by R.R. Bennett

Illustrations by Robert Sankner

There is nothing quite so poignant as a funeral in space, in that vast gulf between the stars where darkness eternally reigns. There, in that darkness, a man can come to know the depths of his grief, for there pain is enhanced by the cold, distant stars, and the emptiness echoes the depths of sorrow. Nowhere else is a loss so keenly felt as it is there, in that lonely place.

It was for this sad reason that the two ships now maintained their stations between systems. Their crews, stiff in their dress uniforms, stood at parade rest in the hangar bay of the larger ship, silently honoring the dead which lay in state.

Each of those assembled there harbored his own thoughts of the deceased, some respectful, others not. Yet each of them, in some way, found it hard to believe the chain of events that had led them here, and which had brought them to the purpose of this solemn gathering.

It seemed almost impossible that it had all started two scant weeks ago, and almost half a galaxy away. Almost a distant lifetime ago, it seemed to some. And yet to others, it was but yesterday....


The Imperial Novaship A'ZANI, pride of the T'zirian fleet, slid silently between the stars. This was a large ship, powerfully armed and deadly, for despite her massive size, it was apparent at first glance that this ship was a predator. And her prey, it seemed, was human.

It had been just over one hundred years ago, as humans measured time, that a T'zirian survey ship had chanced upon a colony of humans on a small planet near the T'zirian border. That first meeting between the humans and the humanoid T'zir was cordial, if somewhat strained, but after careful investigation the Captain of the survey ship had reported to his superiors that humans presented no apparent threat to the Empire. The Emperor of that time took little note of this small colony along his border, for there were but a few of these creatures, and his people were many.

Soon, however, as more and more humans began to settle near worlds inhabited by the T'zir, it became apparent that humans were becoming a problem. Settlements on T'zirian worlds were raided by small bands of lawless humans, and T'zirian ships were attacked and taken. Always the pattern was the same: the humans wanted, and they took. And if the T'zir were in the way...they were soon not.

The Emperor himself had protested the treatment of his people to the Earth Confederacy Government, which turned a deaf ear. They had other problems, they said, and after all, humans had as much right to the territory as the T'zir did. It was their destiny to expand, they said, and would not be stopped.

The T'zirian response was swift: T'zir worlds and ships would be protected from the human threat. A T'zirian Naval presence was swiftly established, and any human ship to venture into T'zirian held space was swiftly destroyed.

The Confederacy responded with a fleet of their own, sent to counter a perceived T'zirian threat. With so many warships in close proximity, it was perhaps inevitable that there would be war. And war there was.

Neither side could actually say with conviction that they were without blame for actually starting the war, but both sides were sure that the other side had fired the first shots. Each side felt that they were justified in their actions, fighting to protect their homes and peoples from the aggression of the horrible enemy.

The war, however, was long and bitter, and many lives were lost on either side. But as with many wars, this one proved to be inconclusive, and each side withdrew to within their own borders. An uneasy peace had prevailed for the last 30 years, broken by isolated incidents along the border. Mistrust was rampant.

One of the few developments of the war had been the development of the T'zirian Novaship. Completed too late to take part in the war, the novaships were placed in service along the border as a deterrent to further human aggression. As their name inferred, the novaships had the ability to target a system's star, analyze it, determine a weakness, and 'shock' the star into exploding...into going nova.

The A'ZANI was the largest of the novaships. She was long, and almost flat, with only two features rising from her squat hull: The Command Decks, and her massive main battery. Here and there along her hull could be found weapon emplacements, each capable of firing a pulsed energy burst which would cut through an enemy's ship with the skill of a surgeon's scalpel.

Aft of the Command Decks, at the end of A'ZANI's hull, were her two main thrusters. Two massive round nacelles contained these powerful engines, capable of moving A'ZANI between the stars with almost unbelievable speed and agility.

On her Command Deck, Captain R'gal N'rthan surveyed his domain. From his Command Chair, he looked down over the activities of his staff, located in recesses in the deck. Silently, he watched them as they carried out their duties. He felt no compulsion to speak to them, and rarely did so, for that was beneath him. He was, after all, the adopted son of the Emperor, second in the line of succession.

R'gal was a young T'zirian, about thirty-five years old. He was tall, and by T'zirian standards handsome. His crisp naval uniform seemed to accentuate his strong young body, and his dark brooding eyes seemed almost hypnotic. He carried himself with the breaing of one who is used to command, and being obeyed.

"Message coming in, Captain," said T'Kul, his second in command. "It's encoded personal for you."

"Transfer it to my station."

"Aye, Captain."

T'kul gave the command, and the screen at R'gal's chair illuminated. The image of R'wen, his half-sister, looked out at him.

"R'Wen, sister. It is good to look upon you," he said, and then froze. He noticed that R'wen had apparently been weeping.

"You are distressed. What is it?" he asked.

R'wen drew a long sobbing breath before speaking.

"I have sad news, brother. Our mother has taken the Path of Shadows. The message she left behind said only that she could no longer bear the pain of the memory of her ordeal with the humans."

"When did she depart?" asked R'gal, his voice betraying no trace of emotion.

"I found her but moments ago. R'gal, the message she left is for you also. I have sent it to you as we have spoken. She has asked us to honor her memory by avenging her abuse." R'wen fell silent for a moment, and then continued.

"R'gal, I will do this. The Empress shall not survive the night. Do you know what to do?"

"I have waited long. Do you forget that I was witness to her rape? Do you think I forget that my stepfather married the human woman and made her Empress before our mother?? No, sister. I know what to do. I wish you success. We shall not meet again until we meet our mother on the Path of Shadows."

"Good luck, brother. Until the Path of Shadows."

R'wen broke contact. R'gal touched his console, and his mother's image filled the screen.

"My son," she said, "forgive me. I am unable to bear the pain of my dishonoring any longer. They that took me for their sport have at last taken my life. I shall soon walk the Path of Shadows.

"My son, I leave a task for you. Over the years, I have sought out the names and homeworlds of my attackers. That information is attached to this message. My son, use this information well....avenge my shame. Seek out and kill those who me. Make the humans pay the price for my humiliation.

"Farewell, my son. I shall await you in the Land of the Shadows."

Sadness washed over him, engulfing him. His mind filled with images of his mother, who had been the second wife of the Emperor. Anger welled up in him at the thought of this, that his mother had been second wife, instead of that..that human.

The anger also brought back other memories. Memories of a ship, captured by humans. Memories of his mother, held by humans, her clothing torn away, her tearful cries to have her son removed ...they had held him, made him watch....

The anger burned cold within him. He hated the humans. He hated them, wanted them dead. All of them, every human..every male and female, every human child. He would kill them all. He would bring war again, and this time, T'zir would know the victory. The humans had no novaships.

His mother's message had given him the key. Four worlds, now branded in his memory. Four worlds....there had been four who had defiled her. He would begin by destroying their homeworlds.

Quickly he called up charts. The first world was was near the border. Quickly he calculated the course.

"T'Kul. Change our course to 347.4 by 17. Maximum speed for three z'hostas, and then run silent."

"Captain, that course will carry us over the border into human space."

"I am aware of that, T'kul. Implement the course."

The ship's massive thrusters fired, and the great ship swung to her new course. A'ZANI accelerated and disappeared between the stars.


Captain Brian Sanderson of the Earth Confederation Star Destroyer GLAMDRING sat silently on the bridge of his ship. It was quiet, and the ship was gliding smoothly along on course, bound for the Naval base at Vitala VII. There, Sanderson mused, it would all be over for him. He would turn the ship over to his Exec and then at last retire.

He had been a long time in the service. Almost thirty standard years, and all of it served aboard ships like this one. He could still remember the first, the old REPULSE...he had been very young then. Young and dangerous. He would even have made Admiral except for that foolishness over mistreating prisoners during the war.

'Hell', he thought, 'they were just T'zirians. Got what they deserved.'

Still, he would miss this ship. GLAMDRING was a beauty...thin, sleek, and powerful, she was one of the finest EXCALIBUR-class Star Destroyers in the fleet. Her powerful thrusters could propel her through the stars faster than any other type vessel, and her main armament was capable of more firepower than any three T'zirian vessels of comparable size. Only the mighty novaships could boast of more firepower, and these trim little ships were designed to seek out and destroy that menace just as the hunter-killer submarines of old Earth were designed to track and destroy the old missile submarines. And as each of these trim and powerful ships were named after swords from legend and literature, they were lovingly called "blades" by the men and women that flew them.

The bridge hatch swung open and his exec entered the bridge. Sanderson swung his chair around to face him.

"Good morning, Commander Ryan, " he said curtly.

Neil Ryan returned his greeting, surveying his Captain with some disdain. He had never cared for Sanderson. The old man was cold, and cruel, even somewhat abusive. Ryan had always thought him unfit for command. Some said that Sanderson had grown mean during the war.

Sanderson, for his part, cared little for his executive officer. He thought Ryan was too young, to open minded to be a good Captain. He was too easy on the crew, too lax on discipline.

Mainly, he didn't like Ryan because he was half T'zirian.

Ryan had been born shortly after the war, and raised in an orphanage on Valia VII. His human mother had disappeared when he was but a child, apparently the victim of a shipwreck which had almost claimed Ryan's life as well. He could vaguely remember being stuffed into a lifepod, and then drifting for days or weeks until he was found by a Confederation Naval Vessel. He had no identification on him, and as he was obviously the by-product of a human-T'zir liaison, the Captain of the vessel had wasted no time on trying to track his parents. He was simply turned over to the first orphanage they had come to, and that was that.

At the orphanage, he was frequently taunted and bullied by the other children. He had always stood his ground defiantly, even when badly outnumbered, and that always had landed him in trouble. The old matron that ran the orphanage took a liking to him, and had given him the name of Neil, after her son who had died in the war. She had been the only comfort of his childhood, the one who held him and comforted him when the other boys had taunted him. She nurtured and encouraged him, and when he at last graduated from the Naval Academy with honors, she had been there, even though she was sick. He took her name, to honor her, for she had been like a grandmother to him. She had died soon after that, and Ryan had never returned to Valia VII.

"We are due for arrival at Valia Naval Station at 1400 hours on Tuesday, Mr. Ryan." said Sanderson. "I want all hands in full dress when we arrive. The Admiral will be coming aboard at 1430, and I'll be out of here by 1500. After that, the ship will be all yours."

"Aye, Captain. All hands will be ready, you can count on that."

'And we'll be glad to see you go,' he thought.


Admiral Wainright Stancil was a man with a problem.

For the past several hours, he had been receiving reports from listening posts along the border, detailing a possible incursion across the border. The type of ship was unknown, and verification had not been made. This indicated to Stancil that either no incursion had been made, or that a ship was running silent through Confederation space.

The very thought of a ship running silent through this sector made Stancil's skin crawl. Almost as much as his visitor made his skin crawl.

He looked over at his visitor, who sat patiently on the Admiral's couch waiting for him to speak. As he waited, the visitor gazed out of the large port next to the Admiral's desk, his eyes sliding over the ships docked to the facility.

The Valia Naval Station was a large space station, orbiting Valia VII. It was a major Naval base for the Confederation, headquarters for several destroyer squadrons and a large contingent of forward-attack fighters.

A formation of these fighters swept suddenly past the station, receding quickly into the distance as they arced around to the night side of Valia VII.

"Impressive, " said the visitor. "I trust that you didn't arrange for such a display for my benefit."

"I'm afraid not," said Stancil. "To tell you the truth, I don't know quite what to make of you."

He again sized up his visitor, a young T'zirian Naval Officer. Although apparently rather young, he wore the insignia of a full Commander, and he conducted himself with the air of one accustomed to having his orders followed.

As Stancil looked at him, he noticed that his features were not quite normal for a T'Zirian. With a start, he realized that his visitor was at least part human.

"Now let's go over this again," he said. "You are a T'zirian Officer, and you have come here to tell me that this entire sector is in grave danger. "

"That is quite correct. The Captain of one of our novaships has gone renegade. We believe that he intends to attack one or more systems, with the intention of provoking a war."

"Why do you believe that?"

"The Captain's sister was apprehended last night after she attempted to assassinate the Empress. We interrogated her, and learned of the plan."

"Why would the sister of a renegade Captain attempt to kill the Empress?"

"She was acting according to her mother's dying request. Her mother hates humans."

"Lots of your people do."

"And lots of your people hate T'zirians."

"True," admitted Stancil. "It was a long, bitter, and ugly war. But you still haven't explained why she tried to kill the Empress."

"The Empress, Admiral, is human."

"So it's true, then. We thought that was only T'zirian propaganda, trying to get us to believe that your people wanted to live in peace with us."

"We do want to live in peace with you, Admiral," said the young T'zirian. "that's why I'm here. The Emperor desperately wants to avoid war. He has sent me as his personal Emissary to warn you, and to work with you to find and neutralize the threat."

"In what way?"

"I brought some rather sensitive equipment with me. It will improve our chances of detecting the A'ZANI."

"The A'ZANI!" exclaimed Stancil. "Commanded by R'gal N'rthan, the Emperor's stepson...and the Emperor sends us an emissary to help find him. Why do I have a problem with this story?"

"Perhaps, Admiral, you don't believe the Emperor is serious."

"Oh, I think the Emperor is serious, all right...I just don't know about what."

"Admiral, the Emperor sent me, because I have the best chance of finding The A'ZANI. I know her Captain better than anyone else, and I have the qualifications and training to locate him. Plus, I have a vested interest in finding R'gal."

"And that would be?"

"R'gal is my foster-brother, Admiral. He and his sister tried to kill my mother, and they're trying to cause a war which would devastate both our cultures."

"Your mother...then you are..."

"Crown Prince N'tal N'rthan, at your service."

"Then the Emperor really is serious."

"The Emperor felt that since it was one of his sons that caused this crisis, the only way to convince you of his sincerity was to send another of his sons. But, Admiral, I must request that only you know my identity. I shall use the name of N'tal G'rvan as long as I am with you."

"Agreed. Commander, let's get you out to one of the blades."


The A'ZANI moved to a holding station in the Darwin system. They had approached on a vector which kept the star between them and Darwin IV, minimizing the chance of detection.

"Beginning analysis," said T'kul. R'gal nodded.

The A'ZANI's computers scanned the star. An image of the star formed on the main viewscreen, and soon the image began to change, section after section changing color as the analysis continued.

The entire process took only a few minutes. Soon, a chime signaled the completion of the process.

"We have a solution, Captain," said T'kul. "What is your order?"

"Transfer data to main battery. Target and fire when ready."

"Captain?" queried T'kul. "You intend to distroy this system?"

"That is exactly my intent, T'kul."

The crew exchanged nervous glances. T'kul turned, facing R'gal.

"Captain, with all due respect, it is my duty to..."

"T'kul, are you questioning my orders?"

"Ready to fire, Captain" called out a crewman.

"I must, Captain. Under Article 17 of the Emperor's regulation, I am required to ask: are we at war with the humans?"

Anger flared through R'gal. He rose from his seat, and crossed to T'kul's station. A swift movement from his hand sent T'kul sprawling.

"Never question my orders again, T'kul!" he growled.

R'gal turned, and slammed his hand down upon the firing control. A low-pitched whine filled the ship as the capacitors which powered the weapon began charging. Several moments later, the A'ZANI shuddered as her massive weapon discharged.

In the main viewscreen, the star called Darwin suddenly shrank. An instant later, it exploded, a massive wave of energy spreading out to consume each of the planets. The wave caught A'ZANI and shook her, throwing R'gal to the deck. He rose, and faced T'kul.

"You asked if we were at war. We are now." he said, grimly.

"Skipper, we have a nova in the Darwin system" said Ryan. "Shall we investigate?"

'Damn,' thought Sanderson. 'Fine time for this crap.'

"Affirmative, Mr. Ryan. Alter course immediately, maximum speed. See if you can find any ships in the area who might have any information."

"Aye, Sir. And there's this: Valia is relaying reports, as yet unconfirmed, that a possible border incursion has taken place. A listening post in the Tovus asteroid field reported a spatial distortion consistent with a ship running silent."

"Mr. Starrett, bring up the sector chart on the main screen", ordered Sanderson. "maybe we can get an angle on the ship's track."

The chart appeared, and Sanderson studied it for a moment. He touched a panel on his chair, and two points were highlighted on the chart.

"Here is Tovus," said Sanderson, "And here is the Darwin System. Assuming that there was a ship, and this same ship is responsible for the Darwin nova, then she would have had to pass through here."

He indicated a point on the chart. Ryan nodded.

"A good choice, Sir. If we alter course now, we can cross that point in about two hours, and not seriously affect our arrival at the Darwin System."

"Very good, Mr. Ryan. Helm, lay in a new course and implement."

GLAMDRING swung around to her new course. Ryan studied the chart for a moment, thoughtfully.

"Starrett, highlight the positions of any other Destroyer in the squadron on the chart."

Three small symbols appeared on the chart. Ryan studied them briefly.

"We're the closest ship. ALBION is next, about fourteen hours behind us. EXCALIBUR and ANDURIL are approaching from the far side of where Darwin used to be, about eighteen and twenty-two hours away, respectively. If there is a novaship out her, we have more than enough firepower to deal with her."

"Skipper, I have Admiral Stancil at Valia on the line," called the communications officer.

"On Main Screen, Mr. Rice."

The Admiral face filled the screen. Sanderson nodded curtly.

"Admiral, good to see you. What's up?"

"We have a problem, Captain. We have it on the very best of authority that there is a renegade novaship in your area, and the Captain of that ship intends to provoke a war."

"Well, that fits. The Darwin System has been blown away."

Stancil nodded.

"I know," he said. "We've been monitoring the situation from here. The ship you're looking for is the A'ZANI, Captain."

"You've got some pretty good intelligence, Admiral."

"A special envoy from Emperor K'val gave us the information. I'm sending him out to you, Sanderson. He's got some special gear he brought with him to help you track the A'ZANI."

"Can we trust a T'zirian, Admiral?"

"I believe we can trust this one, Captain. I'm not at liberty to tell you why, but co-operate with him any way you can." Stancil paused before continuing.

"Sanderson, I don't have to tell you what's at stake. You and I fought the T'zir before. You know what that kind of war is like. We must prevent another one from starting."

"We'll do our best, Admiral."


Captain," said T'kul quietly, venom in his voice, "have you any idea what you have done?"

They were in R'gal's quarters. T'zirian naval protocol forbade a First Officer from questioning his Captain's judgment in front of the crew, and T'kul had been forced to wait several hours to confront R'gal.

"I am carrying out orders. You will not question."

"I have to. Who gave those orders? Why were those orders not relayed through normal communications? What exactly is our mission, and why? What has brought us to this?"

"I am the Captain of this vessel, T'kul. I am also a member of the royal family. As such, I am not required to explain my actions. You will follow my orders without question, or I will order your immediate execution on charges of mutiny and treason. Do I make myself clear, T'kul?

"Quite clear, Captain. I will follow your orders without question. However, I want it noted in the log that I do so under protest. This matter is highly irregular, Captain, and I will not accept responsibility for my performance of duty if it is later found to be improper."

"So noted, T'kul. Return to your station. We will be changing course in three z'hostas, and heading for our secondary target."

"Aye, Captain."

T'kul turned smartly on his heel and left. R'gal leaned back in his chair, rubbing his eyes. He was tired, and the last several hours had drained him. Sleep, however, was out of the question for now, for R'gal had to plan.

He called up charts on his console, and studied them. Yes, here was his next target, and after Where then?

R'gal frowned. Where was that last target? Oh, yes, he remembered. The homeworld of the youngest of his mother's attackers, the one who had held him, forcing his eyes open, making him watch...

Memory flooded over R'gal. He heard his mother's screams, watched as her gown was cut away from her slender body. They threw her to the deck, laughing cruelly as they pawed her breasts. She screamed and writhed as they held her down, as the first lay over her...

He remembered the hoarse laugh of the man who held him, taunting him as he was made to watch his mother's torment. The man's face came back to him, clearly. R'gal could remember every feature of that mocking face.

'Soon," he thought, 'very soon, we shall see who shall be laughing.'

A few hours later, he went to the bridge. He ordered a course change, sending A'ZANI towards her next target: a heavily populated star system known as Coby.


"Captain, I have a T'zirian D'MATA-class scoutship coming alongside. She's sending the truce signal and requesting permission for a party to come on board."

"Acknowledged, Mr. Ryan. Gunnery Section: keep our weapons trained on that ship. I don't want to get any surprises here. If she does something suspicious, we'll shoot first and ask questions later."

Sanderson eyed Ryan, who stood frowning.

"Is there a problem, Mr. Ryan?" he asked.

"Do you think that's wise, sir, in light of the fact she's carrying an envoy from the T'zirian Emperor?"

"Perhaps not, Mr. Ryan, but I think it's far wiser than getting hit by a surprise attack from a decoy ship."


"Let's get one thing straight before our guests arrive, Mr. Ryan. I don't trust this envoy, or the Emperor that sent him. I think it's quite possible that they sent him to sabotage our efforts to find this novaship."

"To what end, sir?" asked Ryan, somewhat thickly.

"They don't need an end, Mr. Ryan. They're T'zirians. You can't trust 'em."

"With all due respect, sir, I must say that I find that to be a very bigoted and offensive attitude."

"With all due respect to your T'zirian ancestry, Mr. Ryan," roared Sanderson, " you can stick your opinion up your ass. When I turn this ship over to you, you can fly her to hell, for all I care. But until I do turn her over to you, I'm still the Captain. And I'll do things my own way, and no goddamned half-breed will tell me a damned thing. Is that CLEAR?"

"Quite clear, Captain." snarled Ryan. He turned and disappeared into the forward compartment. Sanderson scowled after his retreating form.

"Master-at-arms! Meet our 'guest' and escort him to the bridge.

"Aye, sir." Jenkins turned and disappeared down the companionway. A few minutes later, he returned with a man in a T'zirian Naval Uniform.

Sanderson eyed him in disbelief. Another half-breed.

'Damn,' he thought. 'all these half-breeds look alike. He could be Ryan's older brother.,

"Captain Sanderson?" the young officer asked, extending his hand, "I'm Commander G'rvan. The Emperor sent me to assist in tracking the A'ZANI."

Sanderson ignored his hand, and N'tal slowly removed it.

"Just how do you intend to help us find this novaship, Commander?" asked Sanderson.

"I brought along some rather sensitive equipment, Captain. Once it's installed, it will increase the range of your sensors. In addition, it looks specifically for the signature of a novaship's engines."

"Let me get this straight. You're going to install some unknown equipment to my sensor array?"

"Captain, I assure you, it will not harm your equipment. As a matter of fact, it's some rather highly classified technology we're giving will allow you to track our novaships with much greater accuracy."

"Jenkins! Assemble a detail to assist Commander G'rvan to install his toys," Sanderson ordered, " but let's make one thing clear. I want every piece of this junk gone over. If it causes any problems with our sensor array, pull it out immediately."

"Aye, Sir." Jenkins turned to his console and spoke into the comm. Sanderson turned back to N'tal.

"Commander, you'll be bunking with Mr. Ryan. He's up forward at the moment. You two have a lot in common." He paused, smiling strangely. He turned and spoke into the comm.

"Mr. Ryan to the Bridge. Mr. Ryan to the Bridge."

As Ryan re-entered the compartment, N'tal gave him a shocked look. Ryan eyed him quizzically.

"Something wrong, Commander?" he asked. N'tal shook his head.

"I'm sorry, Commander," he said. "I wasn't expecting to find anyone of T'zirian blood here, you took me by surprise."

'A rather large surprise,' he thought to himself privately. 'he looks like me, only a bit younger.'

"I'm Commander G'rvan," he said aloud. "You can call me N'tal."

"I'm Neil Ryan."

"Well, isn't this just charming," said Sanderson sarcastically. "Ryan, Commander G'rvan will be sharing your quarters. Please show him the way."

"Aye, sir. This way, Commander."

"You really just have to ignore his attitude," said Ryan, as they made their way to his quarters. "He fought in the last war. There was some business about mistreating prisoners, and he thinks that cost him his Admiral's flag. Needless to say, he doesn't care much for T'zirians."

"I rather...sensed ..that," said N'tal. "I guess that makes life here a bit difficult for you here."

"For the moment. We were on our way to Valia Naval Station when all this broke loose. Sanderson is retiring, and he was turning the GLAMDRING over to me. I guess I'll have to wait a bit longer for my command."

They arrived at Ryan's quarters. Ryan showed N'tal how to operate the security lock, and they entered the tiny compartment.

N'tal looked around. There were two bunks, vertically stacked, and a small deck. Two lockers ere mounted to the opposite wall, and a small hatch opened into a small bath.

"It's not large," said Ryan, "but it has a private head and the environment controls are independent. I can make it warmer and more comfortable for us in here."

"I noticed that it was a bit cold throughout the ship," said N'Tal. "Is that standard?"

"The full-humans like it a bit cooler that I do. Probably something to do with the T'zirian blood in me. But then, you're only part T'zirian yourself."

"My mother is human," explained N'tal. "She married my father during the war."

"My mother was human, too," said Ryan. "I don't remember my father. I was raised in an orphanage on Valia VII after my mother was killed."

"What happened to her?"

"Well, I was very young, you understand," said Ryan slowly. "I believe my mother was captured by your people during the war. I guess she must have either been raped or gave her body for better treatment or something...I don't really know. All I remember is being on a ship, T'zirian, I think; and there was an explosion. I got separated from my mother...there was another explosion between us. Somebody stuffed me in a lifepod , and launched it. I drifted around in that thing for weeks before I was picked up, and then they took me to the orphanage. I was there until I made it into the Academy."

"Well, my mother was a prisoner, as well. She fell in love with a T'zirian officer, and married him. I was raised on the homeworld, and when I was old enough, our family tradition demanded that I enter Naval Service...that wasn't easy, being half-human."

"Tell me about it." Ryan found himself warming to this man. It had not escaped his notice that N'tal looked almost exactly like him. He attributed this to their mixed ancestry.

"Well, let's just say that I know enough to get by." N'tal smiled.

The comm squealed to life.

"Mr. Ryan," came the Captain's voice. "Bring our guest to the Bridge. Jenkins has the detail ready to install the Commander's equipment."

"Aye, Captain. We'll be right there." He turned to N'tal. "Well, duty calls."


The A'ZANI crept stealthily through the Coby system. Silently, she took up her station and began the analysis of the star.

"Captain, we have detected a ship. Three Thousand d'hastas and closing fast." T'kul's voice was calm, emotionless.

"Raise our shields. We will lower them only briefly to fire."

"Aye, sir. Shields coming up."

The chime sounded indicating the end of the analysis. T'kul read the result, and swore softly.

"This star is a young one, Captain. We must fire a sustained beam to disrupt it."

"How long?"

"1.8 z'tas."

R'gal swore. "We must dispose of that ship," he said. "Can you identify the type and armament?"

T'kul studied his screen. He touched a panel, calling up identification files.

"Well?" R'gal demanded.

"GNOME-class scoutship. Not a threat to us, even unshielded, Captain."

"Initiate firing sequence."

Again the low whine reverberated throughout the ship as the capacitors charged.

"Lower the shields."

"Aye, sir. Shields coming down."

Immediately the scoutship, sensing the lack of shields, charged in. It began to fire on the A'ZANI, its' tiny beams inflicting only minor damage upon the massive novaship's hull.

The capacitors finished the charging cycle, and A'ZANI again shuddered as its' massive weapon discharged.

"1 z'ta...1.2...1.5 z'tas," T'kul counted. "1.6...1.7. Firing sequence complete."

The Coby star collapsed, and then flared violently. The shock wave caught A'ZANI and shook it violently. The little scoutship was hurled violently, tumbling out of control.

"Secure from firing stations." ordered T'kul. "Captain, what course?"

"Set course 194.2 by 341. maximum speed for 8 z'hostas, then run silent. Call me at that time for new course. I will be in my quarters." R'gal turned to leave, then paused

'T'kul, pass this on to all crew. Well done."

"Aye, Captain."

R'gal arrived at his quarters and threw himself onto his sleep pad. His mind racing, he lay there for several moments. Again and again, he saw his mother's attackers, heard her screams. The voice of the man who held him echoed through his head again and again.

"This is what you people are good for," he kept saying. "this is what you deserve."

R'gal forced his mind clear. He went to his console and called up charts. he studied them, locating his next target. In his mind, he calculated his speed and course, and determined the required course change.

'Two targets destroyed,' he thought. 'Two remain. But not for long.'


"Captain, I have a scoutship on line," called Rice.

"On screen."

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,!"

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" 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."

"Aye, Sir!"


N'tal, alone in Ryan's quarters, removed a comm unit from his carrysack. Sanderson had given his approval for contacting his home, but N'tal had sought privacy for the communication. He had some suspicions; and he wanted to check them out .

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."


"Three possibilities, Captain," said T'kul. He indicated the three areas on the chart. "Of the three, this dark nebula would offer the greatest degree of concealment."

"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.


"Yes, Captain?"

"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....


Sanderson lay on his bunk in his quarters, nursing a bad headache. Blake, ship's doctor, had given him a pain injection again, but Sanderson knew from experience that whatever relief it provided would be short-lived. Just as he probably would be.

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 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 Stancil studied the somber face in his viewscreen. The face looked tired and careworn, and Stancil listened carefully to his words.

"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."


"Captain, the repairs have been completed. The restart of the reactor is underway, and M'pel thinks we can trim a few z'hostas from the restart procedure. The fuel had not completely cooled. The reactor should be on-line in about eighteen z'hostas."

"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.


Lieutenant Dawson peered over the head of the technician and read the scanner himself. Nothing. Still nothing. He sighed.

Ogre had followed the trail of radiation until it disappeared. The novaship had to be nearby, but Ogre’s damaged scanners were unable to detect it. Most of the damage to the scanners had been repaired, along with all the other major systems on Ogre, but only several weeks in Valia’s repair yards would set Ogre to rights.

‘At least Glamdring will be here soon,’ Dawson thought. ‘She might be able to find that damned novaship. And she has the firepower to deal with it, too.’

“Give me an estimated time of arrival on Glamdring,” he said to the scanner operator.

“Glamdring is about twenty-two minutes away, Sir”

“Good. Maybe she’ll be able to find this damned thing.”

“I dunno, sir, she’s gone to ground pretty good.”

“Hell,” swore Dawson, “It’s a novaship. It can’t just’s out there somewhere, Ensign, and we’re going to find it.”

The comm squealed, and then a voice spoke. “The sensor array repairs are finished, Skipper.”

“Dawson here. Thanks, Chief.”

“No problem...just find that bastard, sir.”

“We’ll try, Chief. Dawson out.” He broke contact, and turned to the scanner.

“Try it again, Ensign. See if you can locate a reactor signature.”

“Aye, sir, scanning.” The Ensign sounded unsure of himself. Dawson pitied him...this was his first trip out, and they had to run into this...half the crew dead or injured, including the Captain; every major system damaged. And a novaship still on the loose.

‘I’d be pretty unsure of myself, too,’ he thought.

“Wait a minute,” the Ensign said. “That’s odd. I’m reading a power source, but it doesn’t match the one I recorded from the novaship earlier. The output is lower...what...Skipper, the power levels are jumping rapidly. That’s it! There she is!”

“Where away?” asked Dawson, excitedly.

“Bearing 342.6 by 28.9. She’s stationary. I don’t think she’s seen us yet.”

“She’s hiding behind that asteroid there. Helm, pull back...maneuvering thrusters only, I don’t want them to spot us.”

“Aye, sir.”

The trim little scoutship began to back away slowly. Dawson ordered a new course, bringing Ogre in behind a medium sized asteroid, shielding them from the novaship’s sensors.

“Comm, get me Glamdring on a secure channel.”

“Aye, sir. Contact established.”

Sanderson’s face appeared on the monitor.

“What’s up, Dawson?” he asked.

“We’ve got her, sir. I’m sending you her soon can you be here?”

“We’re about nine minutes away. What’s your status?”

“We’re hidden ourselves. Most of our systems are back on-line, but weapons are minimal and we still don’t have shields. We won’t be much use in a fight.”

“Just keep tracking her for us, Dawson. We’ll take care of her when we get there.”


R’gal tossed in his sleep. The faces of his mother’s attackers circled him, crying out. He cringed under the hideous sound of their screeching cries. He must awaken! He must escape! He must...

Fighting his way to consciousness, R’gal realized that the cries in his dreams was in fact, the ship’s combat alarm sounding. A’zani was in danger.

R’gal stumbled from his bunk and reached for the comm. He activated it, and T’kul’s voice answered.

“What’s happening?” He managed to croak. “Why...what’s the alarm for?”

“A Confederation Excalibur-class destroyer has come within scanning range, Captain. She’s on a direct course for us. Too early to tell if her weapons systems are armed yet.”

“I’ll be right there.” He broke contact, dressed rapidly, and made his way to the bridge.

“Do we have maneuvering power?” he asked T’kal.

“A little. Our power reserves aren’t up to a big strain, but I could manage a short run at maximum thrust.”

“And then what, T’kul? That destroyer isn’t just going to give up. What’s our weapons status?”

“We have only minimal weapons power, Captain. Not enough for a prolonged fight.”


“Not many, Captain.”

“We can’t run and we can’t fight. Not like this.” R’gal paused, thoughtful. “What about our main battery?”


“Are the reserve power banks for the main battery still charged?”

“Yes, Captain, but I don’t see...”

“Good,” R’gal cut him off. “Load a target simulation into the main targeting computer and prepare to fire at my command.”

“ what?”

“We’re going to fire along our escape route, which” R’gal indicated a plot on the chart. “We’ll align the main battery along this course and fire as we come into their weapons range. If we’re lucky, the burst will catch them by surprise.”

“And if we’re not lucky?” asked T’kul, apprehensively.

“Then, T’kul, we die.”


“She’s moving!” called out Starrett. “Target bearing course 316 by 17.7.”

“Right down our throats,” growled Sanderson. “Stand by all batteries. Hold your fire until I give the command.”

N’tal looked up from his instruments.

‘Captain, try to target her Command and Engineering decks. Please try to spare her crew, if you can.”

“Commander N’tal, that is not my first priority. I’m here to stop that novaship, whatever it takes. I’m sorry about your people, but a whole lot of mine are already dead...and I’m going to make sure that no more die. Is that understood?”

“Yes, Captain.” N’tal fell silent, and returned to his screen. The A’zani showed clearly now, inbound in a tightly intersecting course, almost head-on to the Glamdring. The tiny Ogre swung away from her shielding asteroid and took up station behind Glamdring.

“Target is eighteen thousand kilometers and closing,” called out Ryan.

“Stand by to fire all weapons. Let’s hit her where it counts, gentlemen.”

An alarm chimed from N’tal’s screen. He swore softly.

“Captain, transfer all power to your shields.”

“I beg your par...”

“Do it! Now!”

“Enough! Commander G’rvan, I will not allow you to interfere. Master-at-Arms! Escort our guest...”

“He’s fired on us!” N’tal shouted. “Shields, now, or we’re all dead!”

“All power to shields!” shouted Sanderson.

“All Hands, brace for impact!” shouted Ryan.

“Rice!” shouted Sanderson. “Contact Ogre and...”

A sudden violent blow struck the Glamdring, sending her tumbling. N’tal was thrown from his chair and went crashing into the bulkhead.

A massive power surge swept through the ship, overloading her main systems. Lights exploded like firecrackers, and system after system on her bridge shorted out and exploded.

Ryan clung to his console desperately as the ship’s decks swung wildly beneath him. He looked over at Sanderson, who lay sprawled in his chair, harness in place. He appeared to be bleeding profusely from a large gash in his forehead.

Zeigler fought the help desperately, at last bringing Glamdring back under control. The deck stabilized, and Ryan found the floor.

“Call Sick Bay. Get a med team up here, the Captain’s been hurt.” he ordered. He looked around, and saw N’tal’s crumpled form in the corner. He went over to check him. N’tal was unconscious, but nothing appeared to be broken. He had a few small cuts, mostly superficial.

The med team arrived, and began to treat the wounded. Sanderson had lost consciousness, and was removed, along with N’tal. The rest had only minor injuries.

‘N’tal’s warning saved us’ he thought. Aloud, he asked about Ogre.

“She didn’t make it, sir. Her hull collapsed.”

“Damn,” said Ryan. “Get me a damage report from all decks.”

The damage turned out to be surprisingly light. The hull and thrusters were intact, and the damage to Glamdring’s electronic systems could be repaired in a few hours. Even N’tal’s instrumentation was in good order, and Starrett had begun to use it to plot the novaship’s projected course. Ryan breathed a sigh of relief.

Things could be worse. The damage would have to be repaired before they could hope to pursue the A’zani, but from the reports Ryan was getting, there were no fatalities, and the damage was mostly superficial. All in all, Glamdring had been lucky.

Damn lucky.


On board his flagship, the Invincible, Admiral Stancil reviewed his fleet. He had managed to assemble a surprisingly powerful force. The Battleships Sussex, Invincible, and Constellation formed the heavy core, supported by the carriers Lexington, Saratoga, Yorktown, Kiev, and Princeton. Destroyers Albion, Duranthal, Anduril, Narthung, and Sting held the flank, and there were numerous Gnome-class scoutships, and a number of Dragon-class heavy Cruisers.

Following his orders, Stancil had formed the fleet. They had departed Valia two days ago, and were still more than three days away from Point Alpha along the T’zirian Border. Once there, Stancil was to take up a defensive position and await further orders.

“Admiral, there’s a message for you,” said a yeoman. Stancil nodded, and turned to the viewscreen. It was Sanderson.

“Good to see you, Brian,” said Stancil. “Ryan’s last report had you on the injured list. What’s your situation?”

“We are under way again. A’zani’s projected course will put her in Sector Four by this time tomorrow.”

“Sector Four. She’s headed for either Draconis, Findshorn, or Mitaka.”

Sanderson nodded. “That’s what we figured as well. Trouble is, we don’t know which one.”

“Has Commander G’rvan been able to give you any insight?” asked Stancil.

“Well, he’s the one who kept us from winding up like those poor devils on Ogre. He detected the A’zani’s fire and warned us just in be honest, I thought he was trying to sabotage our attack. I almost had him removed from the bridge.”

“Has he regained consciousness yet?”

“Not as yet. Our doctor tells me not to worry, that T’zirians often take longer to come out of unconsciousness...something about the difference in body fluid levels.”

“When he comes to, thank him for me. Not every day a T’zirian saves my best ship and crew.” The Admiral grinned, then grew serious. “Listen, Brian, we’re only three days out of Point Alpha. It’s imperative you locate and neutralize that novaship. The political climate back on Earth is quite chaotic. The Hawks are demanding a punitive strike on the T’zir, and the President is only just able to maintain order in the Council. If he keeps on destroying our outposts, we won’t be able to keep a war from starting.”

“Admiral, we’re trying. Our best guess is that he’s headed for the Findshorn’s the largest of our colonies in Sector Four. We’re headed there now.”

“I hope you’re right, Brain. For all our sakes, I hope you’re right.”


“T’kul, alter our course. New course is 227.4 by 92. Maximum speed for 8 z’hostas, then run silent. I’ll give you the final course then.”

“Aye, sir.” T’kul paused before speaking. “Captain, how many more targets before our mission is ended?”

“That is not for you to know, T’kul. You will be informed when you need to know.”

“I am the First Officer of this vessel. If you are incapacitated or killed, it is my responsibility to complete the mission. Yet you withhold the information of that mission from me. How am I to complete a mission when I have no concept of what the mission is?”

“If I am incapacitated or killed, T’kul, the mission is ended. You may then run home like the coward you appear to be.”

T’kul bristled.

“I am no coward. I flew the Emperor’s ships before you were born, Captain, against the humans, against the Dhrshir, and never have I fled or even shunned battle. Nor do I now...I am a warrior in the service of my Emperor, and as I stand before you, you accuse me of dishonor me.” He turned and headed for the hatch.

“T’kul!” barked R’gal, “I have not dismissed you. Return at once!”

“If I am dishonored, Captain, it is by your hand. If you will not tell me what the mission is, then I shall contact the fleet and ask them.”

“You are not to contact the fleet, T’kul. That is a command directive.”

“Why? What reason could you give?”

“The fleet does not know of our mission, T’kul. It is a secret mission known only to the Emperor and myself,” lied R’gal.

“I don’t believe you.”

“Believe what you will, T’kul. I care not. But you will perform your duty. Or you will die.”


“He’ll be all right, Mr. Ryan,” said Blake. “He has a mild concussion, and some assorted bruises...he’s going to be sore for a while, but he’ll live.”

“Then why did you send for me?” asked Ryan.

“There’s something I thought you should know. When he came in, I didn’t know if there was any internal bleeding, so I checked to see if we had any compatible blood, just in case. You’re the closest match, so I checked a sample of his blood against yours.”

Blake paused, hesitating for a moment. Ryan grew impatient.

“Well?” he demanded. “What is it?”

“Mr. Ryan, there’s no easy way to do this. Commander G’rvan’s blood was a perfect genetic match for yours. There is no doubt.”

“What are you saying?”

“You and G’rvan are brothers. You have the same parents.”

The revelation hit Ryan hard. He felt for a chair, and collapsed into it.


“Congratulations, Mr. Ryan, or should I say Mr. G’rvan. It looks like you finally found your family.”

“Does the Captain know?”

“Not as yet. I am required to report the facts to him, but I felt it was necessary to inform you first.”

“I’ll tell him, Doctor,” said Ryan. “But I don’t quite know how he’s going to take this. hell, I don’t know how to take this myself.”

“Why don’t you try taking it one step at a time, Mr. Ryan?” suggested the Doctor. “I’m sorry, but regulations require that I be the one to inform the Captain. I would suggest that you speak to G’rvan when he wakes...which should be shortly.”

The doctor left then, to find the Captain. Ryan sat down beside N’tal’s bed, looking over his brother’s features.

‘He’s family..’ he thought. ‘Where is he from..who are his parents...our parents..’

Ryan wept.

The disturbance woke N’tal, who looked over at Ryan.

“What troubles you?” he asked, hoarsely.

“N’tal,” said Ryan, “We need to talk.”


A'zani slid silently through the darkness. Ahead, the Mitaka System with its' four planets awaited. One of these planets, Mitaka III, was a Confederation colony, home to nearly one hundred seventy-five thousand people.

"Target acquired, Captain," said T'kul. "Beginning analysis."

R'gal nodded dispassionately. He seemed almost detached from the process somehow; it was as if a bad dream was running through his mind.

Not long now, Mother,' he thought, This star, and one other...and you may rest in peace...your dishonor will be avenged.'

T'kul watched him carefully. That his Captain was under tremendous strain was obvious, and T'kul worried about his state-of-mind. Could he have cracked under the strain? What, indeed, were his orders?

A sudden thought sent chills tingling up T'kul's spine. What if he didn't have orders - what if he was insane? It all fit - the sudden outbursts, the refusal to let T'kul communicate with the fleet...could R'gal be acting on his own?

The analysis was completed. The computer chimed.

"Analysis complete, Captain," called O'tar, the second officer. R'gal started...why had T'kul not spoken? He looked at T'kul, and noted the questioning look on his face. He suspects,' he thought. He may become a problem.'

"Transfer data to main battery and fire."

The whine of the capacitors charging filled the ship. The sound droned on for what seemed like an eternity, and then the ship shuddered as her weapon fired.

In the viewscreen, the star Mitaka suddenly collapsed, and flared. The shock wave spread out from the flare, and the four tiny planets were overtaken and shattered. The system was dead.

T'kul felt sadness. if R'gal was acting on his own, then they had just murdered innocent people...three systems destroyed, millions dead. He shook his head.

He had to know. After the Captain had gone back to his quarters, he would discuss the problem with the other officers. But how to prove it - to contact the fleet would bring the Confederation's ships down upon them immediately. There had to be another way. Perhaps the message he had received....he would talk to S'lena, the communications officer. Perhaps she would give him a copy of the message..


T'kul started. He realized that R'gal had called him several times before shouting his name.

"I'm sorry, Captain, forgive me. My thoughts had taken me away."

"Well, then," seethed R'gal, "Nice of you to rejoin us. Always good to have the First Officer paying attention to his Captain again. Set our new course, T'kul. 198.3 by 97. Maximum thrust for seven hours, then run silent, and call me."

"Aye, Sir."

"And T'kul?"

"Yes, Captain?"

"When your duties permit, T'kul, report to me in my quarters."

"Aye, Sir."


"You were born G'val N'rthan. Your mother is a human who was born Janet Rosenthal. During the war, she was an officer on the freighter NEOSHO. That ship was captured, and she was taken prisoner. She was taken and held at the prison camp on T'garl.

"While she was there, a young naval officer saw her. He admired her beauty, her calm determination, and her dignity in the situation she was in. He found himself in love with her, and when he was kind to her, with respect for her honor, she in time returned that love.

"Against all convention of the times, they were married. Janet Rosenthal became J'net N'rthan. I was born on T'garl, and you were born there also, two years later, after the war had ended.

"Our father had been ordered to return to the homeworld a few months before you were born. His father was ill, and all of his brothers had been killed in the war. He left us behind on T'garl, and when transport became available, our mother took us to the homeworld.

"We never made it. The transport we were on was destroyed by a magnetic smartmine, and during the confusion, our mother lost sight of the crewman which was carrying you. The ship was exploding around us...I remember being very frightened. We managed to make it into a lifepod and ejected from the ship. Seconds later, it exploded.

"We were picked up a day or so later. Our father arrived on the rescue vessel, and he scoured the area looking for you...there was no trace. The crewman who had been carrying you was never found, and the ship had been completely fragmented. They scanned the wreckage for bodies, but it was no use.

"We never gave up and admitted that you had been killed. Somehow, we knew that you had survived, and would be found. Someday, the sons of K'val N'rthan would be reunited."

"K'val....N'rthan. Not G'rvan...Your..our name is N'rthan. That's the Emperor's name." Ryan was in shock.

"Quite correct, brother. You are Prince G'val N'rthan, the youngest son of Emperor K'val. And by now, they should have checked out the data I sent them and know the truth for themselves."

"You knew?"

"I suspected," said N'tal. When I first saw you, I noted the similarities in our appearances. Later, when I heard your story, I knew it must be you. However, we had to be I send some files I begged out of your doctor on the guise of trying to identify your family through the War Orphans Ministry."

"I would like to see with them," said Ryan. "Is that possible?"

"Yes. I'd get permission from your Captain to make a personal transmission first, just in case he thinks that you've switched loyalties."

"Good idea," said Ryan. "And that opens up a whole different can of worms.."

"Brother, you may decide yourself where your loyalty lies. You have family in the Empire, but your life has been here. I do not envy you the choice."

"Get some rest, N'tal. I'll be back to see you later."


"Admiral, incoming message from the Glamdring. The Mitaka system has been destroyed. Sanderson is on the trail of the novaship again."

"Damn!" exclaimed Stancil. "Well, that probably tears it. Inform all personnel to stand ready for battle. I'm sure that the Confederation Council isn't going to take this lightly."

"Probably not, Admiral."

The aide turned and walked away. Stancil was left alone to consider the possibilities confronting him.

It was coming down to one thing: war. Stancil didn't like it, but it was out of his hands now. He was a Confederation Officer, and would follow his orders, whatever the Council decided.

And Stancil was pretty damn sure what they would decide.


Ryan was lost in thought. A hundred things raced through his mind...who should have his loyalty? His family? He didn't know them. The Confederation? They had always treated him as a second class citizen. His Captain? No love lost there, either.

Ryan sought out the Captain. He found him resting in his quarters.

"Captain?" he said, "permission to enter?"

"Come in, Mr. Ryan," came the gruff answer.

Ryan entered. The Captain lay in his bunk, a cool cloth across his forehead.

"Headaches again?" he asked.

"Again," winced the Captain. "The doctor has made a most interesting report, Mr. Ryan," he observed. "My compliments upon finding your family."

"Well, there's a bit more than that to it, Sir. There's something you should know."

"And that would be?"

"N'tal isn't who he said he was. His name isn't G''s N'rthan."

"N'tal N'rthan. He's the Emperor's son...and you! You're God!"

"You see my dilemma. One minute, I'm just a naval officer. A minute later, I'm a prince..trouble is, I'm a prince on the other side."

"Why would the Emperor's son come aboard my ship incognito?"

"I m not sure. I believe it has to do with R'gal being his adopted brother. Apparently, the Emperor was sent his son to deal with his other son."

"If that's the case, then he's serious about wanting to prevent a war." Sanderson looked thoughtful for a moment. He looked keenly at Ryan.

So what's your next move, Mr. Ryan?"

"I'd like permission to send a personal transmission. N'tal has given me the personal codes."

"By all means, Mr. Ryan. Or should I start calling you Prince...what's your name, anyway?"

"G'val. I'm G'val N'rthan. But please, let's keep this quiet for the moment. Ryan will do."

"I agree. There's no telling how this will effect the crew. I have already ordered the doctor to keep the lid on this; I was hoping you would to. And I think we can depend on N'tal keeping a secret."

"I would say so, sir."

"Make your call, Mr. Ryan. I know we've never seen eye-to-eye, and I know that I've given you a hard time over your T'zirian blood. But your brother saved my ship, my crew, and my life...and I shall have to re-examine my opinion of T'zirians."

"Aye, Sir." Ryan took his leave, then, and the Captain lay back in his bunk. His head hurt terribly, and he was plagued by a thought nagging in the back of his head that he was forgetting something...that somehow he had the answer to all of this. He ran it through his mind, again and again, but nothing appeared to be significant.

Sooner or later, it will come to me,' he thought. Sooner or later.'


Ryan sat in front of N'tal's comm unit. He studied the panel for a moment, familiarizing himself with its' features...fortunately, he had taken T'zirian language courses at the Academy.

His hands toyed with the controls for a moment before activating the unit. He punched in the key code N'tal had taught him, and waited.

Who would answer? What would he say? What would Ryan say? Ryan had no idea. His mouth was dry, and suddenly he felt weak.

The screen illuminated, and Ryan saw a face. He could clearly see the resemblance in the other man's features. This was indeed his father, the Emperor. He was not looking directly at the screen.

"Yes, N'tal. what is the situation there?"

"I'm not N'tal."

The Emperor looked up slowly, and looked at him. He suddenly leaned off screen, whispering rapidly to an aide. Ryan saw the man depart in the background as his father looked into the screen once more.

"You are the one called Ryan?"

"Yes, Father."

"Then you know. You are G'val, my son."

"Our doctor confirmed it here about two hours ago. I had a long talk with N'tal after that."

"Where is N'tal?"

"He was injured, not seriously. He hit his head when R'gal fired at us...the shockwave tossed the ship and N'tal wasn't strapped in."

"And R'gal? Did you stop him?"

"I'm sorry. We only escaped with our lives. We're tracking him from the point of his last attack."

"That would be the system you call Mitaka. G'val, my son, listen: there are things you and the humans do not know. It is imperative that war be averted. That seems unlikely now...a fleet has been dispatched along our border. They will be ordered to attack. I have sent my own ships to stop them...I do not know if the human in charge will see reason. For that reason, you and N'tal must be prepared to leave that ship at a moment's notice. You would make far too good hostages for the humans."

"I'm not sure where my loyalty lies just yet. These humans are all I know."

The Emperor nodded. "I understand, G'val. Make your own decisions on that matter...but know that it is in the best interests of both the humans and the T'zir to avoid this war...more than you can know just now."

"We shall do our best, Father."

A woman entered the room and crossed to the Emperor. Even before she spoke, Ryan remembered her.

"It's true!" she said. "G'val, you're alive!"

"'s been a long time."

"You remember me, then?" she asked.

"Yes, Mother. Listen, when this is all over, I'll come to see you. But right now, we have a war to stop."

"Be careful, my son," said the Emperor. "R'gal is shrewd, and cunning."

"We'll be careful. And we'll get him."


T'kul rang the chime at R'gal's quarters. There was no answer. He rang again....a third time. No answer...something must be wrong.

"Security Override. T'kul M'urien, First Officer. Open the hatch to the Captain's quarters."

The hatch slid open, and T'kul entered. There were no lights.

"Lights," T'kul said. There was no response. He began to be uncomfortable, and he reached for his sidearm.

A sudden blow crashed against his head. He went down on one knee, and rolled. No use, another blow landed across his back. A club of some sort. T'kal forced himself to roll the other way, across the patch of light streaming in from the companionway through the open hatch. His attacker followed through the light, and was momentarily illuminated. It was R'gal.

"Captain!" T'kul choked out, "What are you doing...are you mad?"

R'gal grinned, a horrible demonic grin. He raised his club over his head and brought it down on T'kul's head again. It connected with a bone-jarring crack.

T'kul's senses whirled. He was nauseated, and the pain was unbearable. His sight swam, and through his distorted vision, he saw the club coming down again. The blackness reached up to engulf him, and he knew no more.


The thought kept nagging him, and Sanderson thought he would go mad. He replayed the rape over and over in his mind, to no use. There was nothing.

He thought about the men that were with him that day. Johnson, the big man...he had been a good friend of Sanderson's at one time. They had spent some shore leave at Johnson's home on Darwin IV. Wait..Johnson..Darwin IV...Lee...Lee was from Coby V...Mbute...Mbute was from Mitaka III. That was it. That was the key. He was destroying their home systems. And he, Sanderson, was the only one left, which meant only one thing.

He knew where R'gal was going.


N'tal and Ryan were on the bridge when Sanderson got there. They were quite surprised when he ordered a change in their course and speed. He was taking them back to Valia.

"Captain," said Ryan. "You want to let us in on what's going on?"

"I know where he's going, Mr. Ryan."

"How?" asked N'tal.

"You told me that this was a revenge motivated attack. R'gal's mother was raped by four Confederation Officers while he was forced to watch."

"Correct, Captain. That is our assumption."

"I'd say it was valid, Commander. Johnson was one of the attackers, and he was from Darwin IV. Lee was another, from Coby V. Mbute was from Mitaka III."

"And that leaves only one unaccounted for. Do you know who he was, too, Captain?" asked Ryan.

"I do, Mr. Ryan. He was from Valia."

"Who was he?" asked N'tal. "How do you know these things?"

"It was me, Commander. I was the one who held the boy and made him watch."

"Why, Captain?" asked Ryan, disgusted. "Why would you do such a thing?"

"It was war, Mr. Ryan. She killed one of our best friends as we cut through her hatch. We were tired, angry...and wrong."

"So,' N'tal said, "We now know what his final target is. That gives us an advantage."

"Correct, Commander. If we can get there first. Zeigler, give her all she's got all the way to Valia."

"Aye, Sir."


Stancil looked dazedly at the face on his viewscreen.

"Surely, you can't be seroius about this," He said. "You must know what the T'zirian response will be!"

"Admiral Stancil, I appreciate your reservations in this matter. However, the Confederation Council has unanimously voted to send your force in. The T'zir have now destroyed three of our star systems, with a total of over four million of our people killed. We cannot ignore that. We must respond in force, and respond we will. You will proceed at once into T'zirian space and carry out a punative action against at least three well-populated T'zir worlds. The main intent of this mission is to inflict massive casualties upon the T'zir."

"You're declaring war on them."

"Technically, no. We're just responding in kind to the provocation they have visited upon us. If they want war, Admiral, then their Emperor can declare it."

"Mr. President, with all due respect, I think that this is a bad decision. I do not believe that the Emperor is pursuing a course to bring us to war."

"I'm not interested in your opinion, Admiral. You have your orders. See to it that they are followed to the letter."

"Very well, Mr. President. Stancil out." He looked at his aide. "That idiot is only worried about his re-election. If there's a war going on, people are very hesitant to change leadership."

"So what do we do, Admiral?" asked his aide.

"We follow orders, Lieutenant. Signal all ships to execute Plan Omega One immediately."

"Aye, sir."

God help us,' thought Stancil. There will be war. Too bad the Emperor's son failed. I guess he'll never see home again...I wonder if any of us will.'

Slowly, the fleet got under way. As a unit, they traversed the short distance to the border, and then crossed over into T'zirian space. They took up a heading towards the nearest T'zirian colony, and settled in for the voyage.

Stancil took no chances. The swift scoutships raced on ahead, and the blades covered the fleet's flanks. Invincible and her cohorts moved in the center of the fleet, protected by the screen of destroyers and cruisers around them. It was a formidable fleet, numbering over a hundred ships. It was easily the most powerful Stancil had seen since the war. But whether it would prove to be powerful enough remained to be seen.

T'kul slowly came to his senses, his head aching terribly. He was in the Security block, under guard.

"What happened?" He demanded of the guard, "Why am I being held here?"

The guard looked nervously at him, but remained silent. He gestured towards O'tar, who stood nearby.

"Speak!" T'kul growled. "Why have I been placed here?"

"The Captain ordered your confinement. He said you overrode the security code and entered his quarters and attempted to kill him."

"That is a lie. I entered his quarters when he did not answer. I had been ordered to report to him. When he did not answer, I followed the established procedure. When I entered, I was attacked."

"By whom?" asked O'tar. "Did you recognize your attacker?"

"It was the Captain!" said T'kul forcefully. "O'tar, he is insane. You must believe me."

"Why should I believe you, T'kal? Why should I disobey my Captain?"

"Because," said T'kul slowly, "I believe the Captain is acting on his own. I believe that he is on some sort of insane quest....I don't think he has any orders for these attacks, O'tar."

"Serious charges, T'kul. Can you prove them?"

"Perhaps. O'tar, I have told you my suspicions. Consider: the Captain has forbade any contact with the fleet. He has claimed that only the Emperor and himself know the nature of the mission. He refuses to disclose to me, his First Officer, the details of that mission. Are these normal actions for the Captain of a ship-of-the-line?"

"No," said O'tar thoughtfully. "But suspicion is not enough. You must be able to offer proof. Have you any way of confirming your suspicions?"

"Only one," said T'kul. "get S'lena aside, privately. Order her to open a copy of that personal message the Captain received before he changed the mission profile. I believe it holds the key to what is going on."

"You ask me to take a great risk, T'kul."

"O'tar, you and I have served together a long time. Have you ever known me to act as the Captain claims I have?"

"No," O'tar admitted.

"Then you must ask yourself, O'tar, who you will believe: a Captain whose actions cannot be explained, or your friend and brother officer who has served with you in honor."

O'tar thought for a moment, and then answered.

"I will see what I can do," he said.

"Have you decided what to do yet?" asked N'tal.

"Not really," said Ryan. "I'm still pretty much in shock. All my life I've been told that the T'zir were the bad guys, and now I find out I'm a prince among the T'zir. It's very confusing...I just need some time to sort it all out."

"Understandable," said N'tal. "I identify with part of what you say. I have been raised to be mistrustful of the humans, and now I find my brother, who I thought to be dead, in the uniform of a human. While I find joy that you live, I don't quite know how to accept that we could have been enemies, had we failed in our mission, or had fate not brought us together."

"But it did, though," said Ryan. "And fate must have had a reason...we must work together to help both our peoples, N'tal. We carry both bloods...we must speak for both peoples, before it is too late."

"I agree, brother. But how?"

"I ...I don't know. But we must try to think of something."

The comm squealed. "Mr. Ryan and Commander N'tal, report to the bridge."

R'gal was on the Command Deck of the A'zani. They were four hours away from the Valia system, and R'gal's impatience was showing.

From his chair on the raised dias of the Command Deck, R'gal could see almost every activity on the deck. And it seemed to the Command Crew that everything their Captain saw, he did not like. He swiftly pounced on every tiny mistake or infraction with a frenzied attack, leaving his crew shaken, frightened, and angry.

O'tar entered the Deck. He observed R'gal for several minutes, and made note of his apparent mental state and irritability.

T'kul could be right,' he thought. This doens't appear to be normal behavior for the Captain.'

Slowly, O'tar casually made his way over to the communications station. Lieutenant S'lena was there, busy running maintenance checks on her equipment. She appeared flustered and angry.

"Is there a problem, S'lena?" O'tar asked.

"I'll say. He" she nodded towards R'gal, "has ordered me to conduct functional checks of the communications system. When I said that I would monitor the fleet to tune the receiving bands, he screamed at me...what does he want, O'tar? Why is he doing this?"

O'tar bent down low and whispered into S'lena's ear.

"You may be the only one who can provide us with answers, S'lena."

"How?" she whispered.

"The Captain's personal message. The one he received before he ordered us to the human's you have a copy?"

"Yes," S'lena whispered. "But it's encoded. You won't be able to read it. The only other person on board who can decipher the code is T'kul."

"That's not a problem. T'kul is the one who wants the message."

S'lena turned to her station suddenly. O'tar rose, feeling R'gal's eyes on him.

"Is something wrong, Captain?" he asked.

"I was about to ask you the same question, O'tar" said R'gal acidly. "I have ordered maintenance checks on all the Command systems...yet these incompetent fools don't seem to know what they are doing. Isn't training of the Command Staff your responsibility, O'tar?"

"Yes, Captain."

"Then I would suggest that you engage in some remedial training drills for the next few hours, O'tar" said R'gal. "I shall be in my quarters. Contact me at 1400."

"Aye, Captain"

R'gal stormed off the Command Deck. An audible sigh of relief escaped from the crew.

"Thank the Creator," someone said.

"Stow that talk!" O'tar ordered. "He's the Captain, and he will be obeyed. Begin standard test drill."

As the test drill began, O'tar turned back to S'lena. She handed him a datacard, and winked at him.

"Good luck, O'tar," she whispered. "I hope you and T'kul can get to the bottom of this."

"I do, too, S'lena," whispered O'tar. "I do, too."

"Admiral, the Troll is reporting in." said the Communications officer on the Invinceable.

"On viewscreen."

The screen illuminated. Stancil grteeted the Troll's Captain, and he gave his report.

"I don't like it, Admiral," the scoutship's Captain said. "It's too quiet. We're three hours into T'zirian space, and we haven't seen so much as a dingy."

"I agree," said Stancil. "We should have been challenged by now. Something's wrong with this situation, Captain, so be on your guard. This smells of a trap."

The Troll's Captain looked off screen, apparently reffering with someone.

"Hold on, Admiral," He said. "We've got something. A single ship, B'hagath-class heavy dreadnaught. It's just sitting out in front of it's waiting for us."

"Stand by, Troll." Stancil turned to his aide. "Order all ships to reduce speed to dead slow. I want every scanner in the fleet looking all around us."

"Captain," said Stancil, turning back to the viewscreen, " Proceed to a point just in front of the dreadnaught and hold. Do not engage unless attacked. We'll be up with you in a few minutes."

"Aye, Sir. Troll out."

"Valia system, sir. Looks like we beat them here," said Ryan.

"Confirmed," said N'tal from his instruments. "I read no signs of a novaship in the area. Are you sure that you are correct, Captain?"

"Quite correct, Commander. Would you and Mr. Ryan join me for a moment?" As they gatherered, Sanderson ordered the charts displayed. He indicated a course outlined in red.

"I prepared this on the way here. This is A'zani's expected course, based on their last known trajectory, and their last target. Figuring in current T'zirian strategy, R'gal should come in from here, to try to keep Valia Naval Station from detecting him. Do you agree, Cammander?"

"You know our tactics well, Captain. I suspect that you are correct."

"Mr. Ryan?"

"Works for me, Captain."

"Good. I see we are all thinking the same on this. Here's my plan: Valia II is here. It's not really a planet, more like a glorified moon in a planet's orbit. But, it has a solid nickel-iron core that will wreak havoc with A'zani's scanners. We'll keep the planet between us, and as she comes in, we'll move around the planet's disk. She will pass by us at this point, and we'll hit her from behind. Any questions?"

"If A'zani cannot see us," asked N'tal, "Then how will we see her?"

"Valia has a scanner relay system set up in the first planet. We'll bounce a signal off that and reflect it back to our scanners."

"Excellent," said N'tal. "Let's do it."

The Glamdring slid in behind Valia II, and waited.

"Human...are you lost? The border is that way, " said a T'zirian officer on Stancil's viewscreen.

We are aware of where the border is."

"You are Admiral Wainwright Stancil, I presume," said the T'zirian.

"I am. And you?"

"I am Admiral S'lan D'varga, commander of the First Thane of the Imperial Navy. The Emperor has sent me to stop you. He has specifically instructed me to attempt to do so without violence."

"You may find that difficult, with only one ship."

"I'm not so sure. The B'hagath is quite powerful."

"We shall see." Stancil broke contact, and turned to his aide.

"Order all ships to attack that ship. Destroy it completely. And God have mercy on us." The order was relayed. The ships broke into an attack configuration, with Albion and Narthung leading in.

"Admiral, the T'zirian is signalling you."

"Let him rot."

"Admiral, he's quite insistant."

"To hell with him."

The two blades, and several scoutships swept down upon the B'hagath. They fired, their energy lancing through the darkness, impacting on the B'hagath's hull.

There was no effect. The B'hagath faded like a ghost, and was gone.

"Sensor drone. Damn!" roared Stancil. "The bastards fooled us!"

The screen illuminated. S'lan laughed.

"We are not so easy, Admiral. This is your last chance. Return to your borders. We do not wish war...The Emperor grieves over your destroyed stars and the loss of life. Let us not add to it. Return to your"

"Go to hell."

"Very well, Admiral. You have been warned."

The screen went dark as S'lan broke contact.

"Contact, Admiral, bearing 143.5 by 22. I'm reading seven, no eight...nine...Oh, my God...."

"Another contact, bearing 212.4 by 92.1....Damn...I'm reading waves of ships...

"What type?" roared Stancil.

"A mixture of B'hagath-class dreadnaughts and K'tansa-class heavy cruisers.."

"Contact bearing 358.9 by 199.3....multiple targets...too many to count..

We're surrounded,' thought Stancil and vastly outnumbered.'

"Valia system, Captain," said P'nal, the helmsman.

"Where is O'tar?" demanded R'gal. "I want him on the deck, right now!"

"We're trying to locate him, Captain."

"Ahead at half-speed. Move us into position for analysis, P'nal"

"Aye, Captain."

A'zani slowly moved toward Valia II. R'gal stamped his foot impatiently.

"Begin the analysis now," he ordered.

The A'zani's computers began the analysis of the star Valia. A few moments later, the computer chimed, signaling completion.

"Transfer the data to the main battery and fire." R'gal ordered.

"Unable to comply, Captain," said P'nal. We'll have to clear Valia II first."

"Very well. Fire as soon as we're clear.

As the great ship began to round the rocky planet , the bridge doors burst open. T'kul and O'tar entered the Command Deck brandishing weapons.

"Captain" said T'kul, " I am relieving you and placing you under arrest."

"On what charge?" sneered R'gal.

"You had no mission from the Emperor, Captain. You are on your own mission, that of vengence. You have made murders of us all."

"You know nothing, T'kal."

"I know everything. I have seen your mother's message. Take him below, O'tar."

"Steady..." whispered Sanderson, "she's almost clear....just about...NOW! Ahead one-quarter. All batteries, open fire!"

Glamdring's devastating attack caught the A'zani by complete surprise. A massive explosion rocked her aft sections as her thrusters were hit. A'zani lost her forward momentum, and began to drift.

The powerful beams lanced into A'zani's hull, ripping through her Engineering section. Explosions rang through the ship as her power conduits overloaded and shorted out.

On A'zani's Command deck, P'nal lost helm control. A moment later, the main targeting computer exploded, and T'kul was thrown violently into the bulkhead.

Chaos reigned. The Command Deck was filled with thick smoke, and here and there instruments spat fire and sparks as they overloaded and shorted out.

Another massive explosion rocked the A'zani , causing the ship to lurch to one side. O'tar was thrown off his feet, and R'gal seized his opportunity. He leapt upon O'tar, wrestling his weapon from him. R'gal rose and attempted to flee, but O'tar grabbed at his foot as he turned, and R'gal stumbled. He went down, furoiusly fighting with O'tar for the weapon.

There was a shot, and O'tar screamed in pain. R'gal shoved him away, and as O'tar fell, R'gal disappeared through the hatch.

‘I'm free, and armed,' he thought. ‘If I can make it to the auxiliary weapons station, I may yet have vengeance.'

"There's over a thousand ships out there, Admiral!"

"...cruisers, destroyers, dreadnaughts, I see three, no four carriers, make that carrier groups..."

"No novaships. Where the hell are the novaships?"

Stancil shook his head. They were in enemy space, outnumbered by at least eight to one, and the opposing fleet was breaking into an attack configuration. Stancil's own carriers had launched their fighters, and even now, they were streaking to intercept the massive wave of T'zirian fighters launched from their carriers.

The blades were moving up to protect his flagship. He had not ordered them to do so, but he appreciated the thoughtfulness of their Captains.

Too bad it wouldn't help.

"Commander T'kul," said N'tal into his viewscreen, "Do you know me?"

"Yes, my Prince," stammered T'kul. "You are N'tal...what are you doing on board a Confederation Destroyer?"

"This is a joint mission to intercept and detain the A'zani, T'kul. Your Captain is a renegade. Where is he?"

"We know. I had just arrested him when you attacked. He shot O'tar, and he's somewhere in the lower decks. We're searching for him now."

"This ship is docking with you. I and some humans are coming aboard. You will pass the word to cooperate with us."

"Yes, my prince. T'kul out."

Glamdring locked onto the crippled A'zani. As soon as the seals were in place, N'tal, Ryan, Sanderson, and several others, each heavily armed, boarded. They were met by crewmen from the A'zani, and split up, searching for R'gal.

"We must go this way!" said N'tal to Ryan and Sanderson. "R'gal will be trying to complete his vengeance. He's probably headed for the auxiliary weapons controls. If he gets there, he can still destroy this system!"

"They're not attacking, Admiral!" yelled Stancil's aide.

It was true. The T'zirian fleet had established a line, and were holding position. Stancil didn't quite understand what was happening, but he wouldn't be the first one to fire.

"Order all ships to hold position."

"Sir?" asked his aide, incredulously.

"Do it!" roared Stancil. "Damn it, man, are you deaf? Are you blind?"

"Incoming message from the T'zirian Admiral," called the communications officer.

"On the viewscreen."

"Admiral Stancil," said S'lan. "I am ordering my forces to hold position. I note that you are doing the same."

"Affirmative. Why are we doing this?"

"I have had a direct communication from the Emperor. He has ordered me not to fore on you unless you fire on us first."

"Given the size of your fleet, I'd say that would be a suicidal gesture." said Stancil with a grimace.

"Indeed. And one thing more: your ship Glamdring has located and disabled the A'zani. However, all is not over: her Captain has escaped arrest, and is missing. Until he is captured, there is still a danger."

"You must excuse me, Admiral, I have to send some messages," said Stancil. "Our leadership must be informed of these developments."

S'lan nodded.

"Let us hope they see the wisdom of ordering you to withdraw," he said.

"Let's hope," agreed Stancil. "But I wouldn't bet on it."

R'gal entered the hatch at the Weapons Control Station. The guard, startled, hastily saluted him. R'gal, realizing that the man had not been informed of the situation, returned the salute.

"Guard the door," he ordered. "The humans have ambushed and disabled the ship. We have been boarded. I must prevent our technology from falling into their hands...I will set the destruct sequence, and then we will abandon her."

The guard swallowed hard, then nodded. He was quite young, and obviously terrified. R'gal smiled at him reassuringly.

"Don't worry, son," he said. "Just keep them off by back for a few minutes."

He went to the control station. The targeting data was still in the computer on the Command Deck. R'gal initiated a transfer of the data to the weapons station, but the transfer would take a few minutes.

There were voices in the corridor. R'gal crouched down and hit behind the bank of capacators that fed the nova weapon. He waited, weapon ready.

A man in a Confederation uniform entered the hatch, and the guard fired. The shot went wide, and the man rolled to the side, and then up on one knee. He quickly aimed his weapon and fired.

The shot hit the guard directy in the center of the chest, and he went down. He fired a final shot as he fell, and the Confederation man was hit in the shoulder and also fell.

R'gal sprang from his hiding place and ccrossed quickly to the control station. The data was almost finished transferring. He began to punch in the security override code that he needed to fire the weapon by himself.

"That's enough, R'gal," said a familiar voice behind him. R'gal turned to find N'tal holding a weapon on him.

"My brother!" spat R'gal. "so nice of you to join me!"

"It's over, R'gal."

"'s not. I must destroy this system first."

"No. I'll kill you first," said N'tal determinedly, with an edge in his voice.

The Confederation man moaned, and slowly got to his feet. He joined N'tal, and R'gal started."

"Interesting friends you have here, brother. Confederation uniform, but a half-breed like you. He even looks like you!"

"It's G'val."

"So. The missing half-breed whelp, found at last. You should have stayed lost," he said to Ryan.

Out of the corner of his eye, R'gal saw the guard move. He realized that he had only been stunned. The guard shook his head, looked around, and then stealthily retrieved his weapon.

The guard took careful aim at N'tal. He was just about to fire when a shot rang out in the corridor. The guard slumped once more.

N'tal and Ryan were momentarily distracted. It was all R'gal needed. He ducked away, seizing his weapon. He gained cover, and aimed at N'tal.

"Drop your weapons!" he ordered.

N'tal and Ryan had no choice but to comply. R'gal laughed.

"You see?" he chortled at N'tal, "You see? It's not over." He raised his voice.

"You, out in the hall! I have hostages. Throw down your weapons and get in here!"

A sidearm was thrown in through the open hatch. It was followed by Sanderson.

"Join us." demanded R'gal. "You can all die together."

"Let the others go. I think I'm the one you want."

There was something about that voice. R'gal looked carefully at Sanderson.

‘The face..' he thought. ‘Something familiar about it....I've seen this one before..a long time ago..'

"I know you." he said. Sanderson nodded.

"You've grown a bit since I last saw you. I doubt I could hold you now, like I did then."

The realization set in, and R'gal screamed in rage. He leveled his weapon and fired wildly. The shot missed.

N'tal and Ryan dove for the deck. They retrieved their weapons and scurried for cover. R'gal noticed their movement and fired in their direction, missing widely.

The three men continued to fire at R'gal. He screamed with rage, his mind completely gone. He only wanted to hurt, to kill. He fired again, the shot grazing Sanderson's scalp, burning him. Sanderson fell, writhing in pain.

N'tal and Ryan fired several shots, forcing R'gal out into the open. R'gal returned their fire, and gave ground, at last standing beside the control station. He fired wildly, with no apparent target.

Ryan took careful aim, and shot him in the chest.

R'gal's scream broke into a choked cry. He felt the life draining from him, and as he fell, he grabbed for the control console. He used it to steady himself, as Ryan and N'tal came up from behind him.

"So.." he said, and then strangled out a cough. "You think it ended."

With a massive effort, R'gal turned to face them. His vision was blurry, and the weakness was growing massively worse. He knew he had but seconds to live.

"I die.." he choked out. "but I claim vengeance as my price."

"No!" shouted N'tal, leaping towards him.

It was too late. R'gal's dying hand came down upon the control station, activating the firing sequence. R'gal fell, dead.

The sound of the capacitors charging was deafening in the little room. N'tal frantically punched in a security code on the panel. It didn't work.

"Damn!" he shouted. "I can't stop it!"

"Is there any other way to stop it?" shouted Ryan.

"Yes!" shouted N'tal. "If we can create a dead short across these two capacitor banks, they will overload and short out. The weapon won't have enought power to discharge!"

"What do we have to do that with? Is there something here?"

"No..there's no time!" shouted N'tal. "I'll short them out with my body. Tell my...our parents that I loved them."

"No!" shouted Ryan. "No! You can't do this! N'tal!"

"I must!" shouted N'tal. "We're out of time! The cycle is almost complete!"

He started for the capacitors. A determined look was on his face.

"No!" screamed Ryan.

N'tal was suddenly shoved and sent sprawling. Sanderson looked at Ryan.

"I started this all thirty years ago," he shouted. "I'll finish it."

He rapidly crossed to the capacitors. The whine of the generators had increased to a scream. Sanderson took a deep breath, and seized the top of a capacitor with either hand.

He screamed as the power surged through him. His body burned with agony as the waves of raw energy swept round his form.

His last thought was of the crime he had committed. As life left him, he saw the shattered look on the woman's face. And then all was darkness.

The capacitors shorted out and overloaded. A series of electrical overloads sent sparks flying, and one of the capacitors exploded.

The whine of the generators began to abate, the scream of their pitch gradually declining into a low rumble, before fading altogether. N'tal looked at Ryan.

"It's over," he said.

There is nothing quite so poignant as a funeral in space, in that vast gulf between the stars where darkness eternally reigns. There, in that darkness, a man can come to know the depths of his grief, for there pain is enhanced by the cold, distant stars, and the emptiness echoes the depths of sorrow. Nowhere else is a loss so keenly felt as it is there, in that lonely place.

It was for that reason that the two ships now maintained their stations between systems. Their crews, stiff in their dress uniforms, stood at parade rest in the hangar bay of the larger ship, silently honoring the dead which lay in state.

Each of those assembled there harbored his own thoughts of the deceased, some respectful, others not. Yet each of them, in some way, found it hard to believe the chain of events that had led them here, and which had brought them to the purpose of this solemn gathering. It seemed almost impossible that it had all started two scant weeks ago, and almost half a galaxy away.

Ryan and N'tal stood together, solemn. They waited silently for the last of the guests to arrive.

T'kul walked stiffly up to them and saluted. They both returned the salute.

"They have arrived," He reported. "They are boarding as we speak."

The hatchway opened, and Ryan and N'tal called the crews to attention. Boson A'sak of the A'zani blew a note of welcome on his carved pipe.

Emperor K'val N'rthan and his empress entered the hangar bay, followed by Confederation President Hollon. The Confederation Council Members and various Ministers and Courtiers of the T'zirian Empire were next, and Admirals S'lan and Stancil brought up the rear.

N'tal and Ryan bowed formally. The emperor laid a hand on each of his son's shoulders, and smiled.

"You have both done well," he said. "We must talk later. But now let us honor the dead."

The Emperor and Empress, and all of the other dignitaries were seated. The funeral began.

The T'zirian clergyman spoke first, calling for the Creator of All to show mercy to the spirits of the deceased. When he had finished, the human cleric spoke, praying for each of the departed.

There were various eulogies for each of the men, and then at last, the flags were folded, and presented to the next of kin. The Emperor received the flag from R'gal's casket, and President Hollon the flag from Sanderson's, as Sanderson had no family.

All present rose, and then after a joint benediction, the caskets were reverently carried to the end of the hangar bay and placed into the airlocks. The sad strains of an ancient human dirge were played by a crewman.

R'gal was released first, his casket sliding from the airlock and falling towards the sun. A moment later, Sanderson's followed.

There was a last call to attention and a final salute, and then it was over.

The Emperor turned to Hollon.

"President Hollon, the Empire grieves for those who lost their lives and homes because of my son's actions. I stand ready to offer compensation for all losses. Please, let us start friends."

"The Confederation and Council accepts your apology, your Highness," said Hollon. "The events of the past two weeks were a tragedy. Let us just be thankful that a larger one, another war between our peoples, has been averted."

Hollon offered the Emperor his hand. The Emperor accepted, and the two shook.

"There is one thing more," the Emperor said. "There can no longer be any mistrust between our peoples. We have come to the brink of war because of mistrust, hatred, and ignorance. I must take steps to insure that this does not happen again."

He gestured to a courtier, who brought up a small box. He handed the box to Hollon.

"This is my gift to your people," said the Emperor. "In this box, there are data storage units which are compatible with your technology. These storage units include all of the total technology the T'zir possess...including all our weapons technology. Use them, if you wish, to make yourselves as strong we are, and to enrich your lives. Build novaships, if you wish. Be our our friends."

"I...I don't know what to say," said Hollon. "Thank you seems...understated."

"It will do," the Emperor smiled.

"Why do you do this?" asked Hollon.

"Our first encounters with your people taught us that humans lusted for the things we possess that they did not have. If we give them freely to you, then you need not lust for them. Therefore, you need not take them from us...we give them to you. As friends."

"Now, if you don't mind," said the Emperor, " I would like to speak with my sons."

"Of course, " said Hollon. The Emperor went off to find his sons.

He found them together, and with their mother. He noted with pleasure that G'val/Ryan had immediately accepted her, and she sat close to the son she had missed for years.

"My sons," he said. "Well done. Very well done, indeed."

"I'm sorry I had to kill R'gal," said Ryan. "There was no other choice."

"I know. Do not worry over what had to be done, my son. You have done the right thing."

"And now what will you do?" asked the empress. "Will you come back with us?"

Ryan nodded.

"At least for now," he said. "I always wondered about my family...I expected them to be on the human side, though. I didn't expect this."

"I think that you will find," said the Emperor, "that we are very much the same, we T'zir and the humans. We have the same feelings and emotions. We get angry, we hate...and we love," he added, caressing the empress' shoulders. "We are more alike than unlike."

"How true," murmered the empress.

"But I am pleased that you are coming home, G'val," he continued. "when you were lost before I had even seen you, I felt as if my heart was torn from me. Now, I am restored."

"And I, too," said Ryan "For so many years I have been...empty. That's behind me now"

They went on then, to talk of other things. Ryan, now G'val, was presented to those present as Prince G'val. The gathering went deep into the late hours.

At length, Ryan found himself standing beside an observation port. He looked out upon the infinate darkness, his mind reflecting over his life, and the past few days.

They had come through darkness and fire, and back into the light. The possibility of war was behind them, and ahead of them lay the future.

For Ryan, it was an uncertain future, but a new beginning. He had found his family, but would he ever truly feel as one of them? He didn't know, but something told him that it would be so.

It was quite late when N'tal found his brother standing there, staring out into space.

"G'val," he said. "Is something bothering you?"

"When I first contacted Father, he said that there were things that I did not know which made it imperative that there not be war between the Confederation and the Empire. A while ago, I was talking with Admiral Stancil and Admiral S'lan, and I discovered that the T'zir possess a far more powerful fleet than we, well , the Confederation ever suspected."

He looked at N'tal directly.

"Tell me, N'tal," he said, "what did our father mean?"

"Well, I guess it won't hurt to tell you," said N'tal. "You'll be told all this when we get back home anyway."

"That fleet your Admiral Stancil saw was really only a small part of our fleet. We actually have over fourty thousand warships in service. And we need them all."

"For what"

"You see, G'val, we are already at war."

The End... For Now

R.R. Bennett is a writer and life-long lover of Science Fiction and Fantasy. He was also the Owner/Publisher/Editor of The Dragon's Lair Webzine and was instrumental in the creation of Aphelion Webzine. His writing includes the popular Weary Wyrm series, several short stories, and the SF Novella "Starshock". His work has appeared in The Dragon's Lair, and also here in Aphelion Webzine. He resides in Bel Air, Maryland with his wife and children. He is employed full-time as a Sheet Metal Work Leader for the U.S. Government at Aberdeen Test Center, located at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Maryland.

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