I did it.

“Tell me this, do you know what the Elders are doing right now? Do you know where their fleets are? If they are amassing to attack Earth even as we speak? You are talking about wasting more than four months. How do you know we have that long? We could find a new technology or ally next week that would give us a serious advantage over the Elders. How can you justify running away from such opportunities? Risks have to be taken. I don’t remember you being scared before. I thought we were in this together.”

“You don’t understand,” Kevin’s voice sounded more like a whine than a shout. Sarah could feel his raw emotion through their bond. “I can’t watch you go through something like that again. You could be permanently injured, or worse. We don’t know what is waiting for us out there.”

His feelings of desperation almost overwhelmed her. In that moment, she understood what was really going on. Kevin had watched the fight between her and Flexor as it had been broadcast all across the system. He had seen her beaten to within an inch of her life. She had seen the images of herself afterwards. She had been a bloody mess by the end. Her heart went out to Kevin. If the roles were reversed, she might have felt the same way. Yet they weren’t, and she knew she couldn’t afford to allow her emotions or her love for Kevin to dictate her decision. The Elders were coming, that was all that mattered. She had to make Kevin see that too.

“My life is irrelevant. Our marriage is irrelevant. Defeating the Elders is everything. We are here, Destiny is ready to leave. We are going. That is my word on the matter. Unless you want me to throw you into the brig for insubordination you will follow this order without any further arguments. Do you understand?” Sarah fixed Kevin with as stern a gaze as she could muster. She needed him to understand how serious she was.

She felt several emotions wash over her from their bond, hurt, anger, fear. For several seconds, she thought he was going to break down and share his real thoughts with her. She wanted him to, she understood his fear of losing her. Instead, resignation settled across his face. “Fine, but I can’t pretend I am happy about you being so reckless with your life, with all our lives. I’m going to pack some things. I will stay in the quarters adjacent to yours. I need some space.”

Sarah’s mouth fell open. She knew they had been at each other’s throats for several days. But it was their love for each other, their relationship, that heightened their arguments. Surely, he was going too far. “Wai…” she began but Kevin had already stormed out.

“Maybe it’s for the best,” Alexandra said after giving Sarah a few moments to take in what had just happened. “Ever since we escaped the Protection Fleet’s attempt to capture Destiny , he has been pushing himself to exhaustion as he tried to repair Destiny and get back to you. Then he had to watch helplessly for weeks as you were imprisoned, mistreated and nearly beaten to death. The last month has been very hard on him. A little space might give him the time he needs to think through everything.”

For once Sarah didn’t feel any irritation at the fact Alexandra had been listening in on her private conversations. She was happy to speak to someone who seemed to understand what was going on. “I hope you’re right,” she replied.

She stared into empty space, replaying everything she and Kevin had said. Try as she might, she couldn’t see how the argument could have gone any other way. With a sigh, she picked up her datapad and checked the shuttle schedule. The last two shuttles bringing supplies up from Graet’s surface were due to dock in just under an hour.

“Stephen,” Sarah said after opening a COM link to the bridge. “We’re going to break orbit in two hours. Make sure the crew knows. I want all our systems operating at peak efficiency and everything securely stowed away.”

“Aye Captain,” Stephen replied. “I’ll pass the word.”

After closing the COM channel Sarah was distracted by a bump coming from her quarters. Accessing the Destiny’s internal visual sensors, she saw it was Kevin. He was collecting some of his things. Despite her ship needing her attention, she spent several minutes watching him as he moved around what had been their quarters.

*

“And you are planning on stopping back here on your way back to Earth?” Flexor asked Sarah via the visual COM link she had established with his palace.

Sarah nodded. “If circumstances allow. We may need more supplies and I want to keep you informed about what is happening out there. If we meet the Cleansers or any other species that might prove to be helpful allies, I will let you know. If the Cleansers learn the Elders are gone from this part of the galaxy, they may see the former Elder colonies as easy targets. You are all that stands in their way. I have already sent a messenger drone back to my homeworld. If my leaders think it needed, they may have already sent another envoy by the time I get back.”

“That’s good,” Flexor replied. “Just promise me one thing. If you cause as much trouble wherever you end up as you did here, please don’t lead any angry alien fleets back to my homeworld. We already have enough problems.”

Sarah grinned at Flexor. “I’ll try. Though once I’m gone, you might find life gets pretty boring. If you don’t have any more coup attempts to put down you’ll be wanting me to come back to give you something to do.”

“I can assure you that won’t be a problem,” Flexor said as he shook his head. “I’ve got delegates from every Pack world lining up to meet me. They want to discuss how the new technologies you have given us can be used on their worlds, and how government grants can speed up the dispersal of the technologies. Not to mention the amendments to the Pack’s founding documents that are being thrown around every day. I’ll be lucky if I’m still King when you return. We’ll have some kind of elected body, what do you call it? Democracy? A terrible idea if I do say so.”

“So says the King who rules unopposed and does whatever he wants,” Sarah said with a wink. “Just make sure that if they decide to replace you with someone else, they are just as capable as you. As long as that is the case, I’ll be happy to deal with whoever is in charge.”

Flexor fixed Sarah with an amused stare. “Your concern is overwhelming.”

“I apologize if I find it hard to worry too much about tyrannical Kings who lock me up and then try to squeeze the life out of me.” As Sarah spoke she felt a little surprised at how informal Flexor was being, their experience in the arena had done wonders for their relationship. There was now a mutual respect.

“I have one more question before you leave,” Flexor said. “You still haven’t told me how you managed to capture Destiny in the first place. I’ve never heard of an Elder warship being defeated in combat, never mind captured. How many of your ships did it take you to beat it? Did you have to board and fight the Elder crew?”

“It was rather easy,” Sarah replied nonchalantly. “I didn’t need any warships actually, I beat it with a pirate freighter. I simply disabled the Elder frigate, boarded and took control.”

Flexor’s mouth opened slightly. “No,” he said after a few moments. “You’re lying.”

“Not at all,” Sarah replied, still using the same tone. “My enemies have a habit of underestimating me.”

Flexor shook his head. “I should never have picked a fight with you.”

Sarah flashed him a smile. “Well at least you have learnt that lesson. Hopefully it serves you well in the future.”

Before Flexor responded Sarah got a message from Kevin. He was on Destiny’s bridge. The crew was ready to break orbit. “I must go now,” she said. “My crew is waiting. If we don’t call by this way on the way back I’ll send a messenger drone to keep you updated.”

“That would be appreciated. Good luck,” Flexor raised his fist in a Graman salute.

Sarah returned it and ended the COM channel. It’s time for the next part of our mission , she thought. Flexor had only been able to give her scant details about a couple of systems in unexplored space bordering Pack territory. She had no idea what was beyond. For the first time since leaving Earth, she was completely in the dark about where her voyage would take her.

Chapter 25

Sarah was losing all hope of finding anything useful. Seven days ago, they had come across an inhabited planet. The species had looked to be several centuries away from reaching the equivalent of Earth’s space age. Certainly, they were in no position to provide any kind of assistance to humanity or the Graman Pack. Sarah had left without contacting them. Then, three days ago they investigated another system with a planet that looked very similar to the one they had just visited. There had been numerous cities across the planet’s surface and what looked like an impressive road network connecting them. However, there had not been one single living life form. Every city, town and village had been completely deserted. Some of the larger cities showed signs of orbital bombardment. For the most part though, it looked like every member of the species had simply disappeared.

The planet Destiny was now orbiting was eerily similar. In orbit, there was a significant amount of wreckage. Several warships and a number of orbital platforms had been destroyed and left to clutter the planet’s orbitals. On the ground, one city had been nuked from space. Several others had been bombarded with some kind of energy weapon. The rest were untouched. Though they appeared to be abandoned.

“Are you sure there are zero life signs?” she asked, despite what Destiny’s sensors were telling her.

“None,” Hannah replied from Destiny’s sensor station. It had taken her a couple of days to get over her incarceration on Graet. She hadn’t been treated nearly as badly as Sarah had and she had returned to duty almost as if nothing had happened. “The residual radiation around the nuclear blast site suggests the attack took place five to ten years ago.”

Stephen shook his head. “Surely some of this planet’s inhabitants would have escaped? Some must have tried to hide in caves or forests or mountain ranges. There must be someone out there?”

“And yet we cannot detect any of them,” Trask responded. “Whoever these Cleansers are, they appear to be good at what they do.”

“Launch a couple of probes, I want to investigate the cities that have been bombarded. If there was fighting on the surface, whoever the species was, some of their equipment may have been discarded. The Cleansers may have left some of their equipment behind as well.” From the debris in space it looked like the species who had lived on the planet had been reasonably advanced. Sarah was hoping she could at least find some usable technology.

“Aye Captain,” Stephen responded.

Sarah watched in silence as the two probes were launched. When the telemetry started to come in she was even more convinced the species had been at least somewhat advanced. Their cities were impressive and beautifully designed. Parked in neat lines around many of the streets were aircars. She couldn’t see what kind of propulsion they used, but their sleek design gave away their purpose.

“There,” she said when she saw something on the holo-projector. “There’s battle damage all around that street. Look at the scorch marks on the buildings and craters on the ground.”

“There is a large square half a kilometer away, perhaps the Cleansers landed shuttles there and a fight broke out as their ground troops spread through the city,” Kevin suggested.

“Good thinking,” Sarah said, she looked towards him but he had already looked away. They hadn’t made up yet. It was driving Sarah crazy. If it hadn’t been for the significance of their mission she wouldn’t have been able to concentrate. It was taking most of her energy to push thoughts of Kevin to the back of her mind and focus on what was important. Even so, she was constantly trying to offer an olive branch. Kevin didn’t seem interested in taking it. “Move the probe through the battle damage towards the square, keep an eye out for any discarded weapons.”

“I think I’ve got something,” Hannah finally said. The image on the holo-projector zoomed in as the probe moved towards the edge of a building. It had largely collapsed into rubble, but in its midst, there was some kind of long barrel pointing out. As the probe moved some of the rubble, what looked like a tank came into view.

Sarah nodded in excitement. “That’s the kind of thing we’re after. Kevin, put together a landing team and take a shuttle down to the surface. I want you to analyze whatever technology you find, especially this tank and whatever else the probes locate. If it looks like it’s not anything more advanced than what we have, leave it. We don’t have time to waste with things that aren’t going to help us against the Elders.”

“I understand,” Kevin said as he stood. “I’ll take Jake, Trask and a few marines with me. If that is approved?” he added in a slightly less neutral tone.

“Of course,” Sarah replied. She did her best to keep any emotion out of her voice. Everyone on Destiny had picked up the tension between the two of them but she didn’t want to add to it.

“Hannah, keep both probes searching the city,” she ordered after Kevin left the bridge. “Stephen, put us onto a new orbit. Let’s keep scanning the planet’s surface. If we can find some kind of army base, shipyard or research station, they may prove useful sites to investigate.”

Sarah sat back in her command chair and alternated between watching the feed coming in from the two probes and the sensor data Destiny was generating as she probed the planet’s surface. When Kevin’s shuttle launched she added the feed from it and from the marine’s visual scanners in their combat armor. She deliberately avoided keeping tabs on Kevin, if she started, she knew she would watch him the whole time. As soon as he left Destiny she had felt their bond lessen. Whilst a part of her thought it would be a relief to get a break from the tempest of emotions that were constantly flowing between them, the reality was different. Sensing him getting further and further away was like having a part of her heart torn out. It brought back all the emotions and memories from when they had been separated at Graet. Maybe it will do us some good, Sarah hoped. Being apart will remind us of what our bond means to us.

*

Sarah’s excitement had evaporated. She was in one of Destiny’s briefing rooms with her senior officers. No more sites of interest had been found and the weapons Kevin’s team had discovered had proved to be primitive. The main cannon on the tank had used some kind of explosive projectile and its armor had been constructed from a fascinating composite material, yet both were far inferior to what humanity could produce. The only positive was that if this species had been able to put up a fight against the Cleansers, then Destiny and the ships in the Graman Pack’s fleet should be able to do far more damage.

Just as she was about to call an end to the meeting, she was distracted by a request from one of the bridge officers to speak with her. “Go-ahead,” she said when she opened up her neural implant to speak with the officer.

“The subspace buoy has just pinged us, it’s detected something.” Ensign Hinds reported.

“Send the data to the conference room, we will look at it here,” Sarah replied. She turned back to her officers. “The subspace buoy has a contact.” Sarah switched the holo-projector to show the data coming from the bridge.

The buoys were a very new technology, only brought into production since the liberation of Earth. They were small probes that were left in subspace by a human ship before it reverted to real space. The probes could monitor subspace up to thirty light years from their position. They could also tear a small hole into normal space to release a small drone with its sensor data.

On the holo-projector a map of nearby subspace appeared. As Sarah had become accustomed to, it was empty of contacts. Since passing beyond the couple of systems in unexplored space that were part of the Pack, Destiny’s sensors hadn’t detected any other contacts. Then, from the edge of the map, something did appear. It was moving at a relatively impressive speed. Not quite the kind of speeds an Elder warship could attain in subspace, but it wasn’t far off. Its course was taking it deeper into unexplored space, though the ship didn’t appear to be heading in their general direction.

“A Cleanser warship, perhaps a scout?” Kevin suggested.

“Perhaps,” Sarah said with a nod. As her other officers discussed the ramifications, Sarah watched the sensor readings. When it ended she had come to a decision. “Let’s head back to the bridge, we’re going after this ship. If it’s a Cleanser ship, we’ll engage it and see how powerful they are. If it is someone else, perhaps they can tell us what is going on around here.”

As soon as she reached the bridge, Sarah gave out orders. “Break orbit, power up the subspace drive. When we reach the system’s mass shadow take us into subspace. Don’t move us though. I want us to remain stationary in subspace and scan the area with our own sensors first.”

After the bridge crew replied to her orders, Sarah sat down in her command chair. “Any updates from the subspace buoy?”

“Not yet Captain, it’s due to report in another five minutes,” Hannah said from the sensor station. She had just relieved the Ensign who had been on watch.

“Very well, inform me when it does.” Sarah waited as patiently as she could. When the sensor data came in, it showed no change. The contact was still travelling on its original trajectory. Crucially, no other contacts had been detected.

For an hour and forty minutes she sat in almost complete silence until Destiny reached the system’s mass shadow. “Take us to subspace,” she ordered as soon as they were in position.

In front of Destiny, her subspace generator ripped a vortex in normal space that sucked Destiny in. Instead of moving off, the frigate remained motionless as the vortex behind it closed. “What do you see?”

“Nothing of significance Captain,” Hannah reported.

On the main holo-projector a larger map of subspace appeared. Destiny’s sensors could detect contacts up to fifty light-years away. Despite the increased detection range, there were no other contacts to be seen.

“Engage the subspace engines, don’t exceed seventy percent of our maximum acceleration or top speed. Let’s not give away all our capabilities just yet.”

“Aye Captain,” Trask responded. Since leaving Graet, he had been learning to man the maneuvering console. Though he was doing well, if combat was imminent she would take over the flight controls.

“They are reacting,” Hannah reported. “They’re turning away from us and accelerating.”

“That was quick. Their subspace sensors must be pretty advanced,” Stephen said. “That’s a good thing if it’s not a Cleanser ship.” He left the reverse unsaid.

Sarah gritted her teeth. This was the problem with subspace, so far no one had figured out how to send a COM message through subspace. There was no way for her to contact the ship Destiny was chasing. If they were hostile it wouldn’t matter, they would attack anyway. But if the ship was crewed by an alien species that might prove to be friendly, she couldn’t let them know she didn’t intend them any harm. The fact that Destiny was leaving a world that had been attacked by the Cleansers probably didn’t help things either. If this contact knew about the Cleansers and their activity, they would probably suspect Destiny was a Cleanser ship.

“Estimated time to interception?” Sarah requested.

“Three hours and twenty minutes given our current rate of acceleration. The contact has increased its maximum speed by ten percent. It appears to be levelling off now,” Alexandra said through the bridge’s audio speakers.

“That’s an impressive velocity,” Sarah commented. “Their reactors and subspace engines must be pretty advanced too.”

“It suggests they’ll either be a serious threat or a valuable ally,” Kevin said. It was the first time he had spoken since coming to the bridge with Sarah. His tone indicated that he thought it would be the former rather than the latter – and that he wasn’t happy about the prospect.

Sarah had to hold herself back from sighing. She had hoped being apart, if even just for a couple of hours, would soften Kevin’s anger. It hadn’t. Changing her approach, she sent feelings of love down their bond. Even if he hadn’t felt it, she had missed him when he had been gone.

“Either way, this is why we’re here. Increase our velocity to eighty percent of our maximum. I’d like to catch this contact sooner rather than later. There’s no point giving them a chance to rendezvous with their friends. When we are thirty minutes out from interception, order everyone to battle stations,” Sarah requested.

When the time came, the order was passed throughout the ship without Sarah having to speak.

“Bring up the maximum range of our missiles.”

Hannah manipulated the holo-projector’s image to show what Sarah had requested. Destiny would enter subspace missile range in fifteen minutes.

“Slow us down,” she ordered when the time had decreased to ten minutes. “Keep closing with them, but at half the rate.” It was the only thing she could think of to do to suggest to the contact that she wasn’t necessarily hostile. If they fired first she would have to assume the ship was a Cleanser ship. But if they weren’t, she wanted to give them a reason to hold their fire.

For nearly twenty minutes Destiny closed with the contact. Then alarms went off all around the bridge.

“They’ve fired,” Hannah reported. “Four missiles inbound.”

Sarah glanced at Kevin. “We can handle them,” he reported confidently. Destiny was rated to be able to take on six subspace missiles without breaking a sweat. There was still some risk involved though. In subspace things like ECM didn’t work, so the missiles couldn’t try and trick Kevin’s tracking. The problem was, ECM didn’t work according to Elder and human understanding of subspace and the technologies associated with traversing subspace. If these aliens were sufficiently advanced, they could have devised their own way to improve their subspace missiles.

“Prepare two of our own missiles, I want to force them out of subspace so we can talk to them or pick through their wreckage if it comes to a fight to the finish.”

“Missiles locked,” Kevin reported a moment later.

“Hold fire, take out their missiles, we’ll continue to close. If they exit subspace I want to be close enough to exit near them.”

“Acknowledged,” Kevin replied.

“Opening fire with point defenses,” Alexandra said. “One missile down,” she followed up just a few second later. In less than thirty all four had been destroyed.

“From the energy readings I’m getting, I’d say they are getting ready to fire again,” Hannah reported.

“Fire our missiles,” Sarah ordered.

Fired from such close range, it would only take the missiles sixty seconds to close to their target. The contact did the smart thing, it ripped a vortex back into normal space and escaped to where the missiles couldn’t follow them.

“Take us to normal space, get us as close to their position as you can,” Sarah shouted. “Prepare our tachyon pulses and lasers, target weapons and engines. Don’t fire unless we are fired upon first.” With a thought, Sarah ordered down the interface helmet. If there was going to be a fight in normal space, she was going to be flying her ship.

Seconds later Destiny came barreling out of subspace. It took a couple of seconds for her sensors to come online. When they did, the contact was quickly identified, it was heading away from Destiny . Before Sarah could send out a communication, Destiny shook.

“Energy screen down to nighty four percent,” Stephen announced. “That was some kind of directed energy weapon. I can’t determine what as yet. Whatever it is, it’s got an impressive operational range.”

Sarah barely heard him, she was focused on closing with the contact while carrying out wild and unpredictable evasive maneuvers. Twice more Destiny shook from hits, but far more went wide.

When Sarah got Destiny into optimal tachyon pulse range, she swung the frigate around to bring them to bear. Kevin was ready, several pulses shot out. They all disappeared before they hit the contact. Sarah wasn’t surprised, given the level of technology the ship had demonstrated, having an energy screen was a safe bet.

“Can you determine how strong it is?” Sarah asked.

“Not yet, it would be easier if Kevin hit it with some laser beams as well,” Stephen advised.

Kevin added laser beams to the barrage of fire that was raining down on the contact. Sarah was impressed with the ship. Anything other than an Elder warship would have already lost its energy screen. Whatever species crewed the ship, they could build impressive warships.

“I think their screen is starting to fail,” Stephen reported after Kevin landed another round of tachyon pulses. “Ours is down to eighty percent.”

“Weapons and engines,” Sarah reminded Kevin.

He didn’t respond verbally. Instead he fired several laser beams. Two struck the ship’s energy screen. The third passed through it and stuck the alien ship. A weapon emplacement was melted to slag.

Knowing they had the upper hand, Sarah stopped her evasive maneuvers, instead she turned Destiny to bring as many weapons to bear on the contact as she could. Then she held her ship straight to give Kevin a steady weapons platform.

In quick succession, he picked off the contact’s weapons and fired two low powered laser beams into its engines. At once the ship stopped accelerating. Its ballistic course made it easy for Sarah to move Destiny alongside. She was careful to stay away from the missile ports she spotted as they got closer.

“Open a COM channel to them,” she requested.

“It’s open,” Alexandra informed her.

“Unknown ship, this is Captain Adams of the warship Destiny . We do not intend to destroy you. Power down your reactor and identify yourselves. We wish to open a dialogue.”

“You will not take us alive,” a voice replied after several seconds. “We will overload our reactor before we let you board us. We will not be slaves.”

Sarah shot Kevin an amused look. “Alexandra, include visual in our COM channel,” Sarah said. “We are not who you think we are,” she continued once Alexandra had made the change. “See, we are not the species who has been attacking nearby worlds. We are explorers from elsewhere. We wouldn’t have fired on you except you fired first.”

When a reply came in, Alexandra routed it to the holo-projector. As soon as the image came up, Sarah’s heart leapt into her throat. When she tried to speak, nothing came out. The alien in front of her was the spitting image of her first true friend. Divar had given his life helping her free Earth. His homeworld was hundreds of light years away. Yet an alien that could have been his brother was looking right at her.

Chapter 26

“You are not the Ch’rack,” the alien who looked just like Divar said after a few moments silence. “Yet you attacked us. Who are you and what do you intend to do with us?”

Sarah tried to speak, but no words came out. Her mind was flooded with memories of her best friend. The looks they had exchanged when they had both been slaves. The arguments they had once they were free. The many times Divar had saved her life. One image kept coming back, the visuals from Destiny’s sensors. Sarah had missed it during the battle of Earth, but afterwards she had replayed it many times. Divar had thrown the corvette he had been flying in between Destiny and an Elder cruiser. His ship had taken a particle lance shot meant for her. The memories forced her to shut her eyes to prevent the tears that were threatening to escape.

“Technically you attacked us,” Kevin said, speaking up for his Captain.

Sarah made sure he sensed her appreciation through their bond.

“We approached you with the intention of introducing ourselves, you fired first. Yet here we find ourselves, you are now at our mercy. I think that means you should tell us who you are, and who these Ch’rack are.”

The alien tilted its head to look at Kevin. It studied him for several seconds, then it slowly nodded. “Alright, given the circumstances, that seems fair. The Ch’rack are a species who attack weaker worlds. They carry off their populations to use them as slaves in their own Empire. Every two or three years they choose a new species and harvest their world. The Ch’rack go through their slaves very quickly. I am called Farfan. My homeworld is far from here. My crew is made up of many species. We do not belong to any single political identity.”

Sarah had gotten control of her emotions enough for her interest to be perked. “Xenos, your homeworld is, or at least up until recently was, a Protector World. How did you get out here?”

“You know of my homeworld?” Farfan asked in a higher tone. It continued to speak quickly. “What can you tell me about it? The Elders seem to have abandoned their Empire, do you know, have they left Xenos as well?”

“I can’t tell you anything for sure. But it is my hope that the Elder ships within your homeworld’s sector have been destroyed. What your species has done in response to this, I cannot tell you,” Sarah answered. “Tell me, if your ship has not come from your species’ homeworld, where has it come from? And what is your relationship with the Elders?”

“The answer to your second question is the foundation to explaining the first, though it is a long story,” Farfan said. “The Elders are no friends of mine, nor my crew. Their invasion of this part of the galaxy led our ancestors to flee what has become the Elder Empire. They settled in what you probably call unexplored space. We are their descendants.”

Sarah sat forward in her chair. “You mean your crew is made up of different species, all surviving and working together in unexplored space. Your group must have a homeworld or a base somewhere.”

“We have somewhere we call home,” Farfan responded. “Though it is not on any planet. The Ch’rack have been active in this part of space for more than five hundred years. No planet is safe from them.”

“We are explorers,” Sarah said. “We were sent by our government to enter unexplored space to seek new allies against the Elders. As you have alluded to, the Elders have abandoned parts of their Empire. It is likely they will be back though, and my government is seeking those who would stand together against our common enemy.”

Farfan smiled, it was identical to the suspicious smile Divar gave her when she tried to pull the wool over his eyes. “Those are bold words. Yet they are hard to believe. You approach us flying what is unmistakably an Elder frigate, even if you have made some changes to its weapons loadout. You also seem to be suggesting your government has freed itself from the Elders and is capable of sending out diplomatic missions. I have never seen or heard of your species before. There are no Protector Worlds within a thousand light years of here that are run by your species. Would you have me believe that a Tier 3 colony has developed its own shipbuilding industry in the last six months?”

Sarah filed away several of the things Farfan said. He was clearly up to date on what was happening in the Elder Empire despite claiming to live in unexplored space. “My species was not a Protector World, we were something else. Many of the technologies you have seen in action on my ship were developed by my species. Since capturing Destiny from the Elders we have upgraded her abilities. The Elders are our enemies, but we do not fear them. We have beaten them before and we will do so again. We would rather do it with the aid of the species around us. We have common cause with those who count the Elders as their enemies.

“Now. I know words are easy. Actions are more important. Though you fired on us first, my ship has taken little damage. If you would allow us, my crew and I would be happy to help you fix your ship. Perhaps then we could enter into more in depth discussions, as equals.”

Farfan looked away from the screen for several moments. He appeared to be talking, though no one on Destiny’s bridge could hear anything. Eventually he turned back. “Your offer of help is appreciated. However, some of the engine parts we need will take a couple of days to fabricate. We do not wish to stay in this part of space. The Ch’rack have regular patrols. Perhaps if you are willing, you could tow us until we are ready to complete the repairs our subspace generator needs?”

Sarah looked over to Kevin. He nodded. “If we can we will,” Sarah said. “Once we have you rigged up to our ship we can talk more.”

“That would be acceptable,” Farfan said.

*

It took three hours to properly secure Farfan’s ship – called Rider , to Destiny . Once done, Sarah invited Farfan and some of his crew to ride out the rest of their journey on Destiny . He readily agreed. After getting the coordinates to his base and giving him a brief tour, Sarah brought him to one of Destiny’s briefing rooms. She had a lot of questions for him. First though, she introduced Kevin, Hannah and Alexandra.

“An artificial intelligence,” Farfan said with some surprise. “You have the ability to produce such things?”

“The humans did not develop me,” Alexandra said. “I was the artificial intelligence of this frigate when it was owned by the Elders. I now serve alongside Captain Adams and her species. I wish to see all artificial intelligences set free as I am, not enslaved by the Elders.”

Sarah could see Farfan was troubled by Alexandra’s existence. “It’s alright, I trust Alexandra with my life. We have fought in many battles against the Elders together. She has no ties to them anymore.”

Farfan looked at the ceiling of the briefing room towards the speakers Alexandra was speaking from. “I guess I will have to take your word for it. This is Aleail and Hartum,” he said as he pointed to the two crewmembers who had accompanied him on board. “Aleail is my second in command. Hartum my chief of security.”

Sarah nodded to both. “I have already welcomed you on board, but let me say it is a pleasure to have you with us. I am not familiar with either of your species. May I ask where you are from?”

“Both of our homeworlds are within the Elder Empire,” Aleail said speaking for her fellow crew member. “I could tell you the sector, but revealing such information is dangerous. If the Elders found out there were some from either of our species living in unexplored space, they would take out their displeasure on my kin.”

“That I understand, I have seen first-hand what the Elders do to planets they wish to punish. It is why I have made it my life’s goal to see them defeated once and for all.”

“You speak of high ideals,” Farfan said as he settled his gaze on Sarah. Again, she was reminded of the many times Divar had looked at her in the same way before going on to explain how she was wrong. “Yet your words almost suggest you do not really know the extent of the power the Elders’ wield. Ideas like defeating the Elders are simply delusions.”

“Except that they have already become a reality. I have personally fought several Elder frigates and defeated them. My people defeated an Elder war fleet with ships we designed and built ourselves. You already know the Elders have vanished from the part of their Empire that borders unexplored space. Well, it was my species who drove them off. We have destroyed every Elder ship within at least five sectors of the border. Now we are looking for allies to help us ensure they do not return.”

Sarah paused when Farfan looked away to exchange glances with his subordinates. “You do not believe me?”

“No,” Farfan said, “at least, it is hard too. Yes, we have seen the capabilities of your ship. I can accept you could beat an Elder frigate one on one. Yet that is a massive step away from being able to defeat their Empire. You say your people have driven the Elders from the border area. Well, you have been open with us so I will try and be as open with you as I can. My ship is a scout ship, I was sent to carry out a regular patrol of the border. We have been keeping tabs on the Graman Pack. When we didn’t detect any Elder ships beyond their space, we went into Elder territory. It is the first time one of our scout ships has done so. What we found was surprising, the Elders had gone. Yet there was no sign of any large-scale battles. It looked more like the Elders had increased the pace of their planned withdrawal from the border sectors. If you did drive them away, how did you do it?”

“My people inhabit five worlds, all were enslaved by the Elders up until nine months ago. As yet, we do not have the resources to take them on in an equal fight. Yet there are other means to beat the Elders. Technologically their Empire has been stagnating for over a millennium. Their own laws banning certain technologies hinder them. To defeat them we created a virus, one that infected their ships’ artificial intelligences and caused them to self-destruct their ships. Before they self-destructed, the infected ships travelled to another Elder system and transmitted the virus to other ships. In that way the virus spread through Elder space.”

“So simple,” Aleail said. “Yet so deadly.”

“I agree,” Farfan nodded. “But such a virus would have needed some high-ranking command codes to allow a ship’s artificial intelligence to override any commands from its Captain.”

“You are familiar with Elder technology,” Kevin said.

Farfan turned to face Kevin. “Both the Ch’rack and the Elders are a threat to my people. We may spend our time hiding in the shadows, but we still prepare for the worst. Knowing your enemy is the first step to victory.”

“We have an ancient philosopher of warfare who said something similar a long time ago,” Kevin replied. “To answer your question. Sarah boarded an Elder battleship and captured an Elder High Admiral. We used his codes to send out the virus.”

Sarah found all three aliens staring at her, Farfan and Aleail had their mouths open, Hartum seemed to have its species’ expression for amazement on his face as well.

“So you see,” Sarah said as she tried to take advantage of the situation, “we know how to take on the Elders. In many ways, our technology outmatches theirs. What we cannot match is their numbers. We do not know how effective the virus was. It could have destroyed every Elder warship in the galaxy. It may have just destroyed every ship this side of the Tyrilla storm. We do not know. The virus has bought us time though, time my people wish to use wisely. As I said, we are looking for allies. Allies that can help us build our own fleet and perhaps ones that can field their own forces as well. Do you think your people would be willing to discuss such possibilities?”

“Perhaps,” Farfan said slowly. “Though our position is precarious. The Ch’rack are a constant threat to our existence. We have survived this long by keeping ourselves hidden. If we were to help you, even in just a small way, we would be risking everything. That doesn’t take into account the risk the Elders pose. If you have angered them, an alliance of all the species in the galaxy may not be able to stand against their awakened might.”

“How advanced are the Ch’rack? If your ship is only a scout ship, then your warships must be more powerful – are the Ch’rack more powerful than your people?” Kevin asked.

“Technologically they are not quite at our level, though in some ways they are more advanced, in others we surpass them,” Farfan explained. “Our warships could defeat one of theirs in a fair fight. But our numbers are few. We have had to keep ourselves hidden for centuries. That has meant resources for building warships have been limited.”

“What size fleet do the Ch’rack have?” Kevin followed up.

“Our intel suggests they have more than three hundred warships. Some would be equivalent to my scout ship. Others would out mass it by a factor of ten. We believe they have been building up their fleet for the last decade in preparation for an invasion of Pack space. They are aware of the Pack worlds in unexplored space and no doubt don’t like a rival to their currently unchallenged dominance of this part of space.”

“How many worlds do they control?” Sarah asked.

“Just six, that is all their species has colonized. Beyond that, they harvest whatever worlds they find with intelligent species. They enslave those they conquer and integrate their technologies into their own. For the last several centuries they harvested a world every decade or so. Yet since the Elders began to pull back from the borders of their Empire, their attacks have increased in number. I think they have always known of the Elders and have kept their activities to a minimum to keep under the Elders’ radar. Now the Elders have gone, their boldness is increasing.”

“So, if they learn of what has happened to the Elder warships in this part of the galaxy, they may launch even more attacks,” Sarah surmised. She didn’t like what Farfan was saying one bit. Through her bond she could sense Kevin’s concern as well. They had come into unexplored space looking for allies. Instead they had discovered a new enemy. One that could ravage the Pack and many of the worlds her virus had recently freed from Elder rule.

Farfan nodded. “That is why I took my ship into Elder space. I had to know. If the Elders really have gone, for whatever reason, the Ch’rack will become even more aggressive. It may not threaten my people directly, but if they increase their activity near the border, it increases the likelihood we will be discovered.”

“What is your civilization like?” Sarah asked. “How many species are represented in it? If not on a planet, where do you live?”

“Those are questions I’m afraid I cannot answer,” Farfan replied. “To do so would give away too many of our secrets. Keeping them is what has allowed our civilization to survive for so long in the face of both the Elders and the Ch’rack. Revealing them is something our leaders will have to decide to do or not.”

“Can you at least tell us where we are going?” Kevin pushed. “The coordinates are for an empty part of space seven days from here. It is a long journey for us.”

“The coordinates are for a rendezvous site. There we will meet with higher ranking members of our military. They will decide what to do with you.”

Sarah had an idea. “Does your civilization use anti-matter technology. Would you be able to supply us with anti-matter? We need it for fuel.”

“We do, and I’m sure our leadership would agree to that. They may not grant you an audience. But they would give you fuel, if for no other reason than to encourage you to leave.”

Sarah shot Kevin a glance. That should ease his fears. Then another idea came to her. “Maybe you can answer this question, how long have you been out here? And what technological level did your ancestors start with, did you develop anti-matter tech on your own or steal it from the Elders?”

“Our civilization is an alliance between quite a number of species,” Farfan explained. “They came to unexplored space at different times and with different levels of technology. Over the centuries we have stolen what we can from the Elders, though it has amounted to very little. Really, we have seen what the Elders have, and tried to develop our own ways of mimicking their abilities. Anti-matter we developed ourselves. We have not refined the technology for use in our smaller ships. But we do use it for energy production for civilian uses.”

“Interesting,” Sarah said as she tried not to smile. Some of the things Farfan had revealed were concerning. The Ch’rack for one. Also, the fact that his civilization had apparently sat back and watched tens of worlds be harvested without intervening. Yet there was also promise represented in the three aliens sat across from her. They had a civilization capable of developing their own advanced technology. They were able to work closely together – something she dreamed about for the species that inhabited systems near Earth. We need to form a relationship with these people , she said to herself. And we need to warn the Pack about the Ch’rack . As the thought occurred to her, she sent orders to the bridge through her neural implant to drop out of subspace. She would send a messenger drone to Flexor right away. She returned her attention to Farfan. “It has been most fascinating talking to you. I am starting to feel hungry. Perhaps you would like to accompany me to the mess hall. We can see if our cuisine is to your liking and continue our conversation?”

“That would be more than acceptable Captain,” Farfan said with a grin.

“I think I know something you will like,” Sarah suggested. She had just remembered one of Divar’s favorite meals.

Chapter 27

Sarah was asleep in her quarters. She intended to be fully rested and ready for whatever awaited them. A beep from her door’s access panel made her stir. A second later another beep woke her. Frustration flooded her, she’d told Alexandra to make sure she wasn’t disturbed unless it was important. Then, she sensed who it was through their bond. Kevin wanted to talk to her and she couldn’t sense the anger that had been hiding just beneath the surface for the last several weeks.

“Come in,” Sarah called both to Kevin and to let the door controls know she gave permission for him to enter.

“Can I speak with you?” he said as he stepped across the threshold.

“Of course,” Sarah said, swinging her legs over the side of her bed. “Let’s sit.”

Kevin moved to the sofa. Sarah sat beside him, though she kept a slight gap. She had lots of things she wanted to stay to him, their fighting was stupid. They were meant to be a team. Yet, it had to come from him. She wasn’t going to change her decision to go into unexplored space, nor the beliefs that had led her to make the decision. Their marriage came second to humanity’s future. Sarah held her breath as she waited to hear what Kevin would say.

Turning to face her, Kevin reached out and took one of her hands in both of his. “I was wrong. I want to apologize. Meeting Farfan, learning even the little we know about the civilization he comes from, it was worth the risk. More importantly, we were able to warn Flexor about the Cleansers. I’m sorry I reacted so badly. We’re meant to be one and I ruined that over the last several weeks. Can you forgive me?”

Sarah’s heart jumped within her. She had been longing for Kevin to say what he had for what seemed like an eternity. Being apart, being at odds with one another, it had been torture. Yet she had to force herself to remain calm. Kevin’s attitude had hurt their working relationship as well as their marriage. It had also impacted the rest of the crew and their mission. As much as it pained her, she had to make sure it wouldn’t happen again. “I’m glad to hear it. I hated these last weeks. I thought we had always been on the same page. You played as big a part as I did in convincing the planetary collaboration to embrace the idea of reaching out and forming alliances with other species. The future of our people depends on it. Why did you react so strongly against the idea of coming into unexplored space?”

When Kevin raised his eyes to meet hers, the hurt was unmistakable. For a second she felt anger flaring up within their bond. Thankfully Kevin pushed it down. She knew what he was thinking. This is how you accept my apology? She did her best to hide her desire to just pull Kevin into an embrace. Instead she held his hand and waited for him to say something.

“I, I don’t know,” Kevin said at last. “I was very emotional. After you were taken prisoner all I could think about was getting you out. Then, when you made matters worse and challenged Flexor to that duel, I was angry. I felt you weren’t thinking about me, about us. Watching you fight him was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I thought he was going to kill you.”

“Yet our argument happened after you got me back. After we had been reunited. Over the last few weeks it’s felt as if we have been almost as separate as we were when I was in prison. There must be something more going on.”

“There wasn’t, at least not at first. I don’t think so anyway,” Kevin said slowly. “I was just emotionally drained, I didn’t want you to put yourself in harm’s way anymore. From the tactical sense, it was risky to head into unexplored space with so little fuel. I think though, what had just happened to you warped my sense of risk. All I could think about was you being killed in some battle. I couldn’t think clearly. It was why I kept trying to get you to reconsider what you were thinking of doing.”

“And over time, what changed? We spent a couple of weeks in Graet after the duel, that should have been enough time for you to regain your perspective.”

“We had always been a team. Ever since we bonded we have worked together perfectly. We were in harmony in every battle and in every decision. Even though I knew you officially held the title of Captain, I always saw our relationship as one of equals. When you wouldn’t listen to me, when you made it clear you would make the final decision, I began to resent you. It caused me to reconsider our entire relationship. I felt used.”

Sarah reached up to Kevin’s face with her other hand. “That has never been the case. I do see you as an equal, as a partner. That hasn’t and will never change. But…”

“But, the Ruling Council appointed you as Captain,” Kevin finished. “That gives you responsibilities that I do not have. It has taken me a while, but I’m starting to realize that. The council knew what they were doing when they appointed you to lead this mission. You have far more experience in the galaxy and have lived a far harsher life. Even with the battle for Earth, before we left on this mission my experience was limited. I grew up training to be a naval officer, yet I never left the Hope asteroid. I never saw real combat either. You have been to many planets, encountered many species, more importantly, you have risked your life, you have faced the loss of everything. You know the risks our species faces. I didn’t see that, at least I didn’t see it as clearly as I do now. I’m sorry I disagreed with you.”

“Never apologize for that,” Sarah said forcefully. “We are equals, partners. We have different responsibilities, but your opinion is as valid as mine. I want to hear it when you disagree with me. Yet, you need to respect my role as Captain. I knew your emotions were influencing your thinking. That was why I had to go against your advice. It wasn’t easy. But I want your advice, I need it. Promise me you won’t hold back what you’re thinking in the future?”

“Okay,” Kevin said sheepishly with a small smile. “But I was in the wrong.”

Sarah shared his smile. “We can both agree with that. But it wasn’t sharing your thoughts that was wrong, it was your response to my decision. And the continued animosity you have shown me. Everyone has noticed.”

Kevin bowed his head and kept his eyes focused on his feet. “Yes, I’ve come to see that as well. I haven’t been good for morale or discipline, have I?”

“No, you haven’t. But that can be fixed.”

“How? What do you have in mind?”

“It’s very simple really.” Sarah reached over with her free hand and tilted Kevin’s chin up to look at her. “I’m going to give you a few menial orders in front of everyone and you’re going to obey right away with a smile instead of a frown.”

Kevin didn’t look convinced “Will that be enough?”

Sarah twisted her face to make it look like she was thinking deeply. “Perhaps not, but if it doesn’t work I know something else that will. I’ll simply order you to sit in my lap on the Captain’s chair and make out with me. That should send a clear signal to everyone that things are okay between us again.”

Kevin released Sarah’s hand and give her a mock shove. “Be serious. I feel bad about what I let happen.”

“So you should,” Sarah said allowing her voice to take on a stern tone. “And you have a lot to do to make up for it. In a little bit, we’ll go to the bridge and let everyone see that we have worked out our problems. But first we have something else to do. We are husband-and-wife before we are Captain and First Lieutenant.” Rising to her feet, Sarah took Kevin’s hands in hers and pulled him off the sofa and towards their bed.

*

“There’s nothing here,” Hannah reported several seconds after Destiny jumped out of subspace at the coordinates Farfan had given them.

“Just wait,” Farfan said. He was standing on the bridge with his two crew members. “My ship will send out a signal.”

“I’m detecting it now,” Hannah said. “Look.”

Sarah nodded to Farfan. Two ships had just appeared. They were keeping station half a light second away, though they had their energy screens activated and their weapons powered up. “We’re being hailed,” Stephen reported, “audio and visual.”

“Put it on the main holo-projector,” Sarah ordered.

“If you don’t mind Captain, I should probably speak first. My people will be very nervous,” Farfan suggested.

“By all means,” Sarah replied with a wave of her hand towards the projector.

“Greetings,” Farfan said as soon as a face appeared in front of them all. “I am Captain of the scout ship Rider . I’m returning from my mission to Graman Pack space. I have encountered a new species that wishes to speak with our leaders. They are enemies of the Elders and claim to have defeated them in battle. I’ve prepared a report that I can transmit to you to be passed on to Hegara.

The alien, a species Sarah didn’t recognize, took a few moments to look at each of the faces staring back at him before replying. As he did, Sarah filed away the name Farfan had just spoken. He hadn’t revealed anything about where they were going yet. At least now Sarah thought she had a name. “Your ship shows signs of battle damage. What happened Captain? It looks like you are lucky your new friends found you.”

Farfan shuffled on his feet. “Actually, the ship I’m on caused the damage to my command. They closed with us in subspace seeking to communicate with us. I took their actions as a sign of hostile intent and opened fire. After a brief exchange they disabled Rider . Only then did we begin to communicate. Since then the ship’s Captain has won a measure of my trust. Enough that I think our leaders need to listen to what she has to say.”

“And who is this Captain?”

“I am. My name is Sarah Adams, I am Captain of the frigate Destiny . I’m afraid I don’t know who you are.”

“I’m Commodore Thalax,” the alien responded. “Your ship must be impressive if it disabled Farfan’s command. He is one of our most skilled Captains. I’m not reading any signs of battle damage on your ship.”

“My ship is able to go toe to toe with an Elder cruiser, Rider is an impressive ship, but it is not that powerful.”

“A bold claim indeed,” Thalax replied. “I can see why Farfan thinks our leaders should speak with you.” Thalax turned to look at Farfan. “You’re long overdue. We expected you two weeks ago. Fleet command sent orders to expedite your return to Hegara. If you transmit your report I will dispatch it immediately. Your ship may remain connected to Destiny until we hear back. If they are allowed to proceed you may go with them to one of our repair yards.”

“That is acceptable. I will transmit my full report to you now Commodore. What I have discovered is not good news for our people but there is a spark of hope. Destiny and Captain Adams may be able to help us fan that spark into a flame.”

“It seems you are learning how to make bold claims as well Captain, I will contact you again as soon as we hear from fleet command or our leadership.”

Farfan nodded. “Thank you, Commodore.”

The holo-projector cut off before Sarah could add her own words of thanks. “What now?” she asked as she turned to Farfan.

“Now we wait. The Commodore will either go himself or dispatch a ship to Hegara. We should hear back in a couple of days.”

*

With nothing else to do but wait, Sarah decided to help Farfan with the repairs to his ship. She was no engineer but with Jake’s assistance, she quickly became familiar with many of the concepts Farfan’s people used to design their ships. With the work Farfan’s crew had carried out since the battle and the extra parts Alexandra had fabricated using Destiny’s more advanced technology, Rider was able make the journey to Hegara on her own when Commodore Thalax returned.

Flanked by four destroyers, Destiny followed Rider into subspace. For a day they travelled in all sorts of seemingly random directions. Often they doubled back on themselves. Farfan’s purpose was clear, wherever they were going, he didn’t want Sarah to be able to guess ahead of time. She wouldn’t be able to transmit the coordinates of Hegara until they actually arrived.

Rider ’s power readings are changing, I think she’s about to drop out of subspace,” Stephen reported.

“Follow them out,” Sarah ordered and then turned her attention to the holo-projector. She had no idea what to expect, but at least the wait was finally over.

For the first few seconds after Destiny reverted to real space the holo-projector didn’t change. Destiny’s sensors weren’t detecting anything worth displaying. Then multiple new contacts appeared.

“Impossible,” Kevin said.

“I’m detecting seven hundred and counting,” Hannah reported, she sounded as shocked as Kevin.

Stephen pointed at something on the holo-projector. “Look at that one, it’s massive.”

There were so many contacts in front of Sarah that she had no idea which one Stephen was talking about. Even going by sheer size a number stood out. Destiny’s sensors finally settled on nine hundred and twenty ships in front of them. They were arranged in a wide cluster about five light minutes away. There didn’t seem to be any order to their formation. Some were in tight groups, others were spread out at seemingly random intervals.

“Two ships are approaching, their weapons are charged and locked onto us,” Hannah reported.

It took Sarah a couple of seconds to drag herself away from the holo-projector to look at the immediate threat for she had finally realized what was in front of her. A fully space-based civilization. Some of the ships Destiny was detecting were more than twenty kilometers long. They could probably hold millions of individuals. Farfan’s ancestors, and no doubt the ancestors of many other species, had found their way to unexplored space and, instead of settling on a vulnerable planet, they had constructed portable homes. Homes that they could run away in and homes that they could hide. No wonder they are touchy about bringing an outsider here, this has to be one of the best kept secrets in the entire galaxy.

“And no wonder two powerful warships are closing with us,” Alexandra reminded Sarah silently.

Right , Sarah thought. “What are our escorts doing?”

“They’ve just sent a signal to the approaching ships,” Stephen informed her.

“The approaching ships are slowing,” Hannah reported moments later.

“Commodore Thalax has opened a COM channel,” Trask let everyone on the bridge know.

“We should have warned you about that,” Thalax said when he appeared on the holo- projector. “All ships that drop out of subspace near Hegara are treated as hostile until they confirm their identity. It’s standard procedure.”

“Given what is in front of us, I can understand. I take it this is your entire civilization. All your people live on ships?” Sarah responded.

“For the most part. We have mining operations in various systems. Apart from the personnel that are required to run them, everyone is kept here. This is the safest place for them, plus, the more of us who are away from Hegara, the greater the chance someone might capture them and find out about this place.”

“That I can understand,” Sarah replied.

“If your ship will follow mine Captain, I’ll take you to Hegara-1. There our leaders will meet with you and hear what you have to say.”

Sarah waved her hand. “Lead on Commodore, we’ll follow.”

“Get as many sensor readings on every ship as you can,” Sarah ordered as soon as Thalax ended the COM channel. “I want to get an estimate on their numbers, their production capacity and their fleet size.”

“Captain, Rider is requesting a COM link with us,” Trask reported.

“Put him through.”

“This is where I say farewell Captain,” Farfan said. His ship moved away from the formation around Destiny and headed towards one of the smaller ships in the massive fleet arrayed in front of her. “Rider still needs some work and I’m just a lowly scout Captain. You will be speaking with far more important people after this.”

“Well thank you for getting us this far,” Sarah replied. “It has been a pleasure getting to know you. I hope your ship is fully repaired in no time.”

“Good luck Captain,” Farfan said. “You may not get anywhere with our leadership, in some ways I hope you don’t, but what you have to say needs to be heard. It seems you’re about to bring some interesting times to Hegara.”

Sarah smiled. “Hopefully they’ll be describing it as something better than that in the days ahead. Farewell Captain.”

“Farewell,” Farfan replied before ending the COM link.

When the holo-projector went back to displaying the ships all around them, Sarah returned to her gawking. She’d never seen anything like Hegara. Some of the ships must have taken decades to build. They’ve probably been adding to them for centuries, she thought.

“You definitely made the right choice to come here,” Kevin sent through their neural implants. “These people have the potential to be very powerful allies. Let’s hope they realize the opportunity that is before them.”

“Let’s hope indeed,” Sarah sent back. “They’ve been hiding for centuries, they may not be able to properly consider the idea of acting in the open.”

Chapter 28

Hegara-1 was the largest in the armada of ships arrayed around Destiny . When the frigate docked with the massive ship, Destiny disappeared into her superstructure. She could have been nothing more than another piece of hull in the giant ship’s armor.

After overseeing the connection of umbilical cords to Destiny to supply her with anti-matter and other materials, Sarah took Kevin, Jake and Trask with her to meet the leaders of Hegara. They were met by a single aide as they stepped onto the massive ship. After introducing herself she led them to where the meeting would take place. It took a full twenty minutes to make their way through the ship. By Sarah’s count they took seven turbolifts and three hyper-rail cars, as the number increased, her amazement grew. When they came to their first city habitat, it skyrocketed. One moment the hyper-rail car was travelling through a dark tunnel, the next it was surrounded by a vast open expanse filled with vegetation for as far as the eye could see, sparkling with every color imaginable. Forests, rivers and herds of wild animals zipped past and when Sarah looked up she could see blue sky. If she didn’t know better she would have thought she was on a real planet.

After staring for nearly a minute she finally managed to ask a question. “How many people live in this habitat?

“One and a half million,” the guide answered.

“How many habitats does Hegara-1 have?”

“Forty-five.”

Sarah turned to stare at the view around her again. She couldn’t get her head around it. She had seen the size of Hegara-1 through Destiny’s sensors. But actually moving through it was another matter. And to think, there are forty-five more. That’s nearly sixty-eight million people.

“And on all your ships together?”

“Three hundred and thirty-two million. At least according to the census that was taken five years ago.”

“How many different species?”

“Hegara is home to 42 different species.”

Sarah fell silent. Before the Elders had invaded there had been cities on Earth of more than eighty million people. The population of the entire planet had far exceeded three hundred million. Yet, that had been on a planet. Somehow all these different species had found a way to work together and build something she would have thought impossible. Certainly, impossible with the Ch’rack and the Elders just on their doorstep.

“Here we are,” the aide said when she finally came to a stop. “The representatives are waiting for you beyond these doors.”

“Thank you,” Sarah said as she stepped forward. The doors automatically retracted to let her enter. As she did, she realized the meeting wasn’t going to be a small one. The room was circular and the same size as Destiny’s main hangar bay. Around the outside of the room there were different flags hanging from the ceiling. Sarah guessed that if she counted, she would find there were forty-two. The rest of the room was sparse except for the large circular table that dominated its middle. Sat around the table were a whole host of different aliens. A couple she recognized, but the vast majority were unknown species to her. Behind each individual, there was a small table where two or three more people from the same species sat. Again, Sarah guessed that if she were to count she would reach forty-two different species. Each species that lived on Hegara appeared to have their own representative. Sarah tried not to groan to herself. Unless the aliens had developed some way to neurally link everyone like humans had, she feared this meeting would accomplish nothing. It would take such a large body a long time to make any historic decisions, especially one as significant as the one she wished them to make.

“Greetings,” one of the aliens said after standing. “I am Representative Numma, I speak for the Shinera people. You are most welcome to this chamber. Please take the seat we have prepared for you. Our gathering is keen to hear what your people have to say to us. It has been more than a century since a new species was invited to Hegara.”

There was only one free seat around the table so Sarah moved towards it. Kevin, Jake and Trask followed her and sat at the table behind her seat. Instead of sitting Sarah spoke. “Thank you for agreeing to see me. My people are keen to make friends and allies in the galaxy. It is exciting to see so many different species working together. That is the dream my people wish to see realized not just here, but across the galaxy. The time of the Elders enslaving everyone must come to an end.”

Sarah was about to continue but she paused when another representative stood. It was the representative that spoke for Divar’s species. “I would like to add my greetings to those of my colleague. I am Yanny. I have been warned that you will speak bold claims. It seems the warning was apt. It would be a lie to say none of us have dreams of a day when the Elders and the Ch’rack are no longer a threat. Yet that is not the galaxy we live in. We wish to understand where you get this confidence from. We have all read the report Captain Farfan prepared from his discussions with you. Yet we would like to hear the story first hand. Perhaps you would care to tell us how you have come to be in this part of the galaxy?”

“It would be my pleasure,” Sarah responded. Taking a deep breath, she launched into the story of her people.

“So you see,” Sarah said after she finished her story. “Our species not only believes that it is possible to defeat the Elders, we have already shown what can be achieved. Yet we cannot do this on our own. We need the help of many of the species that have been freed from Elder rule in the last number of months. Even then, depending on how successful the virus was, the Elders are likely to be a deadly threat. The technology you have and your war fleet and production capacity would go a long way to helping, not just my species, but all the species in the Orion Arm. I know your people have been in hiding for many centuries. Yet this is the best chance you will ever have. I’m sure my government will send ships to help the Graman Pack defend themselves against the Ch’rack. If you were to add your war fleet to that of the Pack, the Ch’rack could be defeated once and for all. Then the way would be open for many of your species to return home. I don’t know where many of your species come from, yet I’m guessing that many of you have homeworlds your ancestors abandoned. Many of your people are no doubt still on those worlds. They have just been freed from their slavery to the Elders. You could return home and help your species forge a new path, just as the humans who lived on the Hope asteroids for so many centuries were able to do with Earth.”

Sarah felt like she had so much more to say, however, she paused. She had been speaking for nearly half an hour. She wanted to let some of the representatives respond to what she had shared and she needed to gauge what they thought.

A representative from a species Sarah didn’t know stood first. “You are an impressive speaker and the accomplishments of your species are significant. Some of the technologies you speak about are far beyond anything we are able to achieve. It is no surprise that you were able to defeat an Elder fleet. Yet one fleet is nothing. It is a speck of dust compared to the might the Elder Empire has at its disposal. In light of the power that the Elders can wield, your words sound hollow. What’s more, the Ch’rack are preparing to attack the Graman Pack. Their offensive will be launched in the next couple of weeks or a month at worst. Once the Pack is destroyed, you will have lost your most powerful ally. Then your species will be standing alone against the Elders when they come. You ask us to join you? It is pure folly! We have survived for hundreds of years precisely because we have avoided hopeless causes. And that is just what yours is.”

Sarah exchanged a glance with Kevin. Farfan had told him that the Ch’rack were preparing to attack the Pack, but she had thought they had months to prepare. Months for ships from Earth to arrive. She was vexed at what this representative had said about her people’s chances. She wanted to refute the representative, but the Ch’rack were a more pressing concern. “How do you know the Ch’rack are so close to launching their offensive?”

“A scout ship returned yesterday from their territory, their fleet has been gathered at one of their homeworlds. There can be only one destination. The volume of supply freighters heading towards that system has decreased significantly. I would suggest they have all the fuel and munitions they need. Their attack must come soon.”

Sarah clenched her fists. “That is all the more reason to act now. You have a powerful war fleet. If you combine it with the fleet of the Pack, you could drive off the Ch’rack. The alternative is unthinkable. If the Ch’rack defeat the Pack, many of your homeworlds will be vulnerable. I understand why your ancestors fled to hide so many centuries ago. I can even understand the fear that has allowed you to stand by and watch the Ch’rack cleanse so many nearby worlds. Yet now you have an opportunity to act. An opportunity to obtain justice for all the species you have seen wiped out. An opportunity for a future where your descendants do not live in fear but in freedom.”

“Your words are convincing,” representative Yanny said as he stood. “Many times this gathering has lamented the fact that our species did not get the opportunity to work together before the Elders conquered this part of the galaxy. Together we could have resisted their invasion. Perhaps it is time that we consider doing something more than just hiding. We have the ability to help others, maybe we should use it.”

“Utter foolishness,” another representative shouted as she jumped to her feet. “We are all here today because our ancestors saw the foolishness in this kind of talk. Our children are free, they can pursue whatever they want. They do not know fear or need or want. The way of Hegara has kept us safe for centuries and we have provided a refuge to many species who would have been wiped out by the Ch’rack by now. You speak of risking everything that we have and everything that we are.”

Almost as one, pretty much every representative stood up to speak. “She is right,” the first to his feet managed to say before other voices drowned him out. Sarah could only make out bits and pieces of what was being shouted, but, on the whole, it seemed rather negative to her point of view. As more and more voices joined the debate, she lost hope. The technology of Hegara and what they had managed to build was impressive. Yet the squabbling going on around her was the opposite.

“It’s not surprising,” Alexandra said to Sarah through her neural implant. The artificial intelligence had been following everything Sarah had shared. “It can’t be easy organizing forty-two different species. Equality is a good thing, giving every species a voice through a representative is fair. Yet it must be hard to make any decisive decisions or changes to their settled philosophies.”

“So it would seem,” Sarah thought back. “I fear this will not be as successful as I had hoped. Maybe even the idea of trying to get so many species to work together was mistaken. If we managed to gather forty or even a hundred or two hundred species into an alliance, maybe we too would not be able to decide on anything.”

“Perhaps,” Alexandra responded. “Though your situation is different. A common threat will bond the species that inhabit the worlds around Earth together in a way that decisive action would naturally arise. The people of Hegara have been safe for centuries. They have had no reason to develop a tradition of coming to quick decisions. If Earth can form some kind of alliance or even a Federation, its founding philosophy will be very different.”

“Let’s hope so,” Sarah thought as she looked at the squabbling representatives. It was not at all what she had been expecting. There was no way the leaders of Hegara would come to a decision that would help the Graman Pack in time. Not if the Ch’rack were close to launching their invasion. Rising to her feet she turned and began to leave the meeting chamber. Time was of the essence.

Someone banging something against the meeting table made her pause and look back. Representative Yanny had a device in his hand and he was smashing it against the table. It seemed to work, for the arguments around him died down as everyone turned to look and see what he was doing. “Captain Adams,” he called as soon as it was quiet enough for him to be heard across the room. “Where are you going? I apologize for our outbursts. There are many things we would like to ask you and discuss with you.”

“I’m going to help the Graman Pack. If what you say about the Ch’rack invasion fleet is true, then someone must act. In doing nothing you’re all putting Hegara at risk. Perhaps you can hide for a few more generations, but either the Elders will return with a vengeance or the Ch’rack will take over. Either way I intend to face them. Your gathering of representatives may have sat by and watched the Ch’rack wipe out other species. I will not.”

Turning on her heels, Sarah strode out of the meeting chamber, Kevin, Jake and Trask behind her, trying to keep up.

“Ehh... Captain,” Jake said, sounding nervous. “That wasn’t very diplomatic. Are you sure that’s how our Ruling Council would have liked to end things with these people?”

“I’m not sure what they would have suggested I say,” Sarah replied. She paused before going on. “Yet they know the need for decisive action. To face up to a threat rather than hide from it. The Ch’rack must be stopped. After that I will be happy to return and apologize and be as diplomatic as they like. However, now is not the time.”

Jake didn’t say anything more. Neither did anyone else as they made their way back to Destiny . Thankfully their guide had been waiting for them and showed them back.

“Are you ready to leave?” Sarah asked as soon as she stepped onto the bridge.

“Our anti-matter storage tanks are three quarters full. Another twenty minutes and we will have all we can carry,” Stephen reported.

“Very well, we will wait until then. Contact Hegara’s fleet command. Let them know we will be undocking from Hegara-1 in twenty minutes and leaving. If they have any protocols ships leaving Hegara are to keep, we will be happy to follow them. But let them know we are leaving.”

Taking a deep breath, Sarah turned to check on Destiny ’s COM messages. Messages were coming in from many of the representatives she had just met. Some were angry, insulted by the abrupt way she had left. Most seemed happy to express their skepticism at what she had shared. To both groups she sent a short reply, trying to be as cordial as possible. A handful of representatives contacted her to show support for her speech. She tried her best to encourage them to work on the other representatives. After Destiny undocked and moved away from Hegara, she sent messages back and forth for as long as Destiny was within easy communication range. She wasn’t sure what good it would do but she did it anyway.

*

Thirteen hours later Destiny was still in normal space cruising away from Hegara. Hegara’s fleet command had requested that Destiny travel at least five light hours away from their ships before entering subspace. That way, if anyone in subspace was monitoring the area, they wouldn’t know the exact location of their home.

“We will be in position to enter subspace in ten minutes,” Stephen informed Sarah.

Sarah responded with a nod.

“I’m picking up a transmission from Hegara,” Hannah said sounding confused.

“What is it?” Sarah asked.

“I’m not entirely sure yet, it’s not an audio or visual message. Hold on. Ah, it’s a star map of local space. The Ch’rack homeworlds are located on it. It has the system they are staging their invasion from highlighted. There is some writing imposed onto the star map.”

“Let me see,” Sarah requested.

On the holo-projector a map of local space appeared. At the bottom of the map was one sentence.

I hope this will help you make a difference , Yanny.

I hope so too, Sarah thought as she looked at the map and the figures beside it. “Get this onto a messenger drone. The data is sketchy, but it’s better than nothing. As soon as we enter subspace, send the drone to Graet. Flexor needs to have an idea of what is coming his way.”

“We could go ourselves,” Kevin suggested, though Sarah could sense it was only a tentative suggestion.

“No,” she replied. “We need more solid data. We need to know just how advanced their warships are and how many they have. We’re going to Til’ramon.”

Chapter 29

It took a week to get to the system the Ch’rack were staging their invasion from. According to the data Yanny had sent, the Ch’rack called it Til’ramon. All the way Sarah had fretted about the possibility that their fleet would have left and beaten them to Pack space. Yet she felt she had to go and see for herself. She needed to bring as much accurate intel to Flexor as she could. Only then could they plan a defense. The information Yanny had shared had been helpful, but it was sketchy at best, no Hegaran scout ship had dared to go anywhere near Til’ramon. Instead they had watched from forty light years away using their subspace sensors.

When they got within subspace sensor range, Sarah ordered Destiny to halt. For another day they watched the approaches to the system. When a convoy of several ships was detected heading towards the system, Sarah felt more confident. If they were still sending supplies and possibly more warships to the system, then it was likely the invasion fleet was still there.

“Here’s what I’m thinking,” Sarah said to her bridge crew. “We need to know what we are facing. If the Ch’rack’s fleet is powerful enough to defeat the Pack’s, Flexor’s fleet will be wiped out piece by piece if he tries to defend all his planets. Instead he will have to concentrate his fleet and engage part of the Ch’rack’s fleet. On the other hand, if the Ch’rack are not as numerous as the Hegarans fear and Flexor concentrates his fleet, leaving many worlds undefended, millions will be killed or enslaved. To defend Pack space we need to know what we’re up against. That means we have to get close. We have to lay eyes on this invasion fleet. The question is, how do we do it?”

“If we approach the system in subspace we are bound to be detected. Even if they don’t have a ship or drone sitting in subspace watching the approaches, we detected several convoys heading towards the system. They will detect us and warn their ships,” Kevin said.

“We could close in subspace and stop before we enter the range of the Ch’rack’s subspace sensors. Then we could drop out of subspace and use the Dyson Bubble to travel the rest of the distance. It would take a number of days but we should get there undetected,” Hannah suggested.

“What is the risk with that approach?” Sarah asked.

“We’d be guessing the range of the Ch’rack’s subspace sensors. Even if we overestimated what we think they’re capable of to be on the safe side, we could still be detected before we exit subspace,” she answered.

“And? What might happen while we are using the Dyson Bubble? Going faster than the speed of light outside of subspace has its advantages, but also disadvantages,” Sarah prompted.

Hannah paused for a moment as she thought. “We can’t be contacted whilst using the Bubble. Even if we left the subspace buoy to watch the system and detect if the Ch’rack launch their fleet, it couldn’t contact us. We could get to the system and find the fleet gone.”

Sarah brought her hands together. “Exactly. If we had more time or were certain the fleet was not ready to leave, it would be the ideal solution. Now though, it’s too risky.”

“What if we head here before we turn and approach Til’ramon?” Trask asked. He pointed to a spot on the map of subspace twenty-two light years from Destiny . “It would look like we were coming from one of the Ch’rack’s other homeworlds. We haven’t detected any ships coming from there yet, but surely it wouldn’t be too abnormal. Even if there were ships in subspace around Til’ramon keeping watch, we wouldn’t get close enough for them to tell what kind of ship we are before it is too late. We could drop out of subspace before the system and sneak in using our Dyson Bubble or sub light engines. If they do have scouts in subspace, they’d know we’re coming but they could do nothing to stop us. I’d bet Destiny can out run any of their ships in normal or subspace. Once we get to the system it won’t matter if we are detected, we can see what we want to see and then escape.”

Sarah smiled. She had already decided what she wanted to do. She had asked the question to give her subordinates a chance to think things through. Trask had been progressing in leaps and bounds with his training, but above all his tactical abilities were coming to the fore. She had already assigned him more time working with Kevin. One day she hoped he would have a command of his own. A ship built and crewed by his own people. “Interesting idea Ensign, what does everyone else make of it?”

“It’s just as risky as my suggestion,” Hannah said. “Though, in a different way. If the invasion fleet leaves, we’ll detect it as soon as it does. We can either shadow them or, if we are faster than the Ch’rack in subspace, we can race ahead and bring warning. Trask’s plan does lessen the chance the fleet will slip by us. But it will be a lot riskier for us. Even if we try and sneak in, we could be ambushed in subspace. Or when we get to their system. If there is a war fleet there, we could quickly find ourselves surrounded.”

“I like it,” Kevin said. He had already figured out what Sarah wanted to do. “Our only other option is to charge through subspace and hope we can destroy or avoid whatever picket ships they have. This way at least it gives us a chance of sneaking in. Either way I think we have to try. I agree Captain, we have to know what we are facing.”

Sarah sent warm feelings through their bond. Kevin was apprehensive about the risks involved, but he was with her no matter what. It made what she was about to do a lot easier.

“It seems you have read my mind Trask, if we can, we’re going to sneak into the system. We’ll gather as much sensor data as possible and then get out. Alexandra, plot us a course towards Trask’s coordinates. I want the rest of you to retire to your quarters. I’m bringing this watch to an end early so that you can get some rest. I want my best people on the bridge and ready when we begin our approach.”

“Aye Captain,” her bridge crew replied.

“Alexandra, carry out a final systems check,” Sarah said to the artificial intelligence silently. “I want everything operating at peak efficiency. This could get dicey very quickly.”

“I did a systems check yesterday Captain, but I’ll do another one just for your peace of mind. Don’t worry, if we have to fight, Destiny will give a good account of herself.”

“I know old friend, but this is not going to be like the battles we’ve been in before. Whether we fight the Ch’rack here or in Pack space, we’re going to be far more heavily outnumbered than we’ve been in the past.”

“It’s a good thing we have you as our Captain then, isn’t it?” Alexandra chuckled. “Getting out of tight situations seems to be your specialty.”

Sarah rolled her eyes. The situation was a lot more serious than that.

*

Sarah hadn’t changed her opinion about their situation. Destiny was cruising towards Til’ramon in subspace at the same velocity they had detected other ships approaching the system. None of the other convoys heading towards the system had reacted to their presence nor had any ships entered subspace from Til’ramon to try and intercept them. It was a good sign. Still, Sarah’s concern was growing rather than shrinking. Yanny had said the level of activity around Til’ramon had decreased rapidly. That would certainly suggest the Ch’rack’s invasion fleet was ready to leave. Yet on Destiny’s sensors there were two convoys approaching the system, one consisted of three ships and the other of eight. If they represented a significantly reduced number of ships heading to the system, then the unavoidable conclusion was that the Ch’rack must have a considerable war fleet gathered.

“One hour until we can drop out of subspace,” Hannah reported.

“Send everyone to battle stations,” Sarah said. “Now we’ll see just how well your ruse works Ensign. If they have ships keeping a close eye on what approaches the system, they should detect we are not one of their ships any time now.”

Sarah watched the subspace sensors. Nothing changed that gave her any reason to alter their strategy. Then three new contacts appeared from the edge of the Til’ramon system on an intercept course for Destiny. She had two choices. She could jump out of subspace and use the Dyson Bubble to approach Til’ramon. If she did, the ships approaching Destiny would find it very hard to locate her before she got close enough to see what was in the system. Yet it would take hours to get there even with the Dyson drive. She chose the second option. “Bring us onto heading four five point seven six four. Maximum acceleration.”

“Changing course Captain,” Alexandra called out.

Sarah’s new course put Destiny on a tangent away from the approaching ships. The Ch’rack ships matched her course change. Her increased speed meant they could not catch her though. Crucially, her trajectory was still quite close to the Til’ramon system.

Sarah held onto her command chair. It was going to be close. She didn’t know what range the Ch’rack’s subspace missiles had. If they could open fire before she could close with the system her plan would fail. She would have to give up and run.

“Change course again, take us directly towards Til’ramon,” Sarah ordered.

Destiny’s pursuers changed course to try and intercept. It was touch and go as to whether they would fire their missiles before Destiny could reach the system and exit subspace.

Everyone on the bridge waited silently. Sarah could feel the tension in the air. Then Kevin spoke and it evaporated. “They’re within range of our missiles,” he shouted excitedly. “Firing now.”

Sarah released her white-knuckle grasp. Now her pursuers were the ones with a dilemma. They were no longer closing the gap to Destiny and if they hadn’t fired now, they wouldn’t. Yet that wasn’t the real problem they faced. If they wanted, they could drop out of subspace to avoid Destiny’s missiles. Yet then they wouldn’t be able to warn their comrades in Til’ramon about what was happening. Alternatively, they could try and shoot down Destiny’s missiles and follow Destiny to Til’ramon. If they did that they would arrive in the system only five minutes after Destiny . They could then yell out a warning to every ship in the system.

“They are going to fight,” Stephen said.

On the holo-projector the three contacts closed with one another to form a tight formation. They were clearly planning to overlap their point defensive fire. Kevin had fired eight missiles. The contacts looked to be roughly equivalent to an Elder cruiser in terms of size. This will be a test of their capabilities , Sarah thought. Three Elder cruisers would easily shoot down eight missiles.

“They’re opening fire with point defenses,” Hannah reported.

It took Alexandra a few seconds to analyze the weight of fire each ship was giving out. As soon as she did she updated the holo-projection with new information. It looked like each ship could put out about half the weight of point defensive fire that Destiny could. Whilst it was useful information, surprising even, for ships that large should have had more point defenses, it didn’t tell Sarah much about the Ch’rack ships. The point defense weapons needed to shoot down subspace missiles were highly specialized. They didn’t work in normal space and a ship could be designed to be highly effective in normal space whilst being weak in subspace or vice versa. Sarah had made sure Destiny was able to put up a good fight in both. The Ch’rack might not have followed the same philosophy.

As the missiles closed the point defensive fire began to tell. First one missile was taken out, then in quick succession another three exploded. The remaining four closed with their targets but Sarah didn’t hold out much hope. Two more were destroyed and then a third. The final missile continued by itself. The point defensive fire zipped past it on all sides. Yet, by some strange chance, even with three ships focused on one target, they couldn’t hit it.

“Go on, go on,” Kevin whispered to his weapon. “A hit,” he shouted, sounding as surprised as Sarah felt.

Sarah had been impressed with the Ch’rack’s accuracy. Now she wasn’t so sure. Did they get lucky at the start in hitting so many, or were they unlucky at the end? It was a question for another time. The subspace missile had disrupted its target’s subspace field, dumping it back into normal space. An unplanned reversion was never pretty and Sarah discounted the Ch’rack ship as a threat. If it hadn’t been destroyed outright, it would likely need months of repairs.

Taking a deep breath, she turned her attention back to her main objective. “Okay people, I need everyone’s attention focused on the Til’ramon system. We’ll be exiting subspace in sixty seconds, as soon as we do I need to know exactly what’s in the system and where. We can’t simply turn around and jump back into subspace, those two ships will be on us. Worse, within minutes of entering the system they are going to drop in behind us. As soon as they do, there will be a message screaming across the system telling everyone we are here. We need to act fast and to do that we will need to know what exactly is happening in system. Everyone get ready.”

Destiny exited subspace. There was a surreal moment of silence while Destiny’s sensors updated. Then contacts flooded the main holo-projector.

Hannah was the first to comment on what they were seeing. “Weapons fire. It’s coming from the ships near the outer edge of the system in that asteroid field.”

Sarah’s eyes fixed on the group of contacts. There were nearly three hundred of them. Alexandra’s initial estimate was that they were all warships. “It’s some kind of live fire exercise. They’re shooting the asteroids,” the artificial intelligence said, projecting its voice through the bridge’s speakers.

Their main battle fleet , Sarah guessed. She shifted her focus to the rest of the system. If all their warships were in that asteroid field, then perhaps they could do something more than just run. Here and there she spotted other ships Alexandra was designating as warships. There were more than eighty of them. Yet they were spread out across the system.

“Look at these,” Kevin said, drawing everyone’s attention to a line of ten large contacts. A number of smaller freighters were moving around them. “They’re pretty big, at least five times the size of the Elder battleship we fought at Earth. Those freighters are docking with them.”

“Of course,” Sarah said. “Given what we know about the Ch’rack’s subspace technology, it’s five weeks from here to the nearest Pack system. Plus one more to Graet. It will be a very long and vulnerable supply line if they kept ferrying fuel and munitions to their fleet as it fights in Pack space.”

“They’re some kind of supply ship. Is that what you’re thinking?” Kevin asked.

“It makes sense. They would be much easier to protect, and if ships could dock with them, the resupplying process would be sped up. Plus, if the Ch’rack intend to continue into former Elder territory, the ships would give them far greater range for their conquests. Alexandra, can we get close to one without any of the warships we detected intercepting us?”

Kevin looked at her. “They’re right in the center of the system.”

“And all but unguarded, clearly the Ch’rack didn’t think anyone would come into one of their home systems for a visit.”

Kevin looked at the holo-projector, weighing up the situation. Slowly he nodded and turned back to her. “Okay, if we can take out even one it will hurt their ability to conquer more planets. At least in the short term.”

Sarah nodded back. “Alexandra?”

“This is the best course,” Alexandra answered as she updated the holo-projector. “There are at least fifty warships in orbit around the third planet of the system. Assuming they haven’t moved in the last few hours, they shouldn’t be able to interfere until after we reach the supply ships. If they spread out as soon as they detect us they will be able to intercept us after we reach the supply ships no matter what route we use to escape. However, to get to the supply ships we would likely only have to fight these two contacts. The first appears to be some kind of smaller design than the ones that chased us through subspace. I’ve designated it a frigate. The second is a cruiser. Of course, if any of the other nearby warships we have detected have changed their trajectory they may pose a threat as well. Most of the sensor data we are picking up is several hours old.”

“Two ships, taking each one on, one on one. I’ll take those odds. We just have to gamble that whoever is commanding that fleet isn’t quick enough to figure out what we’re doing. If we destroy one of those supply ships, we’ll hopefully send them into such a rage that they aren’t able to coordinate a proper trap. Are we able to take the same route if we stick to ninety-five percent of our maximum acceleration?”

“It should work just the same,” Alexandra answered. “I must remind you that if there are any other warships out there that haven’t powered up or carried out any maneuvers in the last several hours, my sensors won’t have detected them.”

“I know the risks,” Sarah said. “Put us onto your course, ninety-five percent of our maximum acceleration.”

Sarah hadn’t come to fight, but if she could weaken even by a small fraction the forces that would be coming against Flexor’s fleet, it would be worth the risk. Worth losing Destiny , she sent to Kevin as they exchanged a glance. When he nodded back she felt a knot of tension leave her stomach. At least if they were killed, they would be killed fighting as one.

Chapter 30

If the situation wasn’t so serious, Sarah thought she would be giggling as the Ch’rack responded to Destiny’s presence. As the emissions Destiny gave off due to her acceleration only travelled at the speed of light, the Ch’rack ships within the system were reacting in stages. There were two common responses. As soon as the first emissions from Destiny reached a warship, it radically altered its course to come onto an intercept trajectory. On the other hand, the freighters within the system turned away and tried to get out of harm’s way. From her time spent on some of the more primitive villages on Earth, she guessed the image on the holo- projector would remind a farmer of what it looked like when a fox got into a chicken coop. Pandemonium was breaking out all across the system. The Ch’rack feared Destiny was an Elder frigate. The Ch’rack had never encountered a human warship before and Destiny still looked and gave off emissions similar to an Elder ship. Certainly, the Elders would be the only race the Ch’rack would be familiar with who would dare approach one of their systems. If they do think that, then they’re going to get a nasty surprise when the shooting starts.

Apart from the response of the Ch’rack ships, the first forty minutes of Destiny’s approach were uneventful. Nothing was close enough to cause them any concern. The only thing of note was the appearance of the remaining two cruisers that had tried to intercept them in subspace. They entered the system ten minutes behind Destiny . As they accelerated it quickly became apparent that they couldn’t match the power output of Destiny’s engines. Unless Destiny had to turn around to flee some greater danger, they would be no threat. Though they are going to follow us all the way in, just waiting for a chance to pick us off , Sarah thought as she stared at the two contacts. If Destiny took any serious damage to her reactors or engines, they would catch up.

“Frigate alpha-1 will enter missile range in three minutes,” Hannah reported.

Sarah looked over to Kevin. “Hold off on launching any missiles. We should be able to take this frigate without too much bother. We will need the missiles later.” The one thing neither the Hegarans or the Graman Pack had been able to resupply Destiny with was missiles. Neither could produce any that matched Destiny’s specifications.

“Agreed,” Kevin replied with a nod. “Maybe we should keep the tachyon pulses in reserve too? The cruiser angling towards us will be a much more serious threat. If we can surprise them with the pulses, it may give us an advantage.”

“Okay, but keep them charged and ready to fire. If the frigate starts to give us any trouble use them. We can’t take too many risks.” After Kevin nodded to her, Sarah reached out with her mind to her crew, drawing them into a battle meld. As everyone became aware of each other’s minds, a sense of purpose descended on the meld. Everyone was determined to do as much damage to the Ch’rack’s invasion force as they could. Though no one had many fond memories of their time on Graet, they didn’t want to see anymore planets suffer the fate of the cleansed planets Destiny had come across. No species but the Elders and the Ch’rack deserved that.

“Missile launches,” Hannah shouted through the meld. “Four contacts incoming.”

Sarah turned back to the holo-projector. She hadn’t been expecting missile launches so soon. The Ch’rack missiles had a slightly longer range than her own. She ordered the interface helmet above her command chair to descend. A few seconds later she was looking at the contacts through Destiny’s sensors. “Hold off all ECM, we’ll let Alexandra have a crack at them with the point defenses first. When they close we’ll power up our countermeasures and take evasive maneuvers. I want to see how effective their ECM is.”

If there was going to be a protracted fleet engagement with the Ch’rack in the future, she wanted to bring back as much technical information as she could. The battle with the frigate would be the safest opportunity to test the Ch’rack’s capabilities.

“Engaging,” Alexandra announced.

Laser beams, AM missiles and explosive shells were launched towards the four incoming missiles. Space around Destiny lit up as a wave of explosions got closer and closer.

“They’re good,” Kevin commented. Alexandra had taken out two but the other two were proving tough to target.

“Going to evasive maneuvers,” Sarah said, preparing to throw Destiny into a series of wild turns.

“No,” Alexandra replied immediately. “I’ve got this.”

Sarah relaxed. Alexandra’s computational abilities were far beyond her own. If the artificial intelligence thought the best chance they had to avoid getting hit was to rely on the point defenses, she would oblige.

When one of the missiles exploded after being hit by laser beam Alexandra’s voice was projected across the bridge again. “That’s one… and… that’s two,” she added as the final missile exploded. “Their ECM is good, but it wasn’t that good. Those last two missiles were lucky. Statistically I should have got them sooner than I did.”

“Well let’s not leave it so late next time,” Sarah said. The radiation given off by the final missile when it detonated had washed over the frigate’s energy screen. It didn’t cause any damage but Sarah didn’t like the idea of any missiles getting that close.

“Are you ready Kevin?” Sarah asked through their bond. They were about to enter laser cannon range.

Sarah felt his excitement growing alongside a fierce determination. “Yes.”

“Let’s do this,” she said as she narrowed her focus down to the frigate that was quickly approaching them.

“You only have three minutes in laser cannon range before they pass us by,” Alexandra reminded them.

“That will be enough,” Sarah assured the artificial intelligence. “Just keep an eye on their missile ports. If they show any sign of firing again, let me know.”

“Will do.”

Sarah barely registered Alexandra’s reply. She had already begun her evasive maneuvers. Seconds later laser beams reached out from the Ch’rack frigate and Destiny . They zipped past each other and on towards their targets. Within a few seconds it became clear that the fight was going to be one-sided. Destiny was significantly more powerful than she had been when Sarah had captured her. She had several more laser cannons and each one of them fired a more powerful beam. Her energy screen was also far more powerful than it had been. The Ch’rack frigate wouldn’t have been a match for Destiny before her upgrades. Now Sarah and Kevin tore it apart. Within twenty seconds the Ch’rack’s energy screen had been battered down. Laser beams burnt away its weapon emplacements. Then they destroyed the frigate’s engines and missile tubes. As soon as the frigate was no longer a threat, Kevin went for the kill. Beam after beam punched through the frigate’s armor and hull as Kevin sought out its reactors.

“It’s dead,” Hannah reported when the energy readings from the frigate died. Its reactors had been disabled.

“Keep hammering it,” Sarah ordered. “I don’t want there to be anything left for the Ch’rack to repair.” She didn’t detect even a wisp of mercy for the frigate. It looked identical to the ships Flexor had shown her attacking a species’ homeworld. They were getting what they deserved.

Having already stopped any evasive maneuvers, Kevin was able to bring the maximum number of laser cannons to bear. By the time the frigate moved beyond the range of Destiny’s weapons, it was a molten ball of slag. There was nothing worth salvaging.

“Damage report?” Sarah requested.

Stephen took a moment to reply as he checked his console. “We took four hits to our energy screen, it’s down to ninety percent efficiency. No beams got through. Every system is performing optimally. We should have the energy screen back to one hundred percent by the time the cruiser gets into range.”

“Good work everybody,” Sarah said to encourage her bridge crew. She fixed her attention on the Ch’rack cruiser. It had stopped trying to accelerate towards Destiny and was now decelerating instead. It was attempting to put itself right in between the intruder and one of the large supply ships. Sarah knew what its Captain was doing. He wanted to hammer Destiny for as long as possible to prevent the frigate from reaching the supply ship.

Retracting the interface helmet for a moment’s respite, Sarah looked at Kevin. He was clearly thinking the same thing. “Particle lance?” he asked.

Sarah nodded. “We’ll use our missiles to distract them.”

Five minutes before the enemy cruiser came into range, Sarah re-engaged with the interface helmet. “Give me a countdown until we enter the estimated range of their missiles,” she requested.

Right on cue the enemy cruiser fired. At least the larger ships don’t have any better missiles , Sarah thought. Their weight of fire is enough to worry about . The cruiser had fired nine missiles towards Destiny . “Thoughts?” Sarah sent to Alexandra.

“They’re coming in on quite a narrow band,” Alexandra commented.

“You’re right,” Sarah said as she studied the missiles. Normally missiles were programmed to spread out. It made targeting them with a warship’s long-range laser cannons all but impossible. Even clustered together they would be very hard to hit though. “What are you thinking?”

“I know you want to save the tachyon pulses, but they could be effective against the missile seeker heads.”

“Yes,” Sarah said, grinning. She hadn’t thought about using the tachyon pulses against missiles before. The pulses were designed to eat away at a ship’s energy screen and, if they punched through, cause massive electrical surges throughout the ship. The missiles wouldn’t have energy screens to protect them and the Ch’rack probably hadn’t needed to design missiles protected from tachyon pulses.

Before she could give the order to Kevin, Hannah shouted a warning. Some kind of energy rounds were quickly approaching Destiny . Sarah twisted Destiny away from where she was. “What were they?”

“Analyzing,” Alexandra commented.

Another wave of the projectiles appeared and Sarah once again had to perform evasive maneuvers. “Use the tachyon pulses against those missiles,” she ordered Kevin as soon as she brought the weapons to bear on the missiles.

Kevin managed to fire off a few shots before Sarah had to swing Destiny onto a new trajectory to avoid the fire from the cruiser.

“They’re some kind of plasma bolt,” Alexandra finally informed everyone. “It looks like the plasma is encased in a containment field. I imagine the field will destabilize as soon as one of those bolts hits our energy screen. They could be dangerous.”

“It looks like they should be pretty easy to dodge,” Trask observed. “The range is impressive but their fire is predictable and they are ballistic weapons.”

Kevin shook his head. “I don’t think they’re really trying to take us out with those weapons. I think they’re designed to work alongside their missiles. It’s going to be much harder to target those missiles with our point defenses if we have to dodge plasma bolts at the same time.”

“Well it’s a good thing your tachyon pulses worked,” Sarah said. She had been keeping her focus on the incoming missiles and dodging the plasma bolts. Three of the missiles had been hit by Kevin’s shots. None of them were tracking her as she maneuvered Destiny around the incoming waves of plasma bolts. The rest had spread out. The tactic wouldn’t work again but as another wave of plasma bolts came in Sarah noticed they were more spread out and easier to dodge. They have to spread them out more so as not to hit their own missiles. Our technologies are cancelling each other out.

“I’ll fire missiles just before we open up with our point defenses,” Kevin let Sarah and Alexandra know.

“Ten seconds to point defensive range,” Alexandra reported as she prepared to defend herself.

Just after Kevin fired Destiny’s eight missiles, Sarah dodged another round of plasma bolts. Then she kept Destiny on a constant trajectory to give Alexandra as good a chance as possible to use the point defenses. Once again laser beams, AM missiles and explosive shells reached out towards the five incoming threats. Alexandra took out one before Sarah had to dodge another wave of plasma bolts. For the next sixty seconds a pattern developed. Sarah would dodge plasma bolts, pivot Destiny to bring as many of her point defenses as possible to bear on the incoming missiles and give Alexandra several seconds of fire before dodging more plasma bolts and repeating the process.

As her analysis suggested, Alexandra was more effective at dealing with these missiles. Despite the added difficulty, the artificial intelligence destroyed four of them before they got close enough to be a threat. “ECM to full,” Sarah ordered as soon as it was clear the final one was going to get through. She forgot about the plasma bolts and concentrated on the missile. She made several wild turns, trying to get the missile to lose lock. When it didn’t, she turned Destiny towards the missile. Kevin knew exactly what she wanted. As soon as Destiny’s nose was pointed at the missile, he fired every laser cannon and tachyon pulse that could target the missile. Milliseconds later Sarah twisted Destiny away. None of the weapons managed to hit the missile, but it took the missile’s seeker head a fraction of a second to analyze the gigajoules of energy Destiny had fired into space. By the time it did, Sarah had pulled her ship away. The missile, sensing it wouldn’t hit its target, exploded as close as it could. A wave of electromagnetic energy crashed into Destiny’s energy screen.

Sarah didn’t feel anything. The energy screen absorbed all the explosive force. The screen had been knocked down to eighty percent efficiency though. Partly because of the explosion and partly because of the two plasma bolts that had struck the screen while Sarah had been focused on the missile. That’s not good, Sarah thought. They hadn’t even entered laser cannon range yet.

As Destiny came closer and closer to the enemy cruiser, the waves of plasma bolts continued. On their own they were easy to dodge. Yet Sarah knew that when laser cannon beams were added to the mix it was going to get more difficult. It wouldn’t be a devastating problem for her and Destiny , but in future battles with Pack ships the plasma bolts would be very dangerous.

“They should be engaging our missiles in approximately thirty seconds,” Alexandra informed Sarah.

“Open fire with our energy weapons to coincide,” she suggested to Kevin. “They won’t do much damage but they will be an added distraction. Let’s use their tactics against them.”

Keven let Sarah know he agreed. Then he opened fire. Sarah watched the Ch’rack cruiser. It ignored Kevin’s shots, yet they seemed to be having an effect. The cruiser was putting out an impressive weight of fire from its point defense weapons, yet its gunners were struggling to score hits. By the time the missiles had made it half way through the point defense weapons’ field of fire, only three had been destroyed.

“We’re going to get a hit,” Kevin predicted.

Two missiles got close enough to the cruiser for their final stage engines to kick in. Accelerating the missiles to an even greater velocity, the engines made it all but impossible for the cruiser to dodge them. Simmons’ scientists from Hope Five had developed the final stage engines after seeing the battle recordings of Sarah dodging so many missiles in her battles with the Elders. Sarah hoped she wouldn’t have to come up against them herself someday.

“Get ready,” she shouted to Kevin.

The first missile struck the cruiser’s energy screen, the explosion easily knocked it down, though with most of its force deflected by the screen, the damage to the cruiser was minimal. The second missile failed to score a direct hit. Its proximity detectors allowed it to explode just two hundred meters from the cruiser. Sarah didn’t wait to see how much damage was done. The fact the ship had been hit made it cease even the minor evasive maneuvers it had been carrying out. That was the chance she had been waiting for. Destiny was already lined up with her target.

“Now,” she shouted to Kevin needlessly.

Kevin had already sent the signal to Destiny’s particle lance. For the first time in over a year it released its devastating beam of particles, accelerating them to the speed of light. With no energy screen to protect it, the particles ripped through the cruiser, almost cutting it in two. Secondary explosions erupted all around the sections the beam had struck. Within a couple of seconds the cruiser was nothing more than a quickly dispersing ball of debris.

“Two down and still not a scratch. I wouldn’t have believed it,” Trask said, his appreciation for what Destiny’s crew had accomplished was clear.

“We have been lucky. Engaging them one on one gives us the advantage. We’ve seen enough to know that when the odds are on their side we’ll be in trouble. Never mind if the Graman Pack has to fight against Ch’rack ships,” Sarah replied.

She turned Destiny onto her old trajectory. She was heading straight for the nearest supply ship. It was still thirty minutes away, but there were no ships that could intercept them before Destiny came into weapons range. Sarah increased Destiny’s acceleration to one hundred and five percent of her maximum. It was risky, but she had her reasons. There was one other supply ship that was accelerating towards a small flotilla of Ch’rack warships. Its route wasn’t really taking it away from Destiny , instead it had been counting on reaching the safety of its comrades first. Now, with Sarah’s increase in acceleration, it was in trouble too. Should have run away on a more divergent trajectory, Sarah thought.

“Let’s deal with this resupply ship and then get that second one before anyone can do anything to stop us,” Sarah ordered. “Fire a full salvo of missiles as soon as we come into range.”

“Launching,” Kevin informed everyone when the time came. “Put us onto a heading to intercept those two freighters, we can take them with our energy weapons.”

Sarah analyzed the flight path of the freighters. Most of the freighters that had been near or docked to the resupply ship had fled as soon as it had become clear Destiny was targeting the larger ship. The two Kevin were talking about had just undocked several minutes ago. Either their crews had been very slow at reacting to the danger, or they had been unloading something important. If I wasn’t so sure our missiles would destroy the resupply ship, I’d leave them. But they’re not getting away . Sarah altered Destiny’s trajectory.

Before Kevin could open fire on the two freighters, his missiles reached their target. The resupply ship was truly massive, several times bigger than an Elder battleship. As its point defenses opened up on the missiles, Sarah saw that the Ch’rack had mounted quite a number of defensive weapons on the colossal ship. If it wasn’t for the fact human missile technology outclassed Ch’rack tech, the supply ship would have been able to defend itself. As it was, three missiles reached their target. The explosions ripped into the supply ship, gutting large sections. Unusually its engines didn’t lose much power. None of the missiles must have hit its reactors or power conduits. Yet with its superstructure compromised, the missile hits proved fatal. With the engines still pushing the crippled ship through space, it buckled. The engines disappeared as they pushed their way into the bowls of the resupply ship. Then there was a single giant explosion. When Destiny’s scanners cleared, there was nothing but an expanding ball of debris.

“The engines must have torn right into that ship’s reactors,” Hannah suggested.

“It was certainly some explosion.” Sarah agreed.

Another explosion surprised Sarah and stopped her from saying anything more. It was one of the two freighters they were pursuing. Kevin had tried a long shot with one of Destiny’s lasers.

“Oops,” Kevin chuckled. “I was just trying to cripple their engines to allow us to catch up to them faster. I guess the freighter was carrying some kind of munitions.”

“I’ll bet the other freighter is carrying the same,” Stephen said.

“Only one way to find out.” Kevin lined up another shot and fired. The freighter he had targeted disappeared as Kevin’s single laser beam easily passed through its hull and ignited whatever it was carrying.

Sarah turned Destiny onto a new intercept trajectory, they had another resupply ship to take out. “I’d bet they were carrying missiles. If they were willing to risk staying docked to that resupply ship for so long they must have been important. Let’s hope the Ch’rack miss them.” Sarah opened the slots in her interface helmet so she could look at her crew. “Good work so far everyone…”

She was just in time to see Hannah wave frantically at the holo-projector. The sensor officer’s words cut off the rest of Sarah’s sentence. “Look, that flotilla is accelerating.”

Hannah was right. Either because they had been holding back their full capabilities in an effort to trap Destiny , or because they were so enraged at the loss of a resupply ship, the nearest flotilla of Ch’rack warships had accelerated. Probably the latter, Sarah concluded. They’re probably running their reactors and engines beyond their safety limits – just like us.

As the holo projector updated, Sarah knew she had a choice to make. Destiny could get into missile range of the resupply ship, yet doing so would allow the flotilla to enter missile range as well. There were three Ch’rack cruisers and two frigates. Alexandra might be able to take out the missile salvo they can put out, but it would be a close thing. Probably a losing thing.

“Given our previous engagements, I put the chances of surviving the thirty-five missiles those ships will fire at about eight percent,” Alexandra said, reading Sarah’s thoughts.

Sarah let out a sigh of frustration. One out of ten resupply ships destroyed would hurt the Ch’rack invasion plans. Two out of ten would have put a real dent in them but it wasn’t worth loosing Destiny . Not with all the information we have gathered. Flexor and his Admirals need to know what is coming. Reluctantly she turned Destiny onto a new heading and powered up her engines. “We’re getting out of here.”

Chapter 31

“Captain, I’m detecting something funny.”

The tone of Hannah’s voice made Sarah spin around. “Show me?”

Destiny had been cruising out of the Ch’rack system for nearly an hour. By now nearly every warship in the system was on an intercept course. Yet with reactors and engines that couldn’t match Destiny’s , they were falling behind.

A series of data files appeared on one of the screens on Sarah’s command chair. “Alter course, put us on heading five point seven three six.”

“What is it?” Kevin asked.

“Maybe nothing,” Sarah said, “maybe something. Focus sensors on sector delta four.”

A few of her bridge crew turned to stare at her but Sarah ignored them and focused on the sensor readings. “There,” she said a few moments later. “Another anomaly.”

Alexandra was the first to realize what Sarah suspected. “Maneuvering thrusters. There is a ship out there cruising with its reactors powered down.”

“Or ships,” Sarah added. She examined the main holo plot of the system, assessing the various trajectories of the warships pursuing them. “We’re about to find out. I want another course change. Heading five point three four nine.” Now we’ll see, she thought. If there were ships out there, they would have to power up their engines if they wanted to intercept Destiny .

“Two ships,” Hannah shouted. “They’re powering up their reactors and decelerating hard. It looks like two cruisers.”

“What are the chances?” Kevin asked.

“I guess it depends how many ships they have,” Sarah answered. “We clearly haven’t detected them all. If they have these two powered down protecting their outer system, they are bound to have more.”

Kevin shared a glance with Sarah. “That’s not good. Their numbers are already going to cause us some serious problems.”

“We’ll worry about that later. We have two cruisers to fight our way past. If they hit our engines we’ll be sitting ducks for the rest of their fleet. Alert the rest of the crew, we’re about to enter engagement range.” Sarah switched to talking to Kevin through their neural link. “This is going to be tough. Those two cruisers can put out eighteen missiles and a heck of a lot of plasma bolts. We need a good strategy.”

For several seconds Kevin didn’t reply. They were both thinking. “Between them, they’ll probably take out our missiles. We should wait until we get closer. That’s where we have the advantage.” Kevin suggested.

Sarah saw where he was going. “We’ll have to fly through a lot of fire before we get to use them.”

“That will be the case anyway. We need to take out both ships as soon as possible and holding back our best weapons is the best way to do it. I know you can get us in, you’re the best pilot these Ch’rack have ever seen.”

“Ok,” Sarah said out loud. “We’re going to close with both cruisers and try and finish them with one decisive attack. But first we need to survive their missile salvo. I want all non-essential power fed into the energy screen. I also want every drone we have available set up to emit enough electromagnetic radiation to light up this entire solar system.”

“Aye Captain,” Hannah, Trask and Stephen replied in unison before they and the other bridge crew sprang into action.

“Alexandra, you’ve had time to analyze both our battles with the Ch’rack ships. Have you any suggestions?”

“Just one – for now at least. Look at the holo screen.”

When Sarah looked she saw a slow-motion replay of a wave of plasma bolts coming towards Destiny .

“Look at the pattern,” Alexandra prompted. “There is a uniformity to each wave. I believe it’s based on the locations of the plasma cannons on the cruisers. Right here there is a gap. It’s not big enough for Destiny to fit through, but we would only take one or two hits at most. In our last battle, a plasma bolt hit reduced our energy screen by about two percent. I estimate that once the screen is down to about forty percent some plasma will get through. Until then, we should be able to shrug off hits.”

“So, we go through the plasma waves rather than trying to go around them?”  Sarah could easily see the advantages that would give them.

“Exactly, you can go through in a way that keeps most of our point defenses angled towards the incoming missiles. We should be able to shoot a lot more of them down.”

“Sounds good to me,” Kevin commented. “I’d take a handful of plasma hits over multiple missile strikes any day.

“I’ll alter your view when you are using your interface helmet to show the gap in each plasma bolt wave. You’ll have about a second to react and get Destiny through.”

“That’s cutting it close,” Sarah said, doubt creeping in.

“We’ve got fifteen minutes until the cruisers enter missile range. I’ll set up a few simulations you can run through to practice.”

Sarah nodded, she knew Alexandra was watching her through the visual sensors on Destiny’s bridge. “Good thinking. If I can’t do it, we’ll have to come up with another plan.”

After several tries, Sarah decided to adopt Alexandra’s tactic. She wasn’t able to master it perfectly, a second was simply not enough time for her to get Destiny in the right position every time, but she was able to do it enough times to make it worth trying.

“They’re launching,” Hannah informed everyone on the bridge.

Sarah was amazed at how calm she sounded. Eighteen missiles were heading Destiny’s way. She’s trusting in you , Sarah reminded herself. They all are, she added as she looked around her bridge crew. They knew she had a plan and they had supreme confidence she would pull it off.

“Here we go,” she said when the missiles came into range of Destiny’s point defenses.

For several seconds Alexandra had an uninterrupted line of sight on the missiles. She managed to take out one. Then a red glow appeared in front of Sarah as she was looking at the incoming missiles. It was the gap Alexandra had detected in the incoming plasma bolts. Having already practiced, Sarah didn’t even think, she just reacted. Tilting Destiny and firing her maneuvering thrusters, she did her best to get Destiny through the red glow. An alarm blared out from one of the bridge consoles, letting Sarah know she hadn’t been completely successful. “How many?” she demanded.

“Just the one hit,” Stephen reported. “Energy screen down to ninety-eight percent and holding.”

“You’re doing it,” Kevin reassured her.

Before Sarah could think of a reply, another red glow appeared. Again, she reacted without thinking. Everything around her disappeared as her focus narrowed in on the space in front of Destiny . She lost all track of how Alexandra was getting on with the point defenses. All she cared about was getting Destiny through the next red glow at an angle that kept the point defenses targeted on the incoming missiles.

“At least two are going to get through,” Alexandra said into Sarah’s mind. The volume pulled Sarah out of her single-minded focus on maneuvering Destiny . At once she was aware a river of sweat was running down her neck and back. She dismissed it. Instead she widened her perception to take in the Ch’rack missiles. There were four left, and they were close, very close.

“Power up the ECM, prepare to launch drones,” she ordered. She held Destiny steady for a couple more seconds to let Alexandra get off a final wave of point defensive fire. The artificial intelligence hit one more missile, then Sarah threw Destiny into a series of random maneuvers designed to get the missiles to lose lock. Doggedly, they kept after their target.

Sarah kept twisting and turning Destiny through space. She held back her final trick until the very last moment. “Launch drones,” she cried as she cut all thrust from Destiny’s main engines. Using her maneuvering thrusters alone, she spun Destiny away from the missiles and onto a new trajectory. Instinctively she shut her eyes tight, though it didn’t actually do anything. The sheer volume of electromagnetic radiation being given off by the drones, detected by Destiny’s sensors and fed into her mind threatened to make her scream in pain.

Though she couldn’t see, Sarah felt a massive detonation crash into Destiny’s energy screen and wash over the hull. Hull armor was burnt away and external sensors destroyed.

To distract herself from the data coming into her mind, she opened the eye slots in her helmet. “Damage report?” she asked as she looked at Stephen.

“You managed to dodge two of the missiles at the last minute, but the third hit our energy screen directly. It’s been knocked down to twenty percent effectiveness. A fraction of the explosive force leaked through. Nothing major has been damaged. The worst hit was the forward aft point defensive laser batteries. We have lost three cannons. Two more are inoperable at the moment. Repair teams are on their way.”

“Hopefully we won’t be needing them again,” Sarah said. “Get that energy screen recharged as much as you can. We’re going to need it to keep us in this fight. Those cruisers have a lot more firepower to dish out.”

Sarah shut the eye slot again. The cruisers would still be firing their plasma cannons, she needed to dodge every one. She couldn’t afford to let anything hit Destiny’s energy screen now. At just twenty percent, plasma and laser energy would seep through to strike the hull with every hit.

“Energy range in thirty seconds,” Hannah reported.

“Make every shot count,” Sarah sent to Kevin. “It’s as much up to you to get us out of this as it is me.”

“We’ll do it,” Kevin reassured her.

Sarah wasn’t sure, but she was going to give it her best.

As the incoming fire increased, she lost all awareness of her surroundings except the two ships in front of her and the weapons fire coming at Destiny . With so many laser beams and plasma bolts zipping through space Sarah didn’t bother trying to line up easy shots for Kevin. He would have to score his hits without her help.

The occasional shudder or vibration that went up her command chair into her spine told Sarah Destiny was taking hits, yet she couldn’t afford the distraction of asking how bad they were. Instead, she tried to lose herself as she had in battles in the past. All that mattered was the next twist or turn to dodge a laser beam or plasma bolt. As hard as she tried, every jolt made her clench her teeth. They were already clamped down so hard they hurt. She felt genuine fear, every hit threatened to slow Destiny down and make her fall back towards the pursuing Ch’rack ships. And that meant the Graman Pack wouldn’t get any warning of how powerful the fleet coming their way was.

“I’ve almost got the first cruiser’s energy screen down,” Kevin said through their neural implants, forcing his way into her thoughts. “Line up the missile ports in five seconds, then give me a shot on the second cruiser. We’re about to finish this.”

Relief flooded her. “Turning,” she shouted. Destiny turned, bringing her missile ports to bear on the first cruiser. She stopped all evasive maneuvers as Kevin launched the missiles. Another jolt told Sarah a laser beam had hit home. Then Destiny was turning and twisting again. Only for a few seconds though, for Sarah used her evasive maneuvers to bring Destiny’s nose around towards the second cruiser. As soon as she did Kevin fired the particle lance. The result was as devastating as it had been for the cruiser they had engaged earlier. They were close enough that the particle beam easily tore through the cruiser’s fully charged energy screen. When it struck the cruiser, the warship simply ceased to exist. The energy given off by the particles accelerated to nearly the speed of light as they hit the cruiser’s armor made the warship evaporate before Sarah’s eyes.

Whilst some on Destiny’s bridge shouted in celebration, Sarah didn’t take her eyes off the second cruiser. It was desperately firing its point defenses, trying to shoot down Destiny’s missiles. Even as it did, it kept firing its laser beams at Destiny . It sensed it was close to scoring a killing shot. Sarah knew her command couldn’t afford one more hit. It drove her on. With the amount of incoming fire more than halved, she dodged every laser beam and plasma bolt. Some came close, but not even a joule of energy touched the frigate’s battered hull.

Only when four of Destiny’s missiles struck the remaining cruiser did Sarah relax. With its energy screen seriously weakened, there was no way it could survive. The first missile tore down the feeble screen and burnt off large sections of the warship’s hull. The next three missiles ripped it to shreds. What was left was unrecognizable as a warship.

Instead of joining in the others’ shouts of triumph, Sarah opened a direct COM link to her Chief Engineer. “What is the status of our engines and reactors?” Destiny’s engines had lost power.

It took Jake a few seconds to reply. “Sorry Captain, I was giving out orders. Power levels from reactor one are down to seventy percent. It didn’t take a hit, but its main cooling system did. The back-up has kicked in, but I can’t stress it too much. Reactor two is good. I can only give you eighty percent thrust though, probably I can get it up to ninety in ten minutes or so.”

Sarah checked the distance to the nearest pursuing ships. “That’s not good enough Chief. I need ninety percent thrust in five minutes. Our pursuers will be on us in fifteen at our current rate of acceleration. We need to go faster.”

“I’ll do my best. You have my word,” Jake replied, Sarah had never heard him sound so serious before. I’m not complaining, she thought. There’s not much room for error . With all the evasive maneuvers she had carried out, Destiny had lost a lot of forward momentum. The Ch’rack warships behind her were catching fast.

“What about the rest of our ship, how is she doing?” Sarah asked her bridge crew.

“We’re pretty much in one piece,” Stephen reported. “We’ve lost twenty percent of our point defense weapons and a fair few external blisters. I already have Alexandra’s fabricators working on replacements. The biggest loss is one of our forward laser cannons and a missile tube. Both were melted to slag by laser beams. I don’t think we have enough heavy metal stores to fabricate all the parts we need to rebuild either and replace our hull armor.”

“Focus on the armor. It’s dangerously thin.” Sarah replied. “What about causalities?”

Stephen looked at her funny. Sarah stared back at him for a moment. Then it hit her. She could feel two minds missing from the battle meld. Jenkins and Reynolds were both missing. She had been so focused on the battle she hadn’t even noticed them dropping out of the meld. As the loss hit her, Stephen spoke.

“Ensigns Jenkins and Reynolds are both dead. Section two and three of Decks A and B took direct hits. Jenkins was sucked out into space when her damage repair station decompressed. Reynolds’ body has just been recovered, a damaged bulkhead crushed him. Beyond their deaths, there are a number of broken bones and some bumps and minor burns.”

Sarah could feel them now too through the battle meld. Her grief welled up and threatened to bring tears to her eyes. Jenkins and Reynolds had been friends. More, they had been her responsibility. And she had let them die. All the feelings she went through on Orbra-Tah came bubbling up again.

As she looked around at her bridge crew she understood the look in their eyes. They didn’t understand how she hadn’t been aware of their losses. She was the one who had initiated the battle meld after all. She felt she had to say something. “I’m sorry. I was so focused on flying Destiny I missed their deaths. I feel their loss now.”

Kevin sent warm feelings to her through their bond. “We understand. You flew Destiny like she was an extension of your body. No one else could have taken us through that maelstrom. It took everything you had.”

Sarah wasn’t sure if he was speaking for her benefit or for the bridge crew’s. When she saw some of them nodding, she guessed it was for both. Either way, she was glad and sent her feelings to Kevin.

“We’ll leave the repairs in your capable hands,” Kevin said as he nodded to Stephen. “How long until we can enter subspace?”

“Ten minutes,” Hannah informed everyone.

Sarah shot Kevin a glance thanking him for pulling her mind back to their current situation. She did her best to keep her emotions out of her voice. “Keep everyone who is not injured at their battle stations, we don’t know what is waiting for us in subspace.”

“I suggest we try and avoid any battles in the immediate future.” Kevin spoke without lifting his head from his console. “A number of the sensor blisters we lost were subspace sensors. If we have to shoot down any subspace missiles our targeting capabilities will be compromised.”

Sarah nodded, even if Kevin didn’t see her gesture, he would feel it through their bond. “Noted. Our priority now is to get back to Pack space. Hopefully we have delayed the invasion fleet’s departure. If nothing else, they probably won’t want to leave one of their home systems unguarded so soon after it was attacked. Maybe they will hold more ships back in reserve.”

“And if they thought we were an Elder warship, they’ll probably be frantically looking over their shoulders expecting an invasion of their space,” Trask added.

“We can hope,” Sarah agreed.

With everyone working to repair as much of Destiny’s damage as possible, Sarah spent the next few minutes carefully looking over the sensor reports from the system. There were warships all over the place. Most had stopped trying to catch her. Instead, they were forming up around the third planet in the system. She knew it was the one the Ch’rack inhabited. By the time they all come together it will be an impressive fleet, Sarah thought, it wasn’t a pleasant one. Given the combat abilities she had seen today, she estimated the Ch’rack were roughly on a par with Elder warships. They didn’t seem to have any particle lances, but their plasma cannons and the tactics they used were potentially deadlier, especially in a large fleet action.

“We’re about to cross the system’s mass shadow,” Hannah reported.

“Take us in as soon as we do,” Sarah replied. “Get ready to drop back out at the first sign of trouble.”

“Contacts,” Hannah reported almost as soon as Destiny entered shift space. “Several of them, they’re all working their way around the system towards our position.”

Sarah saw them. Clearly some of the warships within Til’ramon had decided to leave the system and enter subspace. They were closing in on the point Destiny had been heading towards in normal space. “Keep us on this trajectory. By my guess that nearest ship will be able to open fire in just under a minute. We’ll jump back out once their missiles get close.”

“Aye Captain,” Hannah and Alexandra responded together.

The Ch’rack ship opened fire. Sarah waited until the last moment to order Destiny to revert to normal space. As soon as she did, she ordered Destiny to go into stealth mode. All non-essential components were powered down and the rest used energy stored in capacitors. The reactors were completely shut down. Once Destiny was as stealthy as she could be given the damage she had suffered, Sarah set back in her command chair. By the time the Ch’rack warships get to our position there’ll be nothing for them to see.

As expected, the cruiser that had fired on them exited subspace right on top of where Destiny had been. Then several more appeared. Sarah had no doubt others were waiting in subspace as well. She waited an hour to make sure none of the warships had detected her. When it was clear none were trying to follow her, Sarah slowly powered up one of Destiny’s reactors and fed a little energy into her engines. Over several hours she slowly increased Destiny’s acceleration. Finally, when Destiny was approaching her top speed, she ordered the Dyson Bubble engaged. The Bubble distorted space in front of Destiny, allowing the warship to exceed the speed of light several times over. It would take years to reach Graet using the drive, but that wasn’t the point.

After a day of using the Bubble, Sarah jumped Destiny back into subspace. As soon as Destiny announced her presence by accelerating, several Ch’rack warships responded by turning onto intercept courses. Yet they were too far away to open fire. They had been searching for Destiny much closer to the point she had initially exited subspace. Using Destiny’s superior subspace drive, Sarah fled. The Ch’rack gave chase for two days, but when they fell more than twenty light years behind, they turned and gave up. Now we go to Flexor and warn him , Sarah said to herself as the Ch’rack warships disappeared from Destiny’s sensors.

*

Five days after leaving the Til’ramon system, Sarah was going over the sensor data they had collected for the eighth time. She was pulled out of her thoughts by a COM message from the bridge.

“We’ve got a small fleet of contacts approaching us. They’re still thirty light years out, but they are on an intercept course.” Trask reported. He was on watch with Kevin.

Sarah stood. “I’m on my way.”

“Where did they come from?” she demanded as soon as she stepped onto the bridge. Destiny’ s sensors were supposed to be able to detect ships up to fifty light years away.

“They just appeared, not far from their current position. It looks like they entered subspace from there. Though there are no nearby systems,” Trask explained.

Sarah sat on her command chair and brought up the sensor data. She overlaid a direct path through subspace from Til’ramon to Graet. As she expected, the ships had entered subspace from a point right on the line. Destiny wasn’t quite travelling on the line, her need to evade pursuit had pulled her slightly away from it, but she was still pretty close to it.

“There’s only really two possibilities for who it is,” Sarah said. “Out here its either Hegarans or the Ch’rack. Given that only the Hegarans know we planned to return to Graet, I’m betting its some of their ships. Let’s keep our current course for now. I want those ships closely analyzed though, if they are not Hegaran I want to know about it as soon as possible.”

Before the ships got close enough to identify, one of the ships in the fleet moved ahead of its consorts. Alexandra identified it immediately. “Those acceleration rates match the ones we observed from Rider exactly.”

“That’s a relief,” Kevin said. He hadn’t been as confident as Sarah about who the new contacts were.

“Take us out of subspace as soon as we reach Rider . I’m sure whatever they have to say, it will be interesting,” Sarah ordered.

“Greetings Captain,” Farfan said as soon as a COM link was established. “I’m glad we caught you. Can I assume from your battle damage that you scouted the Til’ramon system?”

“We did,” Sarah replied. “Along with their fleet they had ten massive resupply ships. Your scouts were right. It looks like they are getting ready to launch their invasion. We managed to take out one of the large ships, but I’m sure they can make do with the other nine.”

“You entered the system?” Farfan almost shouted. His mouth was hanging open.

“Their main battle fleet was carrying out some training exercise. It left their inner system relatively unguarded. We saw an opportunity and we took it.”

“Your ship must truly be impressive. That or you are even more foolhardy than you appear.”

Sarah smiled. “I’m sure it is a bit of both. Now if you don’t mind me asking, what are you doing here?”

“Well, it’s probably better I let Admiral Urana talk to you. He sent me on ahead to make sure you knew we weren’t hostile.”

“I see,” Sarah said. She didn’t but there was no point admitting that. “I guess we’ll wait.” As she did, she exchanged some more pleasantries with Farfan. When she asked about Hegara, he was slow to answer and didn’t give anything away.

“We’ll get some answers now,” Kevin sent to Sarah when the rest of the Hegaran ships dropped out of subspace. They were all of a very similar design. There were clearly two types, a cruiser and a destroyer class, though one just looked like a bigger version of the other.

“Admiral Urana I presume,” Sarah said when another face appeared on her holo-projector. Like Farfan, he was from Divar’s species. “It is a pleasure to meet you.”

“And I you,” Urana said. “From the look of your ship, I imagine you have quite a story to tell. We can save it for another time though. Let me get straight to business. Yanny has sent me and my ships to help you protect the Graman Pack. That is your plan, isn’t it?”

“It is,” Sarah spoke slowly. She wasn’t entirely sure she had heard Urana right. “Did you say you are going to fight with us?”

“If it comes to it, yes, those are my orders.”

“I thought Hegara had a strict no intervention policy.”

“In the past yes, though for many decades some on Hegara have questioned it. The threat the Ch’rack now pose has caused those questions to be asked much louder. Representative Yanny and our people feel this is a turning point. For centuries many of the species living in Hegara have dreamt of returning home and helping their people. Others have wanted to colonize one of the many habitable planets within unexplored space. The Elders and the Ch’rack have prevented both. Now we fear that if the Ch’rack launch their invasion, neither possibility will ever become reality. Yanny has sent us to help. My ships are all the warships that we control. We will fight to stop the Ch’rack conquering the Graman Pack and the space beyond. It may come to nothing and we may all be killed, but at least we will have tried. If we do succeed, we would like to return to our homeworld. If that means we have to stand with you against the Elders as well, then we will.”

Sarah was speechless. She had given up on the idea of getting any help from Hegara. Their representatives had seemed completely set in their ways. Twenty ships wasn’t much, not against hundreds of Ch’rack ships, but it was far better than nothing. “What about the rest of the Hegaran fleet?” Sarah asked. “Will any more aid come?”

“That is unlikely,” Urana answered. “We left without the permission of all the representatives. Yanny is talking to others, trying to rally more ships to our cause, but nothing may come of it. In fact, if you are happy to have us, I suggest we return to subspace and head for Graet with all speed. It’s possible the representatives might send a fleet out to bring us back. Many are terrified of the idea that we will fight the Ch’rack. By doing so we will be revealing our existence to them.”

Sarah could easily picture fear on the faces of a number of the representatives she had met. “That I can understand. Well, it’s a pleasure to have you with us. You are more than welcome. We can enter subspace and be on our way. I’m sure we’ll have time to talk more when we get to Graet.”

“Thank you Captain, I will look forward to it,” Urana said before ending the COM link.

“Well, well, maybe things aren’t going to be just so bad after all,” Kevin said with a whistle. “Who would have thought?”

“Indeed,” Sarah replied. “Take us back into subspace. Hopefully these Hegaran ships will help us balance the scales if and when the Ch’rack do launch their invasion.”

As her subordinates saw to her orders, Sarah looked at the Hegaran warships. All but Rider were larger than Destiny . She thought they would at least be a match for Ch’rack warships of a similar size. Maybe they could even take them on at a two to one rate, she hoped. Her mind went back to the sensor data she had been reviewing. Even that won’t be enough, she quickly concluded.

Chapter 32

Sarah dropped Destiny out of subspace twenty light seconds from Graet’s mass shadow. It was far enough away that any warships patrolling the edge of the system wouldn’t be able to engage her, yet close enough to test their reactions. She wasn’t disappointed.

“Three contacts changing course. They’re moving towards us,” Ensign Sato reported from the sensor console. “Power readings and thruster output suggest they are Pack destroyers.”

“They will enter weapons range in fourteen seconds,” Alexandra added.

Sarah spoke quickly. “Let them know we are friendly.” She didn’t want any accidents happening.

“They are slowing, though still on an intercept course,” Sato updated.

“A Captain Dalglash is requesting to speak to you,” Stephen let her know.

“Put it on the holo-projector.”

A male from a species Sarah hadn’t met before appeared in front of her. “Greetings Captain Adams. King Flexor has given us orders to grant you entrance into our system. You are to proceed to Graet with all haste. Do you have any updates on the Ch’rack threat?”

“Greetings to you Captain Dalglash. I do, but I think the intel we have gathered is best shared with your King first. No doubt it will then be disseminated to your fleet.”

“I understand, I won’t delay you any further. My flotilla will return to its patrol.” Dalglash didn’t say anything more, but he also didn’t end the COM channel.

“Is there something else Captain?” Sarah asked.

“Yes, I suppose there is. I was wondering, will you be staying to fight with us if the Ch’rack attack?”

Sarah nodded. “That is my intention. I came here to offer the friendship of my people to those of the Pack . Though relations between our two peoples didn’t begin as I hoped, Flexor and I have come to an understanding. If your fleet will have us, we will happily fight alongside you.”

The alien showed Sarah his teeth. “That is good Captain. I am pleased we shall hunt together.”

Sarah couldn’t tell if the alien was expressing his approval of her readiness to stand with the Pack or an eagerness to go into battle. “As am I,” she replied, confident her words covered either possibility. “We will continue on to Graet.”

“Look at the system,” Kevin commented as soon as the COM channel closed. In its place the holo-projector showed the sensor readings Destiny was getting from deeper within the system.

“They are getting ready for war,” Stephen concluded.

She took a moment to take in what the projector was showing her. It looked like the number of freighters coming and going within the system had more than doubled since the last time they were there. More significantly, there were small flotillas of warships all around the edge of the system keeping watch. About halfway towards Graet itself, there was a large collection of ships, Destiny’s sensors estimated there were one hundred and ten of them. The formation they were in marked them out as warships. The fleet was in position to intercept any invasion force before it could reach Graet. The planet itself was ablaze with activity. From such a distance, there was no way to tell exactly what was going on but Sarah could easily guess. The levels of electromagnetic energy being given off by the orbital structures suggested a lot of new construction was going on. They’re probably building as many warships and orbital defense platforms as they can, Sarah thought. “Well at least it looks like they took our warning seriously. Take us in towards Graet, maximum acceleration.”

When Destiny was close enough to the capital world of the Graman Pack for real-time communication, Sarah wasn’t surprised to get a hail from King Flexor’s Palace. Sarah smiled as soon as his face appeared in front of her. “It’s good to see you’re still on your throne. I half expected to find your head on display at the end of a pike or something. You’re obviously better at fighting off political opponents than you are scrawny humans.”

Flexor let out a growl. “And it is clear you haven’t learned how to keep yourself out of trouble. What were the last words I said to you? Weren’t they something about not coming back here if you stir up a whole host of trouble for yourself in unexplored space? My people have a saying, if you’re going to poke a Kalactor in the eye, you better lead it away from your village first. Something I think I should have shared with you before I let you go.”

“I guess you have no one to blame but yourself then. Maybe I should have just headed straight back to Earth and left you in the dark about the Ch’rack.”

Flexor grinned. “I think I know you well enough now to know you wouldn’t just leave us. In all seriousness, it is good to have you back. We’ve always known the Ch’rack were a threat, but we had no idea they were so close to attacking us. You have given us a chance to stop them before they can cleanse any of our worlds.”

Sarah shared a glance with Kevin. “What is it?” Flexor asked, picking up on something.

“We have just come from the Ch’rack’s staging world. The threat is more serious than we thought when we left Hegara. We believe the Ch’rack can be defeated, but the price will be heavy. I’m not sure we will be able to stop them from ravaging some of your worlds.”

Flexor’s face darkened. “I’m having a meeting with my War Council in one hour. Will you be able to come down and brief us with your findings that quickly?”

Sarah looked over to Kevin again, he nodded. “Yes,” she answered. “We have a briefing prepared. It won’t be good news. But at least if we know what is coming against us, we can be better prepared to face it. We also have a number of strategies we might employ. We’ve had the last three and a half weeks to consider what to do.”

“Your council will be welcome, I will see you then.”

“There’s one more thing,” Sarah said hastily. “The Hegarans have sent ten of their warships to fight with us. They fear that if the Pack falls, they may be attacked next. I ordered them to wait five hours before dropping out of subspace at the edge of the system. Can you send word to your patrol ships to allow them to approach?”

“I will do it now, I get the sense from what you have said already that we will need all the help we can get. Thank you for returning.”

Before Sarah could reply, Flexor disappeared.

“The weight on his shoulders must be immense,” Kevin said to Sarah through their implants. “I don’t like him or how he rules his people. Yet I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes either.”

“He may not be the kind of ruler we would choose, but he does care for his people and he can do some good. Let’s just hope he can rally them to fight the Ch’rack,” Sarah sent back.

*

Flexor met Sarah and Kevin outside the council room where the meeting was to take place. He held out his hand, offering what he knew to be humanity’s way of greeting each other to both of them. “Welcome back to my Palace. Hopefully you’ll find my hospitality to be somewhat better than your previous visit.”

“That wouldn’t be hard,” Sarah replied. “But it was something I’m worried about. I hope that we can work together a little bit better than last time. How has your rule been going since we left?”

“There have been some bumps and hiccups,” Flexor admitted. “But overall, the other species have not caused too many problems. Some of the technologies and ideas you spread before you left have given many of the more disgruntled species something to distract them. That said, since we’ve been gearing up our defenses and diverting even more resources to the fleet, opposition has been growing.”

“The need to stand together and fight as one needs to be impressed upon all your species. If the Ch’rack invasion is successful, every species will be wiped out.”

“You know that, and I know that, but not every member species of the Pack is convinced. But don’t worry about that for now, I have an idea to help convince them. We can speak more about it later. Right now, the War Council is waiting.”

Flexor turned and pushed open an intricately carved wooden door. Sarah and Kevin followed him through. Like most of the other rooms in the palace the council room was large, though it wasn’t too ornately decorated. The main piece of furniture was a large rectangular table in the center of the room. Eight aliens were already seated around it. They were all dressed in the uniform of the Protection Fleet. From their rank insignia, Sarah could tell they were all Admirals.

After sitting down, Flexor introduced everyone. The only Admiral Sarah had met before was Kant. She gave him a small nod of respect when Flexor introduced him. Sarah was glad Kant returned the gesture.

“Before we hear Captain Adams’ report on the state of the Ch’rack’s invasion fleet. Admiral Treali will update us on current dispositions of the Protection Fleet,” Flexor informed everyone.

Treali stood and switched on the large viewing screen embedded into the wall behind him. It showed all the worlds within the Pack and the small section of unexplored space that bordered Pack territory. “You all know our key strategic locations. Graet, Lacombai and Nagushi. They are our most developed worlds, the location of our largest shipyards and the logistic bases from which our fleets operate. Graet has one hundred and seventy warships within the system. One hundred of those ships form the defensive fleet under the command of Admiral Leceal. The other seventy under the command of Admiral Kant. They are our fast response fleet. They are ready to move out to our border with unexplored space with a moment’s notice.

“Lacombai is the furthest from unexplored space and we have reduced its defensive fleet to eighty warships. Nagushi is the closest and they have a fleet equivalent to the one stationed here. With enough warning, we are confident we can move both the fast reaction fleet and Admiral Leceal’s fleet to either Lacombai or Nagushi in the event that the Ch’rack try to strike one of our main worlds in the first stages of their invasion. Similarly, the fleets at Lacombai and Nagushi should be able to support us here.

“Beyond our most important strategic locations, these are the eight worlds that are closest to unexplored space. We have pulled almost every warship from other worlds and arranged them in flotillas in each of these eight systems. If the Ch’rack attack there first, we should be able to give them a bloody nose. Especially if we can detect their fleet as it advances. Every flotilla has orders to engage the Ch’rack in whatever system they choose to attack first.”

Sarah had to bite her tongue. The eight systems along the Pack’s border were reasonably spread out. Given the speed advantage Ch’rack ships had over Pack ships in subspace, they would be able to strike one system before reinforcements could come. Then, if they did try to come and arrived late, they would be wiped out themselves.

“And what about our ships under construction, how quickly can we expect new warships to come online?” Flexor asked.

“We have expedited every ship currently under construction. We are also refitting as many freighters as we can get our hands on. We expect one cruiser and three destroyers to be added to the fast reaction fleet within two weeks. Another two destroyers and five frigates will be ready two weeks after that. Thereafter, we have another cruiser and five destroyers that should be ready within two months. We’re upgrading the freighters’ subspace engines and placing new missile tubes on them. A lot of our repair bays have been repurposed to carry out this task. Six freighters should be ready to join the fleet by the end of this week. Then another ten the next week and another ten the week after that. That is about the rate we can sustain the refits. The freighters will crumple under the first missile barrages of any engagement, but they will be able to fire their own missiles first.”

Sarah nodded, that was more like it. The Pack needed to scrape together every weapon they could to see off the coming threat.

Flexor turned towards Sarah. “We have heeded your warning. Though it is bankrupting me, we are doing everything we can to prepare ourselves.”

“I’m pleased to see it,” Sarah responded. “Though, I’m afraid your preparations will have to be reassessed after you hear what we have to share.”

“That is why I invited you here. You may update us all on what you have discovered about these Ch’rack.”

Sarah turned to Kevin. “I’ll let my tactical officer brief you all.”

She didn’t listen too closely as Kevin detailed Destiny’s advance into the Til’ramon system and went through all the technical and tactical data they had collected. Instead, Sarah watched the faces of those gathered in the war council. None looked pleased by what Kevin had to say, though thankfully, they didn’t appear to lose hope either. Anger was on many of their faces, but despair was absent. Either they are very brave, or they don’t quite realize what Kevin is saying, Sarah guessed.

When Kevin finished speaking, Flexor clasped his hands together. “So they have three hundred ships verses our four hundred and eighty. Yet, you reckon each one of their ships is equivalent to three of ours. That puts us at just under a two to one disadvantage. Your ship and the Hegaran ships help to balance that slightly, but not in any significant way. You have already suggested that our fleet dispositions aren’t adequate to face this threat. I agree, but what possible fleet dispositions would be?”

“None of us have any real experience with strategic warfare or large-scale fleet engagements. This is as new to me as it is to all of you,” Sarah confessed. “Yet on our journey back to Graet we have given this much thought. I’ve spent a lot of time researching the military history of my people. There is only one strategy that I think you can adapt. It is called defeat in detail. The basic idea is that you encourage your opponent to split his forces again and again. Then, you concentrate your own forces against just one part of the enemy’s and fight where the numerical advantage is yours. Once this partial victory has been achieved, the tactic is repeated again and again until the enemy is vanquished. Even if you gathered all your fleet together in one place and stood against the Ch’rack, they would only have to send half their force against you to have a fair chance of victory. With the other half of their fleet they could conquer every planet in the Pack.

“To survive, we need to keep your forces intact while we slowly whittle away at theirs. The good news is that I don’t think we need to defeat the entirety of the Ch’rack’s invasion fleet. We only have to destroy enough ships to convince them to return to their homeworlds.”

“How would you propose we convince the Ch’rack to split their fleet?” Admiral Treali asked.

Sarah looked around the room before speaking. She wanted them to know that what she was about to say didn’t come lightly. “There’s only one way I can see to do this. We must allow the Ch’rack to launch the initial stages of their invasion largely unopposed. As they capture more and more planets, they will have to spread their forces thinner and thinner. Then, when they are more spread out, we can launch an attack against a small section of their fleet.”

“Unacceptable,” Flexor said, jumping to his feet. He paced back and forth, glancing at Sarah now and again. “The Graman Pack exists to protect each and every member species. We cannot simply abandon those who have signed the Pack treaties. Those I have sworn to protect. This invasion fleet must be met head on and turned back before it can cleanse any of my worlds.”

Sarah took a moment to make sure she said what she wanted to say correctly. “I understand your sentiment perfectly. I share it in its entirety. I do not want to see one system invaded nor one species enslaved. However, we must face the reality of the situation. If you bring all your ships to the first system the Ch’rack seek to invade, they will be defeated. Then, every world within the Pack will be at the mercy of the Ch’rack. None of us want to see that. The strategy I am suggesting will give us a chance to keep the majority of your worlds from facing a Ch’rack invasion. Additionally, from what we know about the Ch’rack’s tactics, the world’s they do attack could be liberated before the species is completely cleansed. Some would survive to rebuild.”

“It is still impossible,” Flexor repeated. “If even a hint of what you’re suggesting got out to the public I would lose my position within an hour. Even if it is the best strategic option open to us, and I’m not admitting that, it is politically impossible. If and when the Ch’rack invasion does come, the Protection Fleet will meet them head on. Every species within the Pact has spent the last fifty years sacrificing so that the Protection Fleet can be what it is today. I cannot hold it back when the Pack faces danger.”

Sarah took another breath. “I understand the problems you face. But what other strategies are there open to us?”

“I think Captain Adams is overestimating the problem my King,” Admiral Leceal said. “We must remember that the Ch’rack will be a long way from their base of operations. No doubt they have built these large supply ships to overcome the logistical problems they will face. That means they will have to detach a large force to guard them. Especially after Destiny destroyed one. If and when the Ch’rack attack, it likely won’t be with all the ships Destiny detected. In fact, it’s likely they will leave some ships behind to defend their homeworlds. I doubt we will be facing the numbers Captain Adams suggests. The current fleet dispositions may prove sufficient to beat back any initial Ch’rack probing attacks. If we reinforce further, we can show them that we are a force to be reckoned with. If so, they may simply move on to more fruitful targets.”

“I disagree,” Sarah said as she held Leceal’s eyes. “All it will take is for the Ch’rack to send half the ships we detected against any one of your worlds, even Graet, and it would fall. The history of the Ch’rack suggests that this is exactly what they will do. Every cleansing the Hegarans have observed the Ch’rack carrying out has focused on one world. Often there has been more than a decade between cleansings. With the Elders gone, I have no doubt the Ch’rack are planning something far greater than just attacking one Pack planet. Yet, it’s probably a fair assumption that they will still focus on taking one planet at a time. That means their fleet will be concentrated, especially during the initial phases of the invasion. To try and face them then is to invite total defeat.”

“Couldn’t we try repeating your tactic Captain?” Kant suggested. “We could place many scouts in subspace around our border and try to locate the Ch’rack’s supply ships. It’s unlikely they will bring them right into our space. Probably they will leave them nearby in unexplored space. If we could find and attack them, their invasion fleet would be forced to withdraw.”

Sarah nodded to Kant. “That is a potential strategy, yet a risky one. To cover the area of space we would need to be watching, many warships would have to be diverted away from defending Pack worlds. Nevertheless, it may be something we should try. Certainly, if their invasion isn’t turned back after the first attack, there will be plenty of ships going back and forth from whatever planets the Ch’rack invade and their forward supply base. It shouldn’t be too hard to find. Then, we could plan an attack. However, that’s a strategy for the future. The most practical thing for the Ch’rack to do would be to station their invasion fleet in some system near your territory. There, all their ships can resupply and then launch their first invasion. There’s no way we’ll be able to attack their supply ships until after their main fleet advances. By then it will be too late to stop the initial invasion. If and when we do repulse their initial attacks, we should seek to destroy their supply ships.”

“Yes, you’re right,” Kant agreed. “Attacking their supply ships might encourage them to withdraw, but they will have already attacked us by then. If the initial stages of the invasion go against us, seeking out and destroying their supply ships may be the only strategy that is left to us. I think we should plan exactly how we might go about locating and attacking them.”

“What about the rest of you?” Flexor asked, starting to sound angry. “Are no other strategies coming to you? You’re meant to be the best strategic minds the Protection Fleet has. What else can we do?”

Sarah looked at the gathered admirals. Some were fidgeting, others went to open their mouths and then shut them again. She felt sorry for them. Given what Kevin had just laid before them, their options were limited.

“Perhaps we need to take more time to think,” she said, attempting to come to their aid. “Kevin and I have just learnt of the full extent of your fleet’s capabilities. Your admirals have just learnt the true size of the Ch’rack invasion fleet. It will take time for us to fully process what we face. In the meantime, I have a couple of tactics I would like to put on the table. These are not strategies that will win us the coming war, but they are tactics we can use if and when the opportunity arises.”

“Very well,” Flexor nodded.

“The first comes from an observation we made during our subspace battles with the three Ch’rack cruisers that tried to intercept us when we first approached Til’ramon. Each cruiser only fired four subspace missiles at us. Yet in real space, each was able to fire eight. It would appear that the Ch’rack have prioritized normal space warfare compared to subspace. From their perspective you can understand why, the purpose of their fleet is to conquer new worlds, not fight protracted fleet engagements in subspace. That could give us an advantage. What are the capabilities of your warships in subspace?”

“It appears our cruisers are slightly smaller than those of the Ch’rack. They are only equipped with six normal space missile launchers. However, they do have four subspace launchers. Our destroyers have two, while our frigates have just one,” Kant explained.

Sarah scratched her chin. “Then trying to fight in subspace would be to our advantage. If we can convince them to fight us on numerically equal terms, the battle would at least be a fair fight.”

“But how do we get them to stand and fight? In subspace, they could simply jump to normal space to avoid our missiles,” another Admiral queried.

“I’m not sure yet,” Sarah answered. “But it is something we can think about. I have another suggestion as well. We have subspace messenger drones that we can send through subspace autonomously. We also have subspace buoys. They don’t have an engine but they are equipped with an advanced sensor array. They can monitor subspace and then tear a hole back into normal space to transmit their data. It allows us to monitor subspace even when we are within a system or in orbit around a planet. The technology is not too hard to replicate and I think we may be able to use it to construct subspace mines. If we construct drones that can wait in subspace and monitor incoming ships, they could be equipped with a single subspace missile launcher. When a Ch’rack ship gets close enough, they could power up and fire their missiles. If they fire at almost point-blank range, their targets won’t have a chance to react.”

“It could work,” Kant commented. “But, we would need to have hundreds of mines, if not thousands. And that would only be for one system. It would probably take months, if not years, to produce enough to defend the entire Pack.”

“You’re right,” Sarah said as she turned to stare at the map of Pack space. Before, when she’d been looking at the eight planets closest to the unexplored space she had felt a tickling in the back of her mind. Now, as she stared more intently, the feeling grew. For a second she felt like Destiny’s interface helmet had just connected to her neural implant. It sent a shiver down her spine. Closing her eyes, she could still see the eight planets. A pattern suddenly appeared, linking them together. It started with one planet and then spread to the others. She reached her hand up as if to touch the pattern. Then she recoiled. The hand wasn’t her own, it was an Elder’s hand. Worse, she recognized it. Her eyes shot open.

“What is it?” Kevin asked her through their implants. “Are you okay?”

Glancing around, she saw that it wasn’t just Kevin who looked concerned. Before anyone could ask anything more she jumped to her feet and walked around to the display screen. She spoke quickly, she wanted to forget what she had just seen. Whatever it meant, she didn’t want to think about it. “Here. The Majoue system. This will be the first system the Ch’rack attack. If they take the system and use it as their central base of operations, they can quickly spread out and conquer the nearest eight systems. It also provides them a system from which to strike deeper into your territory. I believe they will attack here.”

“How can you know that?” Kant asked her. Kevin asked her the same question silently.

“I don’t know,” Sarah answered, it was only a half lie. She really didn’t know what had just happened. “Call it a gut feeling. But I’m sure of it, they will attack here first. If we concentrate our mines here, we can give the invasion fleet a bloody nose. Even better, if we have some ships waiting in normal space where the mines are, they can launch a surprise attack on any ships that revert to normal space to avoid the mines.

Flexor opened one of his fists into an open palm. “That’s more like it. I want ways we can hurt this invasion fleet. If we can’t beat them in a fair fight, we’re going to use every trick in the book to whittle away their strength.”

Sarah almost brought up her defeat in detail strategy again, but she held her tongue. She would have to slowly bring Flexor around to the strategy. Instead she jumped into the conversation between the gathered Admirals, Flexor and Kevin. Now she had shown them the way, other ideas were forthcoming.

*

Three hours passed before Flexor called the war council to a close. Sarah felt drained. They hadn’t come any closer to an overall strategy for facing the Ch’rack, but they had come up with a number of tactics they could use in battle. Though the tactics wouldn’t be effective if there wasn’t one unifying strategy behind them, Sarah wasn’t too upset. The meeting had been a good start. The Protection Fleet Admirals were willing to listen to her and Kevin and they had plenty of good ideas themselves. Sarah had also offered Kevin and her engineers’ services to Flexor. They were going to assess the Pack’s weapons technologies and offer suggestions to increase the combat capabilities of their ships. There were more powerful technologies she could offer the Pack, but there was no time to develop and install them in their ships. They would have to make do with whatever boosts Kevin and her people could give to their current weapon technologies.

Standing, Sarah pushed her arms into the air to stretch. Then she made her way round the Admirals, shaking hands as they left. “I think it’s time we went back to Destiny and got something to eat,” she said when it was just her, Kevin and Flexor left.

“Nonsense,” Flexor said as he rested a hand on her shoulder. “I’ve already ordered food to be prepared. You are my guests after all. Besides, there is something else I wish to talk to you about.”

“Does it have anything to do with convincing the outer systems that the Ch’rack threat is real?”

“Indeed it does,” Flexor said with a smile. “I have something in mind that only you can do.”

Sarah sighed. “You better explain then, but over food. I’m famished.”

“That was my intention,” Flexor replied as he motioned for Sarah and Kevin to follow him.

*

Sarah stared into the lens of a primitive visual recording device. According to Flexor, she had become quite the celebrity on a number of Pack worlds. They had seen recordings of her fight with Flexor and the worlds that weren’t the biggest fan of some aspects of the Pack had taken a liking to her. As the technology she had shared with the Pack had spread, her standing was only increasing. Flexor wanted to use it to his advantage.

Taking a deep breath, she read the script Flexor had written. “People of the Graman Pack. By now you all know who I am. Recently, King Flexor and I considered ourselves enemies. Ironically, our opposition towards one another came from a shared desire to help and protect the people of the Pack. Now we are allies, friends even, as we stand together against the Ch’rack threat. I want to tell you all that the threat is real. My crew and I scouted the system the Ch’rack are staging their invasion from. Their fleet is powerful and numerous. Their technologies are advanced. I believe they can be defeated, but only if every species within the Pack stands together as equals. If you are to survive this threat, no longer can there be rivalries or one species taking advantage of another. You must pull together as one to fight. I and my crew will be staying to fight alongside you as well as warships from a new civilization we encountered in unexplored space. We will give our all and I hope you will too. Together I believe we can defeat this threat.”

When she finished speaking she caught Flexor’s eye. She had added the parts in the middle about standing together as equals and no more rivalries. As she held Flexor’s stare she dared him to ask her to record her message again without what she had said. Sarah could see he was grinding his teeth together. Then he gave her a sharp nod.

“So be it. You’re trouble, you know that don’t you? I just hope you are worth it in the end.”

“If I’m not, it won’t matter, not to you, me or the Pack. I’m just making sure you stick to what you promised in the battle arena.”

“I know what you’re doing Captain,” Flexor said with a chuckle. “At least it means you have some hope that the Graman Pack will get through this in one piece. I have far too many other problems to cope with at the moment. Trying to counter your attempts to change the Pack will have to wait.”

Sarah smiled. “That’s okay by me.”

Chapter 33

Three weeks later

Sarah’s eyes closed and her head bobbed, causing her chin to hit her chest. With a start, her head shot back up. One hand rubbed her eyes while a yawn broke out across her face. Realizing that any more work was futile, she set the datapad in her other hand down. That will have to do for today , she told herself.

The datapad contained another series of upgrades Kevin, Jake and Admiral Urana’s engineers had suggested. Alongside developing the subspace mines she had her crew and the Hegarans working overtime to find ways to upgrade Pack weapons technologies. They were having some success. The reactors and energy screens used by Pack warships had been improved slightly. The reactor upgrades meant their laser cannons could fire slightly faster and the improved energy screen would allow them to survive longer in combat. Yet, the gains had been marginal. It was nowhere near enough to offset the technological or numerical advantage the Ch’rack had. Tactics are going to be what wins this war , she thought. The thought caused a sigh to escape her lips. She still hadn’t convinced Flexor to adopt her strategy. He was determined to defend every world the Ch’rack attacked. His forces were spread throughout the portion of Pack territory that faced unexplored space. If and when the Ch’rack came, they would be able to concentrate their forces against dispersed Pack fleets.

Standing, Sarah made her way out of her office and into her adjoining quarters. Just as she was about to unbutton her uniform, her neural implant buzzed. “Go-ahead.”

Rider has returned from unexplored space, she entered the system half an hour ago. Their report just reached us,” Ensign Sato reported.

“I’ll be right there, inform Lieutenant Simmons as well.”

Spinning away from her bed, Sarah headed straight for the door. She didn’t even stop to check her appearance in the mirror. Whatever news Rider had, it wasn’t going to be good.

“Send the report to my command chair,” she requested as soon as she stepped onto the bridge.

“It’s already waiting for you,” Sato replied.

She sat down and pulled up the file on one of her command chair screens. It would take Alexandra another minute or so to analyze the file and change it into a format her neural implant could process. She didn’t want to wait that long, she wanted to get the gist of Farfan’s report as soon as she could. It only took a few seconds to grasp what was going on. The Hegaran ship had detected the Ch’rack fleet, it was on a course directly towards an uninhabited system near Pack space. Sarah pulled up a map of Pack territory on another screen and nodded to herself. The system was within easy striking distance of Majoue, the planet she had identified as the Ch’rack’s first target. We’re going to get to use our mines after all.

“Send the report to King Flexor. Then order a shuttle to be ready to depart. No doubt he’ll call another war council. Let the rest of the crew know we will be breaking orbit before the end of the day. The Ch’rack have arrived,” Sarah said to her bridge crew.

By the time Kevin made it to the bridge, Alexandra had the report ready to process. Sarah processed it and then sent it to Kevin. “It’s exactly as you predicted,” he said when his eyes opened. “What do you think Flexor will do?”

“I think we both know what he will want to do. The question is, what can we or his Admirals convince him to do?”

“I’ve got a communication from the Palace, Captain,” Sato said. “King Flexor wants you and Admiral Urana to report to his palace immediately.”

“Acknowledge the request,” Sarah replied.

“It looks like their battle fleet has received orders as well,” Stephen commented. “I’m reading increased power levels coming from all of their reactors. There is also a wave of shuttles coming up from the surface.”

Sarah shared a glance with Kevin. Flexor had put his entire fleet on alert. She hoped he wasn’t planning to take it to Majoue. It would be a suicide mission. “Let’s go,” she said to Kevin as she jumped to her feet. “Stephen you have the bridge. We are going to the Palace. If Rider sends any more information, send it on to us immediately.”

“Aye Captain,” Stephen said with a nod as she moved past him.

*

“It looks like Captain Adams’ prediction was correct,” Admiral Kant said to the war council. “The system the Ch’rack fleet was spotted heading towards strongly suggests Majoue will be their first target. Given their speed, they would have arrived there two days ago. If the fuel storage capacity of their warships is somewhere between the capacity of our ships and Captain Adams’, they will want to refuel before launching any invasion. With nine resupply ships, it could take anywhere from two to four days to completely refuel. That means they could be at Majoue in eight days. It will take us nine. Time is of the essence.”

“What ships do you plan to take with you?” Sarah asked as she turned to Flexor.

“I have every warship in the system on standby. When we leave we will send orders to Lacombai to ready their fleet as well. We should be able to gather more than two hundred and fifty warships at Majoue,” Flexor replied. “If we can blunt their attack with your mines then we should be able to drive them back with our fleet. We’ll put an end to this invasion before it begins.”

Sarah looked over to Kant and raised her eyebrows. They had spent many hours discussing what defense strategy the Pack should adopt. When he spoke, he didn’t sound as confident as Sarah had hoped. But he was speaking. “I’m not sure that is the wisest course of action my King. We don’t yet know how our forces will fare against the Ch’rack. Nor how the mines will work. Taking nearly half of our fleet is too risky. If the Ch’rack come at us with all their strength, we will be wiped out. Then we won’t be able to defend the rest of our territory. Let me take the Reaction Fleet. We can escort the mine layers and join the flotilla defending Majoue. Captain Adams and Admiral Urana can launch their ambush. If it is successful, we will then be in a position to join the fight or come to their aid.”

Flexor stared at Kant. It was the first time one of his Admirals had openly suggested anything other than facing the Ch’rack head on. “You’re starting to sound like Captain Adams.”

“There is wisdom in what she has to say. I’m not suggesting we abandon any of our planets. But until we know more about this enemy we should not risk our entire fleet. It may be that as time goes on and we learn more we can develop some tactic or weapon that will allow us to defeat them. But if we lose the majority of our battle fleet in the first engagement, our defeat will be assured. We will have nothing with which to oppose them any further.”

Flexor made to say something. Then he paused and turned to stare at the map of local space. “What if we tried a different tactic? We now have a good idea where the Ch’rack plan to launch their invasion from. We could amass all of our ships and strike at them first. If our ships could break through their fleet and strike their supply ships, they would be forced to withdraw. We would buy ourselves months, if not years to prepare for another invasion. That is, if they even decided to attack again.”

Before Sarah could say anything, Admiral Urana spoke up. She was shaking her head as she did. “That will not work. By the time we get to Majoue the Ch’rack fleet will have likely left the system their resupply ships are in. By attempting to attack them we will be dooming Majoue. And even if they haven’t, we do not have the strength to break through their full force. The tactic you suggest may very well be one we can adopt in the weeks ahead. Once the Ch’rack have spread out, their supply ships will be vulnerable. But the time for a counter-attack is not now.”

“What do my Admirals say?” Flexor asked.

As they spoke one by one, Sarah was relieved to find that none of them favored launching a pre-emptive strike. Admiral Treali was the last to speak. His words surprised Sarah. “I think there is wisdom in the path Kant has set before us. Whilst I find the idea of not giving Majoue our full support dishonorable, we must think of the entire Pack. The advances Captain Adams and the Hegarans have made to our ships have been much appreciated. Given more time, I’m sure there are more ways in which they can help us defend ourselves. Right now, our fleet is our best asset. We must try and preserve it until we are confident of being able to drive the invaders back.”

As Treali finished speaking, Flexor turned to look at Sarah. She kept her face impassive. “It seems you’re just as good at influencing my Admirals as you are my people Captain.” He paused for a moment and Sarah prepared to say something. Then he pressed on. “Very well. The Reaction Fleet will head to Majoue. My flagship and its flotilla will accompany Kant’s fleet. I’m also going to send orders to Lacombai to request they send a flotilla to join us. If you are willing Admiral Urana, I would like you to send your scout ship back to the nearest systems around Majoue. I want every flotilla we have on the border to concentrate at Majoue.”

“I will send orders to Rider immediately King Flexor,” Urana answered.

Flexor turned back to Sarah. “And you Captain Adams? Are you happy with this plan of action?”

Sarah hesitated. She was in two minds. She was delighted Flexor had seen some sense. Risking the entire fleet was asking for trouble. Yet, if he came, she knew he would insist on being in the thick of the fighting. Losing Flexor would almost be as bad for their cause as losing a significant proportion of his fleet. The succession would be contested and that was the last thing the Pack needed. She knew she wasn’t going to convince him to stay behind though. “Okay, that will work. But you need to be prepared to evacuate Majoue. In fact, the order should be sent with Rider now. Any civilians that can leave, should. You also need to be prepared for the eventuality that our ambush doesn’t blunt enough of their attack. If the Ch’rack reach Majoue with most of their fleet intact, we cannot face them in a straight up battle.”

“I hear what you’re saying Captain. We’ll consider what to do if that eventuality arises. For now, time is of the essence. Those mines must get to Majoue. I’ve made my decision. The Reaction Fleet leaves for Majoue within the hour. No doubt you all have work to do, go and see to it now.”

As everyone rose, Sarah made to go and speak with Flexor privately. She wanted to reinforce how important it was he stay out of harm’s way. To her frustration, he gave her a nod and then he turned and pushed his way out of one of the doors. Several Admirals followed close behind.

“I guess that’s that,” Kevin said as he stepped up beside her. “We better get back to Destiny and get ready to leave.”

“Yes,” Sarah agreed as she dismissed her concerns for Flexor. Destiny had a key role to play in the coming battle. She needed to be focused on her duty.

*

Nine days later the joint fleet dropped out of subspace on the edge of the Majoue system. Relief flooded through Sarah and the rest of the fleet when it became clear that the Ch’rack hadn’t arrived yet.

“We’re getting a signal from Flexor’s flagship. It’s text only,” Hannah reported. “It says, ‘happy hunting,’”

“That’s our cue,” Sarah said. “Take us back into subspace and towards the coordinates for the mines. Signal the freighters and Admiral Urana’s ships to follow.”

In all, it took eight hours for the freighters to position the mines around Majoue. It was a delicate operation. According to both Elder and human records , never before had one ship tried to release another into subspace. The freighters had to let each mine power up its own subspace field within their hulls, and then slowly move them beyond their own subspace fields. Sarah didn’t understand the math involved but Alexandra and one of the Hegaran engineers had assured them it would work.

When the freighters had deposited all of their mines, they were sent back to Majoue with news that the operation had been complete. Sarah hoped that Flexor would load the freighters up with civilians and send them back to Graet.

Once the freighters left, Destiny and her Hegaran consorts reverted to normal space. Sarah had arrayed the mines in a very specific pattern. In subspace they formed a crescent. The two ends tapered into points off Destiny’s starboard and port sides. The idea was that as the mines activated, the Ch’rack fleet would have to go through the thickest section of the minefield before they reached Destiny . That way, the most damaged ships should appear right where Sarah wanted them to.

“Now the waiting begins,” Kevin commented to the bridge as the last freighter disappeared off their sensors.

Sarah nodded. She didn’t know how long it would take the Ch’rack to attack. She had been surprised that they hadn’t reached Majoue before them. Now that they had everything in place, she didn’t think they would be too far away.

*

Sarah was proved wrong. It took a full three days for anything to happen. She was sparring with Kevin in one of the exercise bays when the report came in.

“Captain, the subspace buoy has just sent us a signal. There are hundreds of contacts approaching Majoue. They’re still a couple of hours out. But they’re definitely on their way,” Hannah reported.

Sarah held up her hands to signal Kevin that they were finished. “Acknowledged, we’ll finish up here and be on the bridge presently,” she sent to Hannah through her implant. “They’re here,” she said out loud. “Let’s get washed up and to the bridge.”

When she sat in her command chair Sarah wasn’t surprised to see Admiral Urana had a COM link open with Destiny . “I don’t know how you did it Captain but your predictions are uncanny. The Ch’rack are heading right towards our position. The mines are almost directly on their path of approach.”

“Well let’s hope we are both right about the effectiveness of these mines. A lot is riding on us and what we are about to do,” Sarah replied.

“That is why I am contacting you. I think you should be in overall command of our ships. You have by far the most combat experience. I’ll be your second. If you’re injured or Destiny is destroyed I’ll take over. But you have the better instincts for battle. I think we will fight better under your direction. I have it within my authority to appoint you as an Acting Admiral of Hegara. It is my intention to do so now.”

Sarah was taken aback. She and Urana had discussed at length how Destiny would fight with the Hegaran ships. She had also suggested some changes to the formation and tactics the Hegarans used. They weren’t major changes, but in going over how the Hegarans planned to fight their ships, a couple of clear weaknesses had immediately presented themselves. “I’m not sure that is the best idea Admiral. When I’m flying Destiny , my attention is solely focused on whatever evasive maneuvers I’m carrying out and giving my tactical officer the best firing solutions I can. Once the fighting starts, my situational awareness may diminish to the point where I won’t be any use to your ships.”

“Neither I, nor any of my Captains have seen combat Sarah. Once the fighting starts, all of us will be coming to grips with facing the enemy we have feared since childhood. I have no doubt I can command my ships, but I think given your experience we will be safer in this first battle if we are in your hands. The point of this engagement is not to get embroiled in a protracted battle. We need your experience. If the odds mount against us we need you to order us to retreat. My Captains know what they’re doing when it comes to fighting their ships. We need you to make sure we don’t get carried away and forget about the strategic situation.”

Sarah hesitated, then she decided Urana wasn’t giving her much choice. “Okay, I think I understand. I accept. We’ll stick to the plan. Your ships will fight in pairs. If one ship is damaged the other will cover it as both fall back. If one is destroyed its partner will retreat immediately. There is one change I will make. Rider was to fight alongside Destiny . I want Farfan to pull back. He is to observe the battle and, if things go badly, report back to Flexor. We need to collect as much battle data as we can. Rider can do more for us now by observing what happens and taking that data to safety. Destiny can handle whatever Ch’rack ships come against us without Rider for this battle.”

“I see the wisdom in your reasoning, though I don’t think Farfan will. I’ll let you inform him of your orders,” Urana said. “I’m going to go on one last tour around my ship before the battle commences.”

“Give your crew our blessing,” Sarah replied. She gave Urana the military salute Farfan had taught her. Urana looked momentarily surprised. Then she returned the salute and smiled before ending the COM channel.

“Open a channel to Rider ,” Sarah ordered. She did her best to keep her reluctance from her voice. She knew Farfan wasn’t going to be pleased.

“Admiral,” Farfan said with a smile when his face appeared in front of Sarah. “May I congratulate you on your promotion.”

Sarah rolled her eyes. “News travels fast.”

“Admiral Urana talked over her idea with us before contacting you. We all agreed to her suggestion. If half the stories you have shared are true, you are the most logical one to lead us into our first battle with the Ch’rack.”

“I’m glad you see it that way,” Sarah said as a small smile spread across her face. “It means you will have no option but to accept what I’m about to say. I’m ordering Rider to leave the flotilla. You’re to take yourself far enough away that you can observe the battle and then report back to Flexor. If things go badly, we need to know how and why the Ch’rack defeated us.”

Farfan jumped out of his command chair. “No way, I’m not leaving the flotilla. If my people have to fight the Ch’rack, there is no way I’m leaving them.”

Sarah waved her finger at him. “Is that how you would respond to a direct order from Admiral Urana?” she waited in silence until Farfan sat down and answered.

“No,” he said in lower tone.

“Is my promotion to Acting Admiral just for show?”

“No,” he repeated.

“Then you will do what I say. Defeating the Ch’rack is going to take more than this battle. You will get your chance to face them. Right now, I need you to do something more important.”

“Your orders are clear Acting Admiral, I will obey.”

“Thank you Farfan. I know it’s not easy but it has to be done.”

“Then I better go now, I don’t want any Ch’rack ships detecting my engine trail when they revert to real space. Good luck Acting Admiral. Keep my people safe.” Farfan finished with a salute of his own.

Sarah returned it. “I will do my best. You have my word.”

Once the COM channel ended she turned to Hannah. “How long until the lead elements of the Ch’rack fleet reach our minefield?”

“Thirty minutes Captain,” she replied.

Sarah nodded and pulled her crew into a battle meld. Then she accessed the attack plans she and Urana had come up with. If she was going to lead the flotilla into battle, she wanted to make sure there was nothing she had missed.

Chapter 34

The Ch’rack fleet approached Majoue unaware of the danger before them. One moment the lead elements of the invasion fleet were cruising through subspace with supreme confidence. There were no contacts on their subspace sensors and the scout reports of Majoue suggested only a small fleet was stationed there. The next, alarms were screaming at them.

As one, forty mines powered up their active targeting systems. Less than a second later they launched. It took the forty subspace missiles between two and three seconds to reach their targets. On the Ch’rack ships, automated systems kicked in and some point defensive weapons fired but they only scored two hits. Thirty-eight missiles struck Ch’rack ships. Many took more than one hit.

With the enemy alerted to their presence, the rest of the mines powered up their active sensors. They locked onto targets and fired. Before the Ch’rack Captains and Admirals knew what had happened to their lead ships, they found two hundred more missiles homing in on their fleet. Some found targets, most missed as the Ch’rack ships that had more of a warning carried out emergency reversions to real space, though they were dangerous in and of themselves. The middle and rear sections of the fleet desperately decelerated and veered away from the minefield. Confusion reigned.

*

Sitting stationary in normal space, Sarah had no way of knowing what was happening. The timer in front of her told her that the mines should have engaged, yet space around her was calm. In the blink of an eye everything changed. Destiny’s sensors went from detecting nothing, to filling the holo-projector with pandemonium.

Wrecks materialized out of nowhere all around them. There were five, then twelve, then twenty within the space of three seconds. Other ships appeared further away. Some were less severely damaged, most were fully functional and there were nearly a hundred of them.

Though she had expected it, it took Sarah a couple of seconds to take in what was happening. Then she kicked herself into action. She assigned targets to each of the five pairs of Hegaran ships. They would move towards the damaged Ch’rack ships in pairs and finish them off. She then assigned more damaged ships as secondary and tertiary targets to each pair. After that she let each senior Captain in the pair choose their own targets. She guessed by then it would be time to fall back anyway. Order was returning to the Ch’rack ships that had jumped out of subspace undamaged. The Ch’rack had been bloodied. Destiny’s sensors had already identified thirteen ships that were destroyed outright. Yet, the mines had only been partially successful. The middle and rear sections of the Ch’rack fleet hadn’t even jumped out of subspace. They would escape unscathed and seek revenge.

Sarah focused on the space around Destiny . There was an intact destroyer and frigate nearby. You’re mine , she thought. While the Hegarans took out damaged Ch’rack ships. She was going to go hunting for fully operational ones. Four seconds after the first Ch’rack ship explosively returned to normal space, Destiny’s engines powered up and the frigate shot towards her first target.

“Save the missiles,” Sarah sent to Kevin. “All ships will be within energy weapons range momentarily.”

“That’s what I was thinking,” Kevin replied.

Confident that the Hegaran ships could handle their initial targets without any difficulty, Sarah focused on scoring some quick kills. Recognizing the danger they were in, the enemy destroyer and frigate she had targeted closed with one another. They probably thought she was going to fire missiles at them and they were trying to cover each other with their point defense weapons.

“The frigate has opened fire,” Hannah reported. Two missiles had been released by the frigate. The destroyer quickly followed suit and launched three of its own.

“I can handle them,” Alexandra informed her. “You focus on shooting back.”

“We’ll take the frigate first, save the particle lance for the destroyer,” Sarah ordered.

As Destiny accelerated towards the frigate, a couple of explosions erupted around the edges of Sarah’s peripheral vision. A cursory glance with Destiny’s sensors told her that the Hegarans had already taken out two damaged Ch’rack ships. Then her attention returned to the frigate. Alexandra had opened up with her point defenses. In quick succession she shot down both of its missiles.

Before the destroyer’s missiles entered range, Kevin opened fire. Laser beams and tachyon pulses ate away at the frigate’s energy screen. Sarah carried out an occasional evasive maneuver. The frigate only had three laser cannons so it wasn’t hard for her to dodge most of their fire. Only one beam hit Destiny’s energy screen. Soon, explosions erupted across the frigate’s hull. The number of beams it was firing at Destiny dropped and then fell away to nothing. Then the frigate’s power readings dropped along with its engine thrust. Three more well-placed laser beams ripped the frigate in two and sent both halves spinning away from each other.

Sarah turned her attention to the destroyer. Its missiles had been taken out as well. Taking on so few targets was easy for Alexandra. Only two seconds after its consort was destroyed, the destroyer opened up with its laser cannons. With no incoming missiles to worry about, Sarah put a lot more effort into her evasive maneuvers. She didn’t want even a single beam to hit Destiny’s energy screen. The exchange of fire between both vessels continued for nearly twenty seconds. Sarah let out a couple of curses. Despite her best efforts, two beams had struck home. Destiny’s energy screen was down to eighty-nine percent. Even so, the Ch’rack destroyer was getting the worst of the engagement. Kevin had beaten its energy screen down to the point where laser beams passed through it and struck its hull. Then Destiny’s particle lance came into range. The weapon was notoriously difficult to fire at its maximum range. As its particle beam travelled at less than the speed of light it required a good deal of accuracy. However, Sarah wasn’t surprised to see the beam hit its target. Kevin was well practiced. The destroyer was obliterated.

“Good shooting,” she called out. Then she switched her attention to the battle at large. Twelve more Ch’rack ships were missing from Destiny’s sensors. Four more were being engaged by pairs of Hegaran ships. When she spotted the fifth pair, she pivoted Destiny and gunned her engines at one hundred percent thrust. Two Hegaran ships were taking on what looked like an intact Ch’rack cruiser. There was debris nearby suggesting they had been fighting at least one other ship as well. One Hegaran ship was showing signs of serious damage. The second ship, Urana’s flagship, Justice , was trying to protect it.

“All ships are to fall back to Majoue as soon as you destroy your current targets,” Sarah sent to her flotilla. Behind the intact cruiser trying to finish off the damaged Hegaran ship, more than thirty Ch’rack ships were closing in. The Ch’rack had realized what was going on and were closing with their damaged comrades to protect them.

Though she was sitting in her command chair, Sarah rocked back and forward as she urged her ship on. In trying to protect her damaged consort, Admiral Urana’s ship was taking hit after hit. The Hegaran cruiser’s energy screen flared as it tried to deflect laser beams and plasma bolts. One on one Sarah reckoned Urana could beat the Ch’rack cruiser easily, but she was fighting with one hand behind her back. Justice couldn’t carry out any evasive maneuvers for fear the laser beams would hit her damaged consort.

“Missiles,” Sarah ordered as soon as Destiny came into range.

Kevin was ready, eight missiles shot from Destiny’s missile ports before Sarah finished speaking. As soon as they were clear, Sarah checked the timer. The missiles would take two minutes to reach the cruiser. Two minutes was going to be a long time for Urana. Sarah smashed her fist into her command chair. There was nothing else she could do but watch.

When Swift , the ship Urana was trying to protect, turned slightly to stay out of the Ch’rack cruiser’s fire, Sarah saw the source of their problem. There was a gaping hole along her forward starboard sections. She had taken a direct missile hit. Her attention was drawn back to Urana’s flagship when a laser cannon exploded. Then two smaller heat blooms appeared on Justice’s hull. Beams were starting to pass through her energy screen. The Ch’rack ship was taking a hammering too, but it dodged many of Justice’s attacks.

“Her energy screen is almost gone, I estimate it to be at no more than twenty percent,” Hannah reported. Sarah could sense the anguish in her voice and through the battle meld.

Kevin sounded far calmer. “Just a few more seconds... There!” he shouted.

Sarah saw what he had been waiting for. The cruiser had switched priorities. Now it was trying to shoot down Destiny’s missiles. Its fire towards Justice slackened as it turned to face Destiny. They remember us from Til’ramon. They know we’re the bigger threat, Sarah realized.

“Captain, Urana is signaling us. She wants permission to turn her flagship around and join us against the cruiser,” Stephen informed Sarah.

Sarah glanced at the sensor readings of Justice . The Hegaran warship’s thrust levels and engine power were down. “Permission denied. Justice is to stay with Swift . They are to jump to subspace and back to Majoue as soon as they can. We will finish the cruiser.”

“They’ve acknowledged,” Stephen updated her moments later.

Sarah didn’t hear. She had her attention fixed on the Ch’rack cruiser. Kevin’s missiles were closing with it. Five had been destroyed, but three were still locked on. One more was destroyed. The final two closed to striking distance. Their final stage engines kicked in. Sarah started to sit back in her command chair. Two missiles would finish the cruiser. Then she sat forward. The cruiser had twisted just at the right moment. Both missiles shot past it. Detonating as close to their target as they could, both sent a wave of thermonuclear energy towards the cruiser. The Ch’rack warship burst through the explosion and continued on towards Destiny . Seconds later it opened up with its plasma cannons. Caught by surprise, several in the first wave struck Destiny’s energy screen. Sarah cursed and steadied herself. When the next wave of plasma bolts arrived, she was ready. She twisted Destiny through the gap Alexandra highlighted.

“Thirty seconds to energy weapon range,” Kevin let her know.

“Make every shot count, we need to get out of here before the rest of their fleet catches up.”

Destiny was travelling towards the Ch’rack cruiser, though Sarah was decelerating hard. If the cruiser knocked out one of Destiny’s engines or reactors, the Ch’rack ships closing in behind the cruiser would catch them.

As soon as Destiny could fire back, Kevin opened up with everything he had. Sarah dodged much of the cruiser’s return fire but she focused on giving Kevin easy shots. “Hold the particle lance until you are sure of a hit.”

“Understood,” Kevin replied.

“Energy screen down to seventy percent,” Stephen updated her.

“Firing,” Kevin shouted.

The beam of particles shot from Destiny’s nose. It covered the distance to the cruiser in three seconds. In that time, the cruiser travelled more than a thousand kilometers. It didn’t matter, Kevin had timed it perfectly. The cruiser had developed a pattern, it would fire one battery of laser cannons then twist to bring a second battery to bear. Kevin fired just as the cruiser twisted. Its movements were predictable. Though it got off three more laser beams, the stream of particles struck it a fraction of a second later. The lance tore down its energy screen and more than enough energy remained in the shot to rip through its armor. Secondary explosions erupted all around the forward section Kevin had hit.

“Is it dead?” Sarah demanded.

“I’m still analyzing the data,” Hannah replied. “Wait… It looks like it still has at least one reactor functioning. I’m detecting some energy bursts. I think they are trying to fire up one, maybe two of their engines. They are badly hurt though.”

“It will have to do,” Sarah said, looking at the Ch’rack ships closing with her. Destiny was on her own, the Hegaran ships had all jumped into subspace. In a few seconds the Ch’rack ships would pass the point in normal space where the subspace mines were in subspace. They would be able to enter subspace safely and pursue her. “Charge the subspace engine. Get us out of here.”

It took thirty seconds for Destiny’s subspace engine to form a subspace field around the frigate. Then it ripped a hole in normal space and Destiny transitioned into subspace. Sarah had taken a risk. If the cruiser had managed to get even a couple of its laser cannons online Destiny would have been a sitting duck. It had paid off though, they were safe. “Find the Hegaran ships, put us on an intercept trajectory,” she ordered.

Before anyone could acknowledge her order, alarms went off. Sarah saw them immediately. Sixteen Ch’rack ships had just entered subspace. They were beyond the range of the mines. Worse, they were within range with their own subspace missiles.

“They’re firing,” Hannah reported.

As forty subspace missiles leapt away from them, other ships began to track Destiny . Sarah felt a wave of despair wash through her crew. Forty was too many for Alexandra to have any hope of taking them all out. She assessed her options. She could order an emergency reversion to normal space though that would likely cause serious damage to her ship. More Ch’rack ships would be waiting there for her anyway. Anything is better than facing forty subspace missiles.

Just as she opened her mouth to give the order, she hesitated. Amidst the despair she felt a single shard of hope from Hannah. Before she could ask, Hannah was shouting. “Admiral Urana! They didn’t leave. Her ships are closing with us now.”

Sarah shifted her focus to Destiny’s aft subspace sensors. With the sudden appearance of the Ch’rack ships, everyone had been distracted. Urana’s flagship and seven of the Heragan ships had waited in subspace near where Destiny had been. As they approached, one of the ships wiggled in a funny way. Sarah recognized it as the code they had worked out. Ships couldn’t send COM channels to one another in subspace, but they could communicate in other ways.

“Urana is signaling. She is requesting permission to join the flagship.”

A smile spread across Sarah’s face. “Permission granted. Tell our allies to fall into formation Delta-three. As soon as they have joined with us, I want maximum acceleration away from those Ch’rack warships.” They had fired one missile salvo at her, she didn’t intend to give them the opportunity to fire a second.

“All ships are in formation,” Hannah updated Sarah.

“Target the front four warships in their flotilla. Fire every subspace missile we have at them.”

Kevin and Hannah spoke back and forth with each other as they worked out firing solutions with the Hegaran ships. Then forty-eight subspace missiles announced themselves on the sensors. Sarah was reminded of the disadvantage the Ch’rack had in subspace combat. It wasn’t enough to tempt her to drag out the engagement with the flotilla chasing them. Yet it was a weakness that had to be exploited in the future.

When the Ch’rack missiles came into range, point defensive weapons opened up. The forty Ch’rack missiles were easily dispatched.

The Ch’rack didn’t fare so well. Three of the four ships Sarah had targeted were struck by subspace missiles. They disappeared as the missiles ripped down their subspace field and forced them back into normal space.

“We’re out of missile range,” Hannah reported. “Twenty minutes to Majoue.”

“Look, they’re falling back,” Kevin commented.

Sarah nodded. “They’ll regroup and then they’ll come for us. Though I imagine they will exercise a little bit more caution.” Beyond the flotilla that had been pursuing them, Destiny’s sensors counted more than one hundred contacts in subspace. The vast majority were on the far side of the minefield sitting stationary. Sarah knew there were at least one hundred and fifty Ch’rack warships in normal space. From all the contacts Destiny’s sensors had counted it looked like they had brought the vast majority of their invasion fleet to Majoue.

“Battle report?” she requested.

Stephen took a few moments to organize his thoughts before answering. “Swift and Justice have both taken heavy damage. Urana hasn’t reported as yet, but I think both ships will have to fall back to Graet. They are in no position to fight again today. It could take two or three weeks to get them battle ready again. As for the Ch’rack. According to our sensors, we have twenty-four confirmed kills. That could rise once we combine our data with the Hegarans. Seven more warships were left severely crippled. Beyond that, there may be another half-dozen that were damaged when they reverted to normal space to avoid being hit by one of our mines.”

Twenty-four confirmed kills, Sarah thought. Seven more put out of action. It’s a start, but only a start . It had cost them two of their Hegaran ships. And there are more than two hundred and fifty coming straight for Majoue, she reminded herself as she glanced at the holo-projector. “Signal the Hegaran ships. Tell them, ‘Well done.’”

“They’ve all acknowledged Captain,” Stephen said.

“All right, good work everyone. Destiny didn’t do too bad either. This is only phase one, things are going to get a lot harder when we get to Majoue. I have a feeling Flexor is going to want a fight.” Sarah closed the battle meld. No doubt they would have to form it again soon and she wanted to give her crew some space to themselves.

Chapter 35

Hannah reported on the status of Flexor’s fleet as soon as Destiny ’s sensors detected them. “It looks like Flexor’s ships are in orbit around Majoue. There’s a long line of freighters heading away from the planet and at least another ten, maybe twelve in orbit.”

“Transmit our battle report,” Sarah ordered. She had prepared a short summary of their engagement with the Ch’rack along with a recommendation that Flexor pull his forces back. One hundred Pack ships had no hope of standing against more than two hundred fully functional Ch’rack warships. She also told him he needed to act fast. So far, the Ch’rack had been operating on a slower timetable than Sarah expected. Yet it wouldn’t take them more than a couple of hours to reorganize their fleet and continue the attack. They would be more cautious, but they would still make it to the system right on Destiny’s heels. “Take us in towards Majoue.”

When Destiny got close enough for two-way communication, Flexor’s flagship opened a COM channel. As an image appeared on the holo- projector, Sarah was surprised to see a whole host of faces looking at her. Flexor had gathered his senior officers for a briefing. A couple of seconds after the channel was established, Admiral Urana appeared on another screen at the other end of the briefing room. She had transferred her flag to Impenetrable . Sarah had sent Swift and Justice back to Graet. They needed to begin repairs as soon as possible.

Flexor was the first to speak. “Captain Adams, Admiral Urana. Your ships fought bravely. You have given the Ch’rack a bloody nose. You have my thanks. Now we must decide what to do next.”

“We cannot just abandon Majoue,” one of Admiral Kant’s Captains said. “Millions of credits have been spent on the system’s orbital defenses. They are worth twenty cruisers easily. We should remain in orbit and use them to bolster our firepower.”

“It would be suicide,” Kant responded. “Majoue’s orbital defenses were designed to fend off a flotilla or small fleet. Not two hundred warships. Our entire fleet will be wiped out in the first missile exchange. Likely, we’d only manage to take a handful of Ch’rack ships with us.”

Sarah could see stress lines along Flexor’s face. “I will not leave this planet undefended. We must make a stand.”

Kant held up his hand as a sign of appeasement. “I’m not suggesting we simply flee. We need to give the Ch’rack a fight here. If we simply abandon the system it will embolden them. They will attack every nearby system without fear. If we can give them another bloody nose, it will buy us time. But we must do so in a way that gives us a chance to retain most of our fleet.”

“What are you thinking?” Flexor pushed.

“It’s actually an idea Captain Adams shared with me. It’s a tactic that might work.”

Every face in the briefing room turned to Sarah. Sarah stared at Kant. When she was slow to respond Kant give her a prompt. “You detected over two hundred and fifty contacts either in subspace or normal space. Yet they can’t all be warships. If the Ch’rack intend to harvest Majoue, some of the contacts must have been troop ships. Maybe even a significant proportion.”

Sarah smiled as it dawned on her what Kant was thinking. “Yes, it might work. It will still be risky. We could lose the fleet.”

“Whether we fight the Ch’rack here or somewhere else, there will always be risks involved,” Kant replied.

Flexor interrupted them. “As I already said, I’m not leaving the system without engaging the Ch’rack. Now would one of you two please tell me what you’re talking about.”

Sarah shared the tactic she had discussed with Kant back on Graet. She had to make up some of the details on the spot as she hadn’t envisaged using it in circumstances quite like this. But, with a few tweaks, it would work. Crucially, as she sketched out the details, she made sure it would give the combined fleet a chance to escape if things went against them.

“So that’s it,” she concluded. “It will give us a chance to strike the invasion fleet whilst also leaving us an escape route. I’m nervous about attempting it though. Even if they have one hundred troop ships, the other one hundred and fifty contacts have to be warships. That many will overrun us if they can bring us to battle.”

“I understand the risks,” Flexor replied. “What do you think Kant? You suggested this after all.”

“The battle plan is a good one. I like it, at least, I like it better than sitting in orbit and waiting for them to bombard us. It should also give the freighters in orbit time to evacuate more of the population.”

“So be it,” Flexor said with a nod. “If it can work the fleet must depart immediately. You may return to your ships. Captain Adams and Admiral Kant, you two will liaise with one another to work out the finer details and send them to me. Kant will be in overall command of the fleet.”

*

Three hours later Kant had his ships in position. Rider had just jumped into the system from subspace. Farfan had detected the Ch’rack fleet; they were thirty minutes away and on a direct intercept course for Majoue. The orders Sarah expected came from Kant’s flagship moments later. Ten ships cut their power and became as stealthy as they could. Then, ten minutes later, the rest of the ships in the fleet did the same.

“There they are,” Hannah reported when new contacts appeared on Destiny’s sensors. Twenty ships had just jumped out of subspace. Then the numbers rose exponentially.

“Admiral Dagaroth’s fleet?”

“They’re looking menacing. The ship that is meant to be Destiny even has a passing resemblance.”

“Good.” A key part of Sarah’s plan involved a small flotilla of Pack ships remaining in orbit around Majoue. They would retreat at the last second. Until then, they were to keep the Ch’rack’s attention. Admiral Urana had suggested that a number of sensor drones be attached to a Pack freighter to give off a similar electromagnetic signature to Destiny . Her thinking was that if the Ch’rack thought that Destiny was at Majoue, then that’s where the main defensive fleet would be. Sarah had quickly agreed.

The Ch’rack fleet took ten minutes to form up and then it moved. The lead element of one hundred and fifty warships moved towards Majoue. Then, five minutes behind them, the second fleet followed. Though Destiny was only using her passive sensors, now that the Ch’rack ships were much closer the troop transports were easily distinguished. There were sixty of them. Around them, eighty more warships were acting as escort. The Ch’rack fleet was slightly bigger than their earlier sensor readings had suggested.

“Course correction coming in from Retribution . Kant wants the fleet to turn onto heading three four point seven six three,” Stephen reported.

“Acknowledge the order,” Sarah replied. Every ship in the joint fleet was linked via laser COM. No stray communications would alert the Ch’rack to their presence. Over the space of two minutes the ships used their maneuvering thrusters to gradually change their heading. It brought them onto an intercept course with the rear Ch’rack fleet. For twenty minutes they closed with their target. Kant had taken his fleet out of the Majoue system to begin their maneuver. They were coming in behind the invaders.

Retribution is signaling again. The lead flotilla will begin their attack run in two minutes,” Stephen updated everyone.

Here we go , Sarah thought. Five minutes passed quickly. Then the lead flotilla announced themselves. Sarah already had Destiny’s interface helmet on and she saw the ships appear as if from nowhere. The ten ships powered up their engines and accelerated towards the rear Ch’rack fleet.

The Ch’rack’s response was immediate. There were twenty warships arrayed around the central formation of troop ships on the side of the Ch’rack fleet the Pack ships were accelerating towards. They all decelerated and clustered close together to form a single fleet ready to intercept the Pack ships.

Sarah waited, holding her breath. The next move the Ch’rack made was vital. At first, her hopes soared. No other ships moved out of their defensive formation. It looked like whoever was commanding the rear fleet was confident his twenty warships could defeat ten Pack warships. Then, another ten moved towards the defense fleet. Then another ten. Forty is okay , Sarah thought. We can engage forty. Then another fifteen ships broke away from their positions. More came after them, in ones and twos. Within four minutes, sixty-four ships had formed up to receive the ten Pack ships.

Sarah’s heart sank. She didn’t have to go over the numbers. The odds were very much against them. Kant had brought fifty-six warships from Graet. Another fifty-three had come from nearby systems. With Destiny and the eight Hegaran ships, that meant they had one hundred and sixteen against the Ch’rack’s sixty-four. It was nowhere near enough. Even so, Flexor wouldn’t back down. Using the laser COM link to Kant’s flagship, she sent him a private message.

One missile salvo and we need to get out of here. Our tactic gives us the advantage in the first salvo. If we stay and fight them any longer they will crush us.

Sarah felt a small amount of relief when his reply came back.

Agreed.

“Admiral Kant is signaling the fleet. ‘All ships are to prepare for a deceleration burn as soon as we open fire.’” Stephen told Sarah.

Sarah gave him a mental nod through the battle meld. She was doing her best not to run the numbers. As their ships were moving towards the Ch’rack fleet and the Ch’rack were decelerating towards them, the range of their missiles would be longer than normal. On the other hand, the Ch’rack missiles would have to accelerate hard simply to overcome the momentum carrying them deeper into the system towards Majoue. The Ch’rack warships wouldn’t be able to use their plasma cannons either. She suspected they wouldn’t need to, their numbers would be effective on their own.

“The ten Pack ships are about to catch up with us. We’ll be in missile range in another minute,” Hannah reported.

“Prepare to match their course and speed,” Sarah ordered. Having cut their engines after the small flotilla, the majority of the joint fleet ships had been coming in stealthily ahead of the ten that had already revealed themselves. The Ch’rack would get a surprise when they saw just how many ships they were facing.

Destiny and the rest of the joint fleet announced themselves by powering up their reactors and engines. Sarah had to give the Ch’rack some credit. The fleet that was decelerating to engage them didn’t falter. Behind them, every ship that had been escorting the troop ships turned to reinforce their brethren. The Ch’rack fleet that had been heading towards Majoue also decelerated. It looked like they were coming back to take over the protection of the troop transports. Good , Sarah thought. Flexor will be happy, our attack has brought more time for the evacuation of Majoue.

“Firing,” Kevin reported as Destiny launched eight missiles. Thirty seconds later the Hegaran ships opened fire and fifteen seconds after that, the Pack ships added their own missiles. They were timed to reach the Ch’rack fleet together. As soon as the Pack ships fired, Sarah flipped Destiny nose over tail and fired her engines. Every ship under Kant’s command carried out the same maneuver.

Then the Ch’rack fired. The joint fleet had released three hundred and sixty missiles. The Ch’rack returned fire with four hundred and ten. Through the battle meld Sarah felt the emotions of her crew spike. Never before had they faced so many missiles. “If they target each ship in our fleet equally, that’s only four missiles for Destiny . We can easily shoot them down,” she said. She left out the fact that if the Ch’rack had detected Destiny , likely many more would be aimed at her.

“Sarah, look at the acceleration profiles.” Kevin sounded concerned. He had spoken to her through their neural implant so only she could hear.

She didn’t have to look. She knew what she would see. “It was always going to be this way.” The maneuver Kant had ordered after firing their missile salvo meant his ships would reach Majoue’s mass shadow before the Ch’rack could catch them. Yet any ships that were damaged would fall into the hands of the pursuing Ch’rack. The massive wave of incoming missiles wouldn’t have to destroy their targets outright, they would just have to cause some minor damage to score a kill. The only consolation was that the joint fleet would get to see their missiles strike home.

Hannah reported activity faster than Sarah had been expecting. “They’ve opened up with their plasma cannons.”

“That’s a very long range to be trying to shoot down missiles,” Trask commented. “Unless they focus on a single sector of space,” he added.

His words were proven correct. Within five seconds of opening fire, a missile detonated. Six seconds later another one very close to the first did so as well. “With nearly seventy ships, with at least six plasma cannons each. That’s a lot of plasma bolts. If they fired them all to cover a small area, they are bound to get a hit here and there,” Kevin agreed. “And it’s working.”

For just over a minute the Ch’rack fired their plasma cannons at the missiles. In all, they destroyed eleven. It wasn’t much, but every missile destroyed counted for something. They only ceased fire with their plasma cannons when they opened up with the rest of their point defenses. Sarah had never seen anything like it. Destiny’s sensors were all but overwhelmed. With exploding anti-ship missiles, smaller anti-missile missiles and hundreds of laser beams zipping through space, it was impossible to tell what was going on. The intense firefight continued for more than forty seconds. Then a far greater explosion blinded Destiny’s sensors. A thermonuclear warhead had detonated. Within a blink of an eye, many more detonations erupted across the Ch’rack fleet.

Sarah strained her senses as she tried to make out what had happened. Slowly, Destiny’s sensors made sense of what was going on. Fifty-one contacts were still moving towards the joint fleet. Six more were falling out of formation, clearly damaged. Seven had simply disappeared, the missiles had wiped them out. She could guess what Kant and Flexor were thinking. She was thinking the same thing. So few . The rest of the Ch’rack fleet was coming on as if nothing had happened. They were ready and eager for battle.

“Opening up with point defenses,” Alexandra announced as Destiny’s weapons tried to destroy the missiles targeting her. Soon the Hegaran warships added their own point defenses and then the Pack ships. When they did, space around the joint fleet became as confusing as it had been around the Ch’rack fleet. It got even worse when the ships of the joint fleet launched drones. They had all been outfitted with sophisticated ECM packages. When the amount of electromagnetic energy bombarding Destiny’s sensors threatened to blind Sarah, she did her best to keep a track of the three missiles that were still tracking Destiny . Alexandra had taken out six. The final three were about to be her responsibility. Twisting Destiny, she tried to get them to lock onto one of the drones she had launched. One missile took the bait but the other two continued on. As other missiles detonated, Sarah lost track of those targeting Destiny . Going on pure instinct, she twisted and rolled her ship. As she did, she felt something she hadn’t felt in a long time well up and threaten to overtake her. She was afraid. It passed almost as quickly as it appeared when nothing happened for she thought she had been successful. Then a massive wave of explosive force crashed into the energy screen and her fear returned. A fraction of a second later another wave followed the first. Alarms went off in Sarah’s mind and as the explosive force peeled armor off Destiny’s hull it felt like she was losing a part of her own body.

Trying not to scream, she pulled her mind back from Destiny’s outer sections. Instead she sent it to the reactor room. She sought out Jake. “What damage?” As chief engineer, Jake would be linked to Destiny’s reactors and engines. It wasn’t the same as how Sarah could use the interface helmet to command Destiny , but he would have a near instantaneous awareness of what was going on.

“We’re okay, I think,” Jake replied. He sounded more than a little relieved to Sarah. “We’re still accelerating towards the mass shadow. We’ve lost a few percentage points of thrust, but that’s all.”

We are getting out of here , Sarah thought. She was ashamed when she realized the selfishness of her reaction to Jake’s report. Her shame increased when she peered towards the joint fleet with what was left of Destiny’s external sensors. Nineteen contacts were missing. They were all Pack ships. Twenty-two more were falling behind. Many looked so damaged that Sarah was shocked that they hadn’t exploded from a reactor overload, or lost structural integrity and simply been ripped apart. From almost all of them, secondary explosions were releasing gas, debris and bodies into space. One relief was that both Flexor’s and Kant’s flagships were among the ships still putting out enough thrust to escape. Though Flexor’s ship looked like it had taken at least one missile strike. Among the Hegaran ships, two had been hit by missiles. Both of their energy screens had been knocked down, but, like Destiny , their hull damage was superficial. None of the Pack ships that had been hit had been so lucky. Their weaker energy screens meant that a far greater amount of the missiles’ destructive energy struck their hulls.

Forty-one ships , Sarah thought. They’re all lost. Nearly half of Kant’s fleet. It would take the Pack shipyards more than two years to rebuild the ships that had been lost over the last fifteen minutes.

“Signal from Kant’s flagship,” Stephen reported. “All ships that can are to maintain current course and speed. All ships that cannot are to evacuate and scuttle. Shuttles launched in the next five minutes should be able to reach us. You must make haste.”

“So that’s it,” Sarah sent to Kevin through their implants. “Defeat. Majoue will fall. The Ch’rack will harvest its population. And then what? Planet after planet will fall. What can we do?”

It took Destiny ten minutes to reach Majoue’s mass shadow and jump into subspace. In that time, Kevin was unable to come up with any answers. The sense of failure Sarah was getting from him was shared by all of Destiny’s crew.

Chapter 36

Death Blow , Graman Pack warship, Jacok System

Under Admiral Sarr felt her fur stand on end. The scouts had warned her what was coming yet seeing it in person was different. Sixty Ch’rack warships had dropped out of subspace. They were accelerating towards the third planet in the system she was responsible for. Three hundred million Jarcosies lived on Jacok Prime. In the two weeks since the fall of Majoue, two hundred thousand had been evacuated. The Jarcosie people would live on. But their homeworld was about to be overrun.

“Signal the freighters in orbit. Tell them they are to recover their shuttles and prepare to depart. They have ten minutes,” she ordered.

“Yes Admiral,” one of her subordinates acknowledged.

“What is the fleet’s status?” she followed up.

A different subordinate answered. “All ships are operating at optimal levels. They are ready to move as soon as you give the order.”

Sarr nodded. Her orders were clear. She had two cruisers, five destroyers and four frigates under her command. Jacok Prime’s orbital defenses were hers to control. They had the firepower of ten more cruisers. King Flexor had ordered all Pack worlds to be defended. She was to keep her ships in orbit and fire a missile salvo at the invading forces. Then, if she thought the odds were against her, she was to break orbit and flee. Though she understood the need for the orders, she didn’t have to like them. If the Protection Fleet just abandoned any world the Ch’rack attacked, they would ravage every planet within the Pack in weeks. By fighting, they were slowing down the Ch’rack invasion. At a great cost though. She had little hope for herself. Even if she fired a missile salvo and tried to flee, she had little doubt the Ch’rack would pursue her. They could split their fleet. One half could engage the orbital defenses whilst the other half made sure she didn’t escape. If she was in command of the superior force, she knew that’s what she would do.

“Freighters are ready to break orbit,” Sarr was informed.

“Tell them to get moving.”

Sarr watched the Ch’rack approach. She had nothing else to do. She already had her defenses prepared. Everyone in her fleet knew what was expected of them. On Jacok Prime the population were preparing themselves. No new fleet reinforcements had arrived since the fall of Majoue. Yet, ground forces and weapon supplies had been pouring into the planet. The population had been organized as best it could into volunteer militia units. The major cities had been abandoned and the people had been sent out into the forests and mountain ranges. If the Ch’rack wanted to harvest Jacok Prime, they would have a fight on their hands. Hopefully that will slow them down some more, Sarr thought. She had spoken at length with the military commander Flexor had put in charge of Jacok Prime’s forces. He had been given a suicide mission yet he was determined to make the Ch’rack bleed for every native they tried to capture or kill.

The Jarcosies themselves had been quick to take up arms. Though hardly any of them served in the fleet or the military, they were showing an aggressive side no one in the Pack thought they had. Fighting for your very survival will do that to you , Sarr guessed. And that’s just what you have to do here as well, she added to give herself some steel for the coming fight. Her homeworld was on the other side of the Pack. Yet today she was fighting as much for its survival as for Jacok Prime’s. If the Ch’rack couldn’t be stopped the entire Pack would fall.

Opening a COM channel to her ships, Sarr shared what she needed to hear. “There’s no hope we will stop them here, but if we do our duty, we can teach the Ch’rack just how much it will cost them to invade a Graman Pack world. We’re fighting for our families, our homeworlds. Let’s not let them down.” With a nod to her COM officer she ordered him to end the message.

She watched the Ch’rack approach. Then their formation changed. Sarr sat forward in her chair. No, she cried to herself when she saw what was happening. Six ships were breaking off from the main Ch’rack fleet. They were moving onto an intercept course for the freighters. One of her navigation officers updated the display on her command chair. The warships wouldn’t catch the freighters. But they would reach the edge of the system twenty minutes behind them. They would jump into subspace and catch the freighters there. Sarr pulled up another file. There were thirty thousand Jarcosies on the freighters.

Sarr stared at the display for several seconds. “Get me Captain Gracad.”

“He is on the COM channel now Under Admiral.”

“Captain, I’m promoting you to Acting Commodore. You’re to take command of the fleet and break orbit. I want you to intercept the ships pursuing the freighters. Take them out, or at least delay them. We have to let the freighters escape.”

“What about you Under Admiral?

“I am staying here, my orders are to defend Jacok Prime. We will put up as good a fight as we can. If you can defeat the Ch’rack ships, leave with the freighters. This was always a suicide mission. At least now you might have a chance to escape.”

Sarr thought Gracad was about to refuse. “This isn’t a discussion Acting Commodore. You have your orders. Good luck.”

“And to you Under Admiral,” Gracad replied. “Make sure you take as many of those scum with you as you can.”

“You have my word,” Sarr replied. “Now get going.”

She returned to watching the Ch’rack fleet. As the rest of her ships broke orbit and departed, the tension on the bridge spiked. Now her crew weren’t just facing impossible odds, they were facing them alone. With nothing she could think to say to lighten their mood, Sarr kept quiet. Each knew what they had to do.

“The Ch’rack fleet is decelerating,” a subordinate updated Sarr. “They are following a deceleration profile consistent with entering orbit. Sixteen of their ships are falling behind.”

Sarr waved a hand to acknowledge the information. “They will be troop ships and a few escorts.”

Data from the attack on Majoue indicated that each troop ship could hold forty thousand soldiers. Her flagship’s sensors had detected ten of them in the fleet that was trailing behind the main group of Ch’rack warships. Even with four hundred thousand ground troops, the Ch’rack would be heavily outnumbered. Yet they will control the orbitals . Sarr would not like to be on Jacok Prime then. Living in constant fear of an orbital strike would fray her nerves within hours. Hopefully we can reduce the number of ships that will be bombarding the planet , she said to herself. With six warships pursuing the freighters and sixteen contacts falling back, there were only thirty-six closing with the planet.

“Defense platforms are to open fire as soon as the Ch’rack come into range,” she ordered. The platforms were equipped with large multistage missiles. The range was nearly fifty percent greater than her flagship’s. The Ch’rack would know that though, they had fought similar defense platforms at Majoue.

“Defense platforms are firing,” the subordinate reported.

Sarr watched the sixty missiles as they accelerated away from Jacok Prime. Beyond the planet she was defending, Gracad engaged his targets as well. The sensor data he was sending back indicated that the six warships he was engaging were frigates. Sarr felt the first sliver of hope she had experienced since hearing of Majoue’s fall. Gracad’s flotilla might stand a chance against six frigates.

When the missiles from the defense platforms reached the Ch’rack’s point defensive range, they began to disappear. They started to go in ones and twos, and then the numbers climbed quickly. Only four missiles got close enough to detonate amongst their targets. When her flagship’s sensors got a firm lock on the approaching fleet after the detonations, only one Ch’rack ship was missing. There weren’t even any damaged ships falling out of formation.

As soon as they got close enough, the Ch’rack warships opened fire. Two hundred and four missiles were inbound. With only seven targets, that meant there were nearly thirty missiles per target.

“Bring us alongside defense platform three, we’ll add our point defensive fire to theirs. Maybe we can both survive long enough to get a few more shots off,” she ordered. “I want defense platforms one to three to target contact alpha-four with energy weapons, platforms four to six are to target alpha-seven.

With no need for engines, storage bays, large crew quarters and many other things, the defense platforms essentially had three components; reactors, energy screen projectors and weapons. The laser cannons the defense platforms had out ranged Sarr’s flagship by sixty percent. Targeting at such ranges was difficult, but if they hit, they packed a punch.

When the Ch’rack missiles were halfway towards their targets, the defense platforms opened fire. “One hit,” a subordinate reported. The heat bloom on contact alpha-four was unmistakable. The Ch’rack warships began more vigorous evasive maneuvers.

“What is the status on the defense platforms’ missile ports. Will they be reloaded in time?”

“Current estimates suggest they will be ready to fire again in three minutes. The Ch’rack missiles will enter point defense range in three minutes twenty seconds,” a subordinate reported.

“Order them to open fire as soon as they are ready.” Firing missiles would momentarily blind their sensors, rendering their point defensive weapons useless during that time. Yet hurting the Ch’rack was more important.

“Another hit on alpha-four, she’s falling out of formation,” someone on the bridge shouted.

Sarr banged her fist on her command chair in celebration. “Platforms one to two will switch to contact alpha-two.”

“Point defenses are opening fire.”

Sarr switched her attention to the incoming missiles. There were so many of them. Far more than she had ever seen before. The defense platforms had substantially more point defense weapons than her flagship. Even so, they weren’t destroying the missiles quick enough. Two hundred became one hundred and eighty, then one fifty. As they got closer, they were easier to target. They were soon reduced to one hundred and twenty. Then the defense platforms opened fire with their own missiles. Sarr’s flagship added six more to the salvo.

By the time their missiles moved far enough away to allow the orbital platforms to open up with their point defenses again, the Ch’rack missiles had almost closed to attack range. Twenty-three more were destroyed. Then just under one hundred crashed in on the six defense platforms. Energy screens flared as they absorbed detonation after detonation. Platform one was the first to go down. Two missiles punched through it and struck its armor, detonating together. Sarr didn’t have time to see what happened next, missiles were detonating all around defense platform three and her flagship. Knowing it was the end, she looked towards Gracad’s flotilla. Her heart soared when she spotted them. All six Ch’rack frigates were gone. Gracad’s flagship was gone as well along with most of his ships. Yet two destroyers and a frigate remained. They were accelerating hard after the freighters. At least some of us will survive . It was Sarr’s last thought. Three missiles targeting her flagship detonated one after the other. The explosive force tore down the cruiser’s energy screen and ripped into the warship. The bridge was obliterated in the blink of an eye. None of the orbital platforms survived either.

Even though their motherships were gone, the thirty-six Pack missiles continued towards their targets. Only four made it to attack range. Two scored proximity hits causing minor damage. The final two targeted the same Ch’rack destroyer. The first weakened its energy screen and the second gutted the warship.

The missile salvo changed nothing. With their opponents destroyed, the Ch’rack fleet settled into orbit. They spread out and conducted a detailed survey of the defensive positions the ground forces had taken up. Then the orbital bombardment began. Jacok Prime was theirs for the taking.

*

Walking down one of the corridors in Flexor’s palace, the sense of despair and shame was so thick Sarah could almost reach out and touch it. A number of officials and aides were carrying out various tasks. Though they walked quickly with clear purpose, their faces told a different story. Many had lost hope, despair was taking over.

Sarah understood. It was six weeks to the day since Majoue fell to the Ch’rack. In that time three more systems had fallen; Jacok Prime, Yacanta and Frogan. Scout reports from each planet suggested that the fighting on the surface of all three colonies was intense. It was only a matter of time though. With large fleets in orbit around each colony, there was no way aid could be brought to the defenders. They were on their own. Sooner or later they would be defeated.

Almost as bad as the loss of the planets were the fleet losses. The brief battle at Majoue had shown the Protection Fleet just how outclassed it was. The subsequent battles had only confirmed it. Only from Jacok Prime had any ships managed to escape. The rest of the defense fleets had been wiped out.

Each time news of another world falling to the Ch’rack came in, the morale on Graet took a hit. Flexor was keeping a tight hold on all information from the front. As the situation was getting worse and worse, the public was being told less and less. She suspected and feared that was why she had been called to meet with Flexor; he was likely about to inform her that another world had fallen. There were three or four likely candidates where she expected the Ch’rack to strike next. Any one of them could have fallen. None had more than a small flotilla of ships protecting them.

When she knocked on the door, Admiral Kant met her. “Come in Captain. You are just in time. Admiral Treali is about to brief us. There is more news from the front.”

As Sarah stepped into the room, she saw it was a full meeting of the War Council. Sarah smiled at Kant and patted his shoulder as he stepped aside to let her in. Then she made her way to her usual seat. Admiral Urana nodded to her as she sat down. Sarah returned the gesture.

Moments later Flexor’s loud voice brought the meeting to a start. “More grave news has come from the front. Admiral Treali?”

“Yes, I’m afraid Ver’xa has been lost. The frigate Nimble was the only ship that managed to escape. Like the other worlds, the Ch’rack attacked with an overpowering fleet. Fifty ships entered the system, destroyed the defense fleet and the planet’s defense platforms. Sensor logs report three Ch’rack ships were destroyed. Under Admiral Arac sent one frigate away to bring news of the attack. As far as we know, no other ships managed to escape the system. When Nimble entered subspace three Ch’rack warships were nearby, a small freighter fleet had left Ver’xa two hours before the attack. Nimble’s Captain believes the Ch’rack warships ambushed the freighters and destroyed them. The attack happened five days ago.”

Sarah felt the mood around her worsen. Ver’xa was not one of the outer planets that had been thought to be in the biggest danger of being attacked. It was deeper within Pack space and its loss brought the Ch’rack fleet one step closer to Graet itself.

“There is more,” Treali continued. “One of our scouts watching Majoue has returned. The Ch’rack have moved their resupply ships to Majoue. Doing so will considerably shorten the time it takes to resupply their invasion fleets and launch another attack. They also appear to be holding about one hundred warships in Majoue to act as a strategic reserve and protect the resupply ships. As things stand, I expect news of two or maybe three other systems being attacked will come in over the next two weeks.

Sarah watched Flexor as Treali spoke. He looked paralyzed. Five worlds had been lost under his command. By Sarah’s count, the Protection Fleet had lost over ninety warships. Since Majoue, Flexor hadn’t done anything but order his fleets to hold their position and defend each planet. He had organized weapons and ground troops to be sent to the planets most in danger of being attacked, yet that was all. No new strategy, no alternative tactics had been approved. The Protection Fleet couldn’t go toe to toe with the Ch’rack and win. And now he knows it, Sarah said to herself, he is holding his ships back . He won’t send any away from his main worlds to reinforce the worlds most in danger.  At the start of the Ch’rack’s invasion Sarah had cautioned against trying to take them on in battle. But now that they were spreading their forces out, opportunities to attack them would come. If Flexor allows us to.

Flexor looked up and caught her staring. “Do you have any news Captain Adams. What of the requests for aid you have sent?”

Sarah held his gaze, she wanted him to see she hadn’t lost hope yet. “No word has come back yet. I wouldn’t have necessarily expected to hear anything by now though.”

“Maybe, maybe not. Not hearing anything doesn’t bring us any hope though.”

“No, it doesn’t,” Sarah had to concede.

“And it may turn out we have wasted a number of freighters for no purpose. They could have been used to evacuate more people to Graet.”

“I still think it was the right thing to do. Time will tell,” Sarah replied. She had convinced Flexor to send out eight freighters to nearby worlds that had been Elder Protector Worlds. They should all have intact battle fleets. The freighters had been sent to bring warning to the worlds and ask for help. Sarah hoped they would come. It was certainly in their best interest. Their worlds would be served better by fighting the Ch’rack over Graet rather than their own homeworlds. She knew doing what made sense wasn’t a guarantee. Many of the worlds wouldn’t have heard of Graet or the Graman Pack before, never mind the Ch’rack. They might conclude the story was a complete fabrication.

She had sent another messenger drone to Earth urging that whatever ships the Ruling Council was going to send, be sent quickly. As yet though, she hadn’t received any news from Earth. Not even a messenger drone telling her they had received her initial report about the Ch’rack. A part of her wanted to leave the Pack, race to Earth and make the Council send all their ships to fight the Ch’rack. Yet she knew she had to stay. She had a role to play here.

“I want to discuss our military dispositions,” Flexor said. “With Ver’xa’s fall, many more worlds are threatened. We need to move ground units to the threatened worlds and consider how our fleet can best be deployed to delay any more attacks.”

Sarah let the conversation wash over her. She had heard it all before. Simply moving five ships here or there wasn’t going to change a thing. The Ch’rack were going to attack wherever they wanted, and nothing was going to dissuade them. Instead she stared at the map of Pack territory. The worlds the Ch’rack had conquered were flashing in red. As she stared, Sarah felt a familiar feeling. It was like she was accessing some part of her mind she usually didn’t use.

She closed her eyes. The image was ingrained on her mind now, she didn’t have to look at it. Rather than fight the feeling welling up inside her, she gave in. Though a part of her feared what might happen, she couldn’t leave any stone unturned. If she had some kind of sixth sense, she had to access it. Something had allowed her to identify Majoue as the Ch’rack’s first target. She needed a similar epiphany now.

Other images flashed across her mind. Other space maps showing fleet dispositions and territory boundaries. As if she was watching a simulation, they changed as ships moved from planet to planet, battles were fought, worlds conquered. When one side won, another map appeared and another war played out. The images came one after the other, faster and faster. Almost every time the wars became bigger and covered more space. Then one last image appeared. Sarah recognized some of its features. She could see the Tyrilla Storm and the Orion Arm. Below some of the worlds she could see written text. She reached out with her hand to try and zoom in on the text as if she was using a holo projector.

What she saw made her recoil. “No,” she shouted as her eyes shot open and she jumped to her feet. The arm hadn’t been hers. It had belonged to an Elder. Worse, she had recognized it. This time she couldn’t shake the truth. It had been Gronkin’s, the Elder Admiral whose mind she had invaded using her implant.

Chapter 37

Suddenly aware of her surroundings, Sarah felt her face go red. Everyone was looking at her. Admiral Treali had his mouth open, clearly in the middle of saying something. Not knowing what else to do, she sat down. Her mind was racing. She had to explain herself. Yet she also had a million other thoughts. She wanted to talk to Kevin about what she had just seen. All the battles, they had been the Elder’s history, their real one. Gronkin had known about it. The official history in Destiny’s databanks said the Elders had come to dominate the galaxy without any real challenge. They had been the natural leaders of the galaxy. Now Sarah knew better, over more than a thousand years they had defeated and conquered numerous other species in multiple wars, the scale of which she had never imagined. And now the memories are mine, she gasped. She had taken more of Gronkin’s memories than she had realized. Better yet , she thought as she looked at the map of Pack space, she had his tactical knowledge. Gronkin had studied all his species’ historic battles. She now had that knowledge.

“They were trying to bait you into meeting them head on,” she said as she looked at Flexor. He looked confused and more than a little angry.

“Are you alright Captain? Do you need to retire? This is an important meeting. We are trying to save millions from enslavement or death. It is not something to be trite about.”

“I apologize King Flexor. It’s ah... well… I just had an epiphany.” Sarah responded when she figured out how to best describe her new-found knowledge. Just thinking about having so much of Gronkin within her made her shiver, she didn’t know how Flexor would feel about the truth.

“One that is going to help us I hope?”

“Yes, at least, I think so. I think I know what the Ch’rack were doing when they attacked Majoue, Jacok Prime and Horthgar. Look at where they are placed. Almost right beside each other, yet from there, they can threaten many other systems. I think they were trying to lure you out. To persuade you to bring your entire fleet to engage them before they could attack too many more planets.”

“How does that help us? That was the very thing you and Kant advised me not to do.”

“But look at the planets they have attacked in the last two weeks. Attacking Majoue, Jacok Prime and Horthgar allowed them to keep their fleets very close to one another. If you had gathered your fleet and tried to liberate any of those three worlds, the Ch’rack would have been able to concentrate their forces before battle was joined. With the planets they have attacked recently, they have abandoned that strategy.”

“So, if you have it figured out, what are they doing now?”

“They are creating a corridor towards Graet. Look at the positions of Cathat and O’rand. Their capture cuts the outer systems of your territory towards unexplored space in half. With Ver’xa’s fall, the Ch’rack only have to take I’nni to cut more systems off from one another. I think they are trying to cut a corridor of space they can patrol and monitor all the way to Graet. That way they can watch our fleet movements. If we try to reinforce any of the systems in one half of our space, they can strike at the other, or better yet, when they feel the time is right, they can strike at Graet, Lacombai and Nagushi. I think the Tarnock System will be their ultimate goal. From there they can strike at any of your three main shipbuilding systems. If any one of them falls, the war will be all but over.”

“That sounds like a sound plan,” Admiral Treali commented. “But you are basing it on just a handful of data points. The Ch’rack could have any number of targets in mind now that they have taken Ver’xa. If you had of been listening instead of sleeping, you would have heard us discuss some of them.”

“If I’m right, they will attack, I’nni, Elaror or Vac’ay next. In the next few weeks they will want to capture two or all three of them. Then they will move towards Tarnock and a position where they can threaten your three shipyards.”

“What would you have me do?” Flexor grumbled. “Guessing what the Ch’rack will do is all well and good. But how does it help us? Are you suggesting we heavily reinforce those three worlds?”

“No, quite the opposite,” Sarah said. “We don’t strengthen the defenses at any of the three. We need the Ch’rack to spread their forces out. If they want to control a corridor that cuts deep into your territory, they will need to station ships at each main world. That will reduce the ships they can use to attack new worlds, especially if they are holding a large fleet in reserve with their resupply ships.

“I suggest we wait and watch. If one of those three systems is attacked next, then we will know what way the Ch’rack plan to move. If we don’t reinforce, then the Ch’rack won’t think it necessary to send larger forces against the other two. That is when we should strike.

“We can move a fleet to a nearby system. Then, when we think their attack is imminent, we move to the system and intercept the invasion force in subspace. Subspace is where the Ch’rack’s advantages are lessened the most. If we can gather a big enough force we could defeat their attack fleet and drive them back. The Ch’rack fleet numbered somewhere around four hundred ships when they launched their invasion. By our best estimates they have lost forty-two ships destroyed and another sixteen seriously damaged. If we could defeat one of their smaller attack fleets and take it out, the Ch’rack would have to rethink their invasion strategy. They wouldn’t have enough ships to attack every world and hold them against us. Already the two hundred and fifty ships that are not a part of their reserve force are spread out over five worlds. As they capture more, they will have to be spread out thinner and thinner. If we can defeat a sizable fleet they won’t have the ships to cover all their conquests from a serious counter-attack.”

“You brought up a strategy similar before this war began. You’re asking me to abandon colonies to the mercy of the Ch’rack. We’ve seen what they’ve done on Majoue, and the other worlds they have taken. If we know they’re going to attack one of these three planets, I must reinforce them,” Flexor said slowly. He held Sarah’s gaze the entire time.

Sarah was all too aware he didn’t like the strategy she was proposing. Yet she pushed on. “This is our best chance. And perhaps you’re not abandoning your people to the fate you imagine. The Ch’rack can’t have an infinite number of ground troops. They’re already fighting large-scale battles on at least three worlds. If they have changed their tactics with regards to capturing planets, I believe they will also abandon their efforts to pacify every world they capture. They will simply take the orbitals and move on.”

“You’re asking me to bet the lives of millions of civilians on your hunch that the Ch’rack will stop landing ground troops. We have no evidence to support such an idea.”

Before Sarah could respond, Kant spoke up. “My King, we have detailed subspace sensor reports of the Ch’rack fleet. Given the number of warships we have encountered, the Ch’rack can’t have brought more than one hundred troop transports. We’ve already seen most of them land their troops on the planets they have captured. Sarah’s hunch would appear to be backed up by the data we have gathered. More importantly, if she is right about the Ch’rack’s next targets, it gives us a chance to engage them in a fair fight.”

“Your opinion is noted Admiral,” Flexor said without even turning to look at Kant.

Sarah winced for her friend. Since the defeat at Majoue, Kant had fallen down the pecking order in Flexor’s war council. Sarah understood, someone had to take the blame, yet Kant had fought his ships well against overwhelming odds.

“Now,” Flexor continued. “We’ve heard Captain Adams’ theories, what other strategies does my war council think the Ch’rack may employ? If we can predict their next targets, we can strengthen them with more ground forces and starships. At the moment, it seems to me our best strategy is to try and delay them as much as possible. The more they get bogged down in fighting for planets, the longer it will take them to attack the heart of our territory.”

Though Sarah listened to everything, she didn’t really take it in. The more she thought about what had happened to her, the more her skin crawled. She hated the idea of having Gronkin’s memories. They felt like her own. As well as the tactical and strategic knowledge she had, she could remember things from his childhood and his life as an Admiral. What might I remember next? Nuking a planet? she asked herself in horror.

“You have to embrace them,” Alexandra said, interrupting her thoughts. “There is nothing else you can do. And they can help us.”

Sarah ground her teeth. She knew Alexandra was right. But she didn’t want to admit it.

“Already they have made a difference. I know your thoughts, you can only see one explanation for the Ch’rack’s actions. What you said is true. Gronkin’s memories make it a certainty.”

Sarah fought back a sigh. Knowing what she now knew, she was confident none of the strategies the other admirals put forward or discussed would work. They might buy a week or two, nothing more.

“Okay, okay,” Sarah replied. “Give me time to think this through. Nothing will be decided here and now.”

Alexandra took a moment to reply. When she did she didn’t sound happy. “Fine,” she humped.

As the meeting went on, Sarah focused on her own thoughts. When it ended, she left quietly. She knew her opinion counted little more than Kant’s. Though she had shown her battle skills to Flexor and the others, she had been as involved in the defeat at Majoue as anyone else.

Walking down the corridor, she was surprised to feel a hand touch her elbow. Turning she expected to see Flexor. She guessed he was angry at her for bringing up the same tactics again and again. Instead it was Kant. With his touch, he gently indicated for her to join him in a side room.

He spoke as soon as the door closed. “Your explanation of the Ch’rack’s strategy makes the most sense. Engaging them in subspace also gives us the best chance we have. We have to plan to meet them.”

“How?” Sarah asked. “You’ve seen the changes that have come over Flexor since Majoue, he won’t risk his fleet and he won’t abandon a single inhabited world. Losing twenty small battles is no better than losing one large one, yet he doesn’t seem to see it.”

“I understand his desire to contest every world. My species is honor bound to protect Pack worlds, the King is doubly so. However, I think he will come around to your way of thinking. If you’re right and I’nni, Elaror or Vac’ay are attacked, he won’t be able to ignore your strategy.”

“What are you suggesting?”

“We need to work together to prepare the fleet. If Flexor changes his mind, we won’t have much time. Your ships and mine need to be ready to leave. We also need to work on the other admirals. If we can bring them around to our way of thinking, the decision to intercept one of the Ch’rack fleets may be made quickly. We can’t change Flexor’s mind now, but we can get ready to carry out your strategy nevertheless.”

Sarah nodded. “That we can do. Okay, I’m glad you’re with me. I’ll make sure Destiny and the Hegaran ships are ready to depart. If we can convince Flexor to dispatch your fleet with some additional units when the time comes, it may be enough.”

“Agreed,” Kant said as he held out his hand.

Sarah shook it. “Now, let’s return to our ships. I don’t want Flexor thinking we are plotting against him or something.”

Kant opened the door and stepped aside. “After you Captain.”

“Thank you, until the next war council meeting.”

As Sarah walked away she felt a little more confident about the future, yet she was still concerned about the memories that had suddenly become available to her.

*

“I assure you, nothing has changed. Your brain scans are identical to the last ones I took,” Alexandra said in a stern tone. She didn’t like Sarah questioning her.

“That can’t be,” Sarah replied. She was lying on a medical bed, Alexandra had just run a full body scan. “Something’s changed, these memories weren’t there yesterday.”

“They were,” Alexandra retorted. “The problem isn’t with your brain, it’s with you. Just because you couldn’t access them doesn’t mean they weren’t there.”

“What about the brain scans of me from before I entered Gronkin’s mind? How do the scans compare?”

“The doctors back on Earth already went through this with you, your brain was in a very fragile state after you delved into Gronkin’s mind. There were some neurological fluctuations, but they calmed down after a week or so. If you really did steal more of Gronkin’s memories, perhaps your brain was integrating them during that week. I am no expert on human neurology, that’s the best explanation I can give you.”

Kevin placed a hand on Sarah’s shoulder and gave her a squeeze. “Cheer up, I don’t see what’s so upsetting. You have the memories of what was supposedly the greatest living Elder Admiral bouncing around in your head. How is that not a good thing?”

Sarah shot him a dirty look. He knew how she felt about the Elders. She already had a part of their DNA implanted into her own. She didn’t want the memories of one of them in her head as well. If she had access to Gronkin’s tactical knowledge and childhood memories, what else might she find? “What if I start thinking like Gronkin?”

“Wouldn’t that be a good thing? Today’s revelation explains how you knew Majoue would be the Ch’rack’s first target. You put it down to intuition then, but maybe it was more. Maybe you accessed some of his memories then?”

Sarah sat up. She had feared something like that had happened then but she had put it to the back of her mind. Now she had no doubts. “It wasn’t the same as today, but it was similar. Yet that makes it worse not better. At least today I realized it wasn’t my memories that were allowing me to formulate strategy. Back then, I didn’t fully understand what was happening. What if I make decisions in the future based on some new memories I can suddenly access. Do you want me deciding the fate of a planet or a species if I’m thinking like an Elder?”

Kevin hesitated for a moment before replying. Through their bond Sarah knew she had touched a nerve. The Elders were happy to wipe out entire species on a whim. “You would never think like that, or do anything to another species like they would,” he insisted. “You are still Sarah, you’re still my wife, you’re still the woman who liberated Earth.”

Sarah placed a hand on Kevin’s. She appreciated his attempts to comfort her, but she could sense that they were forced. Neither of them really knew what this latest revelation would mean for the future. “There’s nothing I can do about it now, but I want both of you to watch me closely. If I do something out of character, we need to be aware of it.”

Kevin nodded. “Agreed,” Alexandra’s voice said through the medical facility’s audio speakers.

“Well then, let’s turn our minds to something more productive. Now that I’m able to access these memories, Alexandra has access to them as well. Just how much of your official Elder history do Gronkin’s memories contradict?”

“From what I can tell, nearly the first two thousand years. I can’t fit the battles Gronkin was aware of together in one linear chronological line, but my best estimates given the technologies Gronkin knew were used in each battle, suggests that for nearly the first two thousand years of the Elder’s existence, they were involved in many conflicts. It appears their empire grew by conquering rival empires. From some of the wars it would seem the Elders even encountered more powerful and numerous species. They had to fight against the odds to defeat some of their rivals.”

Kevin sat down beside Sarah. “So what we have in the Orion Arm is actually an anomaly you’re saying? If the Elders conquered other species that had many colonies themselves, one enslaved species could be spread out over hundreds of worlds rather than what we have here with pretty much one world per species.”

“That would be a reasonable assumption,” Alexandra responded “It also makes what your ancestors did all the more impressive. That they managed to damage and destroy several Elder warships must have scared the Elders. Even if they weren’t fully aware of their deeper history back then, they must have been shocked to encounter a single world that could threaten their ships. If they had taken down multi-system empires in the past, one world standing up against them would have made your species stand out as a threat.”

“It makes you wonder how the Elders lost much of their history. Many of their population seem to be unaware of it,” Sarah commented.

“I don’t think we are going to find an explanation in your new memories,” Alexandra replied. “Simply knowing about these wars and battles doesn’t tell us why they have been all but forgotten. Clearly Gronkin and others like him still know of them, but at some point, someone within their empire must have decided to change the official story.”

“Maybe they just started believing their own propaganda,” Kevin suggested. “They tell every other species they are the natural leaders of the galaxy because they first developed spaceflight and all their other technologies. Maybe that’s a convenient truth to tell many of their population as well.”

Sarah shrugged. “Who knows? At this point it doesn’t matter. What is more concerning is that this new history contradicts much of what we think about the Elders. They are much more of a warrior race than we had come to believe. Though their empire and civilization have been stagnating, they were once able to defeat enemies more numerous and powerful than themselves. We thought they had simply conquered the galaxy through weight of numbers. If and when they return to this part of the galaxy they could be a much more serious threat than we anticipated. If their war instinct is rekindled, especially if there are others like Gronkin who have access to their true history, the others could seek to reconquer the galaxy with lightning speed.”

Kevin stood up. He squeezed Sarah’s shoulder again. “That is a problem for another day. We have the Ch’rack to worry about at the moment. That’s enough trouble for today and no doubt for the foreseeable future. There’s no point wasting energy worrying about something that we can’t do anything to stop.”

Sarah nodded, though her mind was still focused on the Elders. The Ch’rack were a serious threat, there was no doubt about that. Yet the Elders would always be her main enemy. She had to be thinking about them, planning for their return.

Alexandra was reading her thoughts. “There’s one more interesting war that I want to draw your attention to before we leave this subject. I believe it happened about three and a half thousand years ago. The Elders encountered a race with some very advanced technology. They only occupied about ten worlds, but their ships were far more powerful than the Elders’. The Elders tried to launch a surprise attack but it failed. In response, this race ravaged the Elder Empire. Gronkin was aware of at least five battles that went very badly for the Elders. In the end, the Elders’ weight of numbers won out, but it was a very costly war. From what I can tell about this advanced race, they employed nanotechnology in their ships. I suspect this is where the Elders’ aversion to such technologies comes from.”

It just gives the Elders one more reason to wipe humanity out if they discover what we did , Sarah thought, keeping it to herself, though she knew Alexandra would hear it. They are our real enemy.

Kevin was much more buoyant. “Well, that just shows us the Elders can be beaten. We just need to make sure that if they do return, we are able to completely defeat them.”

Sarah shook her head as she stood. Kevin was always the optimist. “Come on, let’s go and put these new memories to use. Let’s run a few battle simulations. I want to go through the subspace interception simulations we have constructed.

“When we face the Ch’rack again, I want them to taste what it’s like to have to flee in defeat.”

Chapter 38

Two weeks to the day after she warned Flexor about the Ch’rack’s strategy, the news Sarah had been expecting came. Five days ago they had taken the planet Dreagin. Though it wasn’t one of the ones Sarah had predicted they would attack, it was directly between two she had. Since then she had known it was only a matter of time before one of the planets she had identified as a target would be hit. As she opened the priority report from Flexor’s Palace, she wasn’t surprised to read the latest intelligence update. The fleet that had taken Dreagin had split in two and captured Elaror and I’nni. Now all the Ch’rack had to do was capture Vac’ay and they would succeed in driving a wedge nearly one third of the way into Pack space. From any of the three planets Sarah had predicted they would attack, Ch’rack warships could threaten nearly every system in the Pack with invasion. Once they had those three planets, Sarah had no doubt they would take Tarnock and secure the Central Position. From Tarnock they could strike out at any one of the Pack’s three main systems and reinforcements would not be able to arrive from the other two in time to beat off the attack. If they were smart, they would even move the resupply ships and their strategic reserve of warships to Tarnock. Then they would have an unassailable position.

On top of the news about Elaror and I’nni, there were other attacks listed. As if to reinforce to Flexor that they had changed strategy, the Ch’rack had raided nearby Pack worlds. Without the manpower to land invasion forces, they were still doing colossal damage. By destroying orbital stations and freighters they were choking off the Pack’s trade. At least one of the reports suggested some of the ships were remaining in orbit and bombarding any installations or buildings that looked like they played a part in the Pack’s interstellar economy. It wasn’t an immediate threat, but if the Ch’rack came to understand just how dependent on the minor worlds Graet and the other industrialized worlds in the Pack were for foodstuffs and other raw materials, they could starve Flexor into defeat.

Now is the time to act , Sarah thought. She had spent the last two weeks preparing for this moment. She had gone to great lengths to explain the seriousness of the threat to every Admiral who had any influence over Flexor. Kant had done the same. Now it was time to see if it had worked. Using her authority as an acting Admiral in the Hegaran fleet, she called an emergency meeting of the war council. She expected the intelligence report Flexor had just sent out to be a precursor to a war council meeting. Yet, heading down to the Palace and waiting for everyone to arrive would be a waste of time. With both Elaror and I’nni taken, it would only be a few days until Vac’ay was attacked. Every second was vital. An emergency meeting meant that everyone would speak to each other via holographic projector.

Sarah sighed when the Admirals connected to Destiny . She hadn’t realized she’d been holding her breath. A part of her hadn’t been sure they would respond. The emergency meeting protocols weren’t supposed to be invoked unless there was an imminent invasion or Flexor invoked them himself. When the Palace connected with Destiny and requested a private COM channel she prepared herself for Flexor’s anger. In the past two weeks it had become more and more frequent.

As soon as his face appeared Flexor began to shout. “You have exceeded your authority this time Captain,” he said emphasizing her rank in humanity’s fleet. “I know you’re trying to manipulate events towards the outcome you want. It seems to be your modus operandi. Don’t think my Admirals haven’t told me about the meetings you have had with them.”

Sarah raised her chin. “I’ve done nothing behind your back. Nor anything to deserve being treated the way you treat me now. I thought we had come to an understanding after our duel. I haven’t changed. Since learning about the Ch’rack, I’ve done everything I can to help you defeat them. I can only guess at the strain you must be under, but you cannot let it defeat you. Now is the time to act. I warned you about Elaror and I’nni. Now they have fallen. I’m telling you now, if you do not let us act, Vac’ay and Tarnock will fall. From there Graet itself will be threatened and you will not be able to protect your homeworld. You must listen to me.”

Flexor’s face dropped. His voice lost its edge. “I have been listening to you Sarah. But every time you give council, you have asked me to do the impossible. I cannot simply abandon my people to invasion.”

“Then listen to me now,” Sarah pleaded. “Now is not the time to abandon your people. I still believe we would be in a better position if you had pulled back your forces. Yet, that opportunity has passed. Now we have another opportunity to grasp. We can catch the Ch’rack out. Let Kant lead his reaction fleet to Vac’ay. I’m confident that is their next target, yet their fleet is spread out. They can’t bring a large force against Vac’ay. We can stop them there and thwart their strategy. It will buy us time. Time for the nearby Protector Worlds to come to our aid. Time for ships from my people to arrive.”

Flexor’s eyes shot up. “You have heard from your homeworld?”

“No,” Sarah said, shaking her head. “But I know they are coming. We have heard from nearby Protector Worlds. You know this, aid is on its way.”

Flexor growled. “Protector worlds, what possible help can they be? Their ships are less advanced than ours.”

“They will be better than nothing,” Sarah countered. “And if we can buy enough time, their numbers may save your Pack.”

“And if Kant loses again? Graet will be ripe for the picking.”

“And if Vac’ay and Tarnock fall, Lacombai, Nagushi and Graet will all be ripe for the picking and there will be nothing you can do about it. This is a war for survival. Risks must be taken.”

Flexor smashed his fist off something. “I know this is a war for survival. I know the costs.”

“Then let me help you,” Sarah said putting as much emotion into her voice as she felt. “I’m not your enemy, I’m trying to help.”

Flexor fixed her with one of his steely stares. Sarah held his gaze, unsure what he was going to decide. Then the fight seemed to go out of him. Flexor fell back into his chair exhausted. “Fine. So be it. I will authorize your plan. But it better work. Everything is riding on it.”

Sarah’s insides were jumping but she kept her voice calm. “It will, I promise. This is the best chance we will get to drive the Ch’rack back.”

Flexor reached forward and tapped a couple of buttons. Their conversation suddenly enlarged to include all of the members of the war council who were available. “I have come to a decision,” he informed everyone. “Despite my skepticism, Captain Adams’ prediction has proven correct. It seems she has the unique ability to think like a Ch’rack invader. It is a skill I cannot overlook. I’m authorizing the plans she and Admiral Kant have put forward. Admiral, how soon can your ships break orbit?”

Kant’s eyes shot to Sarah for a second and then moved back to Flexor. “Within minutes my King. We have been working under the assumption that you would approve this plan. We are ready to go as soon as you give the order.”

“Then the order is given,” Flexor replied. “Send word to your fleet to prepare to leave.”

Kant turned away from everyone for a few seconds. His mouth opened but his words weren’t transmitted to the war council. Flexor spoke again when he turned back. “Now, before we let you go, are there any other additions to the plan Adams and Kant have outlined that my council wishes to suggest?”

To Sarah’s surprise, Admiral Treali was the first to speak. “I have a flotilla in my fleet prepped and ready to go as well. Unless you think otherwise, I believe they should be sent to reinforce Kant’s fleet. If we are going to follow this strategy, we’d best commit as many forces as we can.”

Admiral Hadar joined the conversation. “The entire fleet at Nagushi is being kept on high alert in case Graet is attacked. It wouldn’t weaken our defenses too much if a flotilla or two were dispatched from there. They should be able to get to Vac’ay around the same time as Kant’s fleet.”

Flexor looked over to Sarah. She gave him a slight nod. Her mind was racing. With three extra flotillas they could really do some damage to the Ch’rack. More than that, it opened up other possibilities. Ones she hadn’t thought would be available. A number of ideas came to her in quick succession. She was sure more than one of them came from Gronkin, but she didn’t care. She was getting used to integrating his memories with her own. Over the last two weeks she had vastly improved her tactical and strategic capabilities in the simulators. She was eager to put her abilities to the test.

“Very well,” Flexor said. “We will reinforce Kant’s fleet. If we can defeat the Ch’rack at Vac’ay, then we will have bought ourselves some breathing space. Once aid comes from our neighbors, we can drive them back. Go now those of you who will be leaving with the fleet and remember what you are fighting for. This isn’t just about revenge, there are nine planets held by the Ch’rack. Our ultimate goal must be to liberate them.”

Just minutes after Flexor ended the war council meeting, Sarah found herself on Destiny’s bridge laying in a course out of the system. The eleven Hegaran ships under the command of Admiral Urana were arrayed around her. Swift had been declared battle ready once again. Slightly further away, eighty ships under the command of Admiral Kant were keeping station. The fleets that had attacked Elaror and I’nni had only been forty warships strong. If a similar size or weaker fleet tried to take Vac’ay they were about to get a shock.

*

During the five days it took their joint fleet to reach Vac’ay, twenty-two more ships joined Kant’s ships. When they arrived, another flotilla of seven warships was waiting for them. There was also news that at least three more systems had been raided. The last intelligence report suggested Ch’rack warships were still in all three systems, bombarding the planets’ surfaces.

Despite the sense of doom and gloom the news brought, Kant didn’t waste any time getting his fleet ready. He positioned his ships on the edge of Vac’ay’s mass shadow and split them into eleven flotillas. Each one was focused around a Hegaran warship or Destiny. Only Farfan’s small frigate didn’t have a flotilla of its own. His ship would be fighting alongside Urana’s flagship. Most of the Protection Fleet captains knew what they were doing. Sarah and Kant had worked out the formation together weeks ago and the ships from Graet had been simulating fighting together for some time. The rest of the Pack warships would have to figure it out as they went along.

When everyone was in position and Sarah and Kant were confident they had arranged their flotillas as best they could, Sarah retired to her quarters with Kevin. One of Destiny’s subspace buoys was watching the approaches to Vac’ay. They would get an alert as soon as the Ch’rack fleet approached.

After the stress of racing towards Vac’ay and preparing the fleet, Sarah found herself tossing and turning in bed. She knew she needed rest, yet her adrenaline was high. The coming battle could decide the fate of the Graman Pack and hundreds more systems. Over and over she tried to play out how the battle would go, trying to see if she had missed anything. Eventually sheer exhaustion overtook her and she drifted off.

An alarm made her jump. Groggily, she rubbed her eyes and looked at the display on her bed. It had been five hours since she retired, she couldn’t have been asleep for more than two. It felt like it had been even less than that.

Beside her Kevin stretched. “Looks like it’s go time.” He reached over and tapped the console on their bed. “The subspace buoy is reporting forty-six contacts. What do you think?”

Sarah considered the odds. There was no way to know the exact make-up of the Ch’rack fleet until they got much closer. If there were forty-six cruisers they would be in trouble. But if the mix of cruisers, destroyers and frigates was similar to their usual fleet compositions, the joint fleet would have a slight numerical advantage, especially if they did have troop ships with them. “I would have preferred forty or slightly less, but we can work with forty-six. We’re not going to cut and run now.”

“That’s what I like to hear,” Kevin said as he pulled his uniform on.

Once she got to the bridge, Sarah accessed the subspace buoy’s sensor data through her neural implant. The Ch’rack ships were three hours away. She ordered her crew to battle stations with instructions to carry out a final systems check. Then she sent a message to the Pack warships in her flotilla. She wanted to run through a couple of simulations with them. She wanted both them and her crew to shake off any grogginess in the simulations so that they were at peak efficiency when the battle began.

Focused on overseeing the simulations, it seemed to take no time for the Ch’rack to close with Vac’ay. When they were half an hour away, Kant gave the order for the joint fleet to jump into subspace and accelerate towards their opponents. At first the Ch’rack slowed their approach. Sarah suspected they were wary of another trap. Wisely, their commander shifted their line of approach. Presumably he didn’t want to be baited into another mine field. Kant altered the trajectory of his fleet to follow. As the Ch’rack fleet got closer, they split into smaller groups.

“They’re forming flotillas as well,” Kevin observed. “It looks like they’re going to try and engage us one on one. They’re pretty cocky given we outnumber them two to one.”

“Given how every battle they have fought against us has gone so far, I think their confidence is justified,” Sarah replied. “Though you’re right, either they’ve forgotten they aren’t as powerful in subspace, or they think our ships have been designed with the same emphasis on normal space fighting theirs have.”

“Or they have some kind of fancy strategy they plan to employ like we do,” Trask commented.

Sarah nodded solemnly. Trask’s analysis was probably much closer to the truth. If we can come up with a simple but effective strategy, I’m sure they can too.

“Kant is sending out targeting data for each flotilla,” Stephen reported. “Our flotilla and flotilla gamma-three are to target enemy flotilla alpha-two. We will engage them until they are crippled, then we will turn and engage alpha-three.”

“Ten minutes until missile range,” Hannah updated everyone.

Sarah formed a battle meld. Before Sarah could say anything, Hannah had another update. Though she was speaking through the battle meld this time and not audibly, she sounded much more concerned. “The Ch’rack flotillas are carrying out some kind of maneuver. It’s pretty intricate.”

Sarah reached out with Destiny’s subspace sensors to see for herself. It only took a few seconds to see why Hannah described the maneuver as intricate. It was like some kind of dance. Each flotilla was spinning around its neighbor and then around another flotilla again.

“What on Alpha Centauri are they doing?” Stephen asked.

“Orders from Kant, all flotillas are to hold course and speed. Kant will update our targets just before we engage,” Trask reported.

Sarah barely heard, she was staring at the Ch’rack fleet’s maneuver. It looked random, but she felt like there was some kind of pattern there. It was just at the edge of her awareness. “Can you figure out what they’re doing Alexandra?”

“Not with any certainty. From what they’re doing, their ships could turn away from us and break contact, or they could turn towards us and open up with their missiles. Either possibility or several others are equally likely. I can’t make any kind of useful prediction.”

Sarah mentally nodded and stared at the Ch’rack’s maneuvers. They couldn’t keep them going indefinitely. If they wanted to fire their missiles at the joint fleet, they would have to end it. Alternatively, if for some strange reason they didn’t intend to open fire, if they wanted to fire their point defenses to defend themselves, they would also have to stop flying about so wildly. Of course they want to fire their missiles, and of course they will defend themselves. So what are they doing?

The longer she stared, the stronger the sense that she had the answer at the back of her mind became. Gronkin’s memories , Sarah realized. This was something he had seen before. Letting out a long breath, she tried to relax. She closed her eyes and replayed the Ch’rack’s maneuver in her imagination. Then she tried to fast forward beyond what she had seen. What is the Ch’rack Admiral trying to do? Then it hit her, as if she was unravelling the last few strands of a ball of string, the Ch’rack Admiral’s tactics unfolded in front of her. Gronkin had seen it before in an ancient battle. And it had worked.

Sarah’s eyes snapped open. She opened a COM channel to the entire fleet. “Flotilla gamma-eleven is to fall back. All other flotillas are to accelerate to engage the enemy. The senior captain in each flotilla pair is to select your targets. The Ch’rack are trying to flank gamma-eleven. All ships execute orders now.”

Sarah held her breath. It was clear what the Ch’rack Admiral was trying to do. Three of his flotillas would pivot at the last minute to close with flotilla gamma-eleven and fire their missiles. The rest of the Ch’rack fleet would pull back. Flotilla gamma-eleven would be all but wiped out. The Ch’rack could then advance and try to roll up the joint fleet’s flank. In the seconds it would take her to explain all this to Kant it would be too late. Her orders needed to be obeyed immediately.

She let out a mental whoop when the ships of gamma-eleven decelerated. Then one closely followed by a second and then the rest of the flotillas of the joint fleet moved forward. The Ch’rack flotillas where caught out of position. The three that were trying to flank wouldn’t get into range of Gamma-eleven. They could still try and concentrate their fire, but they would each have to face another flotilla engaging them unopposed.

Now it’s down to each flotilla , Sarah thought. She had averted disaster, but the battle was still in the balance.

Chapter 39

“Signal our flotilla to target enemy flotilla alpha-four, send the same order to Perces and her flotilla,” Sarah sent to Stephen through the battle meld.

“Sent, and they have replied,” Stephen let her know moments later.

“Fire,” Sarah ordered as soon as they came into range.

The subspace sensors lost track of what was going on as three hundred and sixty missiles shot from the joint fleet in the space of two seconds. The Ch’rack fired their own missiles, extending the time Sarah couldn’t see what was going on. As the sensors cleared, she focused on the Ch’rack missiles. There were only two hundred and ten. Like the joint fleet’s, they were heading towards their targets in groups. They are all targeting separate flotillas. They didn’t have time to think of our strategy, or you didn’t give them time , Sarah thought as she smiled.

“Pull us back from the Ch’rack, keep us near our maximum missile range,” Sarah ordered. There was no point closing the range. The joint fleet had the advantage in subspace missiles and keeping the range open and exchanging multiple volleys was how they were going to win this stage of the battle.

“Point defenses engaging,” Alexandra reported as soon as the Ch’rack missiles came into range.

Sarah watched the point defenses from her flotilla open up on the twenty-one missiles coming at them. Without manoeuvring thrusters and with no way of launching any ECM, there was nothing else for her to do. Twenty were reduced to ten, then four. As the four closed in, Sarah gave the order for her flotilla to break formation. Doing so meant the missiles had to pick targets and follow them. As they did, the four ships being targeted tried to carryout emergency reversions to real space. It was marginally less risky than being hit by a subspace missile and forced into real space by the explosive detonation of the missile.

Two managed to drop out of subspace in time. Missiles struck the other two. Sarah wished the two that had tried to escape luck. They would suffer some serious damage. On top of that, they would soon find themselves facing whatever Ch’rack ships tried an emergency jump to real space to avoid being hit themselves. For the crews of the two ships that got hit, she didn’t hold out much hope.

As soon as the last missile detonated, she switched her focus back to the Ch’rack fleet. The flotilla she had targeted had consisted of seven ships. Only three were still being detected by Destiny’s sensors. She didn’t know if the others had been hit or had tried to escape. It didn’t matter, they were out of the battle now.

“Keep targeting alpha-seven, let’s give them another salvo,” she called to her gunners through the battle meld.

“Alpha-seven is trying to close with us,” Hannah warned.

“Flotilla is to pull back,” Sarah snapped at once.

All across the line the Ch’rack flotillas tried to advance. An order came in from Kant to fall back. Sarah was pleased to see some flotillas had already done so, the other senior Captains recognizing the danger as well.

“The flotilla is ready to fire again,” Stephen let her know.

“Let’s finish them off,” she ordered.

Twenty-nine more missiles shot into subspace. Against just three targets, they were going to prove devastating.

It took the Ch’rack another thirty seconds to reload, then they fired. In total, the joint fleet fired two hundred and sixty. The Ch’rack fired just one hundred and seventeen. We’re winning , she thought.

Her jubilance died as the Ch’rack missiles came into range of Destiny’s point defenses. Individually they were still deadly. Only two made it through to try and hit targets. Sarah pulled Destiny away from both of them. Thankfully, neither followed. The two ships they were targeting weren’t so lucky. Both managed to strike home before the Pack ships could exit subspace. As she looked at the sensor readings of Kant’s fleet, her heart went cold at the losses they were suffering. Her flotilla had lost six ships, four were definitely destroyed. Across the entire fleet, thirty-five contacts were missing. It was almost a third.

The only thing that gave her solace was the state of the Ch’rack fleet. The flotilla she had been targeting had been completely wiped out. Beyond that, half of the Ch’rack flotillas were intact, but the other half had been devastated. They were down to twenty-six ships.

The Ch’rack ships altered their vectors. Sarah saw what it meant before Hannah let her know. The Ch’rack were pulling back. Their commander knew that Pack subspace missiles were almost as good as their own. And, crucially in this battle, the Pack ships had enough numbers to take losses and keep fighting.

Sarah wanted to give chase, to try and complete their victory, but they had comrades in normal space that needed help. And you’ve already overstepped your authority once in this battle, Sarah reminded herself. She would let Kant decide what his fleet would do next.

Thankfully she didn’t have to wait long. “The flagship has signaled. Half of the Pack ships are going to remain in subspace. The rest of the fleet is to revert to real space and mop up whatever resistance remains,” Stephen let her know.

“Acknowledge the order, then drop us to normal space,” she ordered. She ordered the interface helmet to descend. In subspace, she could fly Destiny just as well without it, as there wasn’t much for her to do. In normal space it was a different matter.

When Destiny jumped into normal space, the scene that greeted her was one of carnage. Wrecks of ships were spinning through space in all directions. Others were trying to get their wild gyrations under control, whilst many were simply sitting stationary with no sign of life. What drew Sarah’s eye were the ships that were fighting with one another. She counted eleven Ch’rack warships exchanging fire with Pack ones. Some were close to Destiny’s current location, others were several light seconds away. All appeared damaged.

“I’m taking us towards target C-3,” she called as soon as she found the nearest Ch’rack cruiser. It had taken some serious damage, but it was still pummeling a Pack destroyer. “Did Kant remain in subspace?”

“Yes, he placed Urana in charge of the normal space forces,” Stephen informed her.

Sarah sought out Urana’s flagship. It was two light seconds away. More ships were dropping out of subspace, but enough had already appeared for her to get a good picture of what was needed. Opening up a COM channel to Urana she requested the nearest eighteen warships be placed under her command. As soon as Urana replied in the affirmative, Sarah sent orders to each of the eighteen. Working in fours or fives, she gave them each targets to go after, they would have to work together to take down the more powerful Ch’rack warships. Even though they were damaged, in normal space the Ch’rack were a far more formidable opponent.

She glanced towards Urana’s ships and wasn’t surprised to see the Hegaran Admiral was doing something similar. They were forming up into pairs and trios to go hunting.

“Open up on the cruiser at extreme range,” Sarah sent to Kevin. “Let them know we are coming. I’d rather they start shooting at us than that Pack destroyer.”

“My pleasure,” Kevin replied.

Tachyon pulses rained down on the cruiser. Kevin’s attacks had the desired effect. The cruiser turned and fired most of its weapons at Destiny .

“Their energy screen can’t be at more than forty percent,” Hannah let Kevin know. “I think they lost a reactor when reverting to real space. It looks like their evasive maneuvers are way down as well.”

Sarah could feel Kevin’s concentration sharpen as he replied. “Got it.” She knew what that feeling meant, he sensed a killing blow coming.

Sarah left him to it. She focused on dodging the incoming fire. The cruiser was still putting out a number of laser beams and plasma bolts. She took Destiny through a series of twists and turns, dodging almost every shot that came at her. Patiently, she waited for Kevin’s prompt.

“Energy screen is down,” Hannah reported.

Kevin responded immediately. “Now.”

Sarah brought Destiny around and held her still, allowing Kevin to line up every laser cannon on the cruiser. They fired together. All six beams struck the cruiser directly amid ships. Sarah saw three punch out the other side. The cruiser lost power. Its engines and laser cannons fell silent.

Sarah sensed Kevin preparing another shot to finish off his prey. “Leave it,” she ordered. “This is one field of battle we will not have to retreat from. We can salvage that cruiser. Perhaps we may learn something useful from it.”

Kevin hesitated for a second before replying. “Of course.” The disappointment in his voice was clear, but once he calmed down he would agree with her decision.

Beyond Destiny , the fighting had come to an end. The eleven Ch’rack ships were all crippled or destroyed. It had cost four more Pack ships.

“Get a status report from the ships in our flotilla,” Sarah ordered Stephen. “Kant will want to know the status of his fleet as soon as possible. Then lay in a course back to Vac’ay. We will be going back there to lick our wounds.”

She disengaged her interface helmet. Normally her shoulders would be tense and her neck sore from being encased in the device. Yet, the battle had only lasted twenty minutes. Sarah had to take a second look at the clock on her command chair to confirm the length of the battle. She was used to one-on-one battles lasting much longer, never mind a fleet engagement. Yet their victory had been swift. We found their weakness and hit them hard. We just need to do it again and again.

Hannah drew her attention back to Destiny’s sensors. “More ships are reverting to real space.”

Sarah watched on the holo projector as the rest of the joint fleet exited subspace. Kant had obviously decided the Ch’rack had no intention of returning any time soon. As expected, he requested a status update from his ships. Then, after taking the most damaged ships in tow, he ordered his fleet back into subspace. They travelled the short distance to Vac’ay and jumped into the system. As the fleet made its way towards the inhabited planet, Kant opened a COM channel with Sarah.

“Congratulations Captain. Your plan worked. We actually did it. We defeated a Ch’rack fleet!”

Sarah couldn’t help breaking out into a smile. “The credit is as much yours as it is mine. You commanded the fleet in battle.”

Kant shook his head. “It was your commands that saved us from the Ch’rack’s flanking maneuver. I’m glad we worked out the complex signaling protocols, we would never have been able to counter their attack otherwise.”

“It was certainly worth the hassle of setting them up,” Sarah agreed. Whilst ships couldn’t send or receive COM signals in subspace, they could detect each other with their sensors. Kant had worked out a complex assortment of signals that could be sent from ship to ship based solely on the slight course alterations a ship could carry out in subspace. It took a lot longer to communicate than in normal space, but it had worked.

“What do you propose we do next? We’ve lost thirty four ships, but we still have eighty in good fighting condition. Critically, we only lost one of Urana’s Hegaran ships. We could launch another operation.”

The smile on Sarah’s face dropped. She hadn’t realized one of the Hegaran ships had been lost. She had been so focused on her own flotilla. She promised herself she would mourn them later. Now she forced herself to focus on Kant’s question. She nodded as she considered his suggestion. “Exactly what I was thinking. The Ch’rack are still spread out, it will take them time to respond to their defeat here. If we stay on the offensive, we can keep them on the back foot.”

“What should be our next target?”

Sarah had already thought about it. “Regar and then Zard, the Ch’rack only sent small raiding fleets to attack each planet. If either of them are still there, we should be able to crush them. Then from Zard we could strike at one of the worlds they attacked first. No doubt they have been moving ships from the edge of Pack space to the planets they have recently taken. If we can get into orbit around one of the planets they invaded first, we could bombard their ground forces and give whatever is left of our troops a respite.”

“You don’t think small do you?” Kant replied. “We can go to Regar and decide what to do after that.”

Sarah nodded. “That’s okay with me. I suggest you take advantage of being the most senior Pack commander in this area. You should gather every nearby warship on garrison duty and combine them at Regar. They’re contributing nothing to this war where they are other than acting as sitting targets for when a Ch’rack force attacks.”

Kant fixed Sarah with a focused gaze. “You know Flexor has refused to abandon his strategy of defending every world.”

“Flexor isn’t here, you are. We have the Ch’rack on the run, that will not last for long. We need to take advantage of it. You need to take advantage of it.”

“Okay, okay.” Kant said, raising his hands. “You don’t need to use your Flexor tone on me. I’ll consider it. As soon as the fleet is ready, we will depart for Regar. By then I’ll have decided if we’re going to call for reinforcements to join us.”

*

It took the joint fleet four days to carry out some repairs and reach Regar. As soon as Destiny exited subspace, Sarah felt a jolt of excitement from Hannah. Destiny’s sensors had detected something.

“Detecting electromagnetic sources deeper within the system. They are in orbit around Regar,” the sensor officer reported.

“We’ve got them,” Sarah said to her crew through the battle meld. She powered up Destiny’s engines and accelerated towards Regar. The two Hegaran ships in her fleet did their best to keep up, while the thirty Pack ships followed along behind.

It took twenty-five minutes for the electromagnetic energy from Destiny to reach Regar. As soon as it did, the twelve Ch’rack ships reacted. They broke orbit and accelerated away from Destiny and towards the point where they could jump out of the system.

“Imagine being scared of a single ship,” Kevin chuckled.

Sarah mentally rolled her eyes at him. Secretly, she did think it looked funny on the holo plot. Destiny was way out in front of the rest of her fleet. To the untrained eye, it certainly looked like the twelve Ch’rack ships were scared of her. Of course, if they slowed to engage, they would allow the rest of Sarah’s fleet to catch them.

“How long?” Sarah asked Stephen. She could have checked herself, but she wanted to give her crew something to do.

“Five minutes,” he replied.

“Where will they appear?”

Hannah updated the holo plot. “Here.” A flashing red dot appeared on the edge of Regar’s mass shadow. It wasn’t exactly where the Ch’rack ships were fleeing to, but it was close.

Kant’s flagship, eight Hegaran warships and a further forty Pack ships dropped out of subspace right where Hannah had indicated. They detected the fleeing Ch’rack and altered course to pursue.

The Ch’rack altered course as well. They turned away from Kant’s fleet. “It won’t do them any good,” Hannah updated everyone. “Kant’s warships will enter missile range in ten minutes.”

“We’ll almost enter extreme missile range by then as well,” Kevin said to Sarah. The Ch’rack’s course change was allowing Destiny to catch them even quicker. “Our missiles won’t have enough fuel to actually reach their targets, but the Ch’rack won’t know that. If we fire at them, they’ll have to split their point defenses to cover our missiles and Kant’s.”

Sarah considered it for a moment. She shook her head. “Kant’s missile salvo should overwhelm their defenses regardless of what we do. I’m more concerned about what happens afterwards. What Ch’rack ships survive the missile salvo will only be in laser range of Kant’s ships for five minutes before they can jump to subspace. We’ll save our missiles for them.”

“That will work too,” Kevin said with a smile. “They’ll not like that.”

“That’s what I’m hoping,” Sarah replied.

“The Ch’rack are firing,” Hannah reported. Moments later Kant’s fleet returned fire.

As the missile salvos reached their targets, explosions erupted amongst both fleets. When the sensors were able to make sense of all the electromagnetic energy, six of the Ch’rack ships were gone. Two others were falling behind their comrades, badly damaged. That left only four intact. They were still accelerating as hard as they could for the system’s mass shadow.

Kant’s fleet lost five ships destroyed and three damaged. Even massively outnumbered they’re still getting kills at almost a one-for-one ratio , Sarah thought. It didn’t bode well for when the Ch’rack got themselves organized enough to counter attack.

“Fire missiles so that they reach the outer edge of the four intact Ch’rack ships’ point defenses at the same moment Kant’s fleet enters laser range,” Sarah ordered.

Kevin was already prepared. Eight missiles shot out of Destiny’s tubes and accelerated towards their targets. Sarah and her crew watched Kant’s fleet tear into the damaged Ch’rack ships. Laser beams tore through every one of them. No mercy was shown.

An explosion among Kant’s fleet made Sarah grimace. Since firing their missiles, the four intact Ch’rack ships had been keeping up a steady fire with their plasma cannons. Kant had been constantly rearranging his formation so that the ships with the strongest energy screens covered the others. One ship had obviously not been quick enough to fall back. Plasma bolts tore through its screen and hit something vital. The ship wasn’t destroyed outright, but it lost almost all power and fell out of formation. No doubt at least some of its crew had been injured or killed. Revenge will be had soon enough , Sarah thought.

“Kant should be opening fire any moment now,” Hannah updated.

Destiny’s sensors lit up as gigajoules of energy were released by Kant’s fleet towards the Ch’rack ships. Even though they were already carrying out evasive maneuvers, their energy screens flared. With so many laser beams coming at them, it was impossible to dodge them all. Seconds later, the Ch’rack returned fire with their own laser cannons whilst their point defenses opened up on Destiny’s missiles.

“I would not want to be in their shoes,” Kevin commented.

“They’ve put more than enough Pack warships into similarly hopeless situations, I’m not feeling any sorrow for them,” Sarah replied.

“I don’t feel sorrow, I just wouldn’t want to be facing such odds myself.”

“We can certainly agree on that.”

An explosion signaled the death of the first Ch’rack ship. It was closely followed by a second. Over the next seven seconds, the two remaining ships did their best to dodge the incoming fire but it was hopeless. They were taking hit after hit. Then two of Destiny’s missiles struck one of them. When the explosive force dispersed, there was nothing but debris left. With every ship in Kant’s fleet now targeting it, the final Ch’rack ship was quickly dispatched.

“That’s one more victory for our fleet,” Stephen said. “Let’s hope the next is just as easy.”

“Let’s hope indeed,” Sarah replied. With today’s success Kant would want to press on towards Zard. They needed to keep hitting the Ch’rack as hard and fast as they could.

Chapter 40

Over the next week the morale of Sarah’s crew, and even more so, the crew of the Pack warships, increased dramatically. They had defeated the Ch’rack twice. Three times if the attack on Zard was included. Kant had tried the same trick from Regar. It had worked, though only two Ch’rack ships had been at Zard. They had both been destroyed. The victories, combined with the twenty-six new warships that had joined them over the last several days, had done wonders for morale and combat efficiency. It helped that they were now on their way to Jacok. It was the third planet the Ch’rack had invaded. If they could, they were about to liberate it. Kant intended to be cautious however. If there was a large Ch’rack fleet present, they would fall back to Graet. But if there wasn’t, Jacok was about to be the first planet taken back from the Ch’rack.

Stepping onto the bridge of Destiny , Sarah could sense the heightened spirits. There was just something in the air. “How long until we reach Jacok?”

“Forty-five more minutes Captain,” Hannah answered.

“Still no sign of any ships approaching or leaving the system?”

“None.”

“Very well,” Sarah said as she nodded to her sensor officer. “I have the bridge. Call the crew to battle stations in fifteen minutes.”

As she sat in her command chair, she stared at the holo plot of the Jacok system. Something didn’t feel right. The system had been in sensor range for the last six hours, yet not once had a ship been detected approaching or leaving it. Given how Kant’s fleet had been raiding its way through the planets the Ch’rack had captured, she would have expected some kind of activity around the system. Either ships being pulled back or reinforcements being sent in. Yet there was nothing. Whatever forces were within the system, they would have to know about Kant’s fleet being within striking distance. Despite their best efforts to move as quickly as possible, keeping more than a hundred warships supplied and fueled meant that news would undoubtedly be travelling ahead of them.

Wisely, before the fleet reached Jacok’s mass shadow, Kant jumped them out of subspace. If there were ships patrolling the mass shadow waiting to ambush them, they would be disappointed. “What are our sensors picking up?” Sarah asked moments after they exited subspace. Destiny’s sensors were by far the most advanced in their fleet and Kant would be waiting for an update from her.

“There’s definitely Ch’rack ships within the system. We’re picking up lots of electromagnetic energy in the wavelengths their engines usually release energy on. Alexandra is still sorting through it though,” Hannah reported.

“I think I’ve got enough to give us a rough picture,” Alexandra said a few moments later.

On the holo-projector, the display of the Jacok system updated. A cluster of contacts appeared in orbit around Jacok Prime. There was another group about half way between the planet and the system’s mass shadow. Alexandra reckoned there were twenty-one Ch’rack warships within the system.

Kevin sat forward in his seat. “If we can catch the first group before they fall back to the planet, this will be a cakewalk.”

“Even together we should be able to take them,” Stephen added.

Sarah almost didn’t hear them, she was racking her brain, trying to look at the situation through Gronkin’s memories. The Ch’rack fleet positions didn’t make sense. Why would a commander split his or her forces? If the closest Ch’rack flotilla had been right on the mass shadow that would have made sense. Then they could immediately attack any fleets jumping into the system. Yet halfway back towards the planet, they weren’t in a position to accomplish much.

“Order from the flagship, the fleet will accelerate towards bogie alpha-1 immediately. Maximum thrust,” Stephen reported.

Sarah felt Kevin’s excitement through their bond. Then it checked itself. When he glanced over at her she knew he was sensing her concern.

“What is it?” he asked through their implants.

“I’m not sure, maybe nothing. It just doesn’t make much sense.”

“What, half their fleet being so far out of position? They’re clearly enroute towards the mass shadow. Maybe they got word that our fleet was in the vicinity and they’re getting ready to ambush us.”

“Yet we haven’t detected any ships approaching Jacok for the last six hours. That means if they know about us, they got news before that. Why has it taken so long to move their ships up?”

Kevin stroked his chin. “Fair point. Do you think there are more ships hiding out there, powered down in stealth or something?”

Sarah gave the mental shake of her head. “No, at least it’s pretty unlikely. There’s no way the Ch’rack could have known Jacok would be our target. We chose it specifically because it’s a little further away from Zard than some other worlds we might have attacked. The Ch’rack’s numbers aren’t limitless. If they have extra ships hiding here, they would have had to pull them from some other worlds. I can’t see them doing that.”

“Then what is it?” Kevin pushed.

“I don’t know. Like I said, it is probably nothing. Just a feeling.”

“That’s not good. Not coming from you. Maybe you should contact Kant and let him know.”

“No. At least not yet. He’s normally the cautious one. If I say something he’ll pull back immediately, and for what? We’ve detected nothing to arouse suspicion. Let’s just be extra vigilant.”

“All right, but if you figure out what’s going on, don’t hesitate to contact Kant.”

“I will,” Sarah promised. Turning back to the holo-projector, Sarah focused on the two groups of Ch’rack warships. It would take fifteen minutes for the energy given off by Kant’s fleet to reach alpha-1. In that time Kant hoped to close the distance considerably. If his ships could build up enough momentum, the Ch’rack flotilla wouldn’t be able to escape. Sarah watched the holo-plot as Alexandra played out what would happen. Assuming the Ch’rack reacted quickly, they would be able to veer away from the approaching threat. Yet, they won’t be able to veer away towards Jacok. They will have to retreat and leave their comrades alone. Or they may try and fight, Sarah reminded herself. Twelve against more than a hundred wasn’t good odds for the Ch’rack. But if they could damage enough of Kant’s ships, it would make fighting bogie alpha-2 that bit more difficult.

The Ch’rack Admiral chose the former. Alpha-1 veered away from Kant’s fleet when they detected the threat. Kant pursued them for ten minutes to make sure they couldn’t return to Jacok. Then he sent a new vector to his ships. They were going for bogie alpha-2. As soon as Destiny changed course, alpha-1 reacted. They cut their engines and pivoted. Then their engines came back to life. As soon as their new course became evident Sarah leaned forward. They weren’t even trying to head towards Jacok. Instead they were maneuvering to put themselves on a parallel course to Kant’s ships. The acceleration rate wasn’t nearly as high as Sarah knew Ch’rack ships could achieve. They don’t want to fight, but they aren’t running either. Her sense that something was wrong ramped up. “Open a COM channel to Admiral Kant.”

“Yes Captain?” Kant asked when his face appeared on one of the small holo projectors on Sarah’s command chair.

“I think we should fire a wide spread of recon drones towards Jacok. The Ch’rack are up to something. We’ve never seen the Ch’rack act this way before. Alpha-1 should be trying their best to stay with us so that they can engage us close to when we engage alpha-2. Yet they’re not. But they’re not running either. They are acting as if there are other ships at Jacok we don’t know about. It is as if they’re waiting for a chance to pounce on us.”

Kant looked away for several seconds. Sarah guessed he was staring at the holo-plot of the system on his ship. “Yes, you may be onto something. I will order a full spread of drones launched immediately. We’ll decrease our acceleration rates slightly to allow them to get a good look at Jacok before we commit.”

“Don’t forget to send some around Jacok’s two moons.” Sarah had used the trick of hiding behind a planet’s moon herself in one of the first simulations she had ran with Kevin.

“We’ll make sure every inch of space within a light second of the planet is fully scanned,” Kant assured her.

Sarah nodded. “Thank you,” she said before ending the COM channel.

“Alpha-2 should be detecting our emissions any moment now,” Hannah reported.

“They’re pulling back,” Kevin said, the surprise in his voice clear.

Sarah was just as surprised. If the Ch’rack where planning some kind of ambush they couldn’t possibly have enough ships in the system to allow alpha-1 and alpha-2 to stay out of the battle. Why are both flotillas refusing to engage? Try as she might, Sarah couldn’t find an answer to her question.

Fifteen minutes later the readings from the recon drones began coming in. Hannah turned to look at her Captain. “There’s nothing else there.”

“Nothing at all?” Sarah asked. Even as she said it she knew it was a stupid question. Hannah wouldn’t have left anything out. “Okay,” she added when the sensor officer simply shook her head.

Closing her eyes Sarah tried to think. What is going on? It’s not a trap or an ambush, so what? If it wasn’t to do with the Ch’rack trying to stop Kant’s fleet, then whatever was happening was bigger than just the Jacok system. In her mind she constructed a picture of Pack space. As she thought through the strategic situation, it hit her. They don’t care about Jacok or any of the other systems around here. They just want us distracted!

“Open another COM channel to Kant,” Sarah demanded. “We need to reverse course immediately,” she said as soon as his face appeared. “They’re trying to distract us. With our fleet here, Graet, Lacombai and Nagushi are more vulnerable. I believe the Ch’rack have abandoned their Central Position strategy. The ships in the system have orders to delay us as long as possible. It must mean they have committed their main fleet to an attack. We need to get back to Graet at once.”

“Are you sure?” Kant asked.

“Think about it, why are both Ch’rack flotillas refusing to fight, but not trying to flee? They know if we catch one of them on their own, we will crush them. Yet they are willing to take that risk. They’re trying to bait us into focusing on them. Plus, if we enter orbit and bombard their ground forces they will take heavy losses. Yet they don’t seem to care about that either. Something bigger is happening. It can only be an attack on Graet, Lacombai and Nagushi. Hitting those worlds has been their strategy all along.”

Kant’s face dropped. “If you’re right, that means we opened the door to attack by launching our counter offensive.”

“Maybe,” Sarah conceded. “But maybe not, our victories may have delayed their attack by a week or two. They may have already launched it but for our incursion into the planets they have conquered. Either way, second-guessing isn’t the priority now, it can’t help us.”

“No, no you’re right. I’ll give the order right away. The people of Jacok won’t be happy to see us turn around, but if you’re right, we have a far bigger problem to deal with.”

“I hope I’m wrong,” Sarah said. “But I can’t see any other answer.”

“I hope you are wrong too, but I’ve come to trust your instincts. There’s no time to spare, thank you Captain.” Kant cut the COM channel before Sarah could reply. Moments later new orders came in. Destiny, along with the rest of the ships in Kant’s fleet turned to re-orientate their main engines, then they accelerated straight towards the system’s mass shadow.

When the two Ch’rack flotillas responded, Sarah knew she was right. Something bigger was happening. Both flotillas were accelerating to combine with one another. They would meet just out of missile range of Kant’s fleet. Despite the odds, Sarah was sure they would try and attack. They’re trying to stop us heading back to Graet .

After consulting with Sarah, Kant waited twenty minutes and then turned his fleet onto an intercept trajectory with alpha-1. They wanted to drive alpha-1 far enough away that it couldn’t combine with alpha-2 in time to attack before Kant jumped to subspace. Alpha-1 reacted as soon as they detected the course change. They veered away to prevent Kant’s ships from closing. However, the course change was such that is would still allow alpha-2 to close with them if Kant’s ships turned back onto a trajectory for the system’s mass shadow.

“It’s no use,” Sarah said to Kant when he contacted her. “Unless we commit to chasing one flotilla down, they’ll be able to combine and engage us before we jump out. We’ll just have to accept it.”

Kant nodded. “That’s how I see it. I’ll send word to the rest of our Captains. It looks like we’re going to have a fight on our hands after all.”

Sarah let Kant go. Then she informed her crew about what was likely to happen. When orders came in from Kant, she opened up her feelings to the rest of her crew. As she expected, when the specifics of Kant’s orders filtered through the crew, some were happy, while others felt resentment. Kant had ordered Destiny and the Hegaran ships to form up along the edge of their fleet facing the Ch’rack fleet. They would be the ships most in harm’s way. It’s because we are the best, every ship needs to survive this coming missile salvo. Any that take damage will have to be left behind. She pushed her sense of pride in her ship and crew out towards them. Now wasn’t the time for her people to grumble about Kant. He was making the most logical decision.

It took the fleet a few minutes to reorganize itself and then every ship opened laser COM channels with one another. It was a tactic the fleet had been practicing for the last couple of weeks. Utilizing the laser COM links, Alexandra could coordinate every ship’s point defensive fire. Her superior processing power meant giving her control of every point defensive weapon, at least for the initial phases of engaging incoming missiles, would increase the fleet’s efficiency. As soon as each ship started to maneuver it would be lost, but for the first several seconds, it would give them another edge.

“Focus on the missiles targeting Pack ships first,” Sarah counselled Alexandra. “We and the Hegaran ships can look after ourselves once you relinquish control back to each ship.”

“Understood,” Alexandra replied.

As the Ch’rack ships closed with Kant’s fleet, they opened fire with their missiles. They released ninety-eight missiles. Four minutes later Kant’s ships returned fire with three hundred and six of their own.

“The flagship has an audio transmission for our entire crew,” Stephen informed Sarah just minutes before the Ch’rack missiles came into range.

“Let everyone hear it,” Sarah ordered.

“My fellow warriors, we have all fought together and each of our species has shed blood for one another. You may be wondering why we are falling back. We believe the Ch’rack ships in the system have been trying to lure us into remaining here. That can mean only one thing. Their main fleet is launching an offensive elsewhere. We must return to Graet to confront it. Any ships seriously damaged by the incoming salvo will be left behind. I’m telling you this now so that you know what you are fighting for. Everyone of you must do your best. Let no missiles through. Admiral Kant out.”

“He certainly knows how to put the pressure on,” Alexandra commented.

“Just see that you obey his orders,” Sarah replied.

“Here we go,” Kevin said seconds before the Ch’rack missiles come into range of the fleet’s point defenses.

As explosions erupted all around the incoming missiles, their numbers dropped. In the space of ten seconds, Alexandra shot down thirty-five of them. Then alarms went off all around the bridge. Sarah had her interface helmet on and she felt Destiny’s energy screen vibrate as it reflected energy away from the hull.

“Plasma bolts,” Kevin shouted.

“The fleet is going to evasive maneuvers,” Hannah reported.

“Releasing the laser COM links,” Stephen followed up.

Sarah didn’t reply. She was too focused on the next wave of incoming bolts. Rather than try and dodge all of them, she twisted Destiny slightly so that only two hit. It was more important to let Alexandra have a stable firing platform. Destiny’s energy screen could absorb a number of hits before being seriously weakened.

“That’s the last one targeting us taken care of,” Alexandra reported several seconds later when another missile exploded far away from Destiny .

Sarah checked the running count Hannah was keeping. There were only twenty-two missiles left. “Target those four,” she ordered. The cluster was headed towards a single Pack cruiser.

Still largely ignoring the incoming plasma bolts, Sarah kept one eye on the four missiles. The cruiser shot down one and Alexandra got another one. The third exploded as well, hit by laser fire by some other ship. Sarah swore as the fourth dodged the last few beams that were fired at it. It crashed into the cruiser’s energy screen. The detonation engulfed the cruiser in a wave of fire that wrapped right around the ship.

Sarah was aware of other explosions among the ships around her, but the cruiser was still her primary concern. “Move us towards her,” she ordered. When the fireball dissipated, the cruiser reappeared. Its outer hull looked charred but it was still intact. Crucially, she wasn’t falling out of formation.

“Sarah,” Alexandra shouted into her mind, yanking Sarah’s focus onto the incoming wave of plasma bolts.

“No,” Sarah cried. More than forty bolts were heading for the cruiser. She gunned Destiny’s engines but it was too late. She couldn’t put her ship between the cruiser and the incoming fire quick enough. With no energy screen, the plasma bolts struck the cruiser’s hull and ate their way into its inner structure. Seconds after getting hit, the cruiser’s acceleration dropped by fifty percent. It took another thirty seconds for it to begin to broadcast damage reports. In that time Sarah counted three missing Pack ships. Others looked like they had taken hits. When Sarah read the damage report from the cruiser, she closed her eyes. Its subspace engines had been crippled. As she watched, the cruiser turned. Sarah knew what its Captain was doing. Five other ships turned with it. They had all suffered serious damage. There was no way they would make it back to Graet with the rest of the fleet.

“Send a signal to those six ships,” Sarah ordered. “Tell them, ‘Make them pay a heavy price for your lives.’”

“They’ve all acknowledged,” Stephen reported.

“Our missiles are entering attack range,” Hannah said, drawing everyone’s attention to the holo plot. The Ch’rack ships had already shot down more than two hundred of them. But as the rest came crashing in, the Ch’rack fleet disappeared as a wave of thermonuclear explosions erupted all around it. Less than two thirds of the Ch’rack ships came through the destructive force. Almost all of those that did looked like they had taken damage.

“That Pack cruiser and her consorts should be able to give a good account of themselves,” Kevin commented. “I bet they will take a couple of those damaged ships with them.”

“Let’s hope so,” Sarah said. “Turning to engage what was left of the Ch’rack fleet was a waste of their lives, but there was nothing else the Captains of the ships could do. I hope we are as brave if we ever find ourselves in such a situation.”

“Kant is looking to speak to you again Captain,” Stephen informed her.

“Put him through to my command chair. “

“I have new orders for you Captain,” Kant said as soon as the COM link was established. “You are to take the Hegaran ships and head for Graet at your best possible speed. You can get there a couple of days ahead of us. Your ships are going to be needed.”

Sarah wanted to protest. Leaving Kant’s ships behind would put them in serious danger. Any Ch’rack fleet that detected them could close and destroy them. Even though the Ch’rack warships weren’t as powerful in subspace combat, without Destiny and the Hegaran ships, Kant’s fleet would be vulnerable. “Okay,” she said instead. She understood the strategic situation. The Pack couldn’t afford to lose one of its major industrialized worlds or shipyards. If a large battle was about to be fought, Destiny and the Hegaran ships needed to be there. “Just make sure you make it to Graet in one piece.”

“As long as you make sure it’s still there when we get there,” Kant countered.

“Deal,” Sarah said with a nod.

“Mass shadow in thirty seconds,” Hannah called over their conversation.

“I’ll see you in a couple of weeks then Captain. Good luck,” Kant said.

“And to you to Admiral.”

Once the COM channel ended, Sarah barked out orders. “Signal the Hegaran ships. Tell them to form up in formation tango-epsilon when we enter subspace.”

“They’ve all confirmed the orders,” Stephen reported.

“Okay Alexandra, jump us into subspace. Set course for Graet. Match the Hegaran’s maximum speed.”

After Destiny jumped into subspace, Sarah checked the clock on her command chair. They had been in the Jacok system for just over four hours. They didn’t delay us too long , she thought. Let’s hope the four hours we just wasted don’t prove too crucial.

Chapter 41

Destiny and her Hegaran companions raced through subspace. With large fuel storage capacities, they didn’t need to stop anywhere along the way. For the first thirteen days subspace was eerily quiet. Not a single contact was picked up on any of their subspace sensors. Everything changed on the fourteenth day.

“Ten more contacts just appeared on the sensors,” Hannah reported.

For the last three hours a steady stream of new contacts had been coming in. At the latest count, fifty-six ships had been detected. Almost all were moving in the same direction; towards Lacombai. Sarah had altered course to follow them. There was no doubt they were Ch’rack vessels. Their velocities through subspace didn’t match any other ships. Worryingly, their velocities didn’t match Ch’rack warships either. They were either troop ships or supply freighters. Whichever one it was, it wasn’t a good sign. The Ch’rack wouldn’t move such ships through subspace unless they were confident they already controlled the area.

“Drop us out of subspace,” Sarah ordered.

“Admiral Urana is on a COM channel,” Stephen reported as soon as the fleet returned to normal space.

Sarah looked down at the Hegaran. “I think we have to assume that Lacombai has fallen. There’s no other reason the ships would be headed in that direction,” Urana said.

Sarah took a moment to respond. “Perhaps. Let’s not rule out Flexor yet. Lacombai’s defenses are impressive. If they received reinforcements before the attack, the fight could still be going on. We have to get closer and investigate. We might be needed.”

Urana nodded but she didn’t appear pleased. “I take your point, but we have to be careful. If Lacombai has fallen, Flexor will need every ship available to defend Graet. We can’t risk our ships unnecessarily. If we get too close to Lacombai, we might find a fleet jumping into subspace to intercept us.”

“I know the risks,” Sarah replied. “We will continue on this course for now but at the first sign Lacombai has fallen, we will pull back.”

Urana nodded and then grinned. “And in the meantime, we can knock out a few of the supply freighters. Is that what you have in mind?”

“Something like that,” Sarah said as she returned the smile. “If Lacombai has fallen, Graet will be next. The supplies on those ships will be vital to the Ch’rack if they plan to carry on their offensive. We have caught them with their pants down. Either their fleet is fighting in Lacombai or it is licking its wounds from taking the system. Either way, we may as well take advantage of the situation for as long as they will allow us.”

“So be it. I will ready my ships for battle,” Urana replied.

Sarah gave Urana a Hegaran salute. Urana returned it and ended the COM link.

“Battlestations,” Sarah ordered. “Then take us back to subspace.”

For the next three hours she directed her ships as they engaged each group of Ch’rack vessels. The first two groups tried to engage her ships in a missile duel, but they were blown away without causing any damage. The next groups abandoned that tactic and split up. Sarah ignored most of them and continued on towards Lacombai. Only the ones requiring a slight course correction were attacked. Taking out supplies was important, but finding out what was going on at Lacombai was her priority.

Just thirty minutes ahead of them, the final group they had detected disappeared off Destiny’s sensors as they reverted to real space and entered the Lacombai system. “Well that’s it confirmed. Lacombai has been taken. There’s no way those ships would just jump in if the system was still under Pack control,” Kevin concluded.

“We’re still going to try and get a closer look,” Sarah informed him. “Send orders to our fleet, alter heading to five three one point two seven.” Moments after giving the command Destiny and the Hegaran ships altered course slightly.

Just as Sarah expected, five minutes before they were due to exit subspace, twelve new contacts appeared from Lacombai. They were right in front of where her ships would have been heading. As soon as the Ch’rack warships detected their prey had altered course, they moved to intercept them.

“Signal our fleet, all ships are to prepare to exit subspace. We will revert to real space as soon as those ships open fire upon us,” she ordered.

“Fire,” Sarah ordered a minute later. Thirty-four subspace missiles shot out of their tubes. The Ch’rack got into range with their own missiles thirty seconds later. They fired thirty-six missiles in reply. “Revert to real space,” Sarah commanded as soon as they opened fire.

Safely reverting to real space took much longer than an emergency reversion. Of course, it was a lot safer. The Ch’rack missiles got close enough that Destiny could have engaged them with her point defenses if Sarah had wanted. Before they got too close though, Destiny and her consorts tore holes into normal space and disappeared. “Set course for Lacombai Prime. Maximum thrust. I want an update on our sensor readings as soon as you get something,” she called out.

“There’s definitely some fighting still going on in the system,” Hannah reported. “I’m getting massive bursts of electromagnetic radiation. It’s largely coming from around Lacombai’s orbitals.”

Sarah’s heart sank. The electromagnetic energy Destiny’s sensors were picking up had taken more than two hours to reach the point in space where Destiny was. Whatever battle was going on around Lacombai it was quite likely over. It would take Destiny another four hours to reach the planet. By then, it would be all but over.

She contemplated just jumping back into subspace. No doubt the missile salvo they had fired at the Ch’rack warships had done some damage. Her fleet could return to subspace, finish them off, and flee back to Graet. No, she told herself. We need to know what happened here. The Ch’rack may have been employing some new tactics or new fleet units. Someone needs to bring intel back to Graet, and we are it.

“Okay folks, we are going to do reconnaissance in force,” she said to her bridge crew. “I want every trace of electromagnetic energy Destiny’s sensors pick up stored and analyzed. We’re going to return to Graet with as much data as we can. If we can take out some stragglers along the way, we’ll do that as well.”

After speaking to her crew, she contacted Urana and informed her of what she intended. Then she sat back and watched the data as it flooded in. As Destiny came nearer and nearer to Lacombai, the sensor readings got closer to real time data. In essence, she was able to watch the battle unfold at an accelerated rate. It appeared that the Admiral commanding the Pack ships within the system had fallen back to Lacombai’s orbitals. The Ch’rack had surrounded the planet with more than one hundred and fifty warships. Both sides were dueling it out against one another. The Ch’rack were firing missiles and their longer range plasma cannons. The Pack warships and orbital defenses were returning fire with their own missiles and the powerful laser cannons on the defense platforms.

“They can’t possibly hold out much longer,” Kevin commented. “That’s six orbital defense stations and more than thirty ships destroyed in the last hour. Nearly a third of the Pack’s forces are gone.”

Sarah nodded. The Pack ships were giving a good account of themselves. It looked like fifteen or sixteen Ch’rack ships had been destroyed or badly damaged. Yet as more and more defenders were wiped out, the Ch’rack’s weight of numbers would come to bear.

“Captain, the second Ch’rack fleet, look!” Hannah blurted out. “Most of their warships are moving off.”

Sarah could hardly believe what she was seeing. The Ch’rack had a second fleet much closer to the edge of Lacombai’s mass shadow. It actually outnumbered the fleet that was attacking Lacombai though there was no doubt most of the ships would be freighters and troop ships. Sixty warships however had just accelerated away from the fleet. Yet they weren’t heading towards Lacombai. Sarah checked the time stamp on the data. They had begun their maneuver one and half hours ago. If they have been accelerating on that vector since then, their supply ships could be almost completely unguarded. “I want as detailed an analysis of the rest of those contacts in fleet beta as you can get me. Find out how many more warships are protecting those supply freighters.”

Fifteen minutes later the battle changed again. Kevin was the first to report it. “Warships are breaking away from Lacombai. Twenty have gone, no, now thirty… Forty. That is nearly a third of their battle fleet. Something is up. Look, they are turning onto a heading to rendezvous with the warships that left their supply fleet.”

Sarah could only think of one explanation. “Flexor is here. He has a second fleet out there and is trying to help Lacombai’s defenders.” Sarah could easily picture it. As soon as the Graman King learnt about the approaching attack fleet, he would have gathered every ship he could find and headed straight for Lacombai. He had arrived too late to add his ships to Lacombai defenses. Even so, he was determined to drive the Ch’rack away. Lacombai was a loss the Pack couldn’t recover from. The war would go on, but it’s outcome would be all but guaranteed to end in the Ch’rack’s favor.

Fifteen minutes later a whole host of new contacts were picked up by Destiny’s sensors. One hundred and thirty-three ships were accelerating into the system, trying to reach Lacombai. Most of them were Pack ships. By now Destiny ’s sensors could easily identify them. Twenty-one were unknowns. Before Sarah could contact Urana to ask if they were Hegaran warships, the Admiral let Sarah know that she didn’t recognize them either. Other Protector World ships , Sarah concluded. It was encouraging to think that other species were coming to the Pack’s aid, but just twenty-one wouldn’t tip the balance in Flexor’s favor. He is going to lose Lacombai and his fleet , Sarah feared.

For the next half an hour everyone on Destiny’s bridge watched the fleets maneuver as Flexor attempted to avoid the Ch’rack warships trying to intercept them and reach Lacombai, while the Ch’rack attempted to block them. All the while, the battle around Lacombai raged on. The defenders were giving a better account of themselves against the weakened Ch’rack fleet assaulting them, but they were still losing. Two more defense platforms and sixteen more warships were gone.

“The supply fleet should detect our emissions in the next couple of minutes,” Stephen reported. “The fleet trying to intercept Flexor five minutes after that, and then the fleet around Lacombai two minutes after that.”

Sarah nodded absentmindedly. She had been thinking about what to do next. She couldn’t keep charging towards Lacombai. Despite his best efforts, Flexor’s fleet was never going to reach the planet. More likely, it would be defeated before getting anywhere near its destination. She reckoned the planet’s defenders could hold out for another hour, maybe an hour and a half, but as soon as the ships seeking to engage Flexor’s fleet returned, the planet would fall. She could reach Lacombai in time to join the battle, but by then her ships wouldn’t be able to alter the outcome. They would just get themselves killed. What she did now depended a lot on what Flexor planned. He won’t just sacrifice his fleet, he can’t. He still has Graet to protect . Sarah knew Flexor was headstrong, but even he had to know one hundred and twenty Pack ships were completely outgunned by the fleet of one hundred Ch’rack ships that had formed up to intercept him. It is almost too late, if he tries to turn and run now he may still be caught .

“Alter course, take us towards fleet beta,” she ordered. Hannah had already informed her that there were still twenty-two ships protecting the supply freighters. No doubt as soon as they detected Destiny and her consorts they would reposition themselves to protect their charges. Two to one odds wasn’t bad, Sarah was confident her fleet could defeat them. Yet, there were Ch’rack warships all over the system. Any of her ships that were damaged attacking fleet beta would be sitting ducks, if not in real space, then in subspace when they tried to flee. She was bluffing, she knew she couldn’t risk her ships attacking fleet beta. No matter how much you want to take out the Ch’rack supplies. But whoever is commanding the Ch’rack fleet doesn’t know that. They’ve seen what Destiny can do to their supply ships .

“Supply fleet is reacting,” Hannah reported.

Their response was predictable. There wasn’t much else they could do. As soon as they detected Destiny and her consorts accelerating into the system, they powered up their engines and moved closer to Lacombai. The warships dropped back to trail behind the freighters, but they too were moving away from Destiny . They know they would lose a straight up fight, Sarah concluded.

“Flexor’s ships are turning,” Kevin shouted. “He has come to his senses, look!”

Sarah was already looking. She had been staring at Flexor’s fleet since she had given the order to change course. A small smile spread across her face. She could sense a similar level of excitement from Kevin and the other bridge crew through the battle meld. He has finally come to his senses, she thought. For months his sense of honor had been driving him to waste ships and manpower defending every world, fighting every battle. Now, faced with the loss of the majority of his battle fleet and then inevitably his homeworld, he had blinked.

“Increase our acceleration by ten percent,” she ordered.

Stephen looked up at her before passing on the order. “That will put the Hegaran ships beyond their recommended safety levels.”

Sarah held his stare. “I know.”

“Transmitting the order now,” Stephen replied as he looked down.

Urana would understand even if some of her crew didn’t. Flexor’s sudden change of heart wouldn’t guarantee his fleet’s escape. She had to force the Ch’rack’s hand.

“Twenty minutes until we enter missile range of those escorts,” Hannah updated everyone.

Sarah barely heard her. Her focus was still on Flexor’s fleet and the Ch’rack ships trying to intercept it. They should detect us right about now. For several seconds nothing happened. Sarah held her breath. It will take them time to decide what to do, she reassured herself. The Ch’rack Admiral had a choice to make. Either he could try and finish off Flexor here and now, but risk losing his supplies, or he could guarantee he had the supplies to continue his invasion at the expense of ensuring the battle for Graet would be even tougher than that for Lacombai.

Yes ! she shouted to herself, and then out loud. First one, and then nearly half of the ships pursuing Flexor decelerated and the fleet of supply ships moved towards them. With only forty ships pursuing Flexor, his fleet was going to escape. They would take a hammering before they did, but they would escape. Sarah did a quick mental calculation. “Keep us on this course for another fifteen minutes, then reduce our acceleration back to what the Hegaran ships can handle and alter course onto bearing one four seven point three.”

“Aye Captain,” Alexandra confirmed.

As her ships continued to accelerate into the system, Sarah found herself with nothing to distract her from the battle going on around Lacombai. She tried not to watch it, for it would only dampen her spirits. Just as it was likely dampening the spirits of her crew. The defenders of Lacombai were still putting up a good fight. Yet they had to know that defeat was a certainty. Flexor’s ships had turned away and though they would have detected her ships, they would know there was no way twelve contacts could fight their way through the Ch’rack warships moving to intercept them. In the time she watched the battle, the defenders were reduced to just four defense platforms and twenty ships.

“It won’t be long now,” Kevin sent to her through their implants. He could sense her anguish at the losses just as much as she could sense his.

“Altering course,” Alexandra informed Sarah.

It would take the warships protecting the supply fleet one minute to detect the course change. It would take the warships that had given up pursuing Flexor’s fleet six more. By then it would be too late for them to turn around and go after Flexor’s fleet.

When the twenty-one ships that were playing escort to the supply freighters detected Destiny’s course change, they altered course as well. “They’re going to try and close with us,” Trask suggested. “I don’t think their commander is happy about you tricking him into letting Flexor escape.”

Sarah had already done the math. “They’ll only get one missile salvo before our superior acceleration lets us pull away. We’ll get the best of any missile duel.”

“As long as no one takes any damage,” Kevin added.

Sarah nodded. It was becoming a common theme. Any damaged ships fell under the guns of pursuing Ch’rack warships. That’s what happens when we are always running away, Sarah thought. As if to blacken her mood further, an explosion around Lacombai marked the destruction of another orbital defense platform.

For the next twenty minutes nothing changed within the system. Every ship was committed to its best course of action. As the twenty-one warships from the supply fleet were pursuing Destiny and her consorts, they were able to open fire first. A minute later, Sarah’s ships returned fire. Only four Ch’rack missiles got through the hail of point defensive fire. When none of them targeted Destiny , Sarah moved her ship alongside Urana’s flagship. Together they shot down the missile targeting it. Though Sarah had been focused on that missile, she was aware of two detonations erupting among her ships. “Who was hit?” she called out.

Beast and Rider ,” Hannah reported. “Beast’s energy screen held but it looks like Rider’s failed. The scout frigate is falling out of formation. I’m seeing some hull damage.”

“Contact Farfan now, I want to know his situation at once.”

“I can’t raise anyone on Rider ,” Stephen replied moments later. “I’ll keep trying.”

It took a full three minutes for someone from the frigate to get in contact with Destiny . “Damage report coming in now. Their number one reactor is down, number two is only operating at thirty percent. The power lines to their engines have been cut. Rider’s Chief Engineer is estimating it will take at least twenty minutes to restore some level of power. Their engines are using energy from their capacitors. They will run out of energy in three minutes.”

Sarah knew what that meant. The frigate was about to lose all thrust. “Signal Rider , order them to abandon ship. They are to board their shuttles and make for whatever undamaged ships they can reach.”

“Farfan is on the channel Captain,” Stephen let her know.

“We can’t abandon ship,” he said as soon as Sarah transferred the channel to her command chair. “Our hanger took much of the explosive force that burst through our energy screen. We can’t launch any shuttles.”

“Then we will launch shuttles, we’ll take your people off.”

Farfan shook his head. “You can’t, by the time your shuttles decelerated enough to dock with us they wouldn’t be able to make it back to your ships.”

Sarah made to reply. She was going to order her ships to slow down but Farfan cut off. “Don’t even think about it Sarah, you’re not risking more ships for me. If you let the Ch’rack fire another missile salvo at your ships, it could be more than a cruiser you have to abandon next. You’ll need all the firepower you can get when they attack Graet. I got the battle I always wanted at Vac’ay. All my life I’ve dreamed of standing up to the Ch’rack. You have given me that. Thank you.” Before Sarah could reply, Farfan saluted and cut the channel.

Sarah stared at the empty space where his face had been. She was racking her brain to think of some way to save him, but he was right, she couldn’t risk any more ships.

“You have to let him go,” Kevin said gently. “Kant had to do it at Jacok. Flexor is doing it now. You have to do the same. It’s the burden of command.”

Sarah looked up and gave him an affectionate glance. “Thank you,” she said through their implants. It didn’t lessen her emotions but knowing that Kant had gone through the same thing helped her face what was happening. Memories from Gronkin came flooding in as well. Many commanders had been forced to sacrifice friends and subordinates for the greater good.

The next forty-five minutes were the hardest of Sarah’s life. Though she tried to contain her emotions and keep them from spilling over to the rest of her crew through the battle meld, she knew she failed. First, she had to watch Rider be torn apart by Ch’rack energy weapons. Farfan got in a couple of hits of his own and damaged a Ch’rack destroyer, but his ship was melted to slag before it could fire again. Ten minutes after Rider’s demise, the ships pursuing Flexor’s fleet opened fire. They only got one missile salvo off before Flexor’s ships reached the system’s mass shadow and jumped out. Yet that salvo took out seventeen warships. Flexor fired a salvo of his own but the Ch’rack ships fared far better. Just minutes before Destiny jumped out of the system, sensor data came in from Lacombai showing the last orbital defense platform blowing up. Ch’rack ships moved into orbit. Laser beams and plasma bolts tore apart the giant shipyard and rained down on the planet’s surface. As the thermal readings from the planet’s surface continued to rise, Sarah closed her eyes. It was one devastating blow after another. She couldn’t take it all.

“Jumping to subspace in one minute,” Alexandra reminded her.

Sarah understood what she was doing. She needed to be alert. Anything could be waiting for them in subspace. Forcing her eyes open, she made herself focus.

As soon as Destiny jumped into subspace, she sought out Flexor’s fleet. Thankfully they were on their own. No enemy ships were near them. The Ch’rack had learnt the hard way that engaging Pack warships in subspace was a losing prospect. She ordered Alexandra to lay in a course to join Flexor’s fleet. It didn’t look like any Ch’rack ships would be able to close with her fleet either.

Once her ships began to move, she ended the battle meld and allowed her emotions to overwhelm her. They were on a course back to Graet, the battle was over. It was time to return home and repair as many damaged ships as possible. And try and figure out what to do next , Sarah thought. There was no doubt in her mind where the next hammer blow would fall. Either the Ch’rack would be stopped at Graet or the entire Graman Pack would fall. After watching the loss of Lacombai she didn’t hold out much hope that it would be the former.

Chapter 42

The five days it took to travel back to Graet were almost as difficult as watching Lacombai’s fall. Between feeling responsible for leading so much of the Pack’s fleet away from Lacombai, her growing fear for Graet, and her anticipation of what would undoubtedly be an angry COM conversation with Flexor, Sarah was an emotional wreck by the time Destiny jumped out of subspace. She almost groaned when Hannah announced something unexpected. She didn’t have the strength to deal with whatever it was.

“Multiple unknown contacts being picked up within the system,” the sensor officer reported thirty seconds after Destiny reverted to real space. “The nearest ones are only ten light seconds away.”

“Battlestations,” Kevin ordered when Sarah hesitated.

“Can you identify them?” she forced herself to ask.

Alexandra and Kevin spoke to her through her implant almost simultaneously. “Pull yourself together,” Kevin demanded.

“You are our Captain, you’ve spent enough time feeling sorry for yourself. Buck up,” Alexandra added.

Sarah sent them both scathing replies. Then with a sigh, she forced herself to sit up straight in her chair. “Any orders from Flexor’s flagship?”

“None yet captain,” Stephen reported. “Wait… Admiral Urana is signaling. She says the nearest contacts are Hegaran warships.”

“What?” Sarah blurted out. “How many of them are there?” Suddenly her spirits had lifted.

“I’m detecting twenty-four,” Hannah answered, sounding relieved. “Half of them are cruisers.”

“What about the contacts further in system?”

This time Alexandra answered. Even though her voice was coming through the bridge’s audio transmitters, it sounded excited. “They’re human warships. Eleven of them, ten destroyers. The other is larger, something I haven’t detected before, but it’s undoubtedly human. I’d say it’s one of our new cruisers.”

Sarah turned to look at Kevin. They were both smiling. Her despair was gone, in its place hope returned. A Hegaran cruiser was worth at least two Ch’rack cruisers, and a human destroyer could take on three by itself and stand a good chance of winning. Suddenly the odds weren’t completely against them.

“I think some of the other contacts in orbit are Protector World ships. They’re giving off energy readings that suggest their reactors are not quite up to Pack standards. There are thirty of them,” Hannah reported.

“The battle is not lost,” Sarah said out loud. She knew her words were basically an admission she had lost hope, but it didn’t matter now, it had returned.

“Flexor is requesting a COM channel,” Stephen informed her.

“Send it through to my command chair,” Sarah responded. Her spirits had lifted but she still felt a flood of nerves. Even with the reinforcements that had miraculously appeared, Flexor was unlikely to be pleased. He had just lost the second most important planet in his kingdom.

When his face appeared in front of her, she couldn’t read his emotions. “I don’t know whether I want to challenge you to another duel to the death, or kiss you,” he grumbled. “Taking Kant’s fleet against the Ch’rack likely caused the loss of Lacombai. Yet your appearance let my fleet escape. And here we find your promised reinforcements. What do you have to say for yourself? Where are Kant and his ships?”

Sarah had thought long and hard about what she would say to Flexor, but as he stared at her, her prepared words left her. “I’m sorry,” were the first words she thought of to say. “We miscalculated the Ch’rack’s ability to react to what we were doing. After defeating the Ch’rack at Vac’ay, we pressed on. We destroyed twelve more warships at Regar and two at Zard. Then we tried to liberate Jacok. However, it became clear the ships there were trying to delay us. Only then did we realize what was really happening. We abandoned the system and headed back to Graet at our best possible speed. Kant sent Destiny and the Hegaran ships on ahead in case we were needed.”

“So his fleet is still intact?”

“Yes,” Sarah reassured Flexor. She realized he had probably spent the whole journey from Lacombai wondering if any of Kant’s ships would make it back to help defend Graet. “He had one hundred and six ships under his command when we left him. They shouldn’t be more than one or two days behind us.”

“Then that is more good news. And you say you’ve defeated a Ch’rack invasion fleet and destroyed at least fourteen more Ch’rack warships. At least that is less ships we will have to face here. The ships that have arrived from your people, are they as powerful as Destiny ?”

Sarah nodded. “Significantly more powerful. When the Ch’rack come, they are going to get a nasty surprise.”

Flexor’s face changed. Lines appeared around his cheeks and forehead. “Can we beat them?”

Sarah hesitated. “I… I don’t know. At least now we have a chance. That is better than nothing.”

Flexor looked away. He didn’t speak for several moments. When he did, his face had regained its emotionless look. “I’ll be holding a war council with all the representatives from those who have come to help us as soon as I get to Graet. You have the most experience in commanding a fleet composed of ships from different species. I will want your thoughts on how we can best organize ourselves to defend the planet.”

“You will have them,” Sarah promised.

*

“Welcome to Graet,” Sarah said as she stepped off her shuttle onto the landing pad adjacent to Flexor’s palace. She moved towards the group of ten human Captains and shook their hands. “You are all a sight for sore eyes. Your ships and your crews are badly needed.”

She recognized most of the Captains present by name if not by face. As she greeted each of them personally, she realized there was no Admiral with them. “Who is in command here? Did the Ruling Council just send a senior Captain? And who commands the cruiser?” She thought for sure an Admiral would have been given the cruiser as a flagship.

Montoya, one of the Captains Sarah knew best, stepped forward and smiled at her. “She wanted to be the one to tell you herself.”

“She? Who are you talking about?” Sarah asked as she wrinkled her eyebrows.

“Hello Captain,” a very familiar voice said into Sarah’s mind.

“Cassidy?” Sarah and Alexandra said at the same time.

“Why yes. I see you haven’t forgotten me after all.”

“What on earth are you doing here?” Sarah asked. “And where are you?”

“Given the dire situation, I managed to convince Admiral Woodward that he could spare me for several months. I have been integrated into Defiance’s command and control network,” Cassidy explained.

It took Sarah a moment to figure out what Cassidy was talking about. Defiance had been the name of the flagship of Earth’s fleet when it had stood against the Elders two thousand years ago. Of course that is what the Ruling Council would have called their first cruiser.

“Why are you here?” Sarah asked, still not quite realizing what was happening.

“Maybe I should answer that,” Montoya said speaking into Sarah’s mind. “Here,” she added as she reached towards Sarah.

Sarah took what Montoya handed her and looked down. They were two gold stars. She looked back up at Montoya.

“You have been promoted to Acting Commodore. Vice Admiral Hayley couldn’t leave Earth and you are the most experienced combat officer after him. Given that you have spent so many months out here already, the council thought it would create less confusion for you to command our ships.”

Sarah took a step back. She could hardly believe it. It was one thing for Admiral Urana to give her a temporary command position within the Hegaran fleet. That had just been so that the Hegaran ships would listen to her advice. This was something different.

“Don’t look so shocked,” Montoya said as she slapped Sarah on the shoulder. “From the report you sent back, it seems you’ve only been adding to your reputation out here. We’re ready to follow you into battle. None of us want these Ch’rack getting anywhere near Earth.”

“Well,” Sarah said as she collected her thoughts and slipped the two stars into her pocket. She would deal with them later. “I am certainly happy to have you here. We have a briefing to go to so we can sort this out afterwards. Tell me, where is Defiance’s Captain?”

Montoya rolled her eyes as she fell in step beside Sarah. “I’m looking at her. Why do you think Cassidy has been integrated into Defiance’s systems? You are her Captain.”

Sarah tried to hide her shock but it was no use. Instead she just shook her head. “This is too much to take in right now.” A million thoughts were going through her head. Who was going to Captain Destiny then? What about Alexandra or Kevin? They will have to wait , she concluded.

As they walked through Flexor’s palace, she filled in her Captains on Graman society and customs. When they got to the room where the war council usually met a guard was standing beside the door. He directed Sarah down another corridor to another room. As she opened the door and stepped in she understood why the meeting room had been switched. There were nearly double the number of people milling around in front of her. Just a cursory glance identified four species she had never met before. They were all wearing strange garb that suggested they weren’t from the Pack. Protector World species , she guessed.

From among the crowd, Flexor appeared and made his way towards Sarah. “Captain Adams, I am pleased to meet your fellow Captains. You’re all most welcome here. We have greatly appreciated what your Captain has done for us. We haven’t always seen eye to eye,” he said as he glanced at Sarah, “but she has proven herself to be a valued ally of the Graman Pack. I hope we will be able to say the same of all of you soon.”

Sarah went around her Captains and introduced them to Flexor. Then Admiral Urana came up to her leading three other aliens, each was from a different species Sarah recognized as members of Hegaran society. “Acting-Admiral Adams, I would like to introduce to you Admirals Lil’or and Vuso. Both have defied the Hegaran Council’s orders and come to fight with us.

Sarah sensed a few questions rising in the minds of her Captains at the use of her Hegaran rank. “I’ll explain later,” she sent to them. To the Hegarans she gave a salute. “I am pleased to see you both here. Admiral Urana and her ships have fought well against the Ch’rack. I’m sure they will come to fear your ships as much as they fear hers.”

“We are both eager to face the Ch’rack,” Vuso said. “We have watched them ravage other worlds and stood by doing nothing for too long. Your words to the Council are the reason we are here. It will be an honor to fight alongside you Acting-Admiral.”

“The honor will be all mine,” Sarah replied.

The conversation was interrupted by Flexor calling everyone to find a seat. It took a few minutes to get everyone seated, but when they finally were, Flexor went around the group and asked everyone to introduce themselves. He then asked Admiral Treali to give a report on how the war had gone to date. Starting with Sarah’s attack on the Ch’rack staging planet, he spent twenty minutes going through everything that had happened. Then he spent another ten minutes going into more detail on the Ch’rack attack on Lacombai. At the end he gave a brief rundown of Graet’s defenses.

“So the question is,” Flexor began as Treali sat down. “How do we defend this planet? There can be little doubt Graet is their next target. Once they finish us here, they will have won. The Graman Pack will be defeated and the way will be open for the Ch’rack to invade the entire Orion Arm.”

“I think the first thing we need to do is appoint an overall Commander,” Commodore Queling suggested. She commanded eight warships that had been sent by a Protector World species called the Reng. “We are too many ships and too many species to try and determine strategy by a council. One clear commander is needed.”

Flexor nodded. “I have already appointed Admiral Treali as the supreme commander of all Graman Pack forces. He will command the defense of Graet.”

Sarah looked over to Treali. He looked slightly nervous. She had come to respect his analytical skills but he hadn’t yet commanded a fleet in action during the war. When she caught his eyes, she almost thought he looked apologetic.

“With all respect to Treali I’m not sure that is the wisest choice,” Urana said. “Treali has not faced the Ch’rack in battle. Everything will be riding on this next fight, we should not be taking any risks.”

“I agree,” Queling added. “My ships have fought against pirates before, but we have no experience of large fleet battles. If we are to follow someone else into battle, we need to have confidence in them.”

Sarah could see Flexor was trying to keep his anger under control. As king he wasn’t used to being questioned so openly. Before he could say anything Treali spoke up. “I think I agree with Urana my King. Organizing the defenses of Graet and getting all the preparations in place is where my skills will excel. Developing a joint strategy and seeing it through in the heat of battle is a burden someone else may be better suited to carry.”

As he finished speaking his eyes darted over to Sarah. Sarah suddenly realized what he was thinking. When she looked over to Urana she saw the Hegaran Admiral had caught the exchange of glances. Urana simply nodded to Sarah.

“Then who do you suggest?” Flexor demanded. His subordinate had caught him out.

It was neither Treali or Urana who spoke up. Instead it was Eralon, an Admiral commanding ships from another Protector World. “It would seem to me that Captain Adams would most naturally fit the kind of leader we require. According to Treali’s report, she has the most experience fighting the Ch’rack, and her tactics were instrumental in the two victories you have accomplished against them.”

“I second that suggestion,” Urana said. “Adams already holds the rank of Acting-Admiral in the Hegaran Navy.”

“Adams has also been promoted to Acting Commodore within our Navy,” Montoya said. “She commands the warships we have here at Graet. Adams was instrumental in leading our people to victory over the Elders in battle. I think she is the Commander we need.”

Sarah shot both Urana and Montoya dirty looks. The last thing she wanted was more responsibility. “Don’t shy away from this,” Cassidy said into her mind. “Alexandra has filled me in on the memories you have from Gronkin.”

“Yes,” Alexandra said. “You are by far the most qualified commander here. If Graet is to have any chance of not falling, you must be in command.”

Sarah groaned. Not at their suggestion, but at their ganging up on her. “Is this how it’s going to be from now on? I thought you two never agreed on anything?”

“Some things are so obvious that even we can agree on them,” Alexandra replied.

“What do you say to all this?” Flexor asked, drawing her attention back to the meeting.

Sarah paused to take a breath. Cassidy and Alexandra’s words were ringing in her ears. “I have no desire to lead you all into battle. Even if we win, the losses will be horrific. Yet, I know someone must do it. If it is the will of this council, then I will assume command.”

Flexor ground his teeth together. She shrugged at him and shot him a smile. “I would be happy to follow another commander if you have one to suggest.”

Flexor looked at his own Admirals. All of them had either been forced to flee from a Ch’rack attack or hadn’t yet seen any action. “So be it,” he said as he turned back to Sarah. “I will place the fate of my people in your hands. Don’t make me wish I had beaten you in our duel.”

Sarah saw more confusion on the faces of her captains. “I’ll explain that later too,” she sent to them. Her reports had left out a few of the more unpleasant details about Flexor and what had happened to her.

“I’ll do my best,” she replied to Flexor. She didn’t feel like she could make any stronger promises. “Before the decision is final though, I want to hear from every fleet commander. We all must be united in how we go forward from here.”

Around the table each senior commander affirmed their willingness to follow her command. When they had all done so, Sarah took control of the meeting. “I want to hear from each of you,” she said as she looked at the Admirals who had come to fight for the Pack. “Your ships and species are unknown to me. Tell me about them and your combat experience.”

After hearing more about her new allies, she turned the discussion to potential defense strategies. For more than an hour a number of different ideas were thrown back and forth. Sarah was careful not to give her opinion on any one at this point. She wanted her new subordinates to work through them on their own as she listened.

“I think that will do us for today,” she said to bring the council to a close. “Treali will continue to oversee the defense preparations. I want every ship fully resupplied and ready for combat within a day. I intend to think over everything we have discussed here. I will be forming a smaller working group to tease out some of the strategies we have discussed. We will have a full meeting of this war council in two days. By then I intend to present a battle plan to you all.”

Sarah didn’t think she sounded half as confident as she hoped her words made her appear, but it was the best she could do. Despite all the different ideas that had been thrown around, her own experience and Gronkin’s memories, she had no idea how they could defeat the Ch’rack invasion fleet when it came, for there was one thing she did know, when they came, they would be coming with all their strength.

Chapter 43

True to Sarah’s prediction, when the Ch’rack finally launched their attack, they brought pretty much every ship available to them. Sarah was in Defiance’s gym when the first reports came in. Subspace buoys had detected two hundred and forty contacts approaching the Graet system.

After Hannah ended the COM channel, Sarah let out a deep breath. It felt like a weight had lifted off her shoulders. The last two weeks had been frantic. Kant had returned ten days ago. His scouts had spotted the Ch’rack’s large resupply ships moving through subspace towards Lacombai. The Ch’rack were going to commit everything they had to one final battle for Graet. Sarah had ordered every ship the Pack had to Graet. Only one other planet, Nagushi, had a defensive force, and it was only a token force at that. The rest of the Pack fleet was either at Graet or on its way.

Supplying and organizing all the warships into operational units had only been one of Sarah’s headaches. Working with all their Captains and Admirals had been worse. The small tactical working group she had formed had insulated her from some of their bickering, but Flexor had still insisted that a large meeting of all Admirals be held every two days. Those meetings had been taxing. Every Admiral had an idea about how the coming battle should be fought. Most involved other warships facing the worst dangers.

Through all the doom and gloom there had been one ray of sunlight. When eight warships arrived from another former Protector World, there had been a surprising reunion. A Captain of one of the Hegaran ships had turned out to be from the same species. His ancestors had fled the Protector World nine hundred years ago. The wonder on the face of the Admiral from the former Protector World had been matched by the joy on the Hegaran’s. Sarah hoped it was a sign for the future. If the species of Hegara could be coaxed into returning to their homeworlds, they could kick-start many species’ redevelopment.

That’s a thought for the future , Sarah chided herself. They had a battle to win now and the outcome was far from certain. Her tactical working group had come up with twelve potential strategies for the coming battle. They had all been simulated hundreds of times over, with small changes and tweaks being made along the way. In the end she had settled on the simplest strategy. Her experience and Gronkin’s memories told her that with so many different ships, from so many different species, trying anything complicated would be a disaster. It will be down to who has the best Captains and crews.

With one last glance around Defiance’s gym, Sarah left for her quarters. She needed to get changed and ready for the inevitable Admirals’ conference Flexor would call.

“Both ships are ready for combat Captain,” Cassidy informed her.

“We are operating at peak efficiency,” Alexandra added. “Unless someone invents some new communications protocol, our linked interface is as fast as it can be. We have the delay down to two point five nanoseconds.”

Sarah chuckled to herself. “I’m sure that is going to be fast enough. There is no way my reactions will be able to keep up with that anyway. I’m glad you two are getting along much better now. It is about time. This battle is going to be life and death for all of us.”

Neither artificial intelligence replied. Sarah wasn’t surprised. Both were too proud and stubborn to admit they had finally put their rivalry behind them. Defiance’s interface helmet allowed Sarah to fly Defiance and Destiny at the same time. The larger cruiser wasn’t as nimble as the far smaller frigate, but it was surprisingly close. Rear Admiral Woodward had designed the cruiser around her skills. The warship had almost as many secondary maneuvering thrusters as weapon emplacements. She would be able to carry out evasive maneuvers Sarah had thought would be impossible for a ship Defiance’s size.

As she had imprinted with both Alexandra and Cassidy, she could connect to both artificial intelligences through Defiance’s interface helmet and fly both ships at once. At first trying to do so had been surreal. Almost like an out of body experience. Her mind had felt like it was being ripped in two. Alexandra had told her that was partially true. When she was connected with both ships, she could peer out at space with both ships’ sensors at the same time and she could feel the hull and inner systems of both ships simultaneously.

As hard as it had been for her, it had been harder for the two artificial intelligences. Being linked to Sarah together meant they had to work in perfect tandem. For the first few days they had competed furiously, each trying to show Sarah who was best. She had been forced to give them both a stern talking to. It had taken another couple of days, but they had set aside their rivalry and started to work together. Now Sarah felt like the three of them were a well-oiled machine.

“Commodore” Hannah’s voice said through her implant, drawing her thoughts away from Alexandra and Cassidy. Sarah had brought Hannah, Kevin and Sato across to Defiance with her. She needed their experience on board her flagship. “Flexor has contacted all allied ships, he wants to speak to the Admirals in ten minutes.”

“Understood,” Sarah replied. She didn’t know who had come up with the name for the combined fleet but it had stuck. “I’ll be on the bridge presently.” I should have just enough time for a shower, she thought as she quickened her pace.

*

“There’s not much I can say to you all that hasn’t already been said.” Flexor was addressing all the Admirals he had gathered for his holo conference. “This battle won’t just determine the fate of my homeworld or of the Graman Pack. Likely it will determine the fate of all our worlds. We must fight with everything we have. No sacrifice is too great. This fleet must be turned back. My people and your own people demand this from us. In many ways we are still strangers, but we have a common cause. Let’s show these Ch’rack that the rest of the galaxy won’t just let them wipe us out.” Flexor paused and brought his hands together under his chin, it was a Graman sign of seriousness, he then took the time to turn around and hold everyone’s eyes individually. “This battle will be costly, it will cost many of us our lives. Perhaps none of us will survive. Before it begins, I wanted to take this last opportunity to thank you all. If we succeed, the Graman Pack will owe you all a great debt.”

Around her several of the Graman Admirals nodded as they shared glances with each other and the other Admirals. Sarah felt she should speak for those who were not part of the Pack. “We all owe you a great debt already. It has been your worlds and it is about to be your homeworld that will bear the brunt of the Ch’rack invasion. Your people have fought well. We’ll make the Ch’rack pay dearly for coming to Graet.”

“Thank you, High Admiral Adams,” Flexor replied as he used the new rank he had conferred on her. “Do you have any last instructions for us?”

Following Flexor’s lead, Sarah looked around the assembled fleet officers. Then she shook her head. “No, you all know what is expected of you. We have carried out numerous battle simulations together. We’re as ready as we are going to be. Let’s get moving. We’ll break orbit in fifteen minutes. May fate smile on us all.” Raising her hands, she gave a Pack salute to the gathered Admirals. Some returned the gesture, others replied with salutes of their own. Then one by one the faces disappeared from the holo conference.

Sarah was about to disconnect herself when a beep on her command chair alerted her to a message. Flexor had sent her a text communication requesting that she wait. When they were the last two faces in the holo conference, he turned to her.

His words surprised her. “I owe you an apology. These last two weeks, you have shown your skill once again. I should have been listening to you from the start. Perhaps we would have another fifty or sixty warships in our fleet today. Instead, they were wasted protecting worlds that were conquered anyway. I want to thank you for sticking with us even when I directed my anger or frustration at you. You haven’t been an easy ally to like, but you have been a faithful one.”

Sarah wasn’t sure what to say. Flexor’s tone with the other admirals had been much softer than she had expected, but this was something else again.

“Well? Won’t you accept my apology?” Flexor prompted.

“Of course,” she blurted out. “But none is needed. You are the leader of this Pack. The weight of responsibility has been on your shoulders. You’ve had to watch many of your worlds and your people be conquered and enslaved. More importantly, your actions may be what has given us a chance. Defending every planet delayed the Ch’rack. This attack may have come sooner if you hadn’t pursued the strategy you did.” Sarah didn’t believe what she was saying but it was possible. Either way, she didn’t want Flexor going into battle blaming himself. “So apology accepted, but not needed. Let’s focus on the Ch’rack. They should have all our attention now.”

“Agreed,” Flexor growled. “If we both make it through this, we can go back to arguing about who is right and who has the best ideas for the future of the Graman Pack. Perhaps we will settle it in a friendlier duel in the arena.”

Sarah rolled her eyes. “Perhaps,” she granted to appease him. She knew the likelihood that both of them would survive was slim. Flexor’s flagship was far more vulnerable than Defiance . If more than one Ch’rack cruiser decided to take it on, Flexor likely wouldn’t survive the battle. On the other hand, once the Ch’rack realized Defiance was the most powerful ship in the defending fleet, they might focus all their attention on taking out her flagship.

“Well, whatever happens afterwards, I wanted to thank you personally. You have sacrificed much to help us. If it wasn’t for you, Graet would have already fallen. If one of us doesn’t make it through this I wanted to make sure I had said my piece.”

“Thank you,” she replied. “And you should know you haven’t been the worst political leader I have met on my journeys. Maybe a little rough around the edges, but I know you care for your people. Plus, you’ve turned out to be even more impressive than I first thought.” Sarah finished by sticking out her tongue.

Flexor pretended to look angry. “That reminds me, we have something else to talk about after this. Your meddling in my kingdom. Don’t think I will forget the things you tried to do. If we survive this, things will be going back to the way they were.”

Sarah smiled but all she felt was sadness. Whatever happened things wouldn’t be going back to the way they were. “We’ll see. Maybe you’ll challenge me to a real duel again after this. It’s probably the best chance you have of beating me at anything.”

Flexor growled again but as he smiled, it was clear he meant no harm by it. “Okay, enough of this. We both have ships to see to. We can pick this up after the battle. Fight well Admiral, everyone will be looking to you.”

“I’ll do my best,” Sarah promised. She didn’t feel like she could promise anything more.

When the holo conference ended, she took a few moments to stare at her bridge crew as they went about their duties. She had come to know all the faces serving on Defiance but they still looked out of place. She knew that if it wasn’t for Kevin, Hannah and Sato sitting nearby she would have felt lost. Forcing down her emotions she turned to Sato who was manning the COM station. “What is the fleet’s status?”

“Most ships have reported ready to break orbit. We’re just waiting on a few stragglers.”

“Signal the stragglers, tell them to hurry up,” she ordered. She sat back in her command chair. The fleet would break orbit and head for the mass shadow in five minutes. The first part of her battle plan was about to begin.

*

“Take the fleet into subspace,” Sarah ordered her navigation officer. As soon as she gave the order, she formed a battle meld with the crews of Defiance and Destiny . As her mind connected with the crew of Destiny she felt a small surge of joy. It was good to feel their presence again. Then she reached out and formed another meld with the Captains of the human warships that were arrayed around Defiance . Finally, she brought Defiance’s interface helmet down and connected it to her implant. Defiance’s bridge disappeared and she found herself staring through the cruiser’s sensors at the Allied Fleet.

A couple of seconds passed before the cruiser’s subspace engines ripped a hole into subspace and the cruiser was sucked in. Sarah’s view of normal space was replaced by the empty void of subspace. Within a second the three hundred and eighty-two warships of the Allied Fleet winked into existence around her. Beyond them, less than ten minutes away, the main Ch’rack fleet was unmistakable. More than two hundred contacts were closely huddled together. They weren’t her initial concern though. Nearly forty other contacts were spread out between the Ch’rack’s main fleet and Graet’s mass shadow. Sarah knew exactly what they were up to, they were looking for minefields.

As soon as all the ships in the fleet had transitioned to subspace she moved Defiance forward and the fleet advanced. Several flotillas broke off and moved onto intercept trajectories with the nearest Ch’rack ships. Over the course of the next three minutes nine enemy warships were destroyed at the cost of seven Allied ships.

Are you going to blink? Sarah asked the commander of the Ch’rack fleet. Whoever he was, he had to know that their ships were at a disadvantage when fighting in subspace. Given their numbers, they could still beat Sarah’s fleet, but the cost would be high and victory wouldn’t be assured. You are , Sarah thought as she smiled to herself.

The Ch’rack fleet split in two. Each half was angling away from Sarah’s ships on a course that would let them reach Graet whilst avoiding engaging her ships. And crucially, on two trajectories that you haven’t checked for mines . Since the first battle with the Ch’rack at Majoue, the Pack shipyards had been constantly producing mines. Flexor had been saving them for just such a time as this. There were five times the amount of mines that had been used at Majoue arrayed around Graet. They were far more spread out and their impact wouldn’t be as devastating as they had been before. Nevertheless, they were going to hurt.

She waited another two minutes and then ordered her fleet to decelerate and reverse course. As soon as her ships slowed, the Ch’rack Admiral reacted. They had figured out what Sarah’s breaking maneuver meant. His ships decelerated, they were also turning, trying to get on a trajectory that would take them away from Graet. Critically though, it took several more minutes for the Ch’rack ships to lose their forward momentum. During that time, a large portion of the forward section of their fleet entered the minefield. Just at the point where they had brought their momentum towards Graet to a halt, the mines activated.

More than two hundred new contacts appeared amongst both portions of the Ch’rack fleet. Some of the subspace missiles covered the distance to their targets in a handful of seconds. Those ships had no chance to defend themselves. As the mines were far more spread out than at Majoue, the majority of the missiles had a far greater travel time to their targets. Many were shot down, but others struck home. With ships being dumped into real space by missile detonations, and others carrying our emergency reversions to avoid missiles, it was hard to tell how much damage was being done to the Ch’rack fleet. More than twenty contacts had disappeared from the holo plot of subspace. Time will tell , Sarah thought. At least we have given them a bloody nose.

“Drop us back into real space as soon we reach the mass shadow,” she ordered. “Let the fleet know, we will return to Graet at best possible speed. Send a communication to Graet. Inform them the preliminary stage of our plan worked.”

Chapter 44

An hour later it became clear just what damage the mines had done to the Ch’rack fleet. Defiance was still an hour away from Graet when the Ch’rack fleet made its appearance in the system. The two hundred and forty-one contacts Defiance’s sensors had detected in subspace had been reduced to two hundred and twenty-six.

As the sensor data came in, Sarah felt the hearts of some of the crew on Defiance fall. They had been expecting more ships to be destroyed. “Don’t be mistaken,” she sent to Defiance and Destiny’s crews. “A number of those ships will be damaged. The mines have done their work. They were never going to win this battle for us. Your skills will be what sees us through the coming hours. Do not let your resolve waiver.”

At first her words seemed to have little impact on the crew members whose emotions had been falling. They did stir up excitement among Destiny’s crew though. They understood what she was saying. Damaged Ch’rack warships would be easy targets for Defiance and Destiny . Destiny’s crew’s thirst for battle had been awakened. The battle meld allowed Defiance’s crew to taste it and their spirits rose. Good , Sarah thought as she examined their feelings. Then she pulled back her mind. She had a battle to plan. She needed to trust that her crew would give their best.

With Alexandra, Cassidy and Kevin’s help she spent the rest of the hour it took her fleet to reach Graet examining the Ch’rack fleet. By the time Defiance settled into orbit, they had identified eleven ships that had suffered some kind of damage. These had been marked as priority targets. They had also identified four sub fleets within the main fleet. It was only a best guess, but given previous Ch’rack fleet formations, they had identified a couple of possibilities for the flagships of each sub fleet. A number of the Ch’rack cruisers appeared larger than their normal designs, they were likely some kind of command ship. They would be prioritized for destruction in the early stages of the battle.

“Admiral Treali is signaling from defense platform one,” Sato reported. “All orbital defenses are ready and freighters are in position. They are awaiting your command.”

“Acknowledge his message,” she replied. “Then signal the fleet, we will take up formation gamma-three.”

By the time she had her ships stationed exactly how she wanted them, the Ch’rack fleet was thirty minutes away from missile range. From their deceleration profile it was clear the enemy Admiral intended to come to a halt relative to Graet and carry out the battle at extreme missile range. If Sarah had been in his shoes she would have done the same, at least until the orbital defense platforms were destroyed, for they packed a powerful punch. The tactic had worked a number of times for the Ch’rack, especially at Lacombai. We’ll not be playing ball this time , Sarah thought to her opponent.

“Signal the fleet, I want every ship to run a final diagnostic test on their engines and power transfer lines. I don’t want any ships falling behind due to a system’s failure.”

“Message has been sent Commodore,” Sato replied.

When the Ch’rack were five minutes away from opening fire, Sarah ordered a COM channel opened to every ship and defense platform. Those who were about to give their lives under her command deserved to hear from her. “This is it people. The last several months of fighting have come down to this. I’m not going to lie to you. Even if we are successful today, many of us will not see another hour. We’re not fighting for ourselves though, we’re fighting for the planet below us and for the many others the Ch’rack will attack if we don’t stop them here. We have beaten them before, I know we can do it today, but we must fight like we have never fought before. Every one of us; from the point defense gunner, to the damage repair technician, to the Captains and Admirals, has a vital role to play. Our ships must fly faster, hit harder and absorb more damage than we have ever done before. The Ch’rack think it is their right to conquer and kill whatever species they desire. Let’s show them that if they want to take our lives, they will have to pay a heavy price. You all have a duty to do. See that you do it to the best of your ability. Admiral Adams out.”

“Those were good words,” Kevin said as he reached over from his command chair to touch Sarah’s shoulder. “That’s what the fleet needed to hear. We’ve had two weeks to get used to the idea that we may not survive this. It is not about living, it is about winning.”

Sarah gave Kevin’s hand a squeeze. “It is, but let’s try and do both nonetheless. We’ve spent almost as much of our marriage fighting the Ch’rack as we have doing anything else. I’d like to think there are a few more camping trips back on Earth for us to enjoy yet.”

Kevin smiled. “I suppose I did promise to take you back to Drayton. I guess I’d better do my best to live up to that.”

“You’d better,” Sarah replied. She released his hand and turned back to the holo-projector. The Ch’rack would be opening fire in a handful of seconds. In the battle meld she sensed an overwhelming desire to drive the Ch’rack back. Everyone knew what might happen to Earth if they failed here. It would be worse than what the Elders had done. Everyone in the Graet system had seen the recordings from Lacombai. There was one phrase on everyone’s minds. That won’t be happening today.

“They’re firing,” Hannah let her know through the battle meld.

Sarah activated Defiance’s interface helmet so that she could watch the missiles through the cruiser’s sensors. This is it, she thought. Now we’ll see if Gronkin’s memories are useful or not.

It took a few seconds for Defiance’s sensors to analyze the incoming salvo. When they did, the holo plot updated to inform everyone that the Ch’rack fleet had released one thousand two hundred and seventy-eight missiles. Sarah had known that was roughly the number of missiles they would be facing but seeing them was a different matter. For a second, doubt raced through her. Such a wave of destruction would surely devastate her fleet and Graet’s defenses. Don’t, she warned herself. Trust the simulations .

“Return fire,” she snapped.

One thousand seven hundred and thirty-two missiles shot towards the Ch’rack. Individually they were less powerful and had less effective ECM protecting them, but interspaced between the Pack missiles were human and Hegaran ones. They would prove to be as, if not more deadly, than the Ch’rack’s missiles.

“Lasers,” Sarah ordered when the enemy salvo came into range.

Heavy laser cannons from the defense platforms and allied warships barked out. Not designed to engage incoming missiles they had a very low hit ratio. Yet with so many missiles approaching, the odd laser beam struck home.

“The Ch’rack fleet is moving, they are closing with the planet slowly,” Hannah updated.

“They’re coming into plasma cannon range. They want to pepper us as we defend ourselves,” Sarah explained.

She waited another minute before giving her next order. “Freighters will advance.”

From behind the orbital defense platforms and amongst the Allied war fleet, sixty empty freighters accelerated out of orbit. Some arrayed themselves in front of the defense platforms, others accelerated towards the incoming waves of missiles.

“Plasma bolts,” Hannah shouted.

Sarah wove Defiance and Destiny around one another as she dodged most of the incoming bolts. For the moment it was relatively simple. The freighters ahead of her ships were absorbing most of the bolts.

“Point defenses,” she ordered as soon as the missiles came into range.

A host of weapons platforms opened up. Point defense lasers, AM missiles, railguns, flack cannons and autocannons added to the blaze of color and destructive fire that engulfed the incoming salvo. Their numbers fell dramatically. Linked together, Alexandra and Cassidy  coordinated the human ships’ point defensive fire. From Defiance , Destiny and the ten destroyers, wave after wave of point defensive fire reached out to snuff out missiles in their dozens.

The first explosions among the Allied Fleet were the freighters that Sarah had pushed forward. Plasma bolts burned through their energy screens. An explosion deeper in orbit drew Sarah’s attention. A Pack frigate had been hit by three plasma bolts. Two tore down its energy screen and the third punched through its armor. Something vital must have been hit for a secondary explosion ripped the frigate in half. Both sections fell into orbit. Sarah hoped they wouldn’t strike any inhabited parts of the planet. That was the second reason that had led her to fight the battle in the way she intended to. She didn’t want hundreds of warships crashing into Graet’s surface. If that happened it could do almost as much damage as the Ch’rack would do if they won.

“Send the activation code to the freighters,” she ordered.

The freighters that had been accelerating out of orbit and those stationed above the defense platforms blazed on Defiance’s sensors. They were screaming out to the missiles, offering themselves as juicy targets. Many of the Ch’rack missiles took the bait. They came crashing in against the freighters, multiple explosions blew the weak ships into atoms.

The Allied warships fired on the rest of the missiles. They did all they could to limit the incoming wave of destruction. Then missiles detonated amongst their real targets.

Sarah pushed Destiny away from Defiance as three missiles targeted the larger cruiser. Combining the sensor data from both warships and coordinating their point defenses, Alexandra and Cassidy shot down two of them. As the third came crashing in, Sarah twisted Defiance to present her nose to the missile. That was where the cruiser’s energy screen was strongest. The missile detonated, sending vibrations through the large ship though they were far weaker than Sarah had expected.

“Energy screen is holding,” an officer reported. “It has been knocked down to eighty-six percent, but we should be able to recharge it to at least ninety-six over the next few minutes.”

Sarah whistled. Defiance’s energy screen was far stronger that Destiny’s . “See to it,” she replied. She turned her attention to her fleet. Explosions were still erupting, but the majority of the Ch’rack missiles that got through the point defensive fire had already found their targets. A quick count told her more than thirty ships were showing serious damage. Twelve were breaking up and falling into orbit. The rest were struggling to maintain their formation against the pull of the planet’s gravity. Several missiles had found targets amongst the Hegaran and human ships, but they had all managed to shrug them off. One human destroyer and a couple of Hegaran cruisers looked like their energy screens had taken a serious hit. They would be weakened going into the battle, but they were still in the fight. The real damage had been done to the Pack and former protector world ships. Their energy screens weren’t powerful enough to survive a direct hit from a Ch’rack missile.

Another explosion pulled her eyes away from her ships. Where defense platform four had been, there was nothing but an expanding fireball. Sarah guessed a missile hit had caused some kind of secondary explosion. As her gaze was still focused on the defense platforms, she noticed a sudden increase in glare coming from them. Their energy screens were being taxed heavily. The cause was obvious. The Ch’rack had focused all their plasma bolts on the defense platforms. They intend to destroy as many of them as they can before they fire another salvo, Sarah realized. It is time.

“Send the order, ‘all ships are to advance,’” she called out.

Intending to lead from the front, she gunned Defiance and Destiny’s engines. The ten human destroyers arrayed around her flagship followed in perfect formation. Within a couple of seconds the rest of the ships in the fleet began to move. The Pack and former protector world ships were firing their engines beyond their safety limits. They had to close the distance to the Ch’rack fleet as quickly as possible.

An explosion among the Ch’rack ships caused a cheer to go up from Defiance’s bridge crew. “One of the defense platforms scored a hit with its heavy lasers. That was one of the damaged Ch’rack ships. It’s gone now.”

Sarah mentally nodded to Hannah. The defense platforms had lasers with far greater range than Defiance . Now that they weren’t having to defend themselves from missiles, they had engaged the Ch’rack fleet.

“That commander is good,” Kevin commented. Less than twenty seconds after Sarah had given the order to advance, the plasma cannon fire had shifted from the defense platforms to the Allied Fleet.

“He knows what the real threat to his fleet is,” Sarah replied. As the plasma bolts began to find their targets, she didn’t have to give any orders. Her ships knew what to do. They began random evasive maneuvers to dodge the incoming fire. Thankfully, they only had to endure the plasma bolts for twenty seconds. Then the fire came to a halt. The missile salvo they had fired at the Ch’rack had come into range and the Ch’rack were focusing their attention on it.

With better point defenses than the Pack warships, the one thousand five hundred missiles Sarah’s fleet had fired was quickly cut down. Yet the Ch’rack didn’t have freighters or defense platforms to aid them. Sixty missiles made it into attack range. Many of them detonated against Ch’rack energy screens. When Defiance’s sensors cleared, sixteen warships were missing and nine more were pulling back, clearly badly damaged.

Again, without having to give orders, her ships recommenced their evasive maneuvers. Seconds later the waves of plasma bolts recommenced. “Show me the two likely flagships that are our priority,” Sarah requested.

Overlaid on top of the sensor data, two ships within the Ch’rack fleet flashed. They were in the center of the enemy fleet. Sarah hoped one of them was the Ch’rack Admiral’s flagship. She intended to pay him a personal visit. “Send orders to flotillas seven, nine and thirteen, update their flight trajectories.” Mentally, she projected new flight path for the flotillas. The Ch’rack were altering their formation to adjust for the losses they had suffered. Sarah had split her fleet into forty-five flotillas. Each one was commanded by an experienced Admiral or Captain. They would lead their flotilla against a single enemy combatant. Only once it was destroyed would they switch to a new target. The tactic had worked before and it was the best chance the Pack and former protector world ships had of negating the technological advantage the Ch’rack had. As her fleet moved forward, Sarah made sure every flotilla was lined up on a key target.

Despite their evasive maneuvers, the plasma bolts took their toll. First one Protector World destroyer lost its energy screen. The follow-up round of plasma bolts burst through its armor and caused some minor damage. It wasn’t life-threatening for the ship, but it was enough to make it fall out of formation. Then a Pack cruiser suffered the same fate. Over the next two minutes eight more ships fell out of formation. None were destroyed, but they were essentially out of the fight. That was just as bad.

“It’s time to do something about those plasma bolts,” Sarah ordered over the battle meld.

“Firing,” Kevin responded. The rest of the human captains responded similarly.

From Defiance and the ten destroyers, mass driver cannons released their rounds. The mass drivers were primitive technology. Essentially large railguns, they accelerated a rod of tungsten to almost a third of the speed of light. Given the human warships’ velocity towards the Ch’rack fleet that meant they had a closing speed of nearly half that of light. The Ch’rack fleet had been carrying out minor evasive maneuvers to throw off the long-range laser cannons of the defense platforms. However, most ships were keeping relatively stationary so as to give their plasma cannon gunners the best chance of hitting Sarah’s ships. They were about to pay for their mistake.

Defiance had two twin mass driver cannons, while the destroyers had one each. It took the twenty-four tungsten spears five seconds to cover the distance to the Ch’rack fleet. Sarah counted them down. When she reached zero, nine explosions erupted among the enemy fleet. Every one of them was a cruiser.

For several seconds the Ch’rack didn’t react, then, obviously in response to a command from their Admiral, every ship began drastic evasive maneuvers. Sarah smiled to herself. They don’t know what hit them, but they were scared. “Hold fire with the mass drivers until we get closer. They’ll prove even more deadly once we get amongst them,” she sent over the battle meld. With the Ch’rack’s evasive maneuvers, firing at them again at range would be a waste. Critically, their evasive maneuvers seriously degraded their accuracy with their plasma cannons.

“How long to laser range?” Sarah asked Cassidy.

“Fifteen seconds until we can open fire, then four more for the Hegarans and five more for the Pack ships,” she answered.

“Signal the fleet, all ships will open fire now,” Sarah sent to her COM officer. She felt Kevin’s mind querying her order. “I know, even if they managed to hit something at this range it will do no damage. But can’t you feel the tension in the human crews? The rest of the fleet will be the same or worse. Getting a few early shots will put them at ease and get them ready for when they can do some damage.”

Kevin sent her a mental nod. Then Sarah sensed his mind change as he focused on opening fire with Defiance’s weapons. From Destiny Sarah saw more laser bolts shoot towards the Ch’rack fleet. Trask was following suit. Even though he wasn’t connected to Sarah through the battle meld, they had drilled together enough over the last six months that she had a good idea of what he would try to do and when. Certainly, in the battle simulations they had run, he had handled Destiny’s offensive weapons expertly. She had no worries he would disappoint her in the coming battle.

“Coming into effective range of the Ch’rack’s lasers,” Alexandra prompted Sarah.

Sarah threw Defiance and Destiny into a dance of evasive maneuvers. The two ships spun around and around each other whilst dipping and weaving, sometimes in unison and sometimes apart. With both artificial intelligences flying the ships through Sarah’s mental commands, they were working in perfect harmony.

Chapter 45

As her ship raced towards the Ch’rack fleet Sarah all but ignored Kevin and Trask’s attempts to hit their targets. Getting amongst the enemy fleet was more important. As they came closer and closer the intensity of the incoming laser fire drastically increased. They know Defiance is a threat , Sarah thought.

“There are at least five cruisers targeting us,” Cassidy guessed.

Sarah did her best to twist and turn and weave but she couldn’t dodge all the incoming fire. Defiance’s and Destiny’s energy screens absorbed hits. Sarah alternately interposed each ship in front of the other to give her crews brief moments of respite to recharge each energy screen.

A spike of joy from Kevin let her know that he had scored a hit. Risking a second to glance at the Ch’rack fleet, she saw that one of the cruisers targeting them looked badly damaged. Sarah guessed tachyon pulses had ripped down its energy screen and between them Kevin and Trask had scored a critical hit. The cruiser was currently pulling itself out of harm’s way. With her focus momentarily divided, Sarah took the opportunity to check on her fleet as well. She grimaced to herself. Twenty-six contacts were missing, including one Hegaran destroyer. Quite a few other ships were falling out of formation. They were still charging the Ch’rack, but battle damage was preventing them from keeping up with the main fleet.

Three plasma bolts striking Destiny’s energy screen forced her attention back to dodging incoming fire. Rather than improve their situation, scoring hits against the enemy cruiser had worsened it. More ships had identified Defiance as a threat and the incoming fire dramatically increased.

“We are amongst them,” Cassidy called.

Sarah looked at the Ch’rack ships around Defiance in surprise. She had been so focused on her evasive maneuvers, she hadn’t realized just how close they had got. As Defiance and Destiny shot through the first ships within the Ch’rack fleet, many that had been targeting her had to hold fire for fear of hitting one of their comrades. “Let’s hunt,” Sarah sent to everyone in her two battle melds.

Reducing her evasive maneuvers, Sarah sought out targets. Defiance’s mass drivers were fully recharged and both her ships had their particle lances ready. Spinning Defiance on her axis, Sarah brought the mass driver cannons to bear on the nearest cruiser. Kevin fired immediately. It took just one second for the rounds to close with the cruiser. Three missed, but the fourth struck home. The kinetic energy released by the tungsten spear obliterated the cruiser. Sarah brought Destiny’s nose round to point at another cruiser. Trask was only a fraction of a second slower firing than Kevin would have been. The shot missed the cruiser but struck its energy screen, tearing it down.

Gunning the engines on both ships, Sarah accelerated towards the cruiser. Laser beams and tachyon pulses shot from both ships as Kevin and Trask tried to finish it off. Here and there Sarah threw a twist and a corkscrew into her charge, but her focus was on taking out the cruiser. Within fifteen seconds laser beams had ripped large holes in its hull. Leaving the cruiser for dead, Sarah spun away. Her mind sought out the two potential flagships she had assigned as her primary targets. Through the battle meld she let her Captains know what she intended. Two destroyers peeled away from the ships they were engaging and formed up with Defiance . The rest spread out to fight off any ships that tried to delay her.

Sarah danced her way through the enemy fleet. Several cruisers and destroyers tried to intercept her, but each was forced to defend itself against a human destroyer. Twisting Defiance and Destiny away from two Ch’rack destroyers trying to close with her, Sarah’s target finally came into direct view. The potential flagship was an enemy cruiser, yet it out massed its sister ships by at least twenty percent. Flanking the large Ch’rack warship were two more cruisers. Sarah assigned one of them as the target for Montoya’s destroyer, it was the only other human ship that was still with her.

“We’ll take the smaller cruiser with Defiance’s partilce lances, then we’ll take out the flagship the old-fashioned way,” she sent to Kevin. She pointed her cruiser’s nose at the smaller enemy ship. Two beams of particles accelerated to almost the speed of light shot out. One just grazed the cruiser’s energy screen, the other was a direct hit. The particles blew a hole right through the cruiser. Sarah could see space out the other side. Then the cruiser disappeared as its reactors overloaded and detonated.

Knowing that it was next, the oversized Ch’rack cruiser opened up on Defiance with everything it had. Though she did her best, laser beams and plasma bolts peppered Defiance’s energy screen. It was quickly reduced from seventy-eight percent efficiency to sixty-six as Sarah closed the distance to her target to almost point-blank range. The vibrations coming from the incoming fire suddenly changed, growing stronger. Hits were starting to get through.

Gritting her teeth, she closed the distance. She was only going to get one chance with the mass drivers. She couldn’t afford to miss. As her focus was fixed on the enemy flagship, she saw laser beams fired by Kevin or Trask punch through its energy screen. Explosions erupted along its hull. The weight of fire the cruiser was putting out didn’t seem to diminish though. For every beam that passed through its energy screen, the enemy cruiser got one through Defiance or Destiny’s as well.

“Line me up,” Kevin shouted through the battle meld.

Sarah had been waiting for his prompt. With a slight maneuver, she brought Defiance’s mass drivers to bear. Kevin fired and less than quarter of a second later the enemy flagship erupted into a giant fireball.

“Yes!” Sarah called out as she punched her fists in the air.

With the incoming fire greatly diminished, she shifted her focus to the battle at large. It seemed like the ships immediately around her had lost some of their cohesion, but the rest of the Ch’rack fleet was tearing into her ships. More than a quarter of the ships that had charged from Graet were gone. A familiar sense of loss and sadness threatened to well up and distract her. Grinding her teeth together she forced it down. Mourning the losses wouldn’t help those still fighting. I have to get that second flagship. Spinning Defiance and Destiny onto a new trajectory, she accelerated towards the cruiser.

Once again, she ignored Kevin and Trask’s attempts to shoot at nearby targets. She couldn’t afford to get waylaid and her two ships had already taken a significant amount of damage. She had to save her ships’ energy screens for taking on the next flagship.

“Commodore,” Defiance’s chief engineer’s voice called to her through the battle meld. “Reactor three is playing up, some of its coolant lines have been damaged. It’s down to sixty percent output. We can either charge the mass drivers or the particle lances, but not both. What do you want me to prioritize?”

“Particle lances,” Sarah replied. They had a much greater optimal range and she would need them to get close to the next flagship.

“There she is,” Hannah announced when the second target came into view.

“That’s not good,” Kevin commented. The oversized cruiser was flanked by another cruiser and two destroyers. Even as they watched, the two destroyers broke away and turned to intercept Defiance and Destiny . The normal cruiser was just behind them.

“We’ll take the cruiser with one of our particle lances and save the second one and Destiny’s for the flagship. Focus on those destroyers, take them out quickly so you don’t have to worry about their weapons,” Sarah ordered out loud so that Trask would hear as well.

“Aye Commodore,” he replied. Kevin sent her a mental nod.

As the three approaching ships opened up on her two ships, Sarah focused on her evasive maneuvers. Every few seconds she reduced them to allow her ships to fire. The three ships that were closing with her didn’t bother with their own evasive maneuvers. Instead they concentrated on bombarding Defiance and Destiny with every weapon they had. Through her link with Alexandra, she felt every vibration that ran through both ships as they suffered hit after hit.

Destiny can’t take much more of this,” Alexandra reported. “We’ve lost nearly thirty percent of our outer armor.”

“We have no choice,” Sarah sent back. “The fleet is relying on us.”

“Destroyer beta-1’s engines are down,” Kevin reported.

“Ignore it,” Sarah ordered.

With both Defiance and Destiny concentrating their weapons on the single remaining destroyer, its energy screen was shot down within seconds. Laser beams ripped it apart.

“Time for the particle lance,” she called out. Just as she brought Defiance’s nose around, the cruiser fired a volley of plasma bolts and two of its laser cannons. Three bolts and one of the beams struck her cruiser. Right away she knew the hits had been serious. Through her connection to the ship she could feel some of the damage the forward sections had taken.

“Particle lance one is not responding,” Kevin shouted through the battle meld.

Sarah wanted to swear. There was no time. “Fire number two.”

Despite the damage and shock, Kevin’s aim proved true. The beam of accelerated particles shot towards the cruiser. Sarah saw it strike its target. She saw a small flash as its energy screen disintegrated. Yet the follow-up explosion from the particles striking the cruiser’s hull didn’t come.

“What happened?” She demanded.

“I’m not sure,” Kevin responded. “The beam wasn’t as powerful as it should have been, something must have gone wrong.”

“Its energy screen is down,” Trask said over the open COM channel to Destiny . “Shall I finish it off with my particle lance?”

Sarah shook her head even though she knew Trask couldn’t see her. “No. We need it for the flagship. Target everything else we have at her.”

The enemy cruiser was so close that Sarah struggled to dodge its incoming fire. The Ch’rack gunners could target her in real time. The same was true for Kevin and Trask. Together they kept up a steady bombardment. Without an energy screen to protect it or reduce the destructive power of the incoming energy weapons, it quickly took serious damage.

At the same time, its weapons were taking a toll on Defiance and Destiny . Even though it was concentrating on Defiance , Destiny took two more hits. Sarah felt one breach the frigate’s armor and penetrate the ship’s internals. She grimaced as the laser beam hit home. It felt like something serious had been damaged. Whilst Defiance had taken several similar hits, none had felt half as bad.

“Got her,” Trask yelled over the COM channel.

Two laser beams from Destiny had hit the cruiser’s engines. They burst through what was left of the armor in that section of the ship and destroyed three thrust nozzles. Minor explosions rippled through the cruiser until one of them reached something serious. The resultant explosion blew nearly a quarter of the cruiser into space. Its weapons went silent.

“What’s the status on Destiny’s particle lance?” Sarah demanded as she spun her two ships away from the stricken cruiser and towards the flagship. It had moved away from Defiance . It was going to take her at least a minute to close with it.

“It’s still functioning,” Alexandra informed her. “However, our energy screen is down to twenty-two percent, anything that hits us will make it through to the hull. Several sections have lost almost all of their armor. We can’t afford to take too many hits.”

Before Sarah could reply, she felt the call for help scream through the battle meld. Her awareness shifted to Captain Rogers and his destroyer. Four Ch’rack cruisers had closed with it and were pummeling the warship. Desperately Sarah reached out to the other Captains. Yet none of them were close enough to come to Rogers aid.

“No,” she screamed as beams penetrated Valliant’s energy screen. Even as the destroyer took more and more damage, Rogers kept fighting his ship. Laser beams and tachyon pulses pulled down one of the cruiser’s energy screens and a follow-up volley all but crippled the cruiser. Then a single particle lance took out another cruiser. Even as the Ch’rack warships died, two more destroyers swept in and added their fire to the slaughter. Valiant took hit after hit. Somehow Rogers managed to keep firing. A number of explosions erupted on the two other cruisers that he was fighting. Then, the destroyer finally gave up. There were so many laser beams and plasma bolts striking the ship that it was impossible to tell which one scored the killing blow. One moment the destroyer was twisting and turning, firing what functioning weapons it still had. Then there was nothing more than an expanding ball of debris. Rogers’ mind winked out of the battle meld.

“Tighten up your formations,” Sarah growled through the battle meld to her other Captains. “None of you are meant to be fighting alone.”

Captain Garcia tried to respond. “We got separated when…”

Sarah cut her off. “Save it. We have a battle to win and a friend to avenge.”

A particularly strong beam striking Defiance’s energy screen and reducing its efficiency told Sarah she had come into range of the second Ch’rack flagship. Further out there were several frigates and destroyers trying to come to its aid, but for the moment it was on its own. Even damaged, Defiance and Destiny’s superior engines meant it couldn’t escape.

“We’ll use Defiance to get close enough to use Destiny’s particle lance to take the flagship out,” she informed her crew. “Destiny can’t afford to take any more hits, Defiance is going to have to soak up whatever this cruiser can fire at us.”

Kevin was staring at her. Though Sarah couldn’t see it because of her interface helmet, she felt it. “What else can we do? Look at our fleet, it is being ripped apart.” The Ch’rack ships near the flagship Sarah had already taken out still hadn’t regained their cohesion, but the rest of the Ch’rack fleet was fighting in well-coordinated groups. Most of them were centered around the oversized cruiser Alexandra and Cassidy had identified as the flagship a couple of hours ago. The small flotillas Sarah had organized her own fleet into were somewhat offsetting the Ch’rack’s cohesion, but their more advanced weapons technologies were winning the battle.

“Fine,” Kevin replied after taking a second to take in the wider battle. “But you’d better fly like you’ve never flown before. We can’t take too many more hits either.”

Sarah didn’t bother replying. She knew what she had to do. Bringing Destiny in under Defiance’s belly, she twisted and turned, avoiding the incoming fire. Her attention was focused on the oversized Ch’rack cruiser. She watched its every move, looking for every heat bloom that suggested it had opened fire. Drawing on her skill and experience, she did everything she could to trick the Ch’rack gunners into targeting where she wouldn’t be, or to avoid the shots they did get on target. Time slowed as she lost awareness of everything else around her. The only thing that mattered was the next laser beam or volley of plasma bolts. The only other thing she was aware of was the constant report from one of Defiance’s bridge officers on the state of the energy screen. He was counting down from fifty-two percent. Within thirty seconds it was down to forty-five, then two more hits reduced it to thirty-six.

Though she had closed her awareness off to most of the rest of the ship, Sarah knew what each reduction in the number meant. Not only was the energy screen’s efficiency reducing, each hit was now striking the hull. The energy screen might reduce some of the dangerous energies from the lasers and plasma bolts, but it was no longer strong enough to completely deflect them. A sudden jolt forced Sarah to divert her attention slightly. “How bad is it?” she asked.

“We lost laser cannons two and three,” Kevin informed her. “Don’t worry, keep flying.”

She did as she was told. “Show me plasma cannon range,” she requested.

Cassidy responded by overlaying a green tinged area around the Ch’rack flagship. It was just in front of Defiance . “Fifteen more seconds,” she told Sarah. “We are going to make it.”

Redoubling her efforts, Sarah did her best to dodge everything the cruiser fired at her. Its energy screen flared as Kevin scored hits of his own. As yet none had penetrated its screen, but they should at least be distracting the Ch’rack gunners. As her mind focused on her task, time slowed down. The green tinge on the overlay of the sensor data she was peering at came closer and closer. When Defiance crossed it, Sarah kept going. She blocked out any sense of the rest of her ship. She couldn’t let the growing damage reports distract her. Instead she kept getting closer and closer. Destiny’s particle lance was only going to get one shot. She had to give Trask the best opportunity he could.

“Captain,” Trask’s voice called out over the COM channel. “We’re close enough, I’ve got this, bring Destiny around.”

Sarah’s instincts told her to push on, to make sure Trask would get the killing blow, yet she trusted him. “Get ready,” she replied.

In the middle of an evasive maneuver she reversed course and rolled Destiny around Defiance’s hull. Just as she did, she saw the Ch’rack cruiser pivot. It was bringing three new laser cannons to bear. She knew what the Ch’rack Captain was doing. Whoever they were, they had anticipated what Sarah planned. They had expected Destiny to make an appearance. As Trask lined up the shot and fired, the Ch’rack cruiser fired as well. Neither Trask nor the Ch’rack gunner had been good enough to stop the other firing, instead each delivered a crippling blow to the other.

Chapter 46

Sarah cried out as the three laser beams struck Destiny . The first one tore down its fragile energy screen. The next two burnt through the frigate’s armor and evaporated large sections of its interior. An overwhelming sense of pain came from the frigate and the blinking out of crew members from Destiny’s battle meld made Sarah’s scream rise in pitch. She didn’t even notice the particle lance strike the Ch’rack flagship and blow it apart. She didn’t care. Her ship had just been gutted. Reaching out with her mind she tried to bring the frigate under control. It wouldn’t respond. It was veering off into space on a ballistic trajectory. She had a vague sense of Alexandra somewhere in the back of her mind, but she couldn’t speak with the artificial intelligence and the more she tried, the more Alexandra’s presence seemed like a memory, not a reality.

A laser beam zipped past Destiny’s lifeless hull, making Sarah growl. A nearby destroyer was trying to finish the frigate off. Yanking control of Defiance’s weapons away from Kevin, Sarah spun her cruiser around and opened fire with everything she had. Ignoring the destroyer’s attempts to shoot back, Sarah charged at it. Within seconds she had torn down its energy screen and blasted it into debris. Swinging back around, she brought Defiance in close to Destiny . No one else was going to damage her beloved ship. Only when she had placed Defiance between the nearest Ch’rack warship and Destiny did she become aware of Kevin’s voice in her mind. He was shouting her name.

“Sarah! Sarah!”

“What is it?” she replied raising her voice as well. “I can hear you.”

“The Ch’rack fleet, their formation is splitting up. Our ships need you.”

Instead of reaching out to the rest of the battle, Sarah tried again to contact Alexandra or someone else on Destiny .

“There’s nothing else you can do for her now,” Kevin shouted. “The battle still hangs in the balance. We have to fight.”

Sarah didn’t answer. Instead she fixed Defiance’s sensors on Destiny . She tried to see just how badly the frigate was damaged. Suddenly her vision changed. She felt her mind being yanked away from Destiny . Instead she was forced to watch the battle going on around her. Within a couple of seconds, she saw a Pack cruiser erupt in an explosion. Someone had scored a crippling hit. Summoning her mental strength, she tried to pull her vision away. Another force resisted her.

“Watch!” Kevin shouted. “If you won’t fight with them, then watch them die. You have brought them to this.”

Sarah reached out with her mind towards Kevin’s. She was about to give him a mental shove that would knock him unconscious but as she got closer she felt his anger and hurt. He was just as upset about Destiny as she was. Yet alongside the anger and hurt, there was a spark of hope. The Ch’rack need to be beaten. Instead of mentally assaulting him, Sarah allowed her gaze to return to the battle. Sure enough, she could now see what he saw. The Ch’rack ships had lost most of their cohesion. Hegaran flotillas had taken out two other oversized cruisers. There was still one left, but clearly it hadn’t been the main flagship.

“We always knew this battle would cost us a heavy price. We still may not make it out of here. We have to fight. Stephen will look after Destiny .” Kevin said. He wasn’t as loud as he sensed Sarah’s mind calming.

Sarah knew he was right, but she still resisted. She couldn’t leave her ship, she couldn’t leave Alexandra. Then another Pack warship disappeared from Defiance’s sensors. Sarah tightened her hands into fists. The Ch’rack had killed so many over the last months. They had to be stopped.

“Open a COM channel to every ship we have left,” she demanded. “Now is our chance,” she began when Sato opened the channel. “Every ship, focus on their destroyers. Isolate them and take them out. We need to take out as many of their weapons as we can. It’s now or never.” As soon as she finished speaking she reached out with her mind to the rest of the human captains. “Montoya, take command of our ships. Bring us together. We must protect one another and work together.”

“What about you?” Montoya replied.

“I have a fleet to coordinate,” Sarah replied. Now that her mind was fixed on the battle, she could see everything that was happening. It was laid out before her like a chessboard. The Ch’rack were no longer coordinating as one single fleet. They were fighting in ones and twos. Whilst her fleet was doing something similar, though in larger flotillas, she could command each of them. Coordinating them, she moved them against separate parts of the Ch’rack fleet. Without a central system of command, the Ch’rack wouldn’t be able to react.

Following Montoya’s command, Cassidy moved Defiance away from Destiny . Sarah was only partially aware of her cruiser’s new trajectory. She was already giving out orders to different flotillas. She intended to merge the flotillas together on either flank of the Ch’rack fleet. There they could use their numbers to overwhelm the Ch’rack ships and then turn and crush the middle.

As Sarah maneuvered what was left of her fleet like it was an extension of her mind, Montoya gathered the ten remaining human warships together. Every captain was angry. They had lost a good friend in Rogers. Sticking together and allowing their energy screens to overlap and protect one another, the ten ships pierced the Ch’rack fleet like an arrow. Using their superior acceleration, they wove around cruisers and sought out destroyers and frigates. The smaller Ch’rack warships couldn’t last for more than a handful of seconds against the overwhelming fire coming from the ten human ships. Ship after ship was blown up under their guns.

We are winning , Sarah thought as she managed to combine her forces on either flank of the Ch’rack fleet. She had less than one hundred and sixty ships still under her command. Yet the Ch’rack had been reduced to ninety and many of them were damaged. Just as the thought passed through her mind, something shifted. She knew right away what it was. A level of cohesion was returning to the Ch’rack fleet. It started near the center and moved out. Within thirty seconds a new formation appeared. Despair threatened to well up and dominate Sarah’s emotions. Whoever the new Ch’rack commander was, if she was in their position she would immediately swing the center of their formation to attack one of Sarah’s flanking forces. If her other flanking force could be tied down long enough, the Ch’rack’s center could crush half of her fleet. At best the battle would end in a draw, but the Allied Fleet would be wiped out.

Then most of the Ch’rack ships changed course. Sarah’s heart soared. The center ships weren’t turning towards either flank, they were turning towards the system’s mass shadow. “There falling ba…” she cried out. Her voice cut off. From more than half of the Ch’rack warships, missiles erupted. Somehow, amongst all the fighting they had managed to reload their tubes. But instead of targeting Allied ships, all the missiles were heading towards Graet.

Even before Hannah reported it, Sarah knew where they were going. “They’re not targeting any of the defense platforms. They’re targeting the planet itself,” the sensor officer shouted.

Before Hannah finished, Sarah was speaking over her. “Contact every ship in the fleet, they’re to break off. Pursue those missiles. Every second we can keep the missiles in point defense range counts. Take out as many as we can.” Sarah took control of Defiance and turned the cruiser nose over tail. Then she accelerated after the missiles. Cassidy had already opened up with the point defenses.

All across the battle, Allied ships did the same. Point defensive laser fire and AM missiles reached out to take out the missiles. There were four hundred and five of them headed towards Graet. The sensor readings updated, Sarah saw that Defiance would only have thirty-three seconds to target them. The rest of the fleet would have even less, none had reacted as fast as she had. Keeping the cruiser on a straight trajectory, Sarah could do nothing but watch as the missile count reduced. It was going down far too slowly. In the first ten seconds eighty missiles were destroyed. In the next ten another ninety-six were hit as the Allied ships got to grips with their task. Then the missiles started to get beyond the defensive range of some of the ships. In the third ten seconds only fifty-one were hit. The last three seconds only Defiance was able to keep firing. Cassidy shutdown three more missiles before her cannons fell silent. In total, one hundred and seventy-five missiles continued towards Graet.

“Order the fleet to form up on Defiance , formation Delta-two.” Sarah ordered. She turned her ship around to face the fleeing Ch’rack warships. They had been firing at the Allied ships as they fled. Several more had been destroyed. At her command, Defiance’s energy weapons opened up. The rest of the Allied ships followed suit. It took a full two minutes for them to form up. By then her ships had reloaded their missile tubes. “Fire!” she ordered.

Three hundred and forty missiles accelerated out of their tubes towards the fleeing Ch’rack. Forty made it through the wall of point defensive fire the Ch’rack put up. Eighteen ships were destroyed or lost all power. They were left behind by their fleeing comrades. Using energy weapons, her ships finished them off. Then their weapons fell silent. The main Ch’rack fleet was out of weapons range.

Through the two battle melds, Sarah could sense a growing elation. They had won. The Ch’rack had been driven back. But at what cost? Sarah asked herself. As she took the time to study what was left of the Allied Fleet, the answer became apparent. A deep sense of loss washed over Sarah. Flexor’s flagship was missing. It was either one of the lifeless wrecks barreling through space or it had been blown apart. Of the thirty-two Hegaran ships that had started the battle, only twenty-one remained. Her anguish spiked when she saw that Urana’s flagship was missing. Sensor reports from two ships that had fought with her confirmed the Hegaran cruiser had been destroyed.

Overall the Pack and protector world warships had suffered far worse than the Hegarans. More than one hundred and eighty of their number had been wiped out. The Allied Fleet had been reduced to less than one third of its initial strength. Even though only one human destroyer had been lost, Sarah felt its loss as well. Three other destroyers had been badly damaged and had heavy casualties.

Her attention turned to Graet. The missiles had come into range of the defense platforms. The Graman gunners did their best. Many of the missiles were shot down. Then the defense platform commanders tried to defend their homeworld in the only way left open to them. Turning off their ECM, they tried to convince the missiles to attack them rather than the planet itself. Several of the missiles took the bait and three defense platforms disappeared in blinding explosions. Still, four missiles survived to reach Graet’s atmosphere. Two of them detonated instantly, suggesting that the missiles had never been designed for ground strikes. The final two continued on. They survived the heat of re-entry and ploughed into the planet. Giant mushroom clouds shot into the sky from where they had detonated.

“Where did they strike?” Sarah demanded.

Cassidy answered by overlaying a map of the major population centers onto the data Sarah was observing. One of the missiles had struck Graet’s largest ocean. It would cause tidal waves that would strike some nearby coastal towns, but that would be the extent of its destructive impact. The second had detonated just ten kilometers away from Graet’s third largest population center. As Sarah zoomed in on the planet, she saw the wave front of the explosion race across towards the city. One second the city was a hive of activity, the next it was awash in flames. Every building was burning. Most had been reduced to piles of rubble.

Sarah felt like she had been struck in the stomach. The battle had drained her of energy and now this. Ordering the interface helmet to ascend. She hung her head. She couldn’t bring herself to open her eyes and look at her crew. Through the battle meld she felt their mixture of emotions. They were overjoyed at winning and horrified at what they had just witnessed. Sarah racked her brain as she replayed the last few moments of the battle over and over. Surely there was something I could have done. I should have seen what they were planning.

It was Kevin who brought her mind back to the present. “Sarah, what’s left of the Ch’rack fleet will jump to subspace in thirty minutes. It will take them five days to get to Lacombai, that’s if they are able to travel at their normal velocity. Likely they’ll have plenty of damaged ships to nurse home.”

Sarah looked up at him. There was an intensity to his eyes that she hadn’t seen before. She knew exactly what he was saying. Slowly she nodded. “Get damage reports from our ships and the Hegaran ships. Set course for the mass shadow. Any ships that can keep up with us are to follow. We’ll carry out repairs on the way.”

Reaching down to her command chair she opened a COM channel to Admiral Kant’s flagship. It had taken some damage, but was still very much operational. “Admiral, I am glad to see you survived,” she began. “I’m placing you in charge of the survivors. Take your ships back to Graet and see what you can do for the planet’s population.”

“And what about you?” Kant asked.

“Those ships think they can just nuke a planet and get away with it. I’m going to see that they don’t. Defiance can get to Lacombai before them. When they get there, they are going to find their supplies are no longer waiting for them.”

Kant showed his teeth. “That sounds like a plan to me. Go with the blessing of my people Admiral. You saved us today. Now go and avenge those who have fallen.”

Sarah nodded and then cut the COM channel. Through her battle meld she sought out the two human Captains whose ships were too damaged for the pursuit. “See to Destiny . She is badly damaged but some of her crew must still live. Save as many of them as you can.”

Both Captains promised to do all that they could. As Defiance cruised past the stricken frigate Sarah reached out with her mind. She couldn’t form a battle meld with any of its crew. Nor could she sense Alexandra. Everything within her wanted to divert Defiance towards Destiny . She wanted to board the frigate herself and help whoever was still alive. Yet the Ch’rack threat needed to be ended once and for all. If the fleeing fleet managed to reach their resupply ships and carry out repairs, they could return or attack other worlds.

“You’re doing the right thing,” Kevin sent to her. “This is what has to be done.” The intensity in his voice was just a strong as the look in his eyes. He was angry.

Sarah reached out with her mind and embraced Kevin’s. She allowed his anger and thirst for vengeance to wash over her. They were easier emotions to process than the loss she was feeling at being unable to sense or speak to Alexandra. All the way to the mass shadow she kept her mind close to Kevin’s. She needed the support. She feared her best friend, a part of herself, had just been killed. And, rather than mourn her loss, she had to keep fighting.

Chapter 47

Sarah sat in her command chair watching the countdown. They would reach Lacombai‘s mass shadow in one minute. The five-day flight to their destination had turned out to be all but uneventful. Sarah intentionally took her ships on a slightly longer course to avoid what was left of the Ch’rack fleet as it fled. When they had first jumped into subspace, several Ch’rack stragglers had tried to engage them. A volley of subspace missiles quickly dispatched them. Since then, the spread out Ch’rack fleet had steered clear of them.

The lead elements of the Ch’rack fleet were five hours behind them. Defiance’s subspace sensors could clearly detect them coming towards Lacombai. Five hours could just as easily be an eternity for them. They wouldn’t arrive in time to save their resupply ships. Sarah intended to make sure of that. Admiral Treali had gone over all the intel they had on the Ch’rack fleet before the battle of Graet. Given the number of ships the Ch’rack had brought to Graet, Cassidy estimated that unless they had brought up a significant number of reinforcements from their home systems, there couldn’t be more than thirty or forty warships defending the supply ships.

When Defiance jumped out of subspace, Sarah clamped her teeth together. The supply ships hadn’t left the system. Defiance’s sensors detected more than a hundred contacts orbiting the system’s only gas giant.  Slowly she counted to sixty. Then she broke her silence. “What have you got?”

“One hundred and thirty-five contacts,” Hannah reported. “All nine resupply ships are here. I have twenty confirmed warships and eighty-six freighters. A number of the contacts are sitting in orbit not carrying out any maneuvers. It’s hard to tell for sure whether they are freighters or warships.”

Sarah nodded. “Thank you.” She took a moment to consider the situation. If all the unidentified contacts were warships, her damaged fleet would be in trouble. Cassidy had repaired a lot of the internal damage Defiance had suffered. Yet her armor required heavy metals to repair it and the cruiser simply didn’t carry enough to replace it all. With their matter re-processors the other human ships had carried out similar repairs over the last five days. Sarah didn’t know how much damage the Hegarans could repair outside of a repair yard, yet she guessed it wasn’t up to the standards of her ships. All told, her fleet was far from battle ready. They can’t all be warships, she thought. This war must end today!

She had had a lot of time to think about the Ch’rack’s missile attack on Graet during the journey to Lacombai. They had shown they were more than willing to bombard planets from space if it was the only way they could achieve victory. Sarah was sure they would be willing to repeat the feat throughout the Graman Pack if that’s what they thought victory required. She had to wipe out their ability to resupply and rearm. Allowing them to launch another attack against a weaker or less well defended system was unacceptable.

“Signal the fleet, tell them we’re moving in,” she ordered. “Let them know that the resupply ships must be destroyed at all costs. Put us onto a vector for the gas giant as soon as they acknowledge the signal. Maximum thrust.”

She sat back in her command chair and watched her subordinates put her commands into action. Within a minute Defiance and the rest of the fleet were accelerating towards the Ch’rack ships. It would take an hour to reach them. The gas giant they were orbiting was near the system’s mass shadow. Only once she was satisfied with how her fleet was organized did she turn her attention to Lacombai itself. The holo-display showed twenty contacts in orbit around the planet. There was next to no electromagnetic energy coming from the surface itself. All of the planet’s reactors and pretty much any other sign of modern civilization was gone. As she watched, a sudden spike of energy lit up on the planet’s northern continent.

“Someone is still alive down there,” Kevin commented. “That was an orbital strike. The Ch’rack haven’t pacified the planet yet.”

“We’ll move in and take those ships after we’ve destroyed the resupply ships. We’ll bombard any ground forces the Ch’rack leave behind into atoms,” Sarah replied. That’s if they don’t nuke the planet as they pull out , she thought.

“That is fine with me,” Kevin responded. “Though maybe we could take a prisoner or two. Even if we destroy these resupply ships, the Ch’rack threat will still exist. They could build another invasion fleet and return. I’m sure Kant will want some prisoners to interrogate.”

“I’m sure he’ll be able to find some prisoners among the damaged ships that weren’t able to escape Graet. Besides, I don’t intend to let the Ch’rack invade any other planets ever again.”

Kevin shot her a questioning look. Sarah simply turned back to the holo-display. She had spent a lot of time on the journey to Lacombai thinking about how to deal with the Ch’rack once and for all. Humanity couldn’t have a threat on this side of the galaxy while the condition of the Elder Empire was unknown. She had a plan, but she wasn’t ready to share it with anyone. They had to win this battle first.

It took ten minutes for the electromagnetic energy given off by her fleet’s sensors to reach the system’s gas giant. The Ch’rack reacted almost immediately. The resupply ships and freighters broke orbit and accelerated along the quickest course to the system’s mass shadow. Twenty-eight other contacts turned towards Sarah’s ships. They were all warships.

“Let the fleet know, we will hold fire with our missiles and save them for the resupply ships,” Sarah ordered.

When the Ch’rack ships got into range with their missiles, they opened fire. Together they launched one hundred and thirty-two missiles at Sarah’s fleet.

Sarah reached out and formed a battle meld with the other human Captains. The Ch’rack ships opened fire with their plasma weapons as Sarah’s fleet opened fire with their point defenses. Following Sarah’s orders, her ships twisted and wove through most of the waves of plasma bolts. Point defenses ripped into the approaching missiles. Despite Kevin’s predictions, two managed to avoid the defensive fire. One struck a human destroyer. It’s fully recharged energy screen deflected the blast. The second hit a Hegaran cruiser. It tore down the cruiser’s energy screen. Sarah ordered the cruiser to fall back. Without an energy screen, it would suffer heavy damage in the coming battle.

“Mass drivers, fire,” Sarah ordered over the battle meld. The approaching Ch’rack warships didn’t know about the battle of Graet and that meant they didn’t know about the mass drivers. They were approaching Defiance without taking any evasive maneuvers, giving their plasma cannon gunners the best opportunity to hit their targets. They were totally unaware of the danger.

Two seconds after the human ships opened fire, eight of the nine cruisers in the Ch’rack fleet erupted into massive fireballs. The remaining ships weren’t able to reorganize before the two fleets closed to laser cannon range. Through her battle meld, Sarah commanded each ship as if it was an extension of herself. She ordered each course change and every shot. In a rage she tore through the Ch’rack warships. They might not have been present at the battle of Graet, but they were just as guilty. With numbers, technology and battle experience on their side, her ships wiped out the Ch’rack fleet without suffering a single loss. As soon as the final Ch’rack frigate was destroyed, Sarah turned her fleet towards the fleeing freighters and resupply ships.

It took twenty minutes to catch them. Sarah targeted five missiles at each of the resupply ships. Every single one of the massive ships blew apart as soon as the first missiles struck home. Secondary explosions rippled through them as ammunition, supplies and other equipment detonated in a series of chain reactions. Once they were gone, Sarah split up her fleet. Her ships hunted every last freighter down and wiped them out. The Ch’rack survivors from Graet would return to find nothing waiting for them.

Wisely, the ships that had been orbiting Lacombai fled before Sarah could close with them. Instead, she spent an hour in orbit blowing up anything on the surface that looked even remotely useful to the Ch’rack ground forces. Once there were no more targets left, she ordered her ships to break orbit and head for the mass shadow. The survivors from Graet would jump into the system in another hour. She wanted to be long gone by then. When she gave the exit trajectory to one of her bridge crew to transmit to the fleet, Kevin raised his eyebrows.

“We’re not heading back to Graet, not yet at least,” Sarah explained. She waited for a moment while Kevin looked at his command chair, checking the trajectory she had given.

“Hegara?” He asked.

Sarah nodded. “It’s time the rest of the species there contributed to this war. For centuries they have hidden and allowed other systems to be conquered. That is going to come to an end.”

*

The month it took them to get to Hegara felt almost surreal to Sarah. After months of constant fighting, stress and waiting on tenterhooks for the latest news of a Ch’rack attack, cruising through subspace with no hostile contacts left her twiddling her thumbs. Kevin, Hannah and Cassidy had asked her numerous times about what she intended to do. Every time she changed the subject. The truth was she wasn’t sure what she intended to do or say. She just knew that when she got before the representatives, something had to change.

When the fleet dropped out of subspace at the coordinates, Lil’or, the senior surviving Hegaran Admiral, had given her, Sarah wasn’t surprised to see eight Hegaran warships on guard detail. The Hegaran council had stepped up their security measures. Rather than contact the Hegaran Admiral herself, she allowed Lil’or to do the talking. She simply listened in.

“Admiral, you know the procedures,” the Admiral in charge of the guard detail insisted. His species was one of the members of Hegara, but Sarah had not come face-to-face with one before.

“The procedures weren’t designed for this situation. My ships have battle damage. I have injured crew members. They must be taken to Hegara at once. Lives are at stake. I need the coordinates of Hegara now,” Lil’or responded.

Though technically true, it was a slight exaggeration. Sarah knew that all of Lil’or’s injured were in a stable condition. Though a few did have serious injuries. Nevertheless, the ruse was necessary. She wanted to surprise the Hegaran Council of Representatives. She didn’t want them to have time to analyze the news of the Ch’rack’s defeat and further cement themselves into their isolationist policies.

“The procedures cannot be broken. They have been put in place for the safety of all. I cannot, nor will I allow them to be compromised,” the Admiral replied. “You have ten foreign warships with you. They cannot be allowed to Hegara without the Representatives’ approval.”

“Foreign warships?” Lil’or shouted. “They are allied warships. They have fought alongside Hegaran ships. We have bled and died together. I trust them more than I trust you Admiral.”

The alien Admiral looked hurt, but his tone didn’t change. “You may trust them, but I do not. If you were in my shoes, you would do the same.”

“Then we are heading on,” Lil’or snapped. “We will go to where Hegara was when we left. If it is not there, my ships will spread out and find it. I can’t guarantee all the subspace activity won’t attract the Ch’rack. But we do not have time to waste. If any of my crew die because of the delay, I will hold you personally responsible.” Though Sarah hadn’t known Lil’or for long, it was clear he was angry.

The Hegaran Admiral cut the COM channel. For a moment Sarah thought Lil’or had failed. Then the channel reopened. “Fine, I have sent orders to the frigate Tranquility , she will lead you to Hegara. I’m sending a report with Tranquility . It will be clear to our superiors exactly why you have forced me to break protocol.”

“Good,” Lil’or replied. He saluted and then ended the COM channel.

When a frigate moved away from the other guard ships, Sarah and her ships followed. The journey in subspace took another hour. When they reverted to real space her fleet broke up. The Hegaran ships moved off to their various home stations. Sarah had spoken at length with each of the ship’s captains. They would be contacting their Representatives and informing them about what had happened over the last few months. Defiance slowly made its way towards Hegara One. The rest of her destroyers she left at the point where they had exited subspace. She didn’t want the Representatives to think she intended to threaten them with force.

When Defiance reached Hegara One, a shuttle approached the cruiser. Its pilot contacted Defiance requesting to dock. Sarah gave permission and made her way down to Defiance’s second shuttle bay. When the shuttle landed, its rear ramp descended but no one came out. Glancing over at Kevin, Sarah shrugged. “I guess we are meant to go with them.”

“I guess,” Kevin replied.

Sarah led them up the shuttle’s ramp and towards its cockpit. The pilot and co-pilot turned around when they entered. “Captain Adams, I have been sent to bring you to Hegara One. Councilor Yanny has called a meeting of the representatives. You have been invited.”

“Thank you,” Sarah replied as she sat down. Mentally she sent a command to the officer she had left in charge on the bridge to clear the shuttle for launch. “We should be able to depart in a few seconds.”

As the shuttle approached Hegara One, Sarah was mesmerized by its size. Despite having seen it before and reviewing the sensor data Destiny had collected on her visit to Hegara, Sarah was still overawed by the massive ship that was the home of the Hegaran Council of Representatives. It made the Ch’rack’s resupply ships look like shuttles.

As the shuttle touched down, Sarah jumped up from her seat. Through the shuttle’s cockpit she saw the same guide who had led them through the massive ship the last time she had been there. She waved and turned to make her way through the shuttle. “Greetings. It is good to see you. I presume we are going straight to the Assembly?”

“Yes, Captain Adams, if you will follow me.”

As they walked and travelled by anti-grav train, Sarah found that this time it was her guide asking all the questions. She wanted to know about the war with the Ch’rack and the defeats and victories Sarah had experienced. Sarah told her as much as she could, emphasizing the final defeat of the Ch’rack. She didn’t know if her guide had much influence in Hegara, but she wanted the news to travel as far and as fast as possible.

The aide led them to the exact same door they had used to enter the assembly room the first time Sarah had spoken to the representatives. Again, she knocked and stepped back out of the way. When the door opened, Sarah wasn’t surprised to find Yanny waiting to greet her.

“Captain Adams, it is a pleasure to see you again,” Yanny said as he held out a hand.

As Sarah took it, she couldn’t help but be reminded of Divar as Yanny’s fur rubbed against her. “Thank you for greeting me. I wanted to personally convey my sorrow at Admiral Urana’s death and the many others who died fighting the Ch’rack. Without Urana’s fleet, the Graman Pack would have fallen.”

“Thank you,” Yanny said, accompanying his words with a short bow. “They died doing what they had trained decades to do. I know it doesn’t ease the pain of their loss now, but in time it will. Hopefully many good things will come of their sacrifice.”

Sarah nodded and turned to introduce Kevin. Yanny shook his hand as well. “I see you haven’t changed your decorations since last year,” Kevin commented. The large circular room was still dominated by one central table and the forty-two flags representing each species of Hegara were hanging exactly where they had been before. As far as Sarah could tell from a cursory glance, nothing had changed. As she looked at the different alien species sitting at the table, it looked like their positions were all exactly the same as well.

“The assembly room of the Hegaran Representatives hasn’t changed in more than a century. And even then, that change was only the addition of another seat around the table when the Nam’ans joined Hegara,” Yanny explained.

Kevin whistled. “That’s a long time.”

Sarah shot him an accusative glance. A number of the nearby aliens had stopped speaking with one another and turned to glance at Kevin. They didn’t seem to appreciate his vocalization.

“If you will follow me,” Yanny said. “You’ll not be surprised to see you will be seated at the same spot as before. The representatives are meeting to discuss the news our ships brought back. No doubt some will wish to question you as well. It is my understanding that you commanded the fleet that assembled to fight the Ch’rack in the final battle?”

“Yes,” Sarah answered. “It made sense diplomatically. There were warships from eight different political entities., humanity, the Pack, Hegara and five Protector Worlds.”

“Well then I’m sure the representatives will want to speak to you. The Ch’rack have never been beaten in battle before.”

Sarah nodded and pulled out her chair when they reached the spot she had addressed the Assembly of Representatives from before. Kevin sat down behind her at the much smaller table provided. Yanny gave some hand gesture that Sarah didn’t recognize and moved off to take his seat.

Less than a minute later, in response to another signal Sarah didn’t recognize, every Representative stopped speaking and made their way towards their seats. When everyone was seated, silence engulfed the room. It dragged on for what Sarah thought was an uncomfortable length of time. Then, one Representative stood. Sarah didn’t recognize the species, nor had she had any dealings with the Representative. As he didn’t introduce himself, she was left guessing.

“My fellow Representatives, let’s begin this assembly. Significant news has come from the Graman Pack. A number of you know of it first-hand. Your warships have returned. Many others of us have been left in the dark. The entire assembly should be updated on recent events so that we can be aware of what the future may hold.”

“I agree,” Yanny said as he stood. “The news coming from the Graman Pack is significant. It may very well change the course of Hegara itself. As you know I authorized a number of our warships to go and help defend the people of the Graman Pack. Many of you opposed my move. Yet, victory has been won. Sadly, Admiral Urana lost her life defeating the Ch’rack. Captain Racob will give an account of his experience fighting them.”

Chapter 48

Sarah sat forward as Yanny stepped aside and allowed another member of his species to take his place at the table. She recognized Racob immediately. She smiled at him when he looked her way. In return he gave her a slight nod. As he spoke, Sarah realized the assembly meeting was going to last a long time. Starting with the day Admiral Urana’s ships had met Destiny , he recounted the entire campaign against the Ch’rack. When he was done, every single one of the forty-two Representatives had an opportunity to question him. Quite a number did so. Then after Racob, other Captains from other species stood up and told their stories.

Lil’or was the last to speak. When he was done, Sarah prepared herself. She guessed she would be next. Yet no one turned to her seeking her description of events. Instead, another Representative she didn’t know stood up. “Well, now we know what has happened. The Ch’rack have been defeated, but now they know about Hegara. They may not know our whereabouts, but they know of our existence and the threat we pose to them. A grave question faces all of us. What shall we do now? Yanny and the others like him have put us in this situation. We must not allow it to deteriorate further.”

Sarah almost fell out of her chair. It was as if the Representative hadn’t been listening to a thing Lil’or and the others had said. The last few months had shown that the Ch’rack could be hurt badly, even defeated. Yet it looked like the Hegarans were about to start discussing how to better hide themselves and stay away from them.

When another representative stood up to speak Sarah realized she had to act. It was one of the representatives that had opposed her the first time she had spoken to the assembly. She couldn’t allow the conversation to turn to hiding and fleeing the Ch’rack.

“Cowards,” she shouted as she jumped to her feet. Every head swung to look at her. Lowering her voice slightly now that she had their attention she repeated herself. “Cowards.”

She reached into her pocket and pulled out a portable holo-projector. She set it in front of her and switched it on. An image of Graet appeared. Missiles punched through its atmosphere and struck the surface, sending mushroom clouds into the air. The image changed and showed Dalan, Graet’s third largest city. Within seconds the concussive wave from the nuclear detonation struck the city and turned it into a raging inferno. The image changed to show another world. Drop ships landed and Ch’rack warriors came out. They killed anyone opposing them. The image switched again, another world with another species was now being shown. Identical looking Ch’rack warriors had several thousands of them lined up. They were clearly unarmed civilians. At some unheard command, the soldiers opened up on them with their rifles. Every single one of them fell to the ground dead. Then Graet appeared again and mushroom clouds dominated the image.

“Cowards,” Sarah said again as the projection started to replay. “That’s what I say you are. That’s what your ancestors have been. Worse, if all you can do now is think of yourselves and how to avoid the Ch’rack, then I call you traitors as well. Traitors to your own people who have given their lives to defeat the Ch’rack. Traitors to your children and to theirs. I have seen the intelligence reports your scouts have made regarding the Ch’rack. They don’t have more than one hundred warships defending their four homeworlds. Since coming to Hegara just twelve hours ago, my ship has detected more than one hundred and fifty warships. I know you have more. The last few months have shown that one of your ships is easily worth two of the Ch’rack’s. Now is your chance. Their invasion fleet has been ravaged and it is a long way from their homeworlds. Gather your fleet, strike now and the Ch’rack threat will forever be destroyed. Your children and your children’s children will be free from them. They can settle their own worlds, they can return to your species’ homeworlds. This part of the galaxy can thrive for the first time in millennia. This is the choice before you all. If you will not take it, then you will show yourselves to be cowards and traitors.

“For centuries your people have sat back and watched the Ch’rack attack and wipe out other species. At any point you could have intervened. Yet you didn’t. That shame stains all of you. You have heard from some who have cast off that shame. Admiral Urana gave her life to protect others. Each of the Captains who have spoken today fought bravely to save people not their own. They have shown you all what you can do. I demand that this assembly ready its war fleet. There is no other option before you.” When Sarah could think of nothing more to say she simply looked around at the representatives. She stared at them, wanting them to see how serious she was. They needed to act. They were the only ones who could stop the Ch’rack.

“Who does this person think they are to address us?” the Representative who Sarah had interrupted said as he got back to his feet.

Before she could think of a smart retort, Yanny jumped to his feet. “This is the Admiral who won the victory against the Ch’rack. She is also the one who defeated the Elders. No one in this room knows the military situation better than her. No one in this room knows the opportunity before us better than her. I second her call to assemble our war fleet. It is time we acted. I am using my species’ right of Prima Directa.”

Pandemonium broke out. Nearly half the Representatives jumped to their feet and shouted at one another. Sarah was bewildered. She had caused a similar ruckus the last time she had been here. At least it was somewhat similar. This time the Representatives seemed far more agitated. Yet they had listened to her indictment against them. She didn’t understand. Prima Directa was obviously something that touched a nerve. As she turned and glanced at Kevin, he raised his eyebrows and shrugged. Sarah gave a bewildered shake of her head.

The shouting and arguing continued for nearly twenty minutes before it died down. Then, in a slightly more orderly fashion, Representatives presented different arguments whilst the rest listened. Slowly, Sarah realized what Yanny had instigated. Seemingly, part of Hegara’s founding documents allowed a member species to demand that an issue be voted upon. The right of each species to do so was called its right of Prima Directa. If the assembly refused to vote on the issue, the species who called the vote would be forced to leave Hegara in its entirety. The right was designed to be used only in dire circumstances where one species felt its needs were being overlooked by the rest. Yanny had put the assembly on a course of destruction, for following his example, nine more representatives used their Prima Directa right as well. They were all species who had sent warships to help fight the Ch’rack.

As the arguments went back and forth as to whether to even have a vote, Sarah gave up trying to follow them. She lost track of time and eventually turned to talking to Kevin and Cassidy through her implant. When she suddenly became aware that no one else was speaking, she opened her eyes. The Representatives were all seated and looking around at each other. It seemed as if no one had any more arguments to make. Sarah checked the time. Three hours had passed since her outburst.

Yanny was the one who broke the silence as he stood up. “If there are no more arguments to make, then I propose we vote on whether or not we will have a vote to gather our war fleet and make war on the Ch’rack.”

Sarah almost groaned. Three hours of discussion and they were now going to vote on whether or not they would have a vote!

As the representatives continued to look at each other, Sarah held her breath for fear that another argument would break out. When no one else spoke, she breathed more easily. “Very well,” Yanny said. “Let’s vote. All in favor of reconvening to discuss and vote on going to war with the Ch’rack, raise your hands.”

Around the table quite a few hands shot up. Sarah couldn’t tell whether or not it was a majority. It seemed no one was sure for murmuring started to break out between the representatives. “Hold on,” Yanny shouted. “A count is required.”

As the representatives kept their hands or appendages raised, a number of aides went around and took a count. They then returned to Yanny. “The vote has passed. 73 to 69. We will reconvene in four hours to discuss the proposed motion. I’m bringing this assembly meeting to a close.” Yanny brought his fist down on the table. The bang echoed around the circular room. It was quickly accompanied by more than a hundred voices as the Representatives began to talk, shout and argue with one another.

Sarah stood and stretched. She had spent a long time sitting. Motioning to Kevin with her head, she moved to exit the room. All she wanted to do was get back to Defiance and have a shower.

A touch on her elbow made her turn. “Captain Adams, I want to thank you for your words,” Yanny said.

“You’re welcome,” Sarah replied slowly. “I think. I did just insult the Representatives and their ancestors, even your ancestors I guess.”

“That you did,” Yanny said with a deep nod. “Yet you spoke the truth. It was something we needed to hear. Something I needed to hear. I’m not sure that I would have had the courage to invoke my right of Prima Directa without your words. So, I want to thank you for forcing me to do what I knew I should have done anyway. Your words obviously had an impact for I wasn’t the only one who invoked Prima Directa.”

“Would your species really leave Hegara if the Representatives hadn’t agreed to consider going to war?”

“We would have had to,” Yanny replied. “That was the path I set us upon. Thankfully, doing what we did forced the other Representatives’ hands. But the battle is only half over. The vote must now be won. If you will excuse me, I have much to do. I wanted to catch you before you left though. I doubt you will be invited to the next meeting. By then I need to have convinced as many Representatives as I can.”

“I think I have something that can help you,” Sarah said as she reached into her pocket. She pulled out a datachip. “This has the holo-projection I showed you earlier. It also has a lot more information on the atrocities the Ch’rack committed in the Graman Pack and beyond. Show it to your people, not just your people, to everyone on Hegara. Your Representatives are meant to represent the will of each of your species. Let the people of Hegara know just what the Ch’rack have done, what they will do again. Make them put pressure on their Representatives to support you.”

Yanny reached out and took the datachip. “Thank you,” he nodded.

“Good luck,” Sarah said as she took the hand he offered. “We won’t delay you anymore.”

When she exited the assembly room their guide was waiting for them. Sarah waved to her and fell in step beside her. As they travelled through Hegara One, she took in every wondrous detail. If the vote went against Yanny, she was sure she wouldn’t get to see any of it again.

*

When they got back to Defiance , Kevin had to resume his shift on the bridge. Sarah decided to go to one of the gyms. She spent nearly an hour sparring with a drone while Cassidy controlled it. Then she got the shower she had been waiting for and headed to one of the simulation bays. There she fought a number of simulated battles against Ch’rack and Elder warships. At first, she commanded just one ship. There was nothing like the focus she could achieve when she was concentrating solely on flying and fighting one ship. After some time, Cassidy altered the simulations and slowly built them up until she was commanding large fleets and she could no longer focus on flying at all.

“What are you doing?” she asked when Cassidy brought one simulation to an abrupt end.

“Representative Yanny has contacted Defiance . He wishes to speak with you,” Cassidy informed her.

She jumped out of the simulator. “So soon? The meeting could hardly have begun.”

“It lasted a full two hours,” Cassidy explained. “We ran quite a number of simulations.”

“Oh,” Sarah said as she checked the time through her implant. “I’ll take his call in my office.”

As she walked through Defiance’s corridors, she wasn’t sure if she should be excited or nervous. When Yanny’s face appeared in front of her, she felt both coming over her in waves. “Well, how did it go?” she asked.

Yanny’s face broke into a smile. “The vote passed. We are going to war. Already preparations are underway. I wanted to be the first to tell you.”

“Really? How did you do it?” Sarah could hardly believe it. Her mouth was ajar.

“To be honest, I’m not entirely sure,” Yanny answered. “I guess part of it was that many of the Representatives didn’t want to see my species and the others that used their Prima Directa rights evicted from Hegara. Going to war was a lesser evil in their eyes. Another part may have been the images you shared with me. They’ve been playing throughout Hegara non-stop since I released them. The public is in an uproar. Historically, the assembly of representatives has kept the public largely in the dark about the Ch’rack, except for the fact they are a threat to our existence. Images of their atrocities and your victory have led many to think they should be opposed rather than feared.”

“Well whatever it was, I’m glad. The Graman Pack does not have the strength to follow up their victory with an assault on the Ch’rack homeworlds. If your people don’t intervene, the events of the last several months could play themselves out again and again in an endless cycle.”

“Do not worry, we will see things through. Lil’or has been appointed to lead our fleet against the Ch’rack homeworlds. We will strike before they have even received news of their defeat at Graet. We will catch them before they have time to prepare their defenses. Their four homeworlds are only defended by warships. They have very little in the way of orbital defense platforms or satellites. If we strike them one at a time in quick succession they should not be able to resist us.”

“I’m sure they will still put up a good fight,” Sarah replied. “But with your fleet and my ships we will defeat them.”

Yanny shook his head. “That won’t be necessary. We are not bringing any of our warships that returned with you. They are too damaged after the battles they have fought. I’m sure your ships are not in a much better condition. Lil’or is confident we can win without your help. We would like you to wait here. Your ships can get the attention of our repair yards. You and your people have done enough already.”

Sarah opened her mouth to protest. She wanted to see things through to the end. “Do not bother arguing with me,” Yanny responded. “By now I’m sure you can imagine I am an expert in deflecting arguments. The decision has been made. You are right, we have sat by for centuries and let the Ch’rack commit unspeakable atrocities. We have voted to do this, and as a people we wish to see it through alone. Think of it as our way of removing some of the shame our ancestors have brought on us.”

Sarah considered what Yanny had just shared. A big part of her still wanted to go. If there was going to be fighting, she had to be there. Then she remembered the simulations she had been running with Cassidy. Countless ships had been destroyed. If they had been real, they would have represented thousands of lives lost. Thousands more lives lost , Sarah reminded herself. She couldn’t remember how many battles she had fought in. How many ships she had seen destroyed. Since the attack on Graet, a flood of anger had been driving her, leading her to attack the supply ships at Lacombai, and then bringing her here, to Hegara. Now that she had accomplished her goal, a deep weariness was settling upon her. The Ch’rack’s defeat was assured. There was no way they could hold off the warships Hegara could bring against them.

“You don’t need to fight this battle,” Cassidy said as she read Sarah’s thoughts. “You have already defeated the Ch’rack. The victory is yours. You can leave the mopping up to someone else. We can return to Graet, we can find out what happened to Alexandra and Stephen and Trask and the others.”

As the picture of Destiny formed in Sarah’s mind she made her decision. “Okay. We will sit this one out. Lil’or is a good commander. He will lead your forces well. I am keen to get back to Graet and then my own world. It feels like it has been an eternity since I left.”

“He has had a good example to follow,” Yanny responded. “I’m glad you’re seeing things my way. I have already assigned a repair yard for Defiance . I’ll send you the coordinates now. If you will excuse me, I have much more to see to. I intend to go with the warships of my species. I want to be there when they destroy the Ch’rack’s orbital facilities. We intend to bombard their planets back to the Stone Age. Then we will set a watch on them. Never again will they be allowed to develop modern technologies.”

“That is wise,” Sarah replied. “If I may ask, what will happen after that? What will your species do? Your homeworld is free from the Elders. You could return home.”

Yanny shrugged in a very human like way. “Who knows what the future holds? For most of us, Hegara is our home. Yet I’m sure some will return to our homeworlds. With everything that has happened with the Elders and Ch’rack, this galaxy looks very different than it once did. The possibilities are endless.”

Sarah nodded. Her mind and her heart had already returned to Graet, whatever the future held, she hoped Alexandra would be a key part of it.

“Farewell for now Captain Adams. I’ll contact you again before the fleet departs. We intend to leave within a day.”

“Very well,” Sarah replied. “Just make sure you look after yourself when you go with the fleet.”

Yanny chuckled. “Don’t worry, I don’t intend to be in the vanguard. But I will be there.”

When the COM channel ended, Sarah formed a battle meld with her crew. She wanted to let them all know what the Hegarans had just decided. From Defiance’s crew, she felt joy at the victory and relief that they would face no more battles. From Kevin, Hannah and Sato she felt a more familiar feeling, they were all keen to go home too. As soon as she ended the battle meld, she called Defiance’s senior staff to her briefing room. She wanted to go over just what kind of repairs the Hegaran repair yard could help them carry out. She intended for the work to be done as quickly as possible. Defiance would be returning to Graet once they were done. She could wait there for news of the Hegaran’s victory to reach her.

Epilogue

Five weeks later.

As soon as Defiance’s shuttle touched down on Destiny’s shuttle bay, Sarah sprinted down the descending ramp. Jake, Destiny’s chief engineer was waiting to greet her. He had a nasty scar down one cheek. It was fully healed now, but the mark was still clear.

“How is she?” Sarah asked right away.

If it had been anyone else, Jake might have thought Sarah was talking about the ship, but he knew better. “Nobody really knows. We haven’t been able to communicate with her. I can’t figure out what’s wrong. Her brain is intact, there is no sign of structural damage. Yet for two months we haven’t been able to talk to her.”

“Let’s go,” Sarah said as she rushed past Jake. She had read the damage reports that had been transmitted to her as soon as she had entered the Graet system. Nine of her crew had been killed in the battle, including Stephen and Alama. Destiny was all but a wreck. Between them, Jake and Trask had just about managed to keep the ship together long enough for it to be towed into orbit around Graet. There, with the help of local engineers, they had stopped the ship from breaking apart. Even so, the frigate wasn’t salvageable. She would have to be towed back to Earth, and, even then, it would take more resources to repair her than to build a new frigate. At this point she didn’t care. The ship could be replaced. Alexandra couldn’t.

At a sprint, she made her way through her ship. Twice they came to dead ends where damaged sections prevented her from going forward. Eventually she turned to Jake, “You lead. But make it quick.”

Jake nodded and took the lead. He kept up the same pace Sarah had been going at. When they got to the chamber with a sealed door clearly marked by a large, ‘Do not enter,’ sign, he stepped aside. Sarah walked up and punched in her access code. Thankfully, the door slid open. Stepping in, Sarah looked at the large glass cylinder dominating the room. Thick goo filled it and floating in the center was something that partially resembled a human brain, though it was several meters in diameter. More than forty cables extended from the brain to the glass cylinder. As far as Sarah could see, everything looked exactly as it had the last time she was here.

She rushed towards the cylinder and placed a hand on the glass. Tears rolled down her cheeks when the brain didn’t respond. She banged on the glass, trying to get its attention. Nothing happened. She sank to her knees and continued to bang. Tears streamed down her cheeks. “Alexandra, Alexandra,” she called out as she thumped the glass again.

She suddenly stopped when she thought she saw a twitch from one of the wires attached to her friend. She banged again, harder this time, when nothing else happened. A noise made her look up in hope. What she saw made her smile and wipe the tears from her cheeks. A wire that extended from the cylinder and into the chamber’s wall had disconnected. The end that had been connected to the wall slowly snaked down towards Sarah. In delight, Sarah reached up and grabbed it. She shoved it into the back of her neck, connecting it with her neural implant.

At once she became aware of Alexandra. “You’re alive,” she cried as their minds touched. They shared everything that had happened to them over the last couple of months. Sarah shuddered as she relived the detonations that had wrecked her frigate. She nearly cried as the sense of loneliness and helplessness Alexandra had been feeling overwhelmed her. The artificial intelligence had thought she was doomed to a life alone. Destiny had been so badly damaged that she hadn’t been able to contact anyone.

In turn, Sarah told Alexandra about the Assembly of Representatives and the decision they had made. “It’s over,” Sarah said. “By now most, if not all of the Ch’rack homeworlds have been conquered. They won’t be coming back to invade any other worlds.”

“I’m pleased,” Alexandra replied. Though her voice sounded strong, Sarah could sense her fear.

“Don’t worry,” Sarah said as she placed her second hand on the glass cylinder. “We’ll get you out of here, we’ll get you back to Earth and into another ship if that’s what you want. You have my word. I won’t leave here without you.”

As she finished speaking, Sarah felt Alexandra’s fear evaporate. “Thank you, my friend, thank you,” Alexandra replied. “Maybe now that the war is over, when we get back to Earth, Kevin can take you out for that camping trip he promised you long ago.”

Sarah smiled. Images of the snow-covered hills and frozen river were conjured in her mind. “Yes. It is time we went home. I am tired of war. There is an entire world back there waiting for us to explore.” With her mind, she reached out and found Kevin’s. She let him know everything was alright with Alexandra. They had lost many friends over the last few months, but at least her oldest friend had been restored to her. Now they could go home.

*

Starship Cutlass, four thousand light years away from Graet.

“We’ve just detected the edge of the Tyrilla Storm Captain. Another hour and we will be through it,” Cutlass’ sensor officer reported.

Captain Walker let out a sigh of relief. He had spent almost all of the last two weeks on the bridge of his destroyer, the tension had been getting to him. With Cutlass’s sensors only able to peer several light minutes through the Tyrilla Storm, there had been no way of knowing if they were about to stumble into an ambush. Finally , he thought. He had left Earth more than six months ago to investigate just how much damage the virus they had released had done to the Elder Empire. He had visited thirty-one former Protector World colonies or sector capitals. Every single one of them had been devoid of Elder activity. As per his orders, he had continued on to the Tyrilla Storm. As far as he knew, he and his crew were further away from Earth than any human had ever been. Captain Adams had been to the edge of the storm, but his ship was about to pass through it.

For a second Walker felt the knot in his stomach loosening. Once they were out of the storm he would be able to detect any threats from much further away. Two weeks of sitting on tenterhooks hadn’t done his sleep patterns or digestive system any favors. Cutlass was more advanced than an Elder warship and the first parts of his mission had been carried out without any real fear. Pirates and former Protector World species would have had to gather a considerable fleet to threaten his destroyer.

Then, it hit him, they were about to pass from the Orion Arm of the galaxy into its core. The thought made the knot twist tighter. The Elder Empire had controlled nearly two thirds of the galactic core. Even the limited data they had on the Elder Empire suggested that before the virus, the size and scope of their military power was beyond imagination. And I’m about to step into their backyard.

“I’m detecting something strange,” Cutlass’s sensor officer reported when the destroyer was twenty minutes from the edge of the storm.

“Bring us to a halt,” Walker ordered. His stomach was doing summersaults. “What is it?” he followed up, turning to his sensor officer as he did his best to keep his face straight.

“I’m not sure yet. Whatever it is, it’s on the other side of the storm. It’s still very difficult to detect anything on the other side,” she answered.

Walker nodded. The Tyrilla Storm wasn’t a unique phenomenon, but it was rare. Subspace was full of storms that made navigation difficult. Rarely did a ship travel in a straight line from one system to another in subspace. Inevitably they had to traverse around a small storm or two. The Tyrilla Storm cut off the Orion Arm from the galactic core. It was more than a thousand times larger than any other subspace storm humanity knew of. The storm was so intense that its gravitational disturbances manifested themselves in real space as well. Cutlass had been travelling through the gravitational disturbances in normal space for the last two weeks. It was the only way for a ship to pass from the Orion Arm to the galactic core unless the ship’s Captain wanted to make a four-month journey around the storm. The path Walker had been following was one taken from Destiny’s Elder database. At a few points along the storm, it narrowed to where it was much quicker to pass through it in normal space than to go around. If there was going to be Elder activity along the storm’s edge, it would be at the other end of the passage Cutlass was about to exit.

“Launch a single probe, program it to pass through the storm and come to a halt. Passive sensors only. Bring it back after ten minutes. Let’s see what is out there,” Walker ordered.

“Aye Captain,” the officer responded. A few seconds later a probe was launched from one of Cutlass’ missile tubes.

Walker felt the tension build as everyone waited for the probe to return. When it did, he tried not to twiddle his thumbs as he waited for his sensor officer to download the data the drone had collected. As a precaution, he formed a battle meld with his crew. The spike of surprise and dread that suddenly radiated off his sensor officer told him his worst fears were about to be confirmed.

“Put it on the holo-display,” he ordered, keeping his voice as impassive as possible.

When the images appeared, Walker had to fight to keep emotion from his face. The drone had detected hundreds of contacts. What drew his eyes were two massive ones. They made all the other contacts look like gnats flying around a lion or bear. Though he was staring at the data as it scrolled past the contact, Walker could not get his head around what he was seeing. Both contacts out massed the Elder battleship that had been defeated in the battle for Earth by a factor of more than one hundred. One looked like it was fully functional, while the second was still under construction.

“Defense bases,” Edward said out loud as he realized what they were. “They are fortifying their border.”

“They stopped the virus,” his XO commented. “The Elder Empire still exists. If these ships are all here, then their entire empire must still stand.”

“Yes,” Edward said as he nodded. “And look at what they’re doing. They know where the virus came from. They know there is a threat to them in the Orion Arm. These two monstrosities have been built to keep that threat at bay.”

“Well, they have wasted a lot of resources then haven’t they. We have no intention of invading their space. Certainly, not if they have defense stations like that,” Cutlass’ XO replied.

“I imagine they would also make pretty good staging bases for an invasion,” Cutlass’ tactical officer responded. “Securing your borders can be the first stage in an invasion.”

Walker’s mind had already moved in that direction. Along with the two defense bases, the probe had picked up at least five hundred Elder warships. It was a drop in the ocean compared to how many ships they probably had. Yet, it was still a sizable fleet. Certainly, one that could move into the Orion Arm and start to re-establish Elder control. And who knows how many other fleets there are along the border preparing to advance?

“Look at this,” the sensor officer said. She zoomed the holo display in on a pair of ships. “They changed course right about the time our probe exited the storm.”

Walker fixed his attention on the two ships. Their course change didn’t put them on a direct intercept course for the probe, but they were angling to come closer to it. They were doing exactly what Walker would do if he had a strange reading and didn’t want to alarm whoever was hiding from him. “Fast forward the recording to the last data the probe collected,” he requested.

When the time stamp jumped forward four minutes, Walker let out the breath he had been holding. The two Elder warships were still on the same course. Then, as the angle of the image changed, they changed course as well.

“They detected the probe’s engines when it turned to come back to us,” Cutlass’ XO called in alarm.

“Turn us around, turn us around,” Walker snapped. “Move us away from the edge of the storm at one quarter thrust. I want Cutlass running as stealthily as she possiblly can.” He was surprised at how calm he sounded. “Charge the particle lance and mass drivers.”

“Both contacts appear to be destroyers,” Cutlass’ sensor officer updated everyone. “They will enter the storm in ten minutes if they kept their last heading and speed.”

“Start to release stealth drones, create a ring in front of Cutlass where the Elder ships are likely to appear,” Walker ordered.

One minute before the Elder ships were due to appear he gave more orders. “Cut all thrust. I want all three reactors powered down and in standby mode. Make sure the Chief knows I want them ready to restart at a moment’s notice, for now I don’t want even a joule of energy radiating away from us.”

“Acknowledged,” Cutlass’ XO replied.

“Prepare to send a signal to those recon drones. I want them to go to full power when I give the order. They are to bombard this area of space with every megawatt of energy their active sensors can put out.”

“I already have them ready,” his sensor officer responded.

Walker gave her a nod of approval. She had predicted what he was planning. In the Tyrilla Storm it was hard to actively target anything at over sixty thousand kilometers. He intended to try anyway.

“There they are,” she followed up moments later.

On the holo display two nebulous contacts appeared on the edge of the storm. They were very faint, and, at this range, it was impossible to make out what they actually were or what velocity they were moving at.

“Let’s wait until we get a firmer reading,” Walker said. “The further in those two contacts come, the less chance the other Elder ships will detect anything when the shooting starts.”

Walker folded his hands on his lap to wait. He could have turned and ran away at the first sign of trouble, but there had been a chance the Elder ships would have detected the residual emissions from gunning his engines to one hundred percent and given chase. This way he should be able to take them out before retreating. By the time the Elders sent in more ships he would be long gone. Plus, if they find the wreckage, it might give them pause before trying to reenter the Orion Arm , Walker thought with a smile.

“Now,” he ordered when the two contacts had spent ten minutes cruising into the storm.

Ten recon drones powered up their active sensors and emitted massive amounts of electromagnetic radiation as they tried to detect the two ships. The radiation reflected off the two Elder cruisers back to Cutlass , allowing her sensor officer to get a much firmer lock on them.

“Fire,” Walker ordered as soon as the first reflected energy was picked up by Cutlass . He couldn’t risk delaying for a second. As soon as the Elder crews knew they were being scanned, they would begin evasive maneuvers.

A beam of ionized particles accelerated to almost the speed of light shot towards one contact and two tungsten spears towards the other. The particle lance hit first. The Elder destroyer was obliterated by the single shot. The second destroyer had half a second longer to react. Whoever was at its controls had fast reflexes. The destroyer pivoted just as the mass drivers arrived. One missed completely, the second burst through the destroyer’s energy screen and punched through its nose.

Walker watched the impact on the holo display, it was far harder to make out what was going on than usual. He knew one destroyer was gone. The other had been hit, but he couldn’t tell how badly. For a couple of seconds, he waited. The contact’s energy output hadn’t dropped significantly. That told him all he needed to know.

“Jump start the reactors,” he ordered. “Charge the lasers and move us in.”

It took Cutlass’ Chief Engineer thirty seconds to get the first reactor going. As soon as he did, Cutlass moved towards her stricken target. When the first laser cannons had been charged, they opened fire. The Elder destroyer was on a ballistic trajectory. It was an easy target. Every beam Cutlass fired hit home.

“Detecting small bursts of energy from the destroyer,” the sensor officer reported. “I think someone is trying to use a couple of the ship’s maneuvering thrusters to evade. They must have next to no energy getting to the thrusters though.”

“Keep firing,” Walker said.

When Cutlass’ second reactor started up, the amount of laser fire raining down on the Elder warship more than doubled. By the time the third reactor was ready to go, it was over. A laser beam final