“Sir, comm drone was dispatched from the CS Harbinger on one-five-six. Decryption in progress. Will transfer to your screen,” said Comm Officer Wilks.
Bellegarde nodded. “Any response from our captors yet?”
“None yet, sir.”
“Very well. Keep sending.”
As he waited for the message, Bellegarde lowered his head and massaged his bloodshot eyes. Three, maybe four times in the past two hours he had slipped off the bridge and into the ready room, where he sought the escape of his bottle. He had fallen back against the bulkhead, trembling as the Scotch had flamed down his throat.
The Concordia’s behemoth antimatter guns had been sheared off, her tubes melted shut, her point-defense systems blasted into heaps of blistering durasteel. The Carraway and the rest of the battle group reported similar damage. As for fighters and bombers, over five hundred had been launched.
Not a single one had returned.
Although the Pilgrims had destroyed the smaller craft, they had left the capital vessels in tact, which told Bellegarde that they intended to take some prisoners. He felt the need to remind the crew of the Confederation code of conduct: “If you become a prisoner of war, you will keep faith with your fellow prisoners. You will give no information nor take part in any action which might be harmful to fellow Confederation citizens. If you are senior, you will take command. If not, you will obey the lawful orders of those appointed over you and will uphold them in every way. Should you conclude that the enemy has the means and the will to purge information from your mind, it is your sworn duty to take your own life in order to protect that information.”
A beep jarred him. He focused on the comm screen and tapped a data bar to play. The CS Harbinger’s comm officer had hastily recorded the message, and Bellegarde barely paid attention to the officer’s report. He glanced beyond the screen to the viewport, where Pilgrim warships had strung themselves out across McDaniel’s World like blue baguettes ornamenting the larger jewel of the planet. Thousands of specks--reflected light from fighter craft--interposed the warships in a great veil of traffic. Though he had tried to repress his awe and let his anger diminish the staggering display of Pilgrim power, he simply could not help himself. They had beaten him so thoroughly, so efficiently, that before he died he wanted to know exactly how they had done it. That was the officer in him, always striving for better ways to do the job. Fighting the cats had always been such a sloppy affair. These Pilgrims simultaneously maintained multiple offensive and defensive operations within a single Sphere of Operations. Bellegarde would like to see any Confederation battle group pull off a stunt like that without suffering a communications breakdown.
“Holy shit,” the XO mumbled, now standing at Bellegarde’s shoulder. “Sorry, sir. I just don’t believe it.” He pointed at a computer composite of the CS Olympus on the comm screen. “Cats took her out. It’s confirmed.”
Bellegarde leaned forward and tapped a button, skipping back through the message until he saw the comm officer. “Debris is from the CS Olympus, cross-checked and confirmed.” Bellegarde stopped the recording and threw back his head. He chuckled under his breath a moment, then leaned forward. “Jesus Christ. When was she destroyed?”
“Analysis indicates on or about one-four-two,” the XO said. “And sir? Are you all right?”
“I’m just thinking how all of this might have been prevented, if only--”
“Can’t think about the if onlys, sir. Just the way it is.”
“Sir? We have a contact, bearing one-one-nine by three-zero-four,” alerted Radar Officer Abrams. “She’s only a few klicks out, running slow and low; just picked her up now. ID coming through. It’s the admiral’s transport.”
Bellegarde swiveled to face the comm station. “Mr. Wilks?”
“Link established, sir.”
“Richard, good to find you still there,” Tolwyn said from the comm screen.
“And you there, sir.”
“Son of a bitches let us fly right through. No doubt they detected us.”
“From what I’ve observed, they’re quite deliberate.”
Tolwyn nodded. “What’s your status?”
After providing the admiral with a capsule summary of their situation, Bellegarde sighed and folded his arms over his chest. “I’m sorry, sir.”
“I didn’t realize I’d be returning to negotiate the terms of our surrender,” Tolwyn said, his voice growing thin.
“I’m not sure, sir, but I think that they’ve been waiting for you...”
Kalralahr Dax’tri nar Ragitagha buried his dueling blade in his first fang’s neck, then turned the blade forty-five degrees, unlocking a door to fa’ka’tra for the insolent warrior. The first fang dropped to his knees, gurgled, then fell onto his stomach as Dax’tri withdrew the blade.
“Who will be next for eternal damnation?” Dax’tri eyed his bridge officers, nearly singeing them with his gaze. “Meet Sivar? Go to fa’ka’tra? The choice is simple. Did you doubt me? Did you think I was weak or indecisive like Kalralahr Vukar? I will kill each who fails to obey.”
“We’re with you, Kalralahr,” cried Comm Officer Rogta. “We die together as warriors.” Rogta lowered his head, and as he did so, the act trickled through the other officers until every head had bowed in compliance.
“For the hrai!” Dax’tri shouted. He swung around, threw his dueling blade to the deck, and scowled at the hundreds of enemy ships invading Kilrathi space, his space. It no longer mattered that they had destroyed his battle group’s weapons. It no longer mattered that they outnumbered his force twenty-to-one. He knew what Sivar expected. And he would deliver nothing less. “Set the reactor to overload. We have a gift for them.”
Sostur Inanna Pandathy stood in her backyard, shading her eyes from the glare and staring beyond the veracia tree to the twinkling dots that shone even in broad daylight.
Collab joined her, his shaven head glistening, the Pilgrim cross tattooed on his cheek bending as he squinted against the sun. “I guess I owe you an apology,” he said softly.
“For what? Thinking that I was some crazed old lady prophesying the second coming of the Pilgrims?”
“No. For coming over late to fetch your laundry.”
She turned to him, smiled, then seized his cheek between her thumb and forefinger. “I told you they would come.”
“Yes, you did. And I guess that girl wasn’t able to warn the Confederation. I wonder if her friend ever got off planet.”
Pandathy shrugged. “Help me inside. I wish to pray for him, for both of them.”
Dennet Dearborn clenched his fists but held them wisely at his sides. He had been trying for the past half hour to explain to the Marine at the air and spaceport gate that the Confederation no longer held any power over the people of McDaniel’s World and that he and his comrades should retreat to their troopships before Pilgrim ground forces arrived. According to the news people, Pilgrim troops were already on their way. The Marine and his buddies had about an hour to evacuate the area.
No, Dennet did not harbor any special affection for the Marines; he simply wanted them to abandon their posts so that he could jog across the tarmac to a small moonskipper, a two-seater that could whisk him up to the Concordia.
After Karista had left, Dennet had waited another ten hours for a transport, but the mythical machine had never come. After twelve hours, he had given up and had spent the night in a waiting area crowded with other stranded souls.
The following morning, he had left the terminal, intent on finding someone who could get him off planet. He had wandered the rental hover district, encountering dozens of fast-talking opportunists who demanded small fortunes to get people into orbit. Unable to pay that kind of money, he had journeyed back to Ardenta to speak with Sostur Pandathy, hoping that she knew someone who could help. Ten minutes into the trek, he had thought the entire idea quiet foolish--if Pandathy had the means to get off world, wouldn’t she use them herself? Then again, she whole-heartedly believed that the Pilgrims would save everyone and that there was no need to abandon one’s home.
Thanks be to Ivar that he found Pandathy in her cabin. And to his great annoyance he discovered that she owned a small moonskipper and took it out once or twice per year to visit relatives. He and Karista could have used the skipper in the first place. Why hadn’t Pandathy told them about it? “Well, young Caravan, I’m not young,” she had said, then with a long-winded apology had given Dennet the codes and access card. He had left, part of him grumbling over the irony, the other part thrilled at the prospect of departure.
But a damned Marine now stood between Dennet and his ticket out. Dozens of thick scabs had formed on the guard’s neck and face, telltale markers of the visimoxitalid rash that some offworlders contracted during their first month on McDaniel.
Dennet stole a look at his watch, then faced the Marine. “Sir, have you listened to a word I’ve said?”
The Marine stared through him.
“Sir? One of us will die here. I promise you.” Dennet turned his head slightly and looked out through the Plexi to the moonskipper parked on the tarmac--
Then he dashed by the Marine, whom he expected would whirl and fire at him. He started into the tunnel that led outside, hugging the right wall for a second until he heard the Marine shout. Siphoning all of his energy into his legs, he sprinted to the left wall as the guard fired. With a nerve-shattering clang, the round ricocheted off the right wall and streaked ahead.
Seeing that he had just ten or twelve more steps to an intersecting tunnel, Dennet held his breath and sprang toward the corner. The guard’s rifle went off again as Dennet reached the intersection and turned right to face a pair of automatic doors that parted as he approached. Something pinched his shoulder. He glanced down, winced. His robe was soaked with blood. Don’t panic.
But it hurts so bad. I can’t stop the trembling...
As he cleared the automatic doors and passed into the bright, warm sunlight, he felt blood dripping off his wrist and gripped his shoulder with his free hand.
The moonskipper sat fifty meters to his right, a sleek though dusty little transport parked among a dozen other heaps. Her twin dorsal fins and forward-swept wings loaned her an angelic aura that quickened Dennet’s pace.
He came within twenty meters of the ship when a powerful roar tore across the sky. A great flock of troopships with hulls that fluctuated like whitecaps on a windswept sea swooped down on the air and spaceport, a few detaching themselves from the group to aim for Dennet’s tarmac.
Exploiting the diversion, Dennet drove himself another ten meters.
The guard probably had a clean, laser-guided shot.
Make a decision... you have to.... freeze. He kept his back to the guard, then regarded three of the Pilgrim troopships as they slowed into vertical landings. He suddenly felt safe and realized that the guard meant nothing in lieu of the invading force. He reminded himself that all of his doubting had been for naught. Karista had been right about everything, and he just wanted to be with her now and apologize for, well, everything.
He pivoted back and raised his palms to the guard as thrusters churned up a dust storm. Blinking hard against the wind, Dennet took a step forward. “I surrender.”
The guard fired. Hot pain raged in Dennet’s abdomen.
Bang! A second shot punched a hole in Dennet’s neck and sent him staggering backward.
Shot number three burrowed into Dennet’s heart and slammed him onto his back. Warm, sweet blood flooded the back of his throat as he fought for air. Gooseflesh scaled his shoulders, and the sky darkened around the edges.
He cursed the guard, cursed Ivar, and sensed that he simply wasn’t supposed to die like this; his death had been scheduled for much later in life. Certain tasks had yet to be accomplished. A grievous clerical error had been made. Someone needed to go back and check the paperwork, damn it!
More gunfire rattled in his ears. Boots pounded on the pavement. He shivered. Someone yelled, “Brotur!” and then...
Confederation President Harold Rodham sat in the joint chiefs’ war room and slumped in his chair as he listened to reports from each highly decorated officer. A massive fleet of unidentified warships had invaded the Sol system, despite the score of capital ships that had moved to intercept them. While nearly all fighters had been lost, the aliens had quite deliberately suppressed each cap ship’s fighting capabilities without destroying the ship. Were they a merciful enemy? Perhaps. Rodham had demanded to know more, but all his “experts” could tell him was that the enemy had superior maneuvering and weapons capability and that reports were just coming in from other systems within the sector, where similar invasions had occurred.NEXT
General Jon Linta, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, rose from the opposite end of the table. “Mr. President, I respectfully suggest that we contact this force to discuss terms for our surrender. Maybe that’s the one hail they’ll answer. And maybe we can stall negotiations long enough for reinforcements to arrive from Vega. We’ve already dispatched over a thousand comm drones.”
Rodham stiffened as he imagined going through with the jarhead’s plan. “General, I think you’ve failed to consider my position. My first major act as president will be to surrender the Sol system. You call it a stalling maneuver; I call it political suicide.” Rodham paused, gripped the arms of his chair, and concentrated on his breathing. “I’ll be holding a press conference later today. I’m going to assure our tax-paying citizens that their military will be doing everything in its power to repress and defeat this invading force. Our people have already suffered through enough with the bombing of the senate and Vasura’s suicide.”
The General twice opened his mouth, hesitated a third time, then finally mustered words. “Sir, we’ve already done everything in our power.” His gaze crept toward the holograph glowing above the table. Enemy warships hovered around Earth like the protruding spikes of a mace, and while the remaining automated platforms continued to unloose missile, laser, and neutron fire, tactical analysis reported that within the hour all defense system would offline. “Unless we get help from Vega, Sol will fall. Nothing can prevent that.”
“Sir?” Space Marshal Susan Jayhefsa rose from her seat, then stole a glance at her computer slate. “Latest intell indicates that invading forces are even more widespread than first anticipated. They may very well have seized control of Confederation worlds within Vega. There’s little doubt that Amity Aristee is behind this counterattack to our bombing of the Pilgrim systems and enclaves--which, by the way, has yet to be confirmed. Make no mistake, this invasion is no coincidence.”
“I never said it was,” Rodham retorted. “And frankly, I don’t give a damn whether Aristee, the Kilrathi, or another force is behind it. What are your plans to stop it.”
General Linta hemmed. “Again, Mr. President, we told--”
“I know what you’ve told me,” Rodham spat, slamming his fist on the table, “and that’s not good enough.”
“Sir, there are victories worse than defeat.”
“I’m sure you read that somewhere. And maybe it gives you comfort, but it does absolutely nothing for our citizens.”
Linta shook his head, his face glowing with anger. “The enemy has gone easy on us. If we fail to stand down, they’ll destroy this planet and kill all of our taxpayers.”
Rodham snickered, averted his gaze, then scanned the holograph as another automated platform fell under enemy fire. “We still have two operational battle groups near Saturn. I want them recalled and brought in to join the fight.”
“Against a force like this?” Jayhefsa said, gesticulating at the holograph.
“You heard me.”
“Sir, those are good people out there. You’re sentencing them to death.”
“Those good people have been trained to fight. And that’s just what they’ll do.” He stood. “Recall the ships.”