"It was visible and blue?" Diamond asked me as I reclined in a chair no one had been occupying previously. Since I was paying for the lab I technically could have commandeered any space I chose but I wasn't feeling it. At my request Diamond and I were discussing the mission for Ruus while waiting for the sensor and video logs to download from the Gilmour.
"Yeah, the damned thing looked like it was straight out of a bad holovid. A bolt of light, colored blue, that traveled slow enough that I could follow it with my eyes."
Diamond and Dr. Toma exchanged looks.
"What?" I demanded. "You think I'm making it up?"
"No, not at all," Dr. Toma said quickly.
"It's just that we think we know what it is," Diamond explained more patiently. "And if it's what we think then it's not good news for our Navy."
"Well, don't hold me in suspense," I snapped irritably. "What do you think it is?"
"I'd prefer to wait for the video, but if you insist - "
"Yeah. I'm insisting."
"We think that may have been directed plasma fire."
I blinked. Plasma? The name didn't mean anything to me. "What's that?"
"You know how matter typically comes in one of three forms like gas, liquid or solid," Dr. Toma began. "There's another state called plasma, super-heated and highly ionized. If you've ever seen an electrical discharge you've seen plasma."
"That didn't look anything like electricity," I objected.
"It may not have been," Diamond assured me. "But have you ever noticed how electricity usually has a kind of blue light to it? That's a result of the ionization that's typical of all radiation. It's your description of the fire being blue that makes us suspect they may be harnessing plasma for it."
"Do we have plasma weapons?" I asked.
"No, the kind of weapons you saw are notoriously hazardous to power as you saw when you destroyed it," Dr. Toma answered. "You say the station lost power after the secondary explosion went off?"
"That would be consistent with our hypothesis." She assumed a look of satisfaction as she continued. "Your fire ignited the fuel for the plasma weapon and the ionizing effect created an electromagnetic pulse that shut down any active systems. If your shields hadn't been up it might have had the same effect on your ship. But since the pulse was inside their array they had no defense against it."
"Most vacuum-based installations are by necessity hardened against electromagnetic pulses," Diamond went on. "But a pulse of sufficient energy will still overwhelm them."
They had pretty much lost me by this point but I couldn't fault them; I had asked, after all. I was saved by the beeping console indicating that the data transfer was complete.
"All right," Diamond said as he quickly scanned the files in the directory. "Janeen, will you please review the sensor logs while Hideo and I go over the video?"
"Of course, Mr. Diamond," Dr. Toma replied and moved briskly to another workstation.
Diamond brought up the video file and scanned it quickly until we came to the beginning of the fight with the fleet. Since I had kept the Gilmour at a distance to provide cover for the Bounty we had a pretty good overview of the entire battle. He played it through at double speed since the fighters weren't the topic of conversation. Nevertheless, he whistled in appreciation as he saw how quickly both the Wasp and Thanatos dispatched the enemy ships.
"You were telling me that all of your ships were this effective with the Tharl cores powering your weapons and shields?"
I nodded again. "Yeah, we were pretty invincible up to that point. It was an extremely one-sided battle."
He slowed the playback as the Wasp and Thanatos began firing on the station. Then the blue bolt appeared apparently out of nowhere and struck the Thanatos at which point he paused it and rewound to play back slower. "There, you see? That blue light is what's called Cherenkov radiation. It's completely harmless, but it's what gives the plasma its coloration. It tells us the ions in the plasma are in a highly excited state."
I winced, not really wanting to watch but knowing I needed to be able to answer questions. Even if it seemed at this point I had more questions than answers myself.
"And there the plasma splashes over the forward section of the Thanatos instead of focusing all of its energy on the point of contact. It's behaving more like a liquid or gas by washing over the ship. Of course it's transferring all that energy so if their shields had been even a little bit weaker the energy transfer on the armor would have been quite extreme. I expect the forward batteries would have been melted to slag."
I shivered slightly. "Ron said they lost power to one of the shield transmitters, one of the cores failing."
The sound on the display dutifully relayed Ron's reply to John's query: "I don't know, I can't see! There's too much interference!" The playback was still slow so the words were stretched out, his voice much deeper and distorted.
"Yes, interference," Diamond muttered to himself. He sped up the playback again to fast-forward through our argument. "That also tracks. Even after the shields held the residual ionization of the space surrounding the Thanatos would create a brief blackout period. If the discharge fails to destroy the target it still manages to weaken and blind it. A terrifying weapon."
I scowled. He was telling me?
He resumed normal playback until the blue bolt appeared again and he went through the same process of rewinding and slowing the display. I got to watch in agonizing detail as the shot enveloped and disintegrated the Wasp. It was true; it happened so fast Alec probably hadn't had time to realize he'd been hit or feel any pain. Unfortunately, that was scant comfort to me.
"So that Tharl have a ship-killing weapon. The amount of energy stored in the plasma is extreme, enough that I speculate a single shot could disable or destroy the Federation's most powerful battleship unless she powered her shields the way you have. The Wasp, unfortunately, was not able to generate enough power for her shields to withstand the attack the way the Thanatos could. Her smaller size and comparable mass gave her no way to ablate the energy transfer the way the Thanatos might have. There is simply no way a ship smaller than a destroyer can defend against this attack."
Tears welled in my eyes as I fought down the well of emotions surging inside me. I knew attacking the station had been a bad idea; I knew it but I let the others talk me into it anyway. I should have insisted on heading toward the planet, should have been more forceful. A small part of my brain reminded me that the others were determined to take the prize and would never have let me interfere, but it was shouted down.
Diamond looked equal parts disturbed and sorrowful as he observed my reaction, and he held his tongue until I regained enough composure to speak.
"Why do they need this?" I demanded. "Why aren't their shields and weapons as effective as ours with the same power cores? They've been using those cores far longer. I don't understand why they wouldn't be as effective."
"We don't know a lot yet, but studying the raider has given us at least one answer: energy efficiency," he replied. "Both societies use superconducting materials in their technology but the Federation has a significant advantage in the efficiency of our energy transmission. Our power output is much, much lower so we have to preserve as much of it as we can to achieve the same results. Consequently we can handle much, much higher output before our materials begin to suffer degradation from thermal buildup. I'm guessing the Tharl developed their amazing power generation long ago and saw no need to make it more efficient; the output they get more than makes up for any lost through inefficiency. Their materials have a higher tolerance for temperatures but don't transfer power as effectively. Since they have what seems to be an endless supply they've never had sufficient cause to make improvements."
"Scarcity," I murmured. "An energy utopia."
Diamond looked confused. "I'm afraid I don't follow."
I shook my head. "It was just something Alec said before...we left. It doesn't matter. So you're saying that our technological inferiority is what gives us the edge here?"
"It's a curious fact that hybrids are often stronger and hardier than their progenitors. It's true in biology and frequently true in technology. By powering Federation equipment with Tharl power sources we've created a hybrid that hasn't simply added but multiplied the output."
"Right now we outmatch both the Tharl and the Federation put together."
"Quite so. And now that you've brought us all those new cores we can create a new, independent alliance of systems that can easily defend itself from either. The money we'll make using those cores to upgrade other ships and systems will make us all rich far beyond anything we've ever known before. The Federation has just lost its power over human civilization; they just don't know it yet."
The others would be thrilled. This was the score we'd been working toward.
"That weapon," I said. "What if it were used against a planet? What if the Tharl were to turn it on a civilian population?"
He shook his head. "Most of the energy from the plasma would dissipate in any atmosphere. It would certainly affect weather patterns and create long term consequences for the ecosystems of that world but little of the shot would be able to reach the surface. The worst effect in the short term would be to supercharge the atmosphere with ionization and disrupt power and communications, but only briefly. This weapon is primarily meant for vacuum, not planets. As I said, a ship-killer."
"But it's not ready yet, right? They were very slow in firing it."
"I don't know. That could mean that the weapon is too volatile to fire quickly, or materials used in directing the plasma need time to cool down or any number of reasons. Clearly their containment systems were inadequate to address catastrophic failure of the weapon. But I don't know if that was a prototype or a first generation model still being phased into use."
I stared at the screen for a long time, once again reliving the moment when Alec died. After a while I asked, "How long before we can get the word out about the upgrades?"
"It's already started. I told you before the group I'm working with have been waiting for an opportunity like this for a long, long time. Of course we had no idea what the opportunity would look like, but we knew that eventually we'd make a discovery that would enable us to break free of the Federation's tyranny."
I scowled. That sounded like treason to me. "So you're telling me you're an anarchist?"
He glared back at me. "I'm a revolutionary. The Federation has shepherded human civilization for thousands of years but you've seen for yourself how stagnant we've become. Intentionally or not, what you've been doing here has given us an opportunity to break free from that stagnation and begin a new era of progress and exploration. You've been all over our galaxy, do you think humanity is in good shape?"
"Obviously not," I conceded. "But we've been at war for so long. Wouldn't destroying the Tharl free us from the stalemate that's been holding us back?"
He shook his head. "Hideo, it isn't this war that's holding us back. We've been at war with them for countless generations but few of us ever see the Tharl show up. The war is constantly in our media and on our minds but it rarely makes a direct impact on our lives. It's the excuse that's been used to explain why we can't progress. We used to be a species of problem solvers, a people who saw obstacles as challenges to be overcome instead of fences to hold us back. The Tharl didn't do that to us, we did it to ourselves. It's being enforced by the Federation and we need to break that stranglehold."
"So what's the plan, head to the Core Worlds and stage a coup?"
"Nothing so grandiose. We can gather a number of like-minded people and form our own organization. The groundwork has already been laid in a number of systems along the eastern rim. Those systems still have some resources and together can form an independent bloc. The reason they never have before is because the Federation takes a dim view of systems that want to secede and will send the Navy to 'discourage' it. No one system or even group of systems could stand up to the concentrated might of the Federation Navy, but thanks to you we can now."
I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. That made me a traitor to the Federation, and for all of my time smuggling and dodging the law I still thought of myself as a loyal citizen. This was much too political for my taste; I preferred my freedom flying between systems and destroying Tharl ships. Fighting the Tharl was easier because it was simple: they were the enemy and were trying to kill me. There was no question that fighting back was the right thing to do. This was not simple. This was very, very complicated.
Diamond read the conflict on my face and added a note of sympathy to his voice. "It's all right, Hideo. You don't have to get involved more than you already have. No one expects you to take up the banner of independence along with us."
"But I'm already involved. Once you declare your independence and defend yourselves against the Navy they're going to notice when my ship has the same capabilities. They'll assume I was complicit all along. I'll become an enemy."
He sat back and tapped a finger against his lips. "I suppose you're right. Unless you downgrade or otherwise hide the improvements to your ship they'll be able to make that connection."
"I'm not ready to downgrade. There are still more Tharl to destroy."
"Then you'll either need to throw your lot in with us or beg the good graces of Federation law."
I grimaced and he chuckled at my reaction. GalPol and the courts weren't exactly known for their leniency.
"So there's no place for me," I concluded.
"Maybe," he replied. "But once we establish our independence and defend it with our new technology things will start to change. It will take a while but the knowledge that the Federation isn't the only game in town will eventually register with the general public. They'll start to weigh their options and explore new alternatives. Not all will, but enough. Other systems will declare their independence, and soon the Federation won't have enough ships to fight us and the Tharl all at once. Free of the stagnation enforced on them those systems will begin their own research and development. Some will fail but not all. Change will spread throughout human civilization in spite of the Federation's best efforts to stop it and humanity will begin to spread again."
"Spread where? Into Tharl space?"
"Maybe eventually. But just because we've colonized the vast majority of our galaxy doesn't mean we have to stop there. There are other galaxies out there. We've known forever that Andromeda is heading for a collision course with the Milky Way. Wouldn't it be interesting if we already had it colonized by the time it got here?"
It was my turn to sit back and think for a moment. Deep exploration? No one had been to Andromeda before; it was just too far and no one had attempted it that I knew. Everyone knew it would take too long to get there; we'd starve or run out of power before we arrived. But that was before. The Gilmour could now jump across the galaxy in a matter of hours; how long would it take to reach the nearest star of another galaxy? Days? Weeks? Even months? I used to make trips like that without any trouble. My ship was designed for exploring the unknown even though I never thought of myself as an explorer. Could I do that? What about vengeance for Mika and Alec? Had enough Tharl died yet that I could consider the slate wiped clean?
No, I decided. They hadn't. I still had work to do before I considered any other options. If it meant I had to switch to Diamond's new independent worlds as my base of operations well, that wasn't exactly new. I was already basing myself out of Gallant which was itself a nominally independent space station. There really wasn't a downside for me. And if I decided I wanted to go back to Federation space, say Rekan to visit my family, who could stop me? No one, that's who. For the moment I had one of the most powerful ships in the galaxy and I could do as I chose.
"That's a thought for another day," I said finally. "For now, tell me about any progress you've made with the cores."
"To Alec," John said as he raised his glass. Ron and I raised ours and touched them to his.
"To Alec," we echoed. There was a fourth glass, a shot of whiskey set aside where Alec would be sitting if he had survived. A bottle of his favorite brand sat on the table next to it. We touched our glasses to that as well before we knocked back our drinks and poured another.
"Tell me about this plan to make us...even more rich," Ron said.
"Diamond isn't buying them?" John asked in mild surprise.
"He can't," I explained. "He and his backers shot their load on the raider they bought from us. They literally can't afford us. But they've put out word to people they trust and let them know what the cores can do for them. They become agents on our behalf, advertising what we're selling offering upgrades. They take 5% commission from any sale plus whatever service fee they want to charge for installing the cores. Everybody gets rich-richer," I amended at the end.
John nodded appreciatively but Ron took on a skeptical air. "People they trust? How do we know we can trust them?"
I shrugged. "I doubt any of them will be flying destroyers or better. If you decide you don't like them you can always turn them into space junk."
He grinned at that. "It's good to be the king."
John snorted. "You should see if you can get your hands on a proper battleship. Upgrade one of those with our new big cores and you'll be a one-ship armada."
Ron laughed and touched his glass to John's in salute. "Hell, I'm that already. But wouldn't that be something?"
"We could also go back to that plan about establishing a shipyard," I suggested. "Start building our own ships, even our own battleships. Design them from the deck up with the new technologies in mind. I bet we could surpass what we've already done."
It was Ron's turn to shrug this time. "Sounds like work. I'm having too much fun for that."
John patted me on the shoulder. "It's a good idea, though. We can look into it. Imagine a fleet of freighters that look like Corbas but can fight off any pirates. I would love to see that."
I again touched my glass to the shot glass in Alec's memory since the idea had been his originally.
"So where do we go next?" Ron asked.
"You've still got a couple more days of refit," I reminded him. "You don't want to go back out with any residual damage from that plasma weapon." I had already filled them in on Diamond's speculation on what the Tharl had used against us. "So there's no rush."
"Yeah, I'm just saying I want a bigger fight this time. Another war zone, only this time I get to land my own ship after blowing everyone else to dust."
"Um," John began hesitantly. He looked at me, then back at Ron. "Do we really want to show the Navy what we can do?"
"Who cares what they see?" Ron scoffed. "Maybe they'll pay top dollar for upgrades of their own. Stars know they can afford it."
"And then they can start using it against us," I reminded him. "The Federation doesn't like competition. That's why they're at war with the Tharl. With this they can beat the Tharl easily, but then they can come after us, too."
John nodded in agreement with me which made Ron scowl.
"Fine," Ron said. "So we leave no witnesses."
It was my turn to scowl. "I signed on to fight Tharl, not murder our own."
"You just told me the Federation is our enemy."
"No, I said they're not necessarily our friends. There's a big difference. If someone starts shooting at me I'll shoot back but I draw the line at attacking innocent people."
"Fine, you don't have to go. John?"
John shook his head. "I agree with Hideo. We can hit Tharl worlds but there's no call to destroy Navy ships fighting on our behalf."
"You didn't used to be so picky."
"I didn't used to be so rich. We can choose any target we like now, there's no reason to be indiscriminate. There are good people aboard those ships who did nothing wrong. They don't deserve to die by our hands."
Ron slammed his fist against the table in frustration. Some of the whiskey in the shot glass slipped over the edge and dribbled down the side. "Those good people are going to die fighting the Tharl anyway. You know they can't stand up to Tharl firepower."
"That doesn't mean it's okay for us to kill them," I insisted.
"We may as well be killing them," Ron shot back. "We have the power to save them now. We could clear out every Tharl ship in every system and walk away unscathed. That we choose not to means we're just as responsible for their deaths as if we pulled the trigger ourselves."
John cocked an eyebrow at that. "He's got a point, Hideo. I don't like it, but he's not wrong. We could end this war ourselves."
"Don't you think I want to?" I realized my voice was raised and forced myself to continue in a softer tone. "I want every Tharl dead. You know that. But I don't want the Federation getting their hands on this technology either. If we show up at one of their battles and win it for them they'll come looking for us, and they'll demand what we have. They won't ask nicely, either. They won't take 'no' for an answer, and then they'll force a fight. What's worse, they have the numbers that they could ultimately overwhelm us. This is not something we can do and win."
Ron grinned. "So they fight us. We fight back. We destroy Tharl ships and Navy ships alike. All threats eliminated and we win with no one the wiser."
I shuddered and stared into my glass. "No. We can't do that."
"Well, it's not up to you," Ron shot back. "You're not the leader. You don't get to decide."
"Hey, take it easy - " John began but Ron cut him off.
"No, he's not the boss. He's been giving a lot of orders lately and it's time to stop. We don't work for him."
I looked up and glared at him. "No? If it weren't for me you wouldn't have that shiny destroyer or the technology that's right now making it the most powerful ship in the galaxy. Following me has made you more money in a month than you ever did in your miserable existence before. So show a little respect for once."
"Or what?" Ron half-rose from his seat, his hand resting dangerously on his blaster.
"Stop it," John hissed at him, then turned to me. "Both of you. You're making a scene."
I ignored him, continuing to glare at Ron from where I sat, my hands still on the table. Part of me was terrified that he'd draw on me and gun me down in cold blood like they did to Dickie. Part of me was hoping he'd actually do it.
"Go on, Hideo," Ron said quietly. His hand didn't move from his blaster. "Finish the sentence."
None of us moved for a moment. Even the bar went quiet as the other patrons waited to see what we'd do. Finally I ended the stalemate by reaching for the bottle and pouring myself a drink. "Or," I said slowly. "You can see how well you do without me." I touched my glass to Alec's one last time, tossed back the whiskey and walked out. Ron watched me with a half furious, half surprised look on his face. John just looked frustrated. I didn't look at the rest of the patrons but considering the reputation we had by now I was surprised any of them had stayed to watch. Then I guessed they had probably placed bets on who was going to shoot whom.
I didn't get very far when I heard footsteps jogging up behind me. I glanced back and saw John huffing with the effort to catch up. I didn't wait for him to catch his breath.
"So, he shoot anyone in there?"
John scowled at me and took a deep breath. "Hideo...look. Alec's death hit us all pretty hard. We're all gonna miss him."
"Don't patronize me," I snapped. "This isn't about Alec. This is about Ron going full pirate and wanting to go shoot at the Navy. At our own people."
"Yeah, I know," he nodded. "It's a bad idea. Horrific even. But Alec's death is hurting him, too. So he's getting drunk and talking tough. It's his way of honoring Alec's memory."
"And you're playing peacemaker."
"Somebody has to." He put a hand on my shoulder. "Hideo, I understand. I'm not in for shooting at the Navy either. And after what happened to your sister that hits pretty close to home. We're not going to let it happen, I promise."
I shrugged. "Fine. If he changes his tune after he sobers up we'll talk again. But I'm serious, John. If he follows through I'm out. I won't be party to this."
"Neither will I. If he goes full-on pirate then he's on his own. I won't have innocent blood on my hands."
"That's very reassuring." I moved his hand off my shoulder and kept walking. This time he let me go.
I stayed up most of the night pondering Ron's threat and what I might do about it. In the wee hours of the morning I came to a decision that was fraught with peril but ultimately necessary. So once normal business hours resumed I went and tracked down Diamond in his office.
"Trader Takenoshita," he said cheerfully as I entered the room. "What brings you by so early?"
I sat down before I began. "I need a favor. I need some way to stall the refit of the Thanatos. Ron said some things last night that I think could cause big problems for your plans and mine."
Diamond gave a deep frown. "That's bad news. What did he say?"
"He was talking about hitting another war zone and either winning the war for the Federation or taking out the Navy ships along with the Tharl."
"Hmm...practically speaking the latter would be far better for us than the former. The Navy seeing what your ships could do and reporting back to their superiors would create a huge mess. We need much more time to prepare before we're ready to confront the Federation with our independence."
"Yeah, well, neither option works for me," I growled. "I don't want the Federation coming after us any more than you do, but I won't stand for killing innocent people just because they saw too much. That's why we need to stop him before he goes and does something really stupid."
"Hideo, you understand that sooner or later innocent blood will be spilled," he cautioned me. "When the Federation decides to send the Navy in to punish us for attempting to secede the crews on those ships will have to be sacrificed. We won't be able to avoid shooting back."
"It's one thing to shoot back at someone threatening me," I argued. "It's something else to shoot first just because they're in the way. So help me stop him, please."
He slumped in his seat. "I'm so sorry, but I can't."
I leaned forward and gave him my best intimidating look. "What do you mean, 'can't?' You mean you won't?"
"No, I mean 'can't.' I would if I could but the Thanatos launched late last night. They're gone."
"What?" I sat back in my chair, stunned. "But their refit! They were supposed to be down for days!"
"Captain Barnes canceled the refit and recalled his crew from shore leave. As soon as they were all accounted for he jumped out of the system. He didn't say where they were going. I was just reading about it before you came in."
"Oh stars," I breathed. "He's gonna do it. He's gonna raid a warzone and slaughter everyone."
"We can only hope."
I glanced at him sharply but before I could say anything my comm unit beeped for my attention. I muttered something obscene and took the call. "What?"
"Boss, I'm routing a call from the Bounty. He says it's important."
"Fine, go ahead."
"Hideo? Ron's gone. I found a message waiting for me when I woke up."
"I know, John. I just found out myself. What did he say?"
"He said he's sick of people snapping orders and expecting him to salute. His words. He's gone to prove he doesn't need anybody, that we were just holding him back."
I groaned. This was getting worse and worse all the time. "Did he say where he was headed?"
"I'm afraid not. But you know what he's planning."
"Yeah, I do. Thanks John." I terminated the call and turned back to Diamond. "I need a way to get through the Thanatos' shields."
He turned thoughtful. "His engineering crews are extremely good. They might be able to find and refit any lingering damage even without a dock. But I might have something for you anyway. But even if it works you may still only get one shot."
I smiled wryly. "I don't think I have much choice, do you?"
"No, I suppose not. So here's what the boys and girls in the lab found out…."
As it happened, the closest warzone to Gallant was a Federation system by the name of Van Usted. There was a Navy flotilla of cruisers and destroyers detached from the 197th Fleet visiting the system when a whole bunch of Tharl jumped in. They had sent out a distress call last night shortly before Ron recalled his crew and jumped out. The rest of the 197th was at least a week out but with our upgrades we could be there in an hour, maybe two. The timing was too neat to be a coincidence so I figured I'd at least check into it.
"Computer, is the new weapon on board yet?"
"Affirmative, Boss. Locked and loaded. I've received the programming for it and can prime it when ready."
"Okay, good. Plot a jump for Van Usted, best time. We're about nine hours behind the Thanatos so we need all the speed and precision we can get."
"Acknowledged. We're chasing the Thanatos, Boss?"
"I know you've been eavesdropping over my comms, so don't bother. Yes, we're going to fight Ron."
"Boss, you know I think you're the best pilot I've ever seen. That's not mere flattery. I've never had anyone put this ship through its paces like you. But the Thanatos is a full-on military ship even before the upgrades. Our chances of surviving a direct confrontation are seven hundred million, three hundred - "
"You can just stop right there, because it doesn't matter. We're going anyway. So, you remember how you've been compiling data on Tharl tactics?"
"Would I be off-target to assume you've also been compiling information on every other ship we've ever encountered?"
"You would not, Boss."
"So you know what I'm going to ask next."
"The Thanatos isn't like a raider, Boss. She doesn't maneuver for position. She just strolls in and starts shooting until everybody else is dead."
"Work with me here, computer. The gunners aboard the Thanatos have their own quirks and tactics, yes?"
"Understood. I'll work up a profile. How close do you want us to the primary human habitation?"
"You can be that precise?"
"I can now."
"Then bring us in as close as you can without hitting their atmosphere."
"Understood. Estimated travel time is twenty-three minutes, fifty-one seconds."
"Systems check," I ordered. "Run diagnostics for any blips. We have no margin for error."
"Acknowledged. I need to point out that I don't have the capacity to physically inspect most systems the way you can, but there isn't enough time for you do it all by yourself."
"I'll work on that while we're en route. What's the word?"
"All systems reporting back nominal. Monitoring systems are reporting no errors at this time."
"Contact Gallant station control and have them spin up the gravity booth. We need to jump as soon as possible."
"Gallant station control confirms launch. The booth will be ready for jump in two minutes."
I entered the commands to disconnect the docking umbilical and retract the station mooring systems. The Gilmour was floating free a moment later. I used lateral thrusters to maneuver her to the gravity booth where ships needed the simulated gravity well to initiate a jump into folded space. We arrived shortly after station control informed us they were ready so as soon as we were in position I gave the order to jump. Then we were in folded space and on our way.
I kept myself busy physically inspecting the weapons and defensive systems first, then checking on the engine room. With only twenty minutes the inspection was perfunctory at best but I was able to confirm no obvious problems. A minute before we were scheduled to re-enter normal space I was back in the cockpit strapping myself into my chair again.
"Here we go, Boss. Good luck."
"Yeah, to all of us. Here's hoping he'll listen to reason."
The vista outside my window changed from the random, mind-destroying chaos of folded space back into the reality I was familiar with, featuring stars and a small moon slightly off to port. I didn't recognize the configuration of stars but I didn't expect to; I'd never been here before. Fortunately the computer had no such trouble.
"Jump confirmed, we have arrived at Van Usted. We are two hundred and forty thousand kilometers from the surface of the second planet where humans are living."
"Active scanning," I ordered. "Who is nearby and who are they?"
"Active scans initiated. Beginning optical sweep. I'm detecting metallic objects to galactic east approximately eight hundred million kilometers off."
I let out a string of invectives. I thought the Federation would set up a last ditch defense around this world but apparently they decided to try to draw off the Tharl. Then I brought the Gilmour about on an intercept vector and initiated a full burn on the engines. It was going to take hours to reach that position.
"Can you make out the Thanatos from here?"
"Negative, Boss. We're too far away to be sure which ship might be her. I'm monitoring their movements but it'll take a while before we get a return on the scans or be able to make out IFF codes."
"All right, let me know if something changes."
"Here's something, Boss. I'm getting a transmission from the surface. They're sending out an advisory telling everyone who jumps in that a madman has issued a decree that Van Usted is now a member of his empire. Everyone who doesn't want to be destroyed needs to swear fealty to him. The advisory states that the Navy present but is currently attempting to negotiate with him. We're advised to land and jump away as soon as possible before he returns to orbit."
Land and jump? I thought about the view we had jumped into. "Computer, does that moon back there have any appreciable magnetic fields?"
"None, it's just dead rock. Minimal gravity as well."
"We don't need much. I want to micro-jump to the Thanatos."
"That's...theoretically possible, Boss, but no one has ever successfully accomplished it. The mechanics are extremely tricky and it most often results in a misjump. We could end up anywhere in the universe."
"True, no one's ever done it before. But no one had your computational power and energy reserves."
"Boss, I'm a computer. Flattery is ineffective."
"I'm being very serious. You can now calculate a month long jump so it only takes hours. You got us here in minutes. You can crunch the numbers for a micro-jump of eight hundred million kilometers."
There was a pause. I'm not entirely sure it was for effect.
"All right, Boss. Put us on the surface and I'll see what I can do."
I cut power to the engines, spun the Gilmour around one-hundred and eighty degrees, then turned the engines back on. She shuddered a bit as she fought momentum but within minutes was heading back the way she came. It took another sixteen minutes before we arrived at the moon.
Touchdown on the regolith was picture perfect, our landing thrusters kicking up billowing clouds that spread slowly out along the surface of the moon before we settled with barely a sensation of landing. I looked at the vista above me and saw a second moon, much smaller and more irregularly shaped. It moved fast, going down over the horizon as I watched. I was in the wrong position to see the planet itself, and I presume it would have been spectacular if I'd touched down on the other side. Unfortunately it was a little too late for that.
Speaking of which, we had been down a couple of minutes before I realized the computer hadn't said anything yet.
"So...are we doomed?"
"Sorry, Boss. I'm double-checking my numbers. I don't want to end up in a black hole either."
"You think I'm crazy for wanting to try this?"
"I think you're highly motivated, Boss. I need a few more minutes before we're ready."
So. Shut up and wait. I shut up and waited, cracking my knuckles obsessively as the minutes passed. I recognized I was doing it and decided I didn't care since my reckless decision might very soon cut our existence short.
At last the computer generated its image on screen and addressed me. "I'm ready, Boss. It's not as bad as I thought it would be."
I was so startled I almost screamed, but I managed to keep my reaction under control and settled for glaring at the display. "Then what was the bloody holdup?"
"I had to be sure, Boss. I am now. We can jump when ready."
I let out a slow exhale. "All right. Jump."
It happened so fast I was barely aware of the transition. One minute we were on the surface of a moon and then the universe blipped around us, leaving us floating in the void. The tactical display to my right lit up with multiple contacts and data streamed down one side as the computer updated targeting information. There were a dozen Federation naval ships, forty Tharl ships of varying description and of course the Thanatos. A moment later several of the Federation contacts turned red before disappearing from the screen; someone had killed them. I hardly needed to guess at who.
"Boss, I have an incoming transmission from the Thanatos."
Ron's voice came through loud and clear, and just as angry as when I'd left him in the bar. "Where the stars did you come from? No, nevermind, I'm glad you're here. You can see how 'helpless' I am without your big brain to give me ideas."
I opened a channel on the same frequency. "Ron, please stop this now. These people don't have to die."
"You know what your problem is, Pest? You're weak. You and John, you're both weak. I should have listened to Alec before you got him killed. You two held us back, but no more. So stay out of this or I'll shoot you down, too."
As we spoke a half dozen more ships disappeared off my scope, equal numbers of Tharl and Federation. He was being completely indiscriminate in his targets and they had no defense against him. I saw the Federation ships maneuvering into something like a wedge, apparently hoping to concentrate their fire but it was made difficult by their formation steadily disintegrating.
"Ron, I'm begging you. I'm sorry for what I said. I was wrong. Just stop. Please."
I got nothing back but static. I sat back in my chair and screamed inside my head. He wasn't going to give me a choice. Then I leaned forward and hit the thrusters to bring the Gilmour around for an attack run. "Computer, charge forward and stern cannons to three-quarters. Prime missile tube one and be ready to fire."
"Acknowledged. Cannons charged. The missile is online and awaiting programming."
"Do you have that profile on the Thanatos' gunners?"
"I have some estimates but they're fairly soft."
"I'll take what I can get."
Once again I opened up the engines to full thrust and the Gilmour leapt forward in space toward the Thanatos. "Target the forward section where the Tharl plasma bolt struck them. Keep hitting the same spot as each cannon comes to bear."
"Acknowledged. Firing solution complete and ready on your command."
The Thanatos filled the window as we came up on her fast from the rear quarters where her gunnery crews would have the hardest time locking onto me. After so many practice drills getting his crew up to standard I knew how best to approach her, but to hit the section I wanted I was going to have to expose myself to six of her eight cannons. After so many practice drills his crew knew best how to hit me. This was going to hurt.
I came in tight and low, practically skimming the surface of the destroyer as I made my run. My forward cannon fired once, twice, and then we were past. My stern cannon fired just before I made a sharp tack to starboard to dodge any retaliatory fire but none came.
"Nice hits, but useless. My shields are fine. But don't say I didn't warn you. Say 'hi' to Alec for me when you see him."
"He's lying, but not entirely. That attack took his forward shields down to seventy percent and they're regenerating as we speak."
The Federation ships were almost gone now. I swung the Gilmour into an erratic climb on the z-axis and then came back around for another run. She abruptly shuddered around me.
"Laser attack, particle beam weapon," the computer reported. "Direct hit on the forward port quarter. Shields are holding at eighty-two percent, now regenerating."
I started a zigzag maneuver and the computer immediately flashed a warning. I banked hard to starboard and straightened out.
"Laser attack, three particle beam weapons. They missed by seven degrees on the y-axis."
We were close enough. "Fire forward cannon."
"Firing. Direct hit, target's shields are still holding."
I broke off and swung around her stern, again banking sharply to dodge another attack from her cannon covering that angle. Yes, they'd practiced on me but I hadn't been fighting for my life at the time.
"Give it up, Pest. You can't win. This is the most powerful ship in the galaxy now, thanks to you. That's what you said last night. My people are good enough to take you out before you even scratch my hull."
I took another hit on my stern port quarter and I made a course correction to compensate. I fired again and again, hammering away at that same spot before I swung away again.
"Her shields are now at sixty-one percent and regenerating. Incoming fire in five seconds."
I tried dodging but I mistimed it and took another strike on my stern. I muttered something about cheaters and checked the plot. There was one Federation Navy ship left and still over thirty Tharl. Ron hadn't told his people to ignore them while trying to kill me. I made another run and took another hit, then two.
"Shields holding at thirty-eight percent, Boss."
"You're embarrassing yourself, Pest. You're supposed to be this hotshot pilot and my people keep tagging you. Well, let's up the ante. I'm going to offer a million credits to the gunnery crew who breaks through your shields first."
"Concentrating their firepower makes it much more likely we'll lose in the next few minutes, Boss."
"Okay, let's go for broke. Computer, calculate the warhead for travel over ten thousand klicks. Forward cannon to full power."
"Acknowledged. Forward cannon at full power. Missile programmed and ready to fire at ten thousand klicks."
"Here we go." I barreled toward the Thanatos at full speed. I twisted and bucked, using every trick I'd ever learned to try to confound those gunners, snaking through the oncoming fire like a madman. I liked to think it helped but I couldn't avoid taking more hits. I fired once, twice, three times. The computer flashed a warning on the primary screen that another shot would likely overload the forward cannon. Then the Gilmour shivered as the missile launched. I nudged her to port and ducked around the Thanatos' superstructure just before the missile impacted. I didn't get a direct view of the detonation but I saw arcs of lightning dance along her hull as I came about again.
"Computer?" I asked.
"Detonation confirmed, the missile struck on target and overloaded her shields. The remaining energy transferred into the hull and I'm detecting multiple breaches, all minor. The cannons on that side are out of commission."
"Nice shooting," I praised as I brought the Gilmour back around and maneuvered her to a relative position against the bridge. The damage to the Thanatos' forward section didn't look that bad from my viewpoint, but it didn't need to be. It just needed to be enough. "Open a channel."
"Ron, you ready to talk now?"
"That's not possible!" he screamed at me. "What did you do? How did you do that?"
"The first time I activated one of those cores it started building to an overload," I explained patiently. "Diamond's team figured out how to rapidly overload one and use it as the warhead of a missile. We just had to time the overload with contact on your shields. These things are crazy powerful, remember. It's kind of a waste of a core but you didn't leave me any choice. Now we can talk or I can start putting holes through your hull."
"Go to hell, Pest," he growled. He left the channel open as he gave the order, "Gunnery crew number five, fire on that last destroyer."
And the last Federation contact on my scope turned red before disappearing.
"Computer, one half power to the forward cannon," I said quietly. "Target the bridge of the Thanatos and fire."
"Acknowledged, Boss. One half power confirmed. Targeting the bridge of the Thanatos."
I touched the comm button once more. "Bye, Ron."
A hot spot appeared on the Thanatos' hull where the bridge was located. Almost immediately after the metal gave way like soft butter and a cloud of gas erupted carrying bits of debris with it as well. Some of that debris were bodies, but I hoped they were already dead from the energy of my cannon before they hit vacuum. I didn't look too closely.
"Attention crew of the Thanatos," I continued. "Your captain and the bridge crew are dead. I am about to target the primary power systems of your ship with the intent to destroy the ship. You must all evacuate immediately or die. I will cover your escape from the Tharl but I won't wait long. This is your only warning.
"Computer, close the channel."
"Acknowledged. Channel closed."
I checked the scope and saw the Tharl hanging back. Why? I didn't know. Maybe they were confused by this internal conflict among Federation ships. I know I would have been. Maybe they just wanted to see what would happen next. Then I saw the Thanatos start to roll to port bringing her keel weapons to bear. I nudged the Gilmour's thrusters to keep station so they couldn't reach me and adjusted the yaw slightly to the angle I wanted.
"One quarter power to the forward cannon."
"Acknowledged. One quarter power to the forward cannon ready."
"Target the tip of the bow and fire.""Targeted and firing."
With her shields down the destroyer had only her armor to protect her from my weapons and that was simply not enough. My shot didn't penetrate like before it but it wasn't meant to. It was enough to send a shock through the length of the superstructure. Apparently the crew got the hint because the starboard thrusters fired and and the Thanatos' roll stopped.
"Boss, I'm detecting multiple launches from the Thanatos. They're escape pods."
"Confirmed. The crew is abandoning the ship."
Better and better. I checked my plot again and the Tharl still weren't moving. That gave the crew relief as their pods began the long journey to the Van Usted world. Once the last pod launched I turned back to the task at hand. By now the forward cannon had cooled sufficiently.
"Full power to the forward cannon. Target the Thanatos' drive systems, then her main reactor."
"Acknowledged. Full power to the forward cannon. Drive systems targeted."
I heaved a heavy sigh. Then I straightened in my chair and stared out at the ship before me, waiting for me to kill it.
The first shot was probably enough, but I wanted nothing left behind. After the second shot the Thanatos shattered with fire erupting all along the superstructure. The shockwave of the explosion cascaded against the Gilmour's shields and caused us to rock gently, and then it was over.
"Firing complete," the computer announced quietly. "Target is destroyed."
I blinked away tears and turned back to my scope. "Now for the rest. One half power to the forward cannon."
At first the Tharl swarmed me, trying to envelop my ship and overwhelm me with their fire. Unfortunately they'd waited too long and my shields had regenerated. I also didn't give them an easy target, and each time I scored on one of their ships it ceased to exist. I vented my rage on their fleet and found myself screaming wordlessly every time I fired. By the time I took out half the Tharl it was obvious they were too thoroughly outmatched to win. They could have scattered and some would have survived. But instead they continued to attack doggedly down to the last.
It took nearly an hour before my scope was clear again. Sensors showed the escape pods continuing on their way, and the computer estimated they would probably arrive within a couple of days unless someone sent rescue ships to pick them up. Considering where they were coming from I couldn't predict the sort of reception they'd receive but I was beyond caring. I just wanted to crawl into my bunk and sleep.
"Boss?" the computer asked tentatively, interrupting my ruminations.
"I've been scanning the Tharl wreckage and there's some cargo you should see."
"Why do I care about cargo right now?" I demanded.
"I think you probably do. Screen 2."
The computer threw up the results of its scans. There were bodies mixed in with the wreckage, most of them dead and gone. But one ship was still sufficiently intact that it retained structural integrity in its cargo hold and the computer found more bodies. Not registering as alive, but not dead either. A stasis field was holding them.
"Oh, stars," I breathed. This Tharl was carrying slaves in her cargo hold. Living slaves locked in stasis. I knew what that was like and I didn't envy them. "Do we have room for them all?"
"We have just enough room in our cargo hold, Boss. The problem is that we don't environmental systems that can handle two hundred living, breathing creatures. We'd overload the system before we were able to land and you'd all suffocate to death."
"How long will the power on that ship hold out?" I asked.
"Unknown. We should assume that thanks to the battle damage we won't be able to get help to them before the power fails and they die."
"So we need to bring them on board. Can we keep them in stasis between ships?"
"No, but we can dock and transfer them directly to our hold. You'll need to go aboard the raider and open the doors manually. I have no way to interface with the ship's systems from here."
So much for sleep. I reached for the controls to move the Gilmour into relative position to snag the raider with a tractor beam and hold it in position so I could dock with a minimum of fuss. "Here we go."
It took longer than I would have liked to find the controls to release the doors to the raider's cargo hold. I don't read Tharl script very well, and even with the computer's help in translating over my HUD the instructions weren't intuitive. I suppose if you were a giant jellyfish with a mass of tentacles the instructions would make much more sense, but lacking more than two prehensile extremities I was forced to jury-rig cables to hold a series of levers in place while I rocked another back and forth until the doors retracted and I could see my ship through the opening. The next, even longer step was keeping the Tharl stasis field in place until the Gilmour's systems could take over. The easy part was actually moving the bodies since they were all standing in groups on individual platforms designed to transfer them from one place to the next. Why those platforms didn't come with their own individual stasis fields I couldn't imagine, but it would have made my life a lot easier. Given the effort I was going to I considered my grousing justified. I briefly debated waking up one group to let them know they were being rescued and seeing if they could help but by that time the hardest parts were already finished. I decided to let them stay as they were until we were safely on the ground and I could hand them over to the authorities.
The entire operation took slightly over three hours. When it was finally complete I charted a course back to Van Usted and didn't push my engines very hard. The longer it took the more time I'd have to sleep. Then I went to my bunk and slept like the dead.
"Port Control to GalTrad ship David Gilmour," came a woman's voice over the comms.
I hit the comm button. "Port Control, this is Trader Takenoshita aboard the David Gilmour. Go ahead."
"Trader Takenoshita, you have clearance to land at Bay 4. Transmitting approach vectors now."
I watched the data appear on my screen before I responded. "Confirmed, Port Control. Approach vectors received and verified. Gilmour out." I broke the connection and started adjusting my heading to comply with the instructions I'd received.
After a minute the computer popped up on the screen. "Boss, that's a big berth they've assigned to you. You could fit three Ophids in there."
"Does it match the vectors we were given?" I asked.
"Then it's fine. The sooner we unload those slaves and jump out the better. I have to go tell John that I just had to kill our friend and I should do it in person."
"John understands, Boss. I just think it unusual that they've assigned that bay to you. There are plenty of others better suited to a ship this size."
"They don't have a lot of traffic here," I pointed out. "Maybe this is normal for them. So many open berths they aren't sticklers for protocol."
"I suppose that makes sense," the computer conceded.
"You think there's a problem?" I asked.
"None that I can discern. I've just never seen this."
"Have you been to Van Usted before?"
"Negative. You may be correct that this is normal for them."
"Let's not borrow trouble." I double-checked my readings and satisfied myself that we were on the correct heading. "We've got enough as it is."
The computer relinquished the screen without another word and we spent the rest of the trip to the ground in silence. Once I got close enough I saw that yes, the berth I had been assigned was quite large. I decided to set the Gilmour down square in the middle, and finally felt my shoulders relax a little once that simple chore was accomplished. I reached for the buckles on my straps to release myself. "Okay, hold the fort while I go explain our little problem to the locals."
"Will do, Boss."
I stood up and stretched, then headed for the hatch. I paused outside to glance at the sky; a little more blue to the hue than I was used to but the clouds were white and fluffy and the air was warm and pleasant. I turned to the exit and found three people already waiting there. Two were obviously security with their body armor and blaster rifles while the third was clearly a bureaucrat of some sort. Nobody was pointing any guns at me so I didn't worry about it as I set out to meet them. Once I did they also began moving to meet me half way.
"Hi," I said as we closed the difference. "I'm pleased to meet you. I'm - "
The small man I'd previously identified as a bureaucrat gestured to the other two who leveled their rifles at me. "Trader Takenoshita, I'm placing you under arrest for smuggling and possession of illegal contraband under Federation law 174 section 9 subsection 3. Your ship and cargo will be impounded and held as evidence for your trial."
I blinked as the words registered in my brain. "Wait, what?"
"You will need legal representation," the bureaucrat continued. One of the security personnel stowed her rifle and produced a pair of manacles from her gear. "If you cannot afford legal representation of your own the Federation will assign a public defender to your case."
"Wait, this is a mistake," I protested as the security officer grabbed me by the wrist and spun me around to lock me in restraints. "Ow! Stop it, please! I've got two hundred people I rescued from a Tharl raider in my cargo hold. They need to be released - "
"We know about the slaves in your hold," the bureaucrat informed me coldly. "You'll have the opportunity to protest your innocence at your trial."
"I'm not here to sell them, I'm here to save them!" I yelled. I was stripped of my own blaster and manhandled toward the exit by my jailer with the other silent officer continuing to cover me with his weapon. "Please, listen to me!" Unfortunately my pleas fell on deaf ears as I was marched to detention where all of my belongings were taken away before I was issued an ill-fitting jumpsuit and locked in a cell. No one would talk to me and no one would listen.