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."
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 did...that...to 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 located....it 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."
"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."
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 that...here. 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 you...it 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."
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."
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.'