False Colors Prologue

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WING COMMANDER: FALSE COLORS
PROLOGUE

"Better Death with claws extended than Life without honor."
from the Fourth Codex
18:35:3

Flag Bridge, KIS Karga
Near Vaku VII, Vaku System
1335 hours (CST), 2670.015

Admiral Largka Cakg dai Nokhtak gripped the arms of his
command chair as the ship shuddered under the impact of
multiple torpedo hits and the red lights flickered in
protest. "Damage report," he ordered tautly, studying the
Kilrathi Hyilghar in front of him with a stern eye. Young,
proud, with a stiffly erect bearing and green eyes gleaming
against his tawny fur, the staff officer was the very
picture of a young Kilrathi warrior. He wore his beard and
mane short in the most recent court fashion, and his fangs
gleamed in the dim orange light of the flag bridge.
"Lord Admiral, neither the command bridge nor the
secondary control center respond." The young officer's voice
quavered a little, but he kept himself under rigid control.
Largka allowed himself a moment's pride. It was his sister's
son's first deep-space assignment, his first brush with the
God of the Running Death, and Hyilghar Murragh Cakg dai
Nokhtak was bearing up with courage and honor. "The launch
bays have ceased operation to repair damage to the flight
control computer, and the port-side hangar deck is blocked
by debris. With the previous damage to the starboard hangar
deck, we cannot retrieve the fighters we have already
deployed. Structural integrity in the stern section between
bulkheads fifty and seventy two is down by better than
seventy percent. We have lost long-range sensors,
interstellar drive, and the main tactical computer. Back-up
systems are functional but overloaded. Defensive weaponry is
operable, but without the tactical computer must be directed
manually. Offensive weapons are still functional, but with
intermittent power failures . . ."
Largka waved his nephew to silence. "That is
sufficient," he said quietly. "Neither the Captain nor the
Exec is available?"
Murragh extended a clawed hand palm-up, the empty hand
of negation. "Neither bridge is in contact with the rest of
the ship," he said. "I fear both took direct hits. Nhagrah
ko Lannis is the senior officer, but he is chief engineer,
not fit for a combat command . . ."
The Admiral made the grasping gesture of understanding.
"What of the apes?" The ship shuddered again as if to
emphasize his question.
"Both cruisers are concentrating on us now that the
Frawqirg is out of the action, Lord Admiral," Murragh said.
"At last report one of them was showing definite power drops
and was trailing atmosphere at a rate that indicated
imminent structural failure. That was before the sensors
went off-line. The other cruiser is also damaged, but to a
lesser extent."
"And your assessment of our options, young Hyilghar?"
he asked quietly, maintaining a rigid calm to counter the
grim situation. "An exercise for a young officer."
Murragh didn't answer right away. Finally he spoke. "We
cannot run. Our chances of defeating both ape ships are
small, given the extent of the damage. The fighters we have
deployed already are running low on fuel and ammunition, and
they cannot resupply while the hangar bays are down." His
eyes met his uncle's. "What option is there save to die with
honor?"
Largka showed his teeth. "What option, indeed?"
Inwardly his heart was filled with pride, knowing Murragh
could meet the final race with the Running Death with the
true Kilrathi spirit. But pride was balanced by rage. They
had come so close to victory, but it had eluded their
grasping hands by less than a claw's-length. "Return to your
post, Hyilghar," he said quietly. "And reflect on this . . .
you have done well, young Murragh. Your entire clan would be
proud today . . . as I am."
He turned back to the bank of readouts and monitors,
most of them blank, that were supposed to allow him to
direct a multi-ship deep-space battle. Irony tasted bitter
in Largha's mouth. He had argued for months that he should
be given a battle command instead of being confined to a
staff job on Kilrah, and always his cousin Thrakhath had
said there was no available command large enough to sustain
the honor of the Imperial Family. Largka had appealed
directly to Thrakhath's grandfather, the Emperor himself,
protesting that he would take any squadron, however small or
unimportant.
And the Emperor had granted his request. A tiny raiding
squadron operating on the fringes of the war zone between
humans and Kilrathi, one of the new supercarriers and a
scratch supporting battle group of only four escorts. And
those had fallen one by one during the disastrous raid on
the world the humans called Landreich. First the two
cruisers, then the destroyer Takh'lath, and finally the
escort Frawqirg, caught by the two Terran cruisers and badly
damaged before Karga could secure from jump and assist him.
The crippled escort had last been seen shaping an orbit for
the inner moon of the oversized gas giant Vaku, a marginally
habitable world where they might manage a landing and await
a rescue . . . if the Kilrathi won the engagement in space.
But it was clear that wasn't the likely outcome of
today's battle. Without escorts, even a supercarrier was
vulnerable to a sustained attack by conventional warships.
Carriers weren't supposed to fight in the thick of the fray.
Karga had been forced to do just that, though, and it would
take a miracle for him to pull through.
But before he died, the carrier would give a good
account of himself against the apes. Largka vowed to make
the Terrans remember Vaku, one way or another.
"Concentrate fire on the lead Terran cruiser," he
ordered. It was strange to be making tactical decisions
again, fighting a ship instead of directing a whole
squadron. But with both the carrier's control rooms out of
operation, his flag bridge was the closest thing to a
tactical control center left on Karga. "Ignore the other one
. . . but kill me that ape cruiser!"
"As you order, Lord Admiral," one of his aides
acknowledged.
Largka studied his monitor screen with the chill calm
of a warrior determined to fight to the bitter end.

Engineering Control Center, TCS Juneau
Near Vaku VII, Vaku System
1342 hours (CST)

Commander Douglas Scott Graham stared at the image on
his monitor screen in horror and disbelief, hardly able to
watch but equally unable to tear his eyes away.
He was watching a ship die, a sight all too common for
a Terran Confederation Navy officer in this thirty-fifth
year of continuous warfare with the Kilrathi Empire. Plenty
of ships had been lost over that decades-long span, but that
didn't make it any easier to watch TCS Juneau's consort,
Dover, coming apart under the incredible bombardment
generated by the Kilrathi carrier the two Terran ships faced
today.
Kruger wanted revenge, he thought bitterly. I hope it's
worth the price we're paying.
The two cruisers were part of a Terran Confederation
task force operating among the frontier worlds in loose
cooperation with colonial military units and semi-autonomous
planetary governments. The most prominent of these was
Landreich, neither wholly independent nor fully cooperative
under the leadership of its maverick president, Max Kruger.
Kruger had reluctantly played the role of cavalry-to-the-
rescue during the Kilrathi assault against the Sol system
three years back, and now when Kruger sneezed there was a
scramble among Confederation leaders to see who could hand
him a handkerchief the fastest. So when the small but deadly
Kilrathi carrier battle group had launched a raid on
Landreich itself, every ship in the region had been summoned
to intercept them before they could return to Imperial
space.
The running pursuit had knocked out three of the five
Kilrathi ships . . . but carrier and escort were still
formidable foes when the two Terran cruisers had spotted
them jumping into the Vaku system and moved to engage.
The proof of that was on his monitor. Ignoring Juneau
entirely, the Cat carrier was pumping everything she could
fire into the unfortunate Dover. Under that intensive
bombardment, the cruiser wouldn't last long. Graham could
see the rippling of shields burned through by energy beams,
and the Confederation cruiser seemed to stagger under wave
after wave of missiles from the carrier and the swarm of
Kilrathi fighters that clustered around her.
"Christ, look at her," someone said behind Graham.
"She's a goner for sure . . . ."
"Back to your post, spacer," Graham snapped. "Chief,
get these slackers back to work now, or they'll have a lot
worse than the Cats to answer to."
"Aye aye, sir." Chief Ellen Quinlan responded smartly.
"All right, you sons-of-Cats, you heard the man! Eyes on
your consoles and heads in the game! And if any of you
aren't afraid of what an officer might do to you, just keep
in mind what I'll do! Do I make myself clear?"
Graham hid a chuckle as the engineering control center
grew suddenly quiet and thoroughly businesslike under the
Chief's stern glare. A stern, hatchet-faced CPO of the old
school, Quinlan could generate more sheer terror than a
whole squadron of incoming Cat fighters. She was also one
hell of a good engineer.
The monitor flashed as explosions ran along the spine
of the crippled Dover, bringing Graham's attention back to
the fight. For an instant the flare of light was blinding
before the computer cut in the compensators. Even then, it
was difficult to distinguish details. One moment Dover was
whole. The next she was shards of wreckage whirling away in
all directions, ship and crew alike consumed by the fearsome
energies unleashed by the concentrated Kilrathi attack.
That left Juneau and the Cat carrier alone under the
mottled light of Vaku. Cruiser against carrier . . . and
that carrier had just done in a Terran cruiser in one
furious assault.
Graham swallowed. Now it was Juneau's turn.

Flag Bridge, KIS Karga
Near Vaku VII, Vaku System
1348 hours (CST)

Admiral Cakg dai Nokhtak bared his teeth in defiance as
the Terran cruiser broke apart. Victory is still possible!
he told himself. If Karga could just put some time and
distance between himself and the surviving Terran, they
could effect repairs to the jump engines and escape back
into Imperial territory, where songs of this day's action
would be sung for eight-eights of years to come.
"Target the cruiser's engineering section," he ordered,
keeping his voice level and firm despite the urge to let the
emotions inside him run free. "Helm Officer, take us in
closer to Vaku."
"Lord Admiral . . ." The staff officer who had suddenly
found himself acting as helmsman for the crippled
supercarrier was almost visibly shivering as he questioned
his superior's order. "Lord Admiral, the shields are already
weak, and the radiation from a brown dwarf . . . ."
"Would kill us in minutes if they failed," Largka
finished the sentence for him. "Nonetheless, you will carry
out my order. I want a tight hyperbolic orbit that will take
us through the plane of Vaku's ring system. If we can
cripple the Terran ship's engines, the ring debris and that
same radiation you are afraid of will serve to mask a course
change as we move out of their range. This will give us our
chance to break off this fight."
"You would run away from battle, Lord Admiral?" That
was Baron Grathal nar Khirgh, whose official title of Fleet
Intelligence Officer masked his real position as the
Imperial Family's spy and political officer aboard the
carrier. "The Prince would not like to hear that one his
noble cousins chose to run rather than fight."
The admiral half-rose from his chair, unsheathing the
claws of his powerful right hand before he forced himself to
ignore the insult. "Thrakhath would be more concerned still
to hear that I lost a supercarrier in battle with the apes,"
he said through tight lips. "Once we have broken off the
action and made repairs to engines and flight bays, we can
come back and deal with that cruiser. Right now the
important thing is to preserve the Karga."
He sank back in his seat, but his eyes remained locked
on Khirg's until the Intelligence Officer gave a reluctant
grasped-claw gesture and turned away.
"Course laid in, Lord Admiral," the Helm Officer said,
sounding nervous. Largka couldn't blame him. No one wanted
to get involved in court politics at the best of times, and
certainly not when a battle was raging around them.
Damn Thrakhath and his idiot followers! The Emperor's
grandson had consistently mismanaged the war against the
Terrans, and no small part of that mismanagement was the way
he'd treated the nobility that should have been the mainstay
of Imperial support. Thrakhath's policy of using court
favorites as watchdogs over nobles he didn't trust only
magnified the rifts in the Kilrathi war machine. Even if he
managed to win the final victory he was always touting,
Thrakhath might very well fall to the sharp claws of the
factions he had created.
And perhaps a member of the Imperial Family who had
distinguished himself in battle might hope to take advantage
should the Emperor's favorite grandson stumble . . . .
"Execute course change," he ordered, pushing his bitter
thoughts from his mind and focusing once again on the battle
unfolding beyond the supercarrier’s bulkheads.
"I have targeting solutions on the Terran cruiser," the
Acting Weapons Officer announced. "Locking energy batteries
on the engineering section . . . ."
"Fire all batteries!" the admiral ordered.

Bridge, TCS Juneau
Near Vaku VII, Vaku System
1351 hours (CST)

Unimaginable energies battered at the cruiser as the
Kilrathi supercarrier loosed its barrage. Captain Ekaterina
Tereshkova tightened her grip and closed her eyes for a
moment as she felt her beloved cruiser shuddering under
blast after blast from the Kilrathi ship's main guns. She
had seen what had happened to Captain Fowler's Dover when
the Cats had turned their full power against that ship. She
wasn't going to let them do the same thing to Juneau.
"All batteries, fire!" she grated. "Give me everything
you've got, Guns!"
"Aye aye, Skipper," her Fire Control Officer responded.
On the monitor screen in front of her, lasers stabbed back
at the Kilrathi carrier, probing the kilometer-long ship's
weakened defenses.
How much more punishment can the Cats take, anyway?
Tereshkova wouldn't have believed it possible for the
Kilrathi ship to hold out this long. Even a Kilrathi carrier
wasn't supposed to be able to handle a stand-up fight with
Terran cruisers. Their primary weapons were the fighter
squadrons they carried, and with a few exceptions they
hadn't been able to launch fighters with their hangar decks
crippled in the first exchange of fire. But whoever was
skippering that carrier was as brilliant as he was stubborn.
The cruiser lurched again, the red bridge lights
flickering and then going out as power was interrupted.
After a long moment a backup power source kicked in, but
there were plenty of dead consoles around the bridge . . .
and the ones that were still registering were lit up with
warning lights.
"Heavy damage to the rear shields," her XO reported,
gripping a stanchion with one hand and holding his earpiece
communications link in place with the other. Commander
Lindstrom's voice was matter-of-fact, as if he wasn't really
a part of the chaos that had erupted on the bridge after
that hit. Tereshkova's eyes flicked from one station to
another, taking in the body of the FCO slumped across his
board and the young commo officer kneeling beside his chair
trying to give first aid.
"Armor's gone from sections sixty-four through seventy-
one," Lindstrom went on. "Maneuvering Drives are off-line.
Fusion generator's still functioning, but we've got multiple
ruptures in the power grid. Damage control crews are re-
routing now, but we don't have weapons power until we get
the grid hooked up again. Estimated repair time is ten
minutes. Shields are still holding except around the burn-
through point. Graham's deploying portable shield units to
protect engineering from radiation effects."
"Repair estimate on the drive?" Tereshkova snapped.
Lindstrom looked grim. "An hour . . . maybe more."
"We don't have an hour, Commander," she said quietly.
"Tell Mr. Graham --"
"We nailed him! We nailed the bastard!" The shout from
someone on the far side of the bridge brought a wave of
cheers from the stunned crew, and Tereshkova turned in her
chair to study her monitor screen again.
The computer-enhanced image showing there was subtly
different, but it took a few seconds for her fatigue-numbed
brain to interpret what she was seeing. She raised her eyes
to meet Lindstrom's again, and this time she had a savage
smile on her lips.
"Her shields are down," she said. "She's helpless out
there . . . ."
"And us with no weapons power," Lindstrom replied with
a frown.
"But without shields, Mr. Lindstrom, those Cats are
going to fry in a matter of minutes," she said. "They're
even closer to Vaku than we are, and that means they're
getting a full broadside of radiation sleeting right through
their hull as we speak. Unless they get their generators
back on line pretty damned soon, they're all dead meat over
there . . . unless they surrender and let us try to extend
our own shields around them."
"Let 'em fry," Lindstrom said harshly. After thirty-
five years of warfare people didn't talk much about
compassion for the enemy. Not after the losses inflicted on
Earth herself, or the plague on Locanda, or any of the other
atrocities the Kilrathi had carried out over the years.
But Tereshkova shook her head. "We'll give them a
chance to surrender, Commander," she said. "Just think about
the propaganda value of leading that big sucker in to port
back at Landreich . . . with her surviving crew as
prisoners. It'll be the biggest thing since Ralgha nar
Hhallas defected. Might give some people the idea it's
worthwhile keeping up the fight a little while longer. God
knows we've had few enough victories, large or small, to
boost morale back home." She turned again. "Lieutenant, let
someone else look after Mr. Martinez. Get back to your post
and put a message out to those Cats. Surrender, and we will
impose our shields against the brown dwarf's radiation until
they can get their damage control sorted out."
"Aye aye, Captain," the communications officer said.
Tereshkova slumped back in her chair. It was almost
over . . . .

Flag Bridge, KIS Karga
Near Vaku VII, Vaku System
1356 hours (CST)

"Surrender! Would the apes see us dishonored? Would
you, Lord Admiral?"
Largka Cakg bared his teeth at the Fleet Intelligence
Officer but did not reply. His eyes found Murragh, and he
gestured his sister's son forward. "Status?"
"Shields are down and cannot be restored short of a
full-scale overhaul, Lord Admiral," Murragh said. "Lethal
radiation dosages will be reached within the next ten
cycles; it is already too late for many in Engineering or
who have already received significant doses of radiation
previous to this. We still have Maneuvering Drive and
limited weapons availability, but we cannot run from the
radiation fast enough to save the crew, and we cannot fight
the cruiser with the weapons we have left."
"And the apes?"
"Damage Assessment suggests they have lost their
maneuvering capability. There would appear to be gaps in
their power distribution grid. Their shields are intact
except in their Engineering section. We have no way of
estimating the extent of their damage, Lord Admiral, save by
observation, and they may be holding back . . . ."
Largka cut him off with a claw-grasp. "Without other
capital ships we cannot even abandon ship and hope to
survive. Lifepods would shield us from the radiation for a
few hours at best, but that would be insufficient without
other ships to perform search and rescue. Nor do we have
adequate powered craft to evacuate the entire crew with the
launch bays out of action. A few life boats are all that can
escape; the rest of Karga's crew will die without shields."
"Would you actually consider surrender to the apes?"
Khirgh demanded, snarling.
"No, Lord Khirgh, I would not. Murragh, pass orders for
the Cadre to evacuate in available lifeboats. Senior
officers to remain at their posts, but get the designated
Cadre out. The inner moon of Vaku is marginally habitable,
and we saw Frawqirg heading there when they broke off the
action." The Cadre -- fifty specialist officers and petty
officers out of the 5,000 aboard the supercarrier -- would
survive to carry their individual skills back to the Fleet.
"You will act as my deputy, Murragh," Largka added. "Take
charge of the Cadre until you meet a senior line officer to
pass the command to."
"But my place is here --"
"You are the last of our branch of the Clan," Largka
told him. "You must survive to carry on the Clan's name and
honor. There is no shame in obeying orders."
"There is no shame," Murragh repeated formally. "I
obey."
As Murragh hastened from the Flag Bridge Largka slumped
back in his chair, trying to control the reflexive movement
of his fingers and claws. He did not want any of his crew to
see him betray weakness at this of all moments.
By the God of War, they had come so close. And now the
whole crew was condemned to a slow and agonizing death,
because of a lucky shot by the ape cruiser.
There was nothing left now but to let Karga end his
service in glory.
"Helm, plot an intercept course with the Terran ship.
Get us everything you can from the engines. We will ram the
apes if that is the only way to ensure they don’t see home
again. Engineering, coordinate with the helm. I want self-
destruct systems rigged to explode the ship as we reach the
cruiser. Full destruct -- reactors, ordnance, auxiliary
generators, munitions and fuel stores . . . everything
rigged to the computer destruct program."
"Yes, my Lord." The engineering officer looked shaken,
but raised no word of protest.
"Communications, I will record a message."
"Ready, Lord Admiral."
Largka paused for a moment in contemplation before
speaking into the microphone at his side. "This is Admiral
Largka Cakg dai Nokhtak. Karga is the last ship of the
squadron, and we have lost shields while passing close to a
brown dwarf in the Vaku system. As a result, lethal dosages
of radiation will soon render the ship’s crew dead,
something the apes who have attacked us could not do
themselves."
He paused, seeing the orange jungles of Kilrah again in
his mind’s eye. One last hunt would have been pleasant, but
the God of War demanded otherwise. "Even in death we have a
last chance to grasp the enemy in our claws. Our last
surviving opponent appears incapable of maneuver, and I have
ordered an intercept course. We will destroy the ship once
it is close alongside the Terran cruiser, so we will not go
to the afterlife without a proper escort of our dead and
defeated foes. Weapons stations should continue to fire as
they are able, until the end. We die for the glory of the
Empire, and to honor the hero whose name our vessel bears.
Remember the words of the Tenth Codex: Even in Death there
can be Victory!"
He signaled to the communications officer that he was
finished. "Have that announcement broadcast on all internal
comm channels," he ordered. "And send it by hypercast with
the appropriate codes inserted, so that Governor Ragark
knows Karga has carried out his final duty to the Empire."
"Yes, my Lord."
Largka contemplated his tactical monitor, content in
the knowledge that his death, and the deaths of these
valiant warriors, would not be in vain.

Bridge, TCS Juneau
Near Vaku VII, Vaku System
1400 hours (CST)

"God damn it, that bastard’s changing course and
powering up his maneuver drives!"
Tereshkova called up the tactical plot and quickly
confirmed Lindstrom’s report. The Kilrathi supercarrier was
changing vector, all right . . . and the projected course
would bring them straight in to an intercept with the
Juneau.
"You don’t suppose the Cats are coming alongside so we
can extend our shields around them, do you?" someone said
behind her. "Maybe their comm system’s down and they can’t
accept the surrender offer."
As if in response energy pulsed from the carrier’s
forward turret. "If that’s a surrender, I’m a Cat pacifist,"
Lindstrom said. The cruiser’s screens handled the incoming
fire, but Tereshkova could see that the shield reserves were
getting weaker by the minute.
"What about the maneuver drives?" she asked. "Any
progress getting them back?"
"Negative, skipper," Lindstrom told her. "Graham says
half the section’s fused together back there. We’re not
stepping out of the way on this one."
"Estimated time to course intersect?"
"Five minutes, Captain," the helmsman reported crisply.
He might have been commenting on the weather back home.
"We can’t blow them up . . . we can’t get the hell out
of the way." Tereshkova met Lindstrom’s eyes. "Ever see any
statistics on the survival prospects of a cruiser getting
rammed by a supercarrier?"
He shrugged. "Not that I remember," he said with a
sour, gallows humor smile. "And I doubt it would matter much
if we could survive a collision. If that Cat over there
realizes that his people are going to cop it from radiation
anyway, he’s liable to order the destruct systems armed.
That way he gets us even if we don’t collide. Probably takes
out any last-minute lifepods we dump, too."
"Options?" Tereshkova knew what they were, but she had
to hear Lindstrom confirm them. When the safety of her crew
was at stake, she wouldn’t overlook any possibilities.
"We sit here and fry," he said. "Or we pray for a
miracle with the weapons or the drives . . . and fry if we
don’t happen to get it." He paused. "Or we sound Abandon
Ship. Lifepods can handle the radiation for a little while,
and if we deploy our shuttles now they should be able to
round up most of the crew and get them to a safe distance
before the dosages become critical. There’ll be casualties.
A lot of them. And long-term survival’s another thing
entirely."
"There’s a habitable moon. That’s something."
"And a flock of Kilrathi, too. The fighters that were
cut off from their hangar deck, and that escort that
withdrew. They could still be a threat."
She jabbed a finger at the tactical display. "They’re a
possible problem. That’s a threat." She sighed. "Sound
Abandon Ship, Mr. Lindstrom. And download the navigation
data on that moon to all the shuttle computers. Better make
it fast -- that Cat’s not going to juggle his schedule just
to let us finish the job."
"Aye aye, skipper," Lindstrom said. "Permission to take
the bridge during the evacuation?"
"Denied," she said harshly. "You get to your lifepod.
The captain’s supposed to go down with the ship. I’ll ride
herd on the old girl while the crew gets clear."
She turned away from Lindstrom and studied the monitor
again, unwilling to let him see the emotion in her eyes.
Slowly, ponderously, the two blips on the screen that
represented the Terran cruiser and the Kilrathi carrier
began to move toward one another, and there was nothing
Captain Tereshkova could do to stop it.

Flag Bridge, KIS Karga
Orbiting Vaku System
1413 hours (CST)

"Lifepods. The apes are escaping in lifepods."
Largka heard the anger in Khirg’s voice and wondered at
the intelligence officer’s blind hatred. Why did so many
Kilrathi -- Thrakhath’s followers in particular -- nurse such
enmity for the Terrans? They were brave fighters, tenacious
in battle even when the odds were against them. Hadn’t the
hero Karga himself won glory for honoring a brave but
outmatched warrior who had challenged him in battle? Perhaps
if the Empire had accorded a status higher than that of prey
to the humans the war would not have stretched on so long.
"Let them," Largka said calmly. "They can burn slowly
in the radiation of the brown dwarf, or quickly in the
explosion of the Karga. Even if they escape, they will be
marooned on the habitable moon, and some of our warriors are
still there. We have achieved our purpose, regardless."
"At a high cost, Admiral," Khirgh commented.
"You would have preferred to evacuate with the cadre?"
That was a sneer. There were no political repercussions left
for Largka now, no more need to pretend to support the
Emperor, or Thrakhath, or their toadies.
"I know my duty," Khirgh snarled. "But you cannot deny
the cost of this exercise."
"If your precious Prince had planned something more
worthwhile than a mere raid to be avenged for what the
humans on Landreich did at the Battle of Earth, if he had
given us sound objectives and the forces we needed to
achieve them, rather than sending us out with blunted fangs,
this ‘exercise’ might have had a better outcome. But instead
Thrakhath has thrown away this squadron as he has thrown
away so many other warriors and ships, for nothing but his
own vanity. One day it may be that he will throw away the
Empire itself. And perhaps my sister’s son will still be
alive to claim the throne as the last surviving member of
the branch of the Imperial hrai worthy of holding it."
"Treason!" Khirgh surged toward Largka, claws
extending. "The Prince was right about your treacherous
ambitions!"
Largka rose from his command chair, drawing his
ceremonial dagger. His thrust met Khirg’s rush, and blood
pumped from the intelligence officer’s slit throat. Khirg’s
claws grasped ineffectually at Largha’s chest before
Thrakhath’s agent sagged to the deck. The admiral studied
the body for a long moment, but there was no savor to the
kill.
"Lord Admiral," one of the bridge crew said, voice a
little unsteady after witnessing the short but savage clash
between the two officers. "Lord Admiral, the cruiser’s
shields are failing!"
He jerked his attention to the monitor. Minimum sensors
had been restored, and they could read the wild fluctuations
in the energy levels powering the cruiser’s defensive grid.
A rapid string of energy pulses from Karga’s forward
batteries played across the Terran ship’s bow, and suddenly
the sensor readings showed the shields entirely down.
The next barrage tore through the Confederation ship
like claws through soft flesh. On the main viewscreen he
could see the rippling series of explosions as every system
overloaded at once and the cruiser came apart.
So . . . there would be no collision, no need to count
on the self-destruct system to ensure the Terran ship’s
destruction. Karga’s foe was already dead.
But the countdown to destruction would go on. His ship
and crew were already dead as well, thanks to the shield
failure and the radiation sleeting through the hull. Best to
deny Karga to those who might find him drifting out here,
derelict, a prize to be claimed and dishonored.
With one foot he rolled the body of Khirgh away from
his command chair and sat down once again. "Time to self-
destruct?" he demanded.
"Two minutes, Lord Admiral." The voice was calm and
resigned. There was one officer, at least, ready to meet a
warrior’s death.
The time passed slowly for Largka as he meditated over
the familiar words of the Fifth Codex. Honor shall flow to
the warrior who does his duty, for his Clan shall earn glory
by his deeds. Honor shall flow to the warrior who meets
death in battle, for his name shall be remembered. Honor
shall flow to the warrior who strikes down his foe, for he
shall win victory for his people . . .
"Eight seconds . . ." someone said. Largka heard
another crewman quoting the Codices, and felt a swelling
pride within. They had all done their duty . . .
A long moment later he realized the count had passed
zero, but nothing was changed. "Report," he snapped.
"The computer has gone off-line, Lord Admiral," the
engineering officer said. "Self-destruct sequence cannot be
completed. I do not believe we could even trigger it
manually. There is too much damage to internal systems."
"Vraxar!" he swore. Was he to be denied the chance to
take Karga out in one last moment of glory? Would he preside
over a crew of the dead and dying, like the Wandering
Conquistador of Kilrathi legend?
No . . . that was too much to ask.
"Communications Officer! Can you at least put me on
internal channels? Or must I shout a message to the crew?"
"Internal channels, Lord Admiral."
Largka licked lips gone dry and summoned up the will to
speak. "This is Admiral dai Nokhtak. Our self-destruct
system has failed. The ship has won a glorious victory over
the Terrans, but all estimates indicate that we have already
received lethal dosages of radiation. Repairs are impossible
without the support of a base or a fleet tender; by the time
we could accomplish anything on our own we would all be dead
anyway."
He paused. "Any crew member who wishes to take his
chances in lifepods is welcome to do so. Some of our
comrades may still be alive outside the ship and able to
render aid. For myself, I choose the only honorable option,
Zu’kara. Any who wish to do the same will do honor to their
hrai, seeking a clean death in the moment of victory. Follow
the dictates of your own consciences. That is all."
Largka sensed the emotion in the flag bridge. Zu’kara --
ritual suicide -- was the ultimate expression of the
warrior’s creed. The Kilrathi warrior took his own life if
he or his clan stood to be dishonored, or to enhance honor
when the odds were hopeless and there was no prospect of
either survival or a warrior’s death in battle. It was not a
decision to be made lightly.
The admiral ignored the currents of uncertainty that
ran through the bridge around him. He took up the knife he
had used to kill Khirgh, knelt beside the command chair, and
placed the point of the blade directly above his heart.
Honor shall flow to the warrior who is true, to his
hrai, to his comrades, to his people, and to himself, for
only the true warrior shall know the gods hereafter.
His last thought was of the warriors under his command.
He wished them all a chance at glory in death.
Then he drove the point of the dagger home, and felt
the blood running free.

Shuttle Juneau Delta
Vaku VIIa, Vaku System
1747 hours (CST)

The overloaded shuttle bucked and shuddered as it
descended through the roiling atmosphere toward the planet’s
surface. Donald Graham held on to the stick and fought to
keep the craft on course as it bled off speed, all too
conscious of his precious cargo. Sadness vied with relief
within him as he contemplated the planet below. Three of the
cruiser’s shuttles had escaped the Juneau’s destruction, and
they had collected enough lifepods en route to pack each of
the craft with survivors. But many more had died, including
Commander Lindstrom and the entire contingent aboard Shuttle
Alpha, caught by the last explosions that had consumed
Juneau while trying to rescue a cluster of lifepods that
hadn’t won clear of the ship.
Three shuttles packed to the gills . . . maybe a
hundred men and women, all told, out of the cruiser’s
complement of three hundred sixty. It was hard to even think
of the loss of two-thirds of his shipmates.
But for the moment Graham couldn’t afford to let
emotion tear at him. He was the senior surviving officer
left out of the Juneau’s wardroom, and he had a
responsibility to the survivors. The main job at the moment
was to find a safe place to land and pray the conditions on
the surface of this miserable planet wouldn’t be too harsh.
It was listed as "marginally habitable" in the navigation
files, but his sensor readings didn’t look promising.
A few degrees off his heading, the sensors were
registering a concentration of metal and a few sporadic
energy readings. That would be the Kilrathi survivors who
had made it down earlier, from the damaged escort ship and
whatever fighters and escape vessels had managed to get
clear of the carrier. His first impulse was to put plenty of
distance between his survivors and the Cats.
Then Graham considered again, and moved the stick to
bank left and line up on the sensor readings.
He had no way of knowing what had happened to the Cats.
They might be strong enough to be a real threat to the human
survivors, in which case a quick overflight before they
realized there were humans in the area might be the one
chance Graham would have for estimating the danger. And if
they were in worse shape than the Juneaus, there was always
the chance the humans could overpower the survivors and make
use of whatever equipment and supplies they had on hand.
After all, the shuttles carried plenty of people, but little
else. They needed food, water, shelter . . . just about
everything, in fact.
The shuttle broke through a cloud layer and Graham saw
the wreck of the Cat escort ship spread out below. They’d
come down hard, no doubt about that. Close by were a handful
of shuttles and a line of fighters drawn up on a reasonably
smooth stretch of ground. Figures were racing back and forth
across the open plain, some stopping to point or raise
clawed hands to the sky in defiance.
Graham swallowed, his eyes on those fighters. If they
took off . . .
He reached for the control that would activate the
shuttle’s weapons pod. Kilrathi had never been prone to
surrender, even in the face of overwhelming odds. But that
ragtag group on the ground looked confused and unready to
fight. Could he force them to surrender?
Or persuade them that they had to work together with
the human survivors if either group was going to see their
homes again?