A soiled face appeared on the screen. In the background, the bridge of the tiny ship appeared to be in shambles, smoke filling the air. Sparks flew as electronic equipment shorted out.
"This is Lieutenant Dawson of the Ogre. What ship is that?"
"This is the Glamdring, Captain Sanderson commanding. What's up?"
"A Blade! Great! We need you here right away, Captain, we've just had an encounter with a novaship. Coby's been blown away....all the planets destroyed. Three million people...gone. Just like that." Dawson's face reflected confusion and disbelief. It was plain that he was near to cracking from the stress of the situation.
"Pull yourself together, Dawson. Where's your Captain?" asked Sanderson.
"Dead, along with about half of the crew. We got caught by the shock wave...wreaked havoc on the ship. All major systems are off-line. We have partial environment control, and minimal maneuvering, but main engines are down. We should have them back up in about an hour. We were lucky, though....if we had been just a few degrees more broadside to the shock wave, our hull would have collapsed." "Can you make it to Valia for repairs?"
"Affirmative, Glamdring, but as soon as our engines are back on-line, we're going to start tracking that novaship...we managed to get in a couple of shots when she dropped her shield. No serious damage, but we think we nicked her reactor exhaust...we're reading a radiation trail along the course she used getting out of here."
"Send us your readings. We'll be there with you in about six hours, Lieutenant. patch your ship up as best you can. We'll transfer your wounded over to the Glamdring when we get there."
"Thank you, Captain. Ogre out." The contact closed.
"Mr. Zeigler, lay in a course for the Coby system. Engage at maximum speed."
"Aye, Sir,' responded the helmsman. "Correcting course in three, two, one...now!"
Glamdring slewed to port, and accelerated. Sanderson sat back in his chair, thoughtful.
"Commander G'rvan," he said at length, " has it been determined what set the Captain of the A'zani off?"
"Set him...off?" said N'Tal questioningly. "I ‘m sorry, Captain, I'm not sure I understand your question. Could you explain it, please?"
"What is the motivation for the A'zani's Captain to do this?"
"It is our belief that Captain N'rthan is attempting to exact revenge for the rape of his mother near the end of the war. Her ship was surprised and captured while enroute to T'zir, and four humans raped her. Captain N'rthan was a small boy at the time, and he was forced to watch."
Sanderson shifted uncomfortably in his chair.
"Why has he waited until now?" he asked.
"His mother committed suicide five days ago. We were informed that she sent him specific information about her attackers. She had managed to discover their identities, and we are working on the premise that he has hopes of killing them."
"How the hell did he get command of a novaship under those conditions?" asked Ryan.
"He is the adopted son of Emperor K'val. As a member of the Royal family, he was given advanced command training, and then placed in command of a major ship-of-the-line."
"And there was no indication of instability before this?"
"None. Captain N'rthan has served the empire well as Captain of the A'zani. Her crew performance and Ship evaluations have been exemplary."
Sanderson was strangely quiet. He sat back in his chair, brooding.
"Is something wrong, Captain?" asked N'tal.
"Nothing, Commander. Just something I was trying to remember. Tell me, what do you think the A'zani will do next?"
"R'gal will undoubtedly find a hiding place, and stop to repair the radiation leak. He will have to shut down the A'zani's reactor plant to do that. Once he does, it will take at least one full day to re-start the reactor, and several hours after that before he has sufficient power reserves to move the ship. And then, it will take some hours to repair the damaged exhaust line itself."
"So that gives us a window of opportunity of say....36 hours to close in on him. What sort of place will he need to hide?"
"The A'zani is too big to make a planetary landing, Captain. He will need a nebula or a large stable asteroid field to hide in."
"Mr. Starrett, bring up the charts."
The charts appeared on the main screen. Sanderson studied them for a moment before speaking.
"There are three possibilities," he said. "There's a small dark nebula here, and two asteroid fields, here and here. We can be at that area in just over twenty-eight hours at maximum speed. Mr. Zeigler!" "Yo!" called the helmsman.
"Alter course 298.2 by 48.1 and don't spare the horses."
The comm unit illuminated, and N'tal punched in a personal code. The screen flickered, and a face appeared.
"Father!" exclaimed N'tal. "You answered quickly!"
The Emperor looked tired. "I've been waiting for your call," he said. "You were supposed to check in hours ago. What's going on?"
"I'm on board one of their destroyers, the Glamdring. We're on our way to the system they call Coby; R'gal has destroyed it. All equipment has been installed, and is functioning perfectly. In addition, a small Gnome-class scoutship has managed to get in a hit on the A'zani and they're following a radiation trail." "Excellent," nodded the emperor. "N'tal, you must not fail. The Confederacy's Ambassador here on T'zir has put us on notice that the Confederation will not stand idly by while their worlds are systematically destroyed. They're already gathering a fleet. We cannot afford to be involved in another war with the humans, N'tal, not now."
"I know , father." said N'tal. "And there's something else. There's a half T'zirian officer on board. He doesn't remember his father, and his mother only dimly, but he says he was on a T'zirian ship that exploded. He was found in a lifepod, and taken to an orphanage, where he was raised."
"Do you believe that it could be G'val?"
"It's quite possible. He looks almost exactly like me."
"It seems almost impossible, after all this time. Can you send an image of him?"
"It's attached to this message, along with as much of his service and medical records as I could coax out of this ship's computers. Should we tell mother?"
"Let me do some checking first," the Emperor said. "If it is G'val, which side would he be loyal to?"
"I cannot say. I believe, however, that he would help me accomplish the mission. It is in the interests of both our people."
" Success, my son."
"Success to us all, Father."
"I agree, T'kul. However, that would be the first place the enemy will check. We must instead use one of the asteroid fields. We shall go to this one."
He indicated the smallest of the asteroid fields. T'kul nodded.
"I'll change our course immediately, Captain." He turned to go.
"T'kul, I appreciate your support. This is a difficult time for me...for all of us."
"Captain," said T'kul slowly, with some degree of hesitation, "I am doing this for two reasons. One, it is my duty as A'zani's Sailing Master. Two, there many here that need to see home again. I do not know if we will do so. I still protest your actions. But I have a duty to the Emperor to bring his ship home, if I can, and a duty to this crew. I will do all I can to fulfill this duty."
"I understand, T'kul. That will be all."
R'gal leaned back in his bunk. He was tired, almost exhausted. He needed sleep, but sleep had eluded him these past few cycles. The face of the man who had held him haunted his thoughts, taunting him. He imagined the face older, as the man might be now. Still the face taunted him, the voice echoing through his thoughts...
"That's all you're good for," The voice whispered through his consciousness. "See? We torment you, defile your women...we shall show you. Watch again...."
Again and again through R'gal's tortured mind he saw his mother's writhing form, the humans on her, violating her. Again and again, he heard the screams, those horrifying screams....
The cancer in his brain would see to that. Sanderson could feel it almost...the doctor had told him where the tumor was. It seemed like he could feel it...pressing against the softer tissues of his brain, spreading its' poison through his body...
"Six months," the doctor had told him. "Perhaps as long as nine. You need surgery, Captain. That might extend your life for another three or four months."
"That's all? Three or four measly months? Doesn't seem worth it."
"The alternative is pain, Captain. Without surgery, your last months will be...ugly. The pain medication will cease to be effective....you will know pain, Captain. Excruciating pain. Consider the surgery."
And so Sanderson had. He had planned to quietly give up his command and retire, and enter the Veteran's Hospital on Valia, there to spend the last of his days.
Pity. He never made Admiral. Sanderson had always dreamed of becoming an Admiral. He supposed his ancestors must be ashamed of him, the first Sanderson in five generations to fail in the quest for an Admiral's flag. Sanderson was a proud man, from a proud family...and he had failed.
"T'zirian's fault," he thought to himself. "That damned T'zir bitch. Should have killed her...the kid, too, and spaced their bodies. Then we wouldn't be in this mess."
His memory brought up the images of that day long past, how the old Repulse had overtaken and captured the T'zirian transport. They boarded her and fought their way through the ship deck by deck, until at last they came to a barricaded hatch. They cut through, and inside they had found her. She had killed the first man through the hatch, and before she could fire another shot they had subdued her. Sanderson had found the boy hiding in the storage locker. He had dragged him out, holding him, as his companions struggled with the woman. She kicked Johnson in the crotch and he went down, writhing in pain. Lee had slapped her, and as Johnson rose from the floor he seized the front of her robe, ripping it away...
Sanderson remembered every detail of what happened. When they had finished with her, she had gathered her robe around her, crying. Sanderson had thrown the boy down upon her, and then they had taken the two of them on board the Repulse. She had demanded to see the Captain, and when she was taken to him, she told of the attack. The Captain of the Repulse had not registered charges against them, but an entry had been made in each of their service records.
"And that," Sanderson thought, "is why I never made Admiral. That T'zir bitch cost me my flag."
And now that kid has grown up. And he wants some payback..
"I'll show him payback," thought Sanderson. "I'll blow that little bastard out of the Galaxy..."
"Admiral, this comes directly from the President's Office. You are to assemble every available ship and proceed to Point Alpha as soon as possible."
"That will leave Valia unprotected."
"We are aware of that, Admiral. The President and the Confederation Council have considered the risks. We feel that this action must be taken. The T'zir must be shown that we will not stand idly by and watch our people slaughtered."
"Sir, shouldn't we give the Glamdring and the Emperor's special envoy the chance to find the A'zani?"
"The Glamdring is to remain on her mission, Admiral. We'll give the Emperor that chance. Personally, I think it's a slim one, at best. But send everything else you have to Point Alpha."
"Aye, sir. consider it done. Stancil out."
"Excellent, T'kul. Convey my complements to M'pel and his Engineering staff. Are the scanners back on-line?"
"Within the next z'hosta."
"Good. As soon as they are back on-line, carry out a complete sweep of the area. I'd hate to get caught by surprise out here."
"Captain, when did you last sleep? You look exhausted."
"I'm fine, T'kul."
"When?" T'kul's voice was insistent.
"Four cycles ago."
T'kul swore. "I'm sending for the healer."
"No, T'kul. I'll be all right."
"Captain, I need you to be alert and clear of thought. You are not capable of that not. Must you force me to have the healer declare you unfit for duty?"
Anger flooded through R'gal. He leapt to his feet and seized T'kul by the throat.
"You dare to question me again, T'kul? I could have you killed for this."
"Then do so. Your mission will fail, this ship will be found and destroyed, and this crew will die. You will die. You are unfit to command us now, Captain. I am sending for the healer."
R'gal hurled T'kul into the bulkhead.
"Send for him, then, T'kul. I will prove that I am not unfit to command."
T'kul spoke into the comm, and a few minutes later, the Healer arrived. He quickly examined R'gal, shaking his head.
"Why have you waited so long before summoning me, Captain?"
"I did not feel the need for your services, Healer."
"Well, you need them. Captain, I'm giving you a sleep-draught. You must have rest now, not later."
"Very well, if you must."
The healer poured out an amber liquid into a measure. He handed it to R'gal, and watched him drink. He nodded with satisfaction.
"There, " he said. "You should feel it take effect in a z'ta."
R'gal felt the weariness wash over him, dragging him down to darkness. Briefly, he struggled against it, but it was hopeless.
"T'kul," he said, as the blackness descended over him, "T'kul...protect my ship..."
"Aye, Captain. Rest now."
The blackness flowed over him, and R'gal slept.
Click here to go directly to Part 4.
R.R. Bennett resides in Bel Air, Maryland, with his wife and children.
If you enjoyed this story, why not e-mail R.R. Bennett (email@example.com) with your comments? Or visit his homepage by clicking here.