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well, Blair thought hopefully, this interlude would soon end. And then& ?
It was difficult to picture what peace would be like, after a lifetime
dedicated to the war.
CHAPTER XXV
Bridge, TCS Victory
Loki System
"God, that sucker sure is thirsty," Rollins commented. "Good thing you don't
have to pay for a fill-up when you're skimming hydrogen."
"Eyes on your board, Lieutenant," Eisen growled. "And put the mouth in
neutral."
"Yes, sir," Rollins replied quickly. The edge in Eisen's voice made it clear
that the captain was dead serious.
The Terran squadron had proceeded from the jump point to their first
destination, the gas giant Loki VIII, without encountering any sign of
Imperial resistance.
Victory remained close by while the
Behemoth moved into a tight, hyperbolic orbit around the huge ball of gas. The
cruiser and her consorts stood further off to give warning of any enemy
interference, but there was nothing. The weapons platform dipped into the
atmosphere long enough to top off the depleted tanks of liquid hydrogen needed
as reaction mass to move her ponderous bulk toward the target world.
"Sensors are still reading clear, sir," the Sensor Officer reported. "Looks
like we're home free."
A red light flashed on the Communications board, and Rollins called up a
computer analysis of the stray signal locking onto his computer.
"Captain& " he began, hesitating a moment. "Sir, I've got some kind of low-band
transmission here. Seems to be coming from one of the gas giant's moons."
"What do you make of it, Mister Rollins?" Admiral Tolwyn cut in before
Eisen could respond.
"I'm not sure, sir& uh, Admiral. I don't think it's a ship. More like an
automated feed& from an unmanned relay station or sensor buoy. But powerful. A
very strong signal& "
"Any idea what it's saying?" Tolwyn asked.
"No, Admiral. It's scrambled. Could be almost anything." Rollins looked up at
him, apologetic, but Tolwyn had already turned away.
"Colonel Ralgha? What do you think?"
Hobbes had been scratched from the fighter roster with a down-gripe on his
Thunderbolt, so Tolwyn decided he should join other members of the admiral's
staff at supernumerary positions on the bridge. The Kilrathi renegade shook
his head, a curiously human gesture.
"I am sorry, Admiral. I do not know."
"Well, I do," Tolwyn said. "It means we've been noticed. And the cats will be
organizing a welcoming committee for us."
"Any orders, Admiral?" Eisen asked. Rollins had never heard him sound quite so
stiff and formal.
"The squadron will continue as before," Tolwyn ordered. "Have
Behemoth secured from fueling stations and fall into formation.
Coventry to take station ahead." He paused, almost seeming to strike a heroic
pose.
"Maintain your vigilance, gentlemen. And be ready for anything."
Audience Hall, KIS Hvar'kann
Loki System
"Lord Prince," Melek said, approaching the dais and bowing deeply.
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"We have a report from one of the sentinel stations near the eighth planet.
Terran ships have been detected. Their movements conform to a wilderness
refueling operation, and one of the vessels appears to be their
Behemoth weapon."
Thrakhath leaned forward on his throne, his eyes gleaming in the harsh red
light. "Ah& so it begins." He showed his fangs. "You see, Melek, how well our
agent has performed? Not only the design specifications of the weapons
platform, but also the intended Terran movements. Refuel at planet eight, then
a crossing to six. Exactly as specified in the report from
Sar'hrai
."
"Yes, Lord Prince," Melek agreed. Behind his mask, he allowed himself a
moments impatience. As the plan unfolded, the Prince was becoming increasingly
filled ivith a sense of his own self-importance. The arrogance af the Imperial
Family was one of the major sources of disaffection among the great nobles of
the realm, and Melek was finding it difficult to maintain his pose of
sycophancy as Thrakhath's posturing grew more blatant. "It seems we will
indeed have a battle here, and soon."
Thrakhath's gesture called for silence. "The strength )f the Terran force?" he
asked.
"Five capital ships, Lord Prince," Melek replied. "Plus he weapons platform
itself. Only one carrier&
Victory
. rhe others a cruiser, and three destroyers. Nothing o challenge our force
significantly."
"Excellent. They assumed the outpost here was not vorth a larger squadron."
Thrakhath paused. "How are >ur preparations proceeding?"
"Nearly completed, Lord Prince. The Terrans will find heir planned firing
position difficult to reach. Our own orces will be deployed by the time they
realize the hreat." Melek paused. "There is still time, Lord
Prince, ) order more capital ships into the battle zone, to ensure I he
Terrans are destroyed."
The Prince gestured denial. "No, Melek. Fighters will have the best chance to
penetrate the defenses of the weapons platform. We do not want to scare the
enemy away with too great a& detectable show of strength.
Even if some of their ships escape, we will have the
Behemoth
. And with it& the war."
"As you wish, Lord Prince." Melek bowed and retreated, but a part of him
wished he could see Thrakhath lose some of that arrogant assurance.
Perhaps then the prince would finally come to understand the true nature of
the dangerous game he played with the future of the Empire.
Gold Squadron Ready Room, TCS Victory
Loki System
It took hours to cross interplanetary distances, and the flight wing settled
into a grim routine of waiting, with two squadrons on watch in their ready
rooms and the other two snatching downtime while they could. [ Pobierz całość w formacie PDF ]