“Xiq Vessel, Spectre OTC.”
“Slave species do not address the Xiq in such a manner.”
“Xiq Vessel, Spectre OTC.”
“Display proper obeisance at once!”
“Xiq Vessel, Spectre OTC. Stand by.”
The Xiq ship appeared on the screen, viewed through a high-magnificaiton telescope.
“Sir, that looks like Adherents markings.”
“Damn. I’ll get the Xiq Emissary on the line. Keep tracking, do not engage. Issue a warning to other traffic.”
“Aye, Lieutenant. All traffic, Spectre OTC. An honored Xiq vessel has priority inbound on subchannel vectors. Adjust your courses. Do not engage.”
“Paladin Kae-Essk, Uh, Your Eminence, we have what appears to be a Xiq ship with Adherents markings—“
“Lieutenant! The Xiq ship has fired weapons.”
“Paladin, stand by. Lieutenant, at what?”
“Tracking, Sir. Uh, an outbound cargo vessel.”
“Order them to—“
“Cargo XB786, Spectre OTC, divert orbital plane up 30 degrees!”
“Will they get the message in time?”
They watched as the cargo vessel erupted in a flash and became an expanding sphere of shrapnel and smudges of organic matter.
“Damn. Uh, Paladin, my apologies. Sir, We have a hostile Xiq ship inbound. We believe it is Adherents and it has destroyed a freighter.”
“I heard that. Can you cause my voice to be transmitted through your radio?”
“Yes, Sir. Patching you through. You may speak now, Sir.”
“Thank you for your permission. Adherent Vessel, this is Paladin Kae-Essk, emissary of Princess Irulan of Hive Orruz. Whom do I address?”
“Paladin Krak-Orksset has no need to speak to a weaker Xiq. I claim this space in the name of the Adherents of the Severe Xiq Hegemony.”
“This territory is occupied by all Xiq. You have no legitimate claim to this space; You have no quarrel with any trade activities here.”
“Traitor you are to Xiq purity! Prepare to meet your end. Instruct your slaves to become mine.”
“No. Lieutenant, close communications with that vessel.”
“Aye, Sir. Cannel closed.”
“Mobilize your defense forces.”
“Aye, Sir. Commander, at the request of the Paladin—“
“Just do it,” said the commander over the comm system.
The lieutenant uncovered the red button and pressed it. Alarms blared and red lights flashed.
“All traffic, Spectre Station OTC. All traffic, Spectre Station OTC. Alter your orbits to divert away from Spectre Station. We are under attack from hostile forces. You need to get out of the way of defensive operations. I repeat. …”
The communication channel filled with chatter from civilian pilots and starship captains.
“What’s this about? We haven’t got enough fuel! You can’t do this!”
“All traffic, Spectre Station OTC. Docking at Spectre is reserved for those ships with limited fuel and life support. If you have more than twenty-four hours of reserve, then stay away until advised.”
The Adherents hip diverted its path to another freighter.
“Spectre OTC! He’s bearing down on us! What do we do?”
“How many souls on board?”
“Get in your life pods. We’ll get you when this is over.”
They watched the monitor as the freighter was vaporized.
“Any life pods?” It was the commander in charge of OTC for the region.
“I don’t want to see any. If I can see them, so can the Xiq.”
“Understood. Good work. Keep me informed. Let me know what I can do to help.”
“Bring us food, Commander. We’ve got it in paw.”
“I’m on it.”
The commander looked at Paladin Kae. He couldn’t quite bring himself to ask for orders, but as the station was on a war footing, Xiq against Xiq, Kae was technically the field commander.
“Good work on the civilian traffic. Carry on. I’ve deployed our warships to intercept the Adherent. Be prepared for losses.”
The monitor showed three other Xiq ships, bearing the colors of Hive Orruz and two others, as they converged on the Adherents ship.
“Traitors! The darkness will find you!”
“Long-range contact!” said the OTC operator on the long-range scan. “I make it out to be three … no, five CIS destroyers coming in … awful fast. Their vectors are toward that Xiq ship.”
Commodore Glaxmore was ready to issue the fire order. His squadron of destroyers was capable of delivering multiple rounds into the target for simultaneous detonation. Over a span of a hundred seconds, each cannon would fire, with missiles charged with ever more punch so they would all arrive at its target within a tenth of a second. Each cannon was one of three to five in its battery, of which each ship had five to eight. The five ships of his squadron had been built with one purpose: destroy Xiq ships. A thousand gigaton missiles detonating simultaneously had a way of vaporizing the best-shielded Xiq ships. They also had a way of chewing through the gross domestic products of a hundred world.
Glaxmore watched as the computers adjusted for local gravitational conditions and, while calculating trajectories and optimum velocities for a thousand missiles times a thousand future fire orders, they calculated their confidence in actually hitting the target. 80% wasn’t good enough. The numbers crept upward as the crews of his ships kept up the pursuit. 90%. Captain Strake looked at him, expecting the order, but stayed silent. It was the Commodore’s decision to make. One of the ships in the squadron dodged battle debris—safely, but at the cost of two and a half percentage points. Glaxmore pressed on, watching the confidence estimate creep slowly up. He wanted 98%.
And then space around the Xiq ship began to shimmer.
“He’s warping out!” said the sensor technician.
Commander Darkwon furrowed his brow and was abut to rebuke the off-protocol shout, but Glaxmore and Strake waved him off.
“Stand down multiblast,” said Glaxmore. “Follow that ship! All ships on me. Captain, go to warp and follow him.”
“Aye, Commodore. Comms, confirm we’re still talking to the other ships. Sensors, assist navigation in plotting a course. Lay it in and punch it.”
“Captain, Comms, I confirm. They’re ready for the course.”
Sensor technicians and navigators conferred with one another and consulted charts. The captains stayed out of it except to monitor. They had a top crew; the best strategy was to let them do their work.
“We’ve got it, Captain. He’s heading southeast, probably to Surf & Turf.”
“Give us a course, lay it in, and punch it.”
“Course computed and laid in. We’re ready.”
“Stand down from battle stations for the jump. Comms and sensors, be ready to reestablish contact. Helms, punch it.”
Dimensions screamed as the squadron’s hyperspace drives translated them to higher layers, then plowed through the thicker but smaller layers. Ships’ computers guided them automatically, selecting the optimum layers given the average density of space.
“Commodore, ETA half an hour.”
Glaxmore nodded to Strake.
“Sound battle stations,” said Strake. “Comms, fire up your radios and find the rest of the squadron. Sensors, start your sweeps and find that Xiq ship.”
The half hour slipped by quickly, ended by more dimensional disjoint as the squadron returned to normal space. The radios chattered as the ships checked in with one another: the squadron was accounted for.
“Double rations of Grog for the sensor team—“
“Contact!” shouted the sensor team of the second ship. “Right where Nav said he’d be.”
“Second contact!” said the flagship’s sensor tech. “Some kind of freighter. He’s at full burn, and the Xiq is chasing him.”
“Damn,” said Glaxmore.
“Fire up the multiblast and chase him down.”
“Sir, at this distance, we’ll fry the freighter, and they’re getting closer.”
“Acknowledged. Look at the plot: By the time we get to optimal firing range, Mister Xiq will have—“
“Sensors; he’s firing.”
One of the forward view screens slew and zoomed choppily toward the freighter, just in time for three Xiq missiles to hit it square in the drive, cargo, and crew quarters.
“Damn! Where’s that multiblast?”
“Up and running. 75% favorable solution.”
“Has he seen us?” asked Glaxmore.
“Doesn’t act like it.”
“Captain, Comms. Local OTC is mighty pissed off at him. Oh geeze, they put some sort of local Xiq commander on.”
“Said his name was Platinum K. X.”
“Sensors, contact! Three Xiq warships are headed this way. Direct heading.”
“Toward us or the Xiq?”
“It looks the same to us, Sir. There’s a lot of chatter between them, and they do not sound friendly.”
“Xiq are never friendly, Lieutenant,” said Strake.
“Our Xiq has changed course. He’s going after another freighter.”
“Damn again. Chase him down. Keep the Multiblast working solutions.”
All eyes at Spectre Station’s OTC control room were on the main screen. A Xiq warship of the Adherents was bearing down on them, taking potshots at unarmed cargo vessels, chased by a squadron of fast CIS destroyers. The destroyers weren’t firing, but scrambling to correct their course with every dodge the Xiq made. Meanwhile a squadron of Xiq “friendlies” was madly coursing to where they projected the battle would take place.
“They’re going to meet and it won’t be friendly,” said the OTC commander.
“Instruct the CIS ships to abandon the chase,” said Paladin Kae-Eskk.
“I will, but I don’t expect they will follow our directive. CIS ships, Spectre OTC. CIS Ships, Spectre OTC.”
“CIS Squadron Leader.”
“CIS, you are requested to break off your attack. Let our friendlies handle this.”
“OTC, CIS Squadron Leader Actual. Negative. We are in pursuit of renegade Xiq who has attacked multiple civilian ships. We’re on his tail and we’re not letting go.”
“CIS Leader, OTC Actual. Do not display your weapons in this neutral space.”
Captain Strake said, “‘Do not display your weapons in this neutral space.’ What the hell does that mean?”
Commander Darkwon said, “Sir, no Xiq has seen our weapon and lived to tell the tale. We can’t let these friendlies see that we have it.”
Glaxmore asked, “What do you recommend?”
“Suboptimal strike, Sir. Hurt him. Let the Xiq finish him off. Honor is maintained everywhere and we keep our secret.”
“Now I know why Strake keeps you. Make it so.”
“Nav, when will we be in suboptimal strike range?”
“Half an hour to three hours.”
“When will the Xiq ‘friendlies’ be in range?”
“Hour and a half to two hours. Our bogie keeps shifting his course.”
“Get is here in an hour. Weapons. Prepare a burst of two simultaneous bursts from half each ship’s batteries, two to three cannons each.”
“Two bursts, odd-numbered batteries, cannons two and four each. Simultaneous impact.”
“Works for me,” said Strake. Glaxmore nodded. “Fire at 80% confidence. Comms, inform OTC our decision.”
“OTC, we will continue our pursuit. Keep your traffic out of the way. We’ll clear out and let the Xiq handle their mess.”
“CIS, OTC, acknowledged.”
“Acknowledged indeed. I guess they know they can’t stop us anyway. We’ll show the Xiq a thing or two.”
“Captain, Nav. Coming up on intercept. ETA ten minutes.”
“Multiblast programed and calculating. Confidence now 50% and climbing fast.”
“I just started it, Sir. I’ve never seen it calculate good solutions so fast. 55% now.”
“How many warhead are we firing?”
“Compared to our usual thousand, that’s a lot less load on the targeting computers.”
“Aye, Sir. 60% confidence.”
“Project to 80%?”
“What’s your projection at ten minutes?”
“If he doesn’t shift course—Dammit! There he goes.”
“Nav, follow. Weapons, recompute.”
“Confidence back to 50% … and climbing.
“He’s heading for that freighter. ETA ten minutes.”
“Weapons, add to our load.”
“I advise against it, Sir. Initial calculations are too much. We’ll never get him this time.”
Glaxmore sighed. “You’re probably right. Keep on program.”
“Aye, Commodore. Sorry, Sir.”
“No, Lieutenant. That’s your job.”
“Aye, Sir. 75% confidence. And climbing.”
“Nav, how soon till he kills the freighter?”
“Based on last time, we’ve got a few minutes.”
The cannons of the five ships fired their rounds: twelve each, in a haphazard set of bursts that spread outward, then converged again in front of the Xiq ship and, all at once, impacted the main energy cannon. A bright flash of light glared from the Xiq ship, then reflected off the freighter.
“What the hell was that? Weapons?”
“I targeted their main cannon.”
The Xiq ship seemed to pause, then turned.
The long-range scope on the freighter showed it burning its engine at maximum. It shifted to the Xiq ship. Its nose looked variously vaporized or melted. It had no more main cannon. Juts lots of little ones.
“Captain, Sensors! It’s locking onto us.”
“Get us the hell out, get everyone out.”
“CIS Squadron, Squadron Commander. Bug out. Bug out.”
The flagship’s helmsman took manual control and vectored the ship away at maximum acceleration. The squadron left the Xiq Adherent ship in the middle of a five-pointed flower of departing CIS destroyers … and pursued by three other Xiq ships.
“Why isn’t he pursuing us?”
“Possibly because of them.”
“The Xiq friendlies are spooling up their weapons. Here it comes.”
A barrage of fire from the three ships met its target in lazy and uncoordinated thumps, each one shuddering the Adherent ship, which slowly broke apart.
“CIS Squadron, reform on me,” said Glaxmore.
“Comms, raise that squadron.”