By Dennis St.John

...Their's not to make reply, their's not to reason why, their's but to do and die...

Alfred Lord Tennyson 'Charge of the Light Brigade'

"Message torp came in, sir." The communications officer announced, entering the Admiral's day cabin, message pad in hand.

"Some good news for a change I hope?" Admiral Richard Gray murmured, looking up from his book. He frowned when he saw the worried look on Lieutenant Dunn's face. "What do their Lordships at the Admiralty have to say?" He asked, expecting the usual meaningless duty, waving the offered message pad away.

"The Zarell have raided one of our positions, sir, and reading between the lines, they caught us napping, again." Lieutenant Dunn said, looking none too happy.

Gray pinched the bridge of his nose and shook his head. "What was the butcher's bill?" He asked, wondering if the situation could get worse.

"They captured eight ships and slaughtered the crews, sir, and at present are piloting six of the ships back to their lines as war trophies." Dunn paused, his eye flicking up to look at the Admiral for his reaction, but his face was blank. Then he continued. "As we are the closest combat unit, HQ has ordered us to pursue and re-capture them." Lieutenant Dunn swallowed. "We are NOT, repeat NOT to permit them to across the line into Zarell space."

"Good!" The Admiral shut his book with a loud snap, causing Lieutenant Dunn to jump slightly. "Looks as if we'll see some action at last," he said with satisfaction, "its not much, but better than the usual." At long last, the Admiralty was giving him a chance, a small one, but a chance none-the-less.

"Yes, sir." Lieutenant Dunn answered, sounding dubious.

"At least it'll kill this damn boredom!" The Admiral growled, noting his communications officer's lack of enthusiasm.

"Right, sir." Lieutenant Dunn smiled, sweat beading his upper lip.

"Send a message to all ships to come to the ready and prepare to depart station." Gray said with relish, a wolfish grin on his dark face.

He stood and stretched, running his hand through his short sandy hair, as he tried to work the kinks out of his shoulders from sitting to long doing nothing.

"Yes, sir." The officer cut a sloppy salute and departed.

Gray turned and placed the book, Sun Tzu's 'The art of War' in the rack beside others of the same genre, all concerned with the history of warfare through out the ages. Thankfully the human race wasn't at war with itself this time, but an alien race called the Zarell. He paused for a moment before sliding it into place, wondering if, in the age of space warfare, Sun Tzu's theories would work as well again aliens as humans. He could only pray they did, so far humankind wasn't doing well.

The Zarell had slowly and methodically driving Earth forces back across the star field from system to system, until here. Just two jumps away from Earth, the Terran Navy had at last managed to fight them to a standstill. Now, they were mostly engaged in a holding action, or dreary picket duty along the so-called border line, while the high command endeavored to figure out its next brilliant move.

Admiral Gray changed from his uniform whites into the skin tight combat suit, but didn't climb into the battle armor; that would come later, assuming they found the raiders. It also made the crew a little nervous seeing the CO running around in armor so early.

"Admiral on the bridge!" The marine guard called as he stalked through the companionway, ducking his head under the transom.

"Status report, Number One." He snapped, feeling alive for the first time in months, his dark gray eyes flicking around the bridge from station to station, missing nothing.

Cold hard steel and gun metal gray bulkhead met his gaze. The stark, utilitarian order broken only by the soft overhead lights and the red, yellow and green read-outs on the individual consults. The faces in front painted blue-green from the glow of the monitors. The air tasted of ozone and that extra something gained from passing through the filtration systems too many times. Under his feet the deck vibrated softly yet reassuringly, giving a sense of power and purpose for once, instead of the empty promise of another useless patrol.

"Aye, sir," the first officer replied crisply, moving from the command chair to his own station. "All ships standing by, all crew at ready stations."

"Thank you, Number One." Gray nodded as he sat in the vacated seat. "Nav?" He said, scanning the read-outs on the panel beside him.

"Course plotted and laid in, sir." The navigation officer answered, sounding eager.

"Very good-Helm, bring us to the new course-maneuvering speed if you please."

"Aye, aye, sir, maneuvering speed it is." Conner Blake, the helmsman answered.

Ding! Ding! - Ding! Ding! The electronic simulation of a ship's engine room telegraph sounded though the bridge, answered a moment late by Ding! Ding! as the engine room repeater acknowledged the order.

The vibration in the deck plates increasing as they moved away from station. Although a bit archaic, the Admiral liked hearing the sound of the telegraph, it felt right. Even though they now traveled among the stars, it was a reminder of their roots in the oceans of Earth. The Admiralty in their infinite wisdom had decided to keep the tradition; why change it just because they were now in space instead of on water, the winsome bells and cable long since replaced by fiber optic and solid state electronics. The 182,000 tons of the aging heavy cruiser, H.M.S. 'REPULSE' moved slowly away from station on the new heading, its fleet of lesser ships moving along with it.

Gray glanced to his right. "Comm, send to all ships: deploy into sweep pattern GRAY-SW ONE-optimum communication distance between all ships, no active sensor sweeps, passive only." That might just give them an edge to catch the enemy raiders before the enemy detected them.

"Aye, sir, GRAY-SW ONE it is." The communications officer replied, then, "All ships acknowledge, Admiral, moving into position." He announced a moment later.

"Thank you, Mr. Dunn," Admiral Gray acknowledged, looking at the main view screen.

Gray watched with a certain degree of pride, as slowly the view changed, and one heavy cruiser, ten light cruisers, twenty destroyers, one hundred corvettes, mine sweepers and pickets ships moved majestically into his spider web formation.

Between them 294 lesser ships moved into position, from fast attack boats to single and dual seat fighters. All comprising the 600 ships of the 21 (light) Attack Squadron, part of the Royal Navy contingent to the Terran Alliance Deep Space Force. The Squadron should have been lead by a battleship, and Admiral Gray rated it, but their Lordships at the Admiralty deemed the 21 unworthy of such costly expenditure.

"GRAY-SW ONE executed, sir; all ships now in position." The First Officer announced.

"Thank you, Number One," Admiral Gray acknowledged, "lets prey that the gods of war were smiling on us."

Now he'd see if his planning and training paid off as the ships swept across the star field, all electronic ears straining to pick up the whisper of a drive trail from the background hiss of interstellar static. Even with these many ships spread out across the stars, compared with the immensity of space, they only covered a tiny fraction of it. Still, this spider web formation provided far better coverage than the standard naval maneuver, even if it did carry the penalty of losing ships in a surprise attack.

"Maybe this time, we'll get a spot of action, Number One." Gray said, leaning back in his chair, a smile on his face for once.

"Hope so, sir. Anything to break this boredom." Gray could hear the unspoken complaint in the First Officer's voice, and the note of bitterness.

"Yes, I know what you mean." He said, with a sympathetic nod.

They'd spent months cruising back and forth at the very edge of the main conflict with no way to enter it. Gray doubted the situation would change any time soon, unless he could find a way around it. This might just be their chance. Yet, the hours dragged by with no contact, the double Ding! Dings! of the ship's electronic bell sounded the passing of the hour again and again. The watches changed and ship's crews grabbed hot meals and uncomfortable naps, sleeping, or trying too, only to return to duty on the next watch with red eyes, sour stomachs, and rumpled uniforms.

"Contact!" The sensor officer yelled at last. "Bearing Green 213.887 by 875.36."

Admiral Gray shot upright, galvanized by the words. "Comm, order all ships to come about onto the new heading on my mark." Gray snapped, now they'd sighted the enemy the tension in the air increased.

"Aye, sir." The communications officer replied as he sent the coded message.

"Helm, bring us round onto the new heading on my mark." Gray kept his eye on the battle board, waiting for the right moment.

"Aye, sir." Conner Blake acknowledged.

"All ships awaiting your order, sir." Gradually, the enemy group moved from the top left hand corner of the board to the center.

"Execute in five, helm!" Gray ordered as the cruiser came into the enemy drive trails. It placed them in the center, and right behind the enemy, ready to take the brunt of any attack should they see then and turn to fight.

"Aye, sir. In five-four-three-two-one. Executing." Gray watched as his fleet came round onto the new heading. It was ragged, not up to main fleet standards, but acceptable.

"They haven't seen us yet, sir." The sensor officer called out.

"Good! Comm; order all ships to close up and increase speed to one third-helm, increase speed, ahead one third."

"Aye, sir!" Both chorused in union. "Increasing speed to one third."

"All ships acknowledging, sir." Lieutenant Dunn added.

"Shall I bring the fleet to battle station, sir?" Andy Blackman asked.

"Thank you comm." Gray said, turning to his second-in-command. "No, Number One, not yet, we don't want them getting excited."

"Yes, sir." Blackman said with a smile. No one wanted to sit around in battle armor unless they had to.

"Now, let's just hope they don't find a warp point and hightail it down the proverbial rabbit hole before we have a chance to nab them." Gray muttered, more in jest than anything. "Where are we headed Nav?"

"On a direct course to Hanson's Nebular, sir." The officer replied, already plotting a course around it, should the Admiral order it.

"Damn! could get sticky in there, sir," Blackman said, "and a bit of an odd route to take back to their lines, don't you think?" A worry frown crinkling his high forehead.

Gray stroked his chin with this thumb, thinking. "Yes I do, Number One, plus, it will be like trying to find a black cat in a coal mine at midnight in there, but we can go active, and they can't run, not with the density of dust and debris inside the nebular." Yet it bothered him. Why take a route that would slow you down, then the sensor officer interrupted his thoughts.

"We're closing, sir, but not fast enough; we'll be in contact with the Nebular in ten, I repeat, ten minutes, and contract with the enemy in twelve."

"Acknowledged." Gray frowned. "Damn! that means we'll have to follow then through Number One; there's no way we can deploy and encircle them before they reach the nebular." Gray nodded towards the dark mass that comprised the famous cloud.

"I agree, sir, and there's a chance we could lose some of our own ships in there if we aren't careful."

"We'll have to take that chance, the Zarell border is only a few parsecs on the other side."

"Still time to catch them, sir."

"Only if we're quick off the mark when we get through."

"That might be pushing it, seeing the caliber of ships and crews we have." The First Officer said in a low tone. He regretted it the moment he spoke, his eyes flicked to look at Admiral Gray's, then around at the bridge staff.

Gray choked back a biting reply at his First Officer's lack of discretion, but he was right, but he hated being reminded of it. With exception of the old timers, he had the dregs of the Navy under him. All the dead beat officer, second rate ships, and all the screw up and problem ratings that none of the other ships in the fleet wanted. Andy Blackman saw the bitter look on Admiral Gray's face, but said nothing.

"I'm going to my day cabin to freshen up. You have the bridge, Number One." He said, standing, then quickly left.

"Aye, sir, I have the con." Andy Blackman answered automatically, breathing a sigh of relief as he sat down in the vacated seat.

"Must have touched a nerve there." Blackman muttered to himself as the Marine Guard sang out 'Admiral off the Bridge'. He pulled at his ear lobe in thought, but the helmsman heard his muttered comment.

"If I might say, sir," Conner Blake said, turning his head and speaking in a soft voice, "don't judge the Skipper by what you hear, not all official reports are true."

Standing up, Andy Blackman moved over to stand beside the Chief Petty Officer. Conner nodded to the standby helmsman, who moved off to another position to give them privacy.

"What do you mean, Chief?" He asked, eyeing the rest of the men on the bridge, but no one to seemed to pay them any attention.

"You've only been with us a few months, sir, so you might not know the whole story like the rest of us," Conner made a slight correction in their course, then continued, "I was there, sir, with the Skipper, and chose to stay when the Admiralty dumped this on him, as did most of the men and women in the fleet."

"So what happened?" Andy Blackman asked. He knew the bare bones of the story, that Admiral Gray had disobeyed order and caused the death of a lot of people.

"Ten years ago we were stationed on the frontier, on a planet called Zaharapol." Conner Blake waited to see if the name rang a bell. It did, and by the look on Andy Blackman's face he knew the 'official' story, and understood the First Officer's bitterness about his posting here. "As an Admiral, they couldn't very well charged him with cowardice and shoot him, so they did the next best thing. This unit became the dumping ground for the dregs of the navy, and given the worse duty possible."

"Was he guilty?" It was a hard question, yet Conner took no offense.

"No, sir, none of us were."

"So what did happen?" Conner Blake hunched his shoulder slightly as if expecting a blow.

"We received a message the Zarell were raiding the settlement on Christchurch in force; We were ordered to proceed there to help defend it." Conner said, his voice barely above a whisper. "The old man took the whole garrison with him, ground-based troops included; His thinking was, he might have to put them down to drive the Zarell off if they had landed in force."

"So Zaharapol was defenseless?"

"Yes, sir, but at the time, and under the circumstances, a proper decision, in light of the what we knew about the Zarell then." Andy Blackman scanned the bridge, seeing the men and women around him in a different light. All were guilty by association.

"We were almost there when a message torp caught up with us saying Zaharapol was also under attack," Conner swallowed hard, pausing in his narration for a moment, "at the most," he said at last, "there were 10,000 people in the settlement on Christchurch, plus a garrison, ground based and satellite defense systems; on Zaharapol, there were over 300,000 men, women and children; many of them the dependence of the men and women of this fleet, all looking to us for their defense."

"Good God!" Andy muttered, feeling a shiver run up his spine, seeing the horrible dilemma.

"Yes, that's exactly what the old man said." Conner looked glum. "Damn it! we could see the Zarell attacking Christchurch, and the Admiralty was wrong, it was only a small raiding force; some of them even turn toward us, and we had an opportunity to get a few, enough to tip the balance in favor of the defenders, maybe: The old man didn't, choosing instead to turn and run back to Zaharapol at flank speed, thinking that Christchurch could defend itself from such as small force."

"So both planets fell to the Zarell." Andy Blackman muttered, seeing the obvious result.

"Aye, sir, they did." Conner said, nodding his head. "When we got to Zaharapol the place was devastated, the Zarell had used mass drive weapons against the planet, killing 85 per cent of the people." He said softly, thinking of the 100 ton chucks of rock crashing down on the cities and settlements.

"Damn!" Andy Blackman shook his head. "So, you ran back to Christchurch and found they'd done the same thing there?" Seeing Conner nodded in reply.

"My wife and two children were among the dead on Zaharapol, sir, as were the Admiral's." Even now Andy Blackman could hear the pain in the CPO words. "In one stroke the Skipper had succeeded in losing all our families, and two planets, instead of one."

"But! good God, what did they expect you to do, abandon your own families and friends? defend Christchurch and leave Zaharapol to burn?" He asked, his tone sharp.

"Yes sir, that's exactly what they did expect, I suppose, and said so at the review board hearing." Andy Blackman could hear the note of anger in the helmsman's voice. "To the High Command, Admiral Gray had disobeyed a direct order, bordering on cowardliness, and consequently lost both ways."

"But!" Andy muttered in frustration.

"No buts, sir; You ALWAYS obey orders, no matter what the cost." Conner Blake snapped. "That's what we are here for, isn't it, and the only leeway you have is to execute them in such a way as to gain a victory and minimize your losses." Conner Blake sounded almost angry as he said it.

"Entering the Nebular, sir." The navigation's officer called out, breaking them out of their private conversation.

"Acknowledged." Andy Blackman said at once, "Start active sweeps, we don't want to lose them." He keyed the comm unit to the Admiral's day cabin and updated him.

"Entering the cloud, sir." Andy Blackman announced as the marine sang out 'Admiral on the Bridge'. He moved back to his own seat as the gaseous clouds and roiling dust drifts engulfed the fleet, shields flaring as masses of dust particles swept past them.

"Damn! Damn! Damn!" The sensor officer snarled a few moments later.

"Report Mr. Edwards!" Admiral Gray barked, hearing the exclamation as he sat down.

"They found a rabbit hole, sir!" The sensor officer thumped his fist on the navigation consult, as if missing the warp point inside the Nebular were something personal.

"In here?!" Gray and Blackman said together.

"Yes, sir, in here! The Nebular hid it from our sensor sweep."

"Christ on a crutch!" Andy Blackman muttered. "At least we know now how the Zarell have been able to sneak in and out without our knowing about it."

"Too late to worry about it now," Admiral Gray snapped. "Mr. Dunn! order the fleet to close up as quickly as possible; we're going in after them."

"Aye, sir, sending message."

"Helm, slow to quarter speed."

"Aye, sir, slowing to quarter speed."

"We have no way of knowing what's on the other side of the warp point, sir, shall I launch a scout probe?" Andy Blackman ventured.

"No, no time for that, Number One. By the time it reports back we will be there ourselves, wherever 'there' is."

"Aye, sir." He didn't like the sound of that. It was a dangerous move, jumping blindly through a warp point, and against Naval Policy. They could end up inside a mine field, or a sun.

Slowly the fleet closed up around the aging cruiser as it slowed, fighters and smaller ships without warp drive docking or landing. The Admiral sat feigning calm, inside wishing they'd hurry up, cursing his luck for ending up with so many misfits. At last the board signaled that all ships were ready.

"Helm! slow to one third ahead and prepare to go to warp."

"Aye, aye sir!" The helmsman sang out.

"All ships reporting ready, Admiral."


"Entering warp point event horizon, sir."

"Slow to maneuvering speed, helm."

"Aye, sir, slowing to maneuvering speed." Ding! Ding! The engine room repeater answered the command a moment later.

"Warp generators on line, sir," the engineer officer called, just as the strident tone of the warp alarm sounded, warning all hands to brace themselves for the warp transfer.

"Helm, engage warp field."

"Aye, sir. Engaging warp field in Five. Four. Three. Two. One."

Blackness engulfed them, a dizzy, stomach churning blackness of non-space that seemed to last forever, yet the elapse time counter showed no passage of time at all.

It was as if the universe had stopped for a moment, then, just as suddenly, began again. The moment they entered normal space alarms started to wailed, and sensors flashing into the red as the crew strove to shake off the lingering effects of the transfer.

"Good God!" Andy Blackman muttered, his words echoed around the bridge by every officer and crew member as they realized where they were. "It's the Cul-de-Sac!"

"Drive trails if you please, Mr. Edwards." The Admiral's crisp command pulled each of them back to their duties.

"I have multiple drive trails, sir, some going into the Cul-de-Sac, others to starboard," announced the Sensor Officer.

"Which is which, Mr. Edwards!" Gray asked sharply, annoyed and scared at the same time.

"Not sure, sir!"

"Then get sure, or take a wild ass guess, I have to know, NOW!" The Admiral's patience snapped.

"Straight ahead, sir, right into the Cul-de-Sac." Lieutenant Edwards, stammered out the words, feeling as if he'd just signed their death warrant.

"Shit!" Andy Blackman muttered.

"Not exactly the correct naval term, Number One, but under the circumstances, eloquent and to the point."

"You're not thinking of going in there, are you, sir?" Andy Blackman looked at the Admiral in horror, as a shiver ran down his back.

Admiral Gray took a deep breath. "I have my orders, Mr. Blackman, therefore, no choice; Those captured ships are under no circumstances to be permitted to cross into Zarell space."

"Sir!" Andy Blackman's resolved calm vanishing, "it's suicide to go in there after those ships!"

"I have my orders Mr. Blackman." Gray repeated, stubbornly, his jaw set.

"But what if those are the wrong drive trails, what then?"

"We shall soon find out, won't we." The Admiral breathed deeply, controlling his emotions.

"Its a mistake, Admiral!" Andy Blackman's said, his heart pounding. "I protest! If we go blundering in there, we could all get killed!" In answer, Admiral Gray looked at him, his gunmetal gray eyes like twin gun barrels.

"Mr. Blackman, your protest is noted for the record. Please beat to quarters and bring the fleet to battle stations!" For a split second it looked as if Andy Blackman would refuse, his face ashen.

"Aye, aye, sir. Battle station it is," he said stiffly, then nodded to the Marine guard who keyed the alarm for general quarter.

The drum roll echoed and re-echoed through all the ships of the fleet, galvanizing men and women into sudden action, everything else forgotten as they dived into battle suits and pounded along the passageways to their assigned duty stations. As each position reported in, airtight bulkheads and companionways hissed and clanged shut and locked, sealing the ship in case of a hull breach or boarding.

At last the green ready lights flashed across the battle board, as each ship and station reported in, but Admiral Gray didn't move to put on his battle armor until the entire board was green.

"Mr. Blackman, order all ships to deploy in Battle formation Delta One and launch all fighters and auxiliary ships-helm, bring us to slow ahead if you please."

"Aye, sir, battle formation Delta One, launching all ships." He answered tonelessly, sweat beading his upper lip, knowing he couldn't stop it, no matter what he said.

"Aye, sir, slow ahead it is!" There was a tightness to Conner Blake's response now.

"Guns, charge all weapons-engineering, bring shields to maximum."

"Aye, sir," they answered together.

"All bulkhead and airtight doors secured." The engineering office called.

"All batteries report ready, all weapons on-line," the gunnery officer barked.

"Acknowledged," Admiral Gray said as he stood up, and with the help of one of the marines climbed into his battle armor and clamped the helmet in place.

He didn't close the face plate, that would snap shut automatically should the bridge loose air pressure, and sitting down again, he leaned back in his command chair, a knot of fear in his stomach, but all doubts gone.

"Now it begins, and may God have mercy on our souls." He whispered, forgetting the internal microphone in his helmet would pick it up.

"Amen to that Admiral." Blackman answered in his earphone, his mouth dry and coppery.

Before them lay Cul-de-Sac, one of the most heavily defended areas of Zarell space, and nothing less than a slaughter-house for any ships that dare enter.

Shaped like a sack, and surrounded by dense gas and dust fields, this celestial anomaly was impossible to pass though, and would take months to fly round: The only way in, or out was through the narrow opening that the fleet was now entering. What the Zarell was defending no one knew. A major warp point, some said. Other reports indicated a major planetary system or supply point.

What ever it was, the Zarell had placed a large force there to defend it, covering every side with heavy weapons, ships, missile emplacements and laser batteries. Creating a field of fire that even a large battle group couldn't get through, as more than one Terran fleet had found to its cost.

"All ships now in formation Delta One, sir," the sensor officer called. Admiral Gray could see that for himself in the battle screen, but acknowledged the information anyway.

"Very good, Mr. Edwards." Naval doctoring and tactics dictated a more open formation so as not to provide easy targets, relying on the ships own defense systems to handle incoming fire, or ordnance. In this tight formation, the shields overlapped somewhat, and Gray hoped, gain a bit of added protection.

"Your orders, sir?" Andy Blackman asked stiffly, his throat so dry he couldn't swallow.

For a moment, the universe around him stood still. Here it was again, a second chance, but this time they couldn't fault him if he decided to turn and run.

Even the information that a warp point existed inside Hanson's nebular was of vital importance. Yet he had his orders, and he'd found to his cost the price of disobeying them. He wasn't about to make that mistake again. It was suicide, as Andy Blackman said, and the chances of getting through were slim, not with the fire power massed against them. Even now, there was no clear evidence that the raiding party they were after was even here, but his orders were clear. At last he took a deep breath and keyed the library computer to look for two files. Mistake or not, he was going in.

"Mr. Dunn, dispatch a message torp informing HQ of our situation and that we are proceeding as ordered." Admiral Gray could feel the uncertainty on the bridge, and if that was true here, what of the rest of the fleet?

"Aye, aye, sir, dispatching message torp." The communications officer's face had taken on a greenish hue as he completed downloading the message and data logs, launching it into the void behind them. His hand shook so badly his finger missing the launch button the first time, and he felt as if he was about to throw up. For him, getting posted to this unit was a relief, as the chances of it seeing combat was nil.

"Give me an open link to all ships, Mr. Blackman."

"Aye, sir, you have an open link." He answered, keying the inter-ship communications relay.

"Men and women of the 21, this is Admiral Gray," taking a deep breath he paused for a moment, gathering his thoughts, then continued. "Before you lays the enemy that destroyed Zaharapol, our home base, slaughtering our families and friends: Before you lays the enemy that devastated Christchurch and butchered every man, woman and child there." Admiral Gray waited for a second to let his words sink in. "For too long that Zarell have pushed us back across space with the intent of wiping us out, laughing at our attempts to make peace, but not today! today we make war and avenge our dead, and show them that we have as much right to be here as they do!" Gray stopped and looked directly at the video pickup. "Many of you weren't with us at Zaharapol, but I expect every one of you to do his and her duty this day, for Earth, this unit and for themselves, Gray out!" The Admiral re-focused his attention on the battle at hand.

"Helm, bring us to one quarter ahead, if you please," He ordered, pressing the play button on his consult.

"Aye, sir, one quarter ahead it is." The Flagship's speed increased, as did the rest of the fleet, and they entered the mouth of the Cul-de-Sac.

All heard a bugle sound then, and more than one looked at his partner in puzzlement as the sharp notes of the cavalry walk sounded throughout the fleet. Slowly they entered the Sac and came under the waiting weapons.

"Helm! bring us to half ahead." The Admiral ordered as they passed through the narrow opening.

"Aye, sir, half ahead it is," Conner answered, just as a bugle sounded. This time the cavalry call to trot as Gray hit the play button again. In the background a muttering of drums echoed through the ships of the fleet. Most missed it, their attention on other things, but one man heard it, Jason Kawasaki.

"What the hell is that noise Jason?" Sharky Pool, his partner in the weapons pod asked, fingering the weapon control grips with sweaty hands.

"Those, my ignorant friend, are Tyco drums," Jason answered, smiling as he recognized the familiar sound.

"Tyco drums? What the hell are they?" Sharky asked, already bored with a potential answer that didn't involve beer or women.

"They were used long ago to drive away evil spirits and prepare warriors for battle."

"Oh, that just fragging great," Sharky muttered darkly, "now the old man is going to bore us to dead with fragging tom toms!"

"No, I don't think so." Jason smiled, fully appreciating what the old man was trying to do.

He knew it would get louder and louder, pulling the men and women of the fleet into its grip. The pounding hypnotic rhythm of the drums would drive away the evil spirits all right, the evil spirit of fear.

Jason let himself go, becoming one with the beating drums, feeling calm and certain now as he looked at the massed weapons of the Zarell in his targeting screen. Sharky Pool swung his targeting scanner through its maximum range, yet no matter where he looked all he could see was Zarell weapons pointed at them.

"Jason my lad, I hate to say this, but we're frigging dead!" Leaning back in his pod, Sharky stuck his hand over the mounting between them. "Been nice knowing you, Jason, and for a Jap, you are one hell of a man." His voice sounding like gravel falling down a steel chute. Seeing the gloved hand, Jason took it and shook, squeezing hard, feeling Sharky respond.

"And for an drunken ignorant Brit, you are one hell of a friend, Sharky" Jason whispered, unable to speak clearly, feeling as if a giant hand was pressing down on his chest. Sharky heard him though the headset and nodded, squeezing his friends hand harder, vision blurred.

Six hundred ships of the 21 (light) Attack Squadron of the Terran Alliance Navy swept down the center of the Cul-de-Sac as the weapons of their enemy opened up.

"Comm, squawk our unit recognition signal and let the enemy know who's coming," Admiral Gray ordered, looking at the wall of weapons facing him on all sides.

"Sir?!" Lieutenant Dunn asked in amazement.

"Do I have to repeat myself Mr. Dunn?"

"No, sir. Aye, sir, squawking our recognition signal," he acknowledged, wondering if the old man had gone mad.

"And keep sending it, Mr. Dunn!"

"Aye, sir." He answered without hesitation this time, but his hands shook as he keyed the IFF signal, sweating, despite the cooling unit in his battle suit.

"Enemy units closing in behind us, sir." The sensor officer announced.

"Acknowledged Mr. Edwards, did the message torp get through?"

"Yes sir, hard to catch one of those little devils." He chuckled.

"So now we have only one way to go, Admiral." Blackman said, gripping the arm of his seat.

"Yes, Andy, right down their throats." Gray said, his voice as hard as the armor plate around him.

"Should I order the fleet to open fire?" Andy Blackman asked nervously, seeing another ship take a hit and explore into nothingness.

"No, only the point defense systems; why waste energy and missiles at this point lad, let's save them for later, if there is a 'later'."

"Death or glory, sir?!" Andy Blackman asked, feeling beads of perspiration pop out on his forehead at the thought, astonished at the sheer fire power coming at them.

"You've got it, Number One." There was no humor in his tight-lipped grin. "Helm! bring us to three quarter speed if you please." Admiral Gray called out calmly.

"Aye, aye, sir, three quarter speed it is," Conner Blake answered in a firm voice, a tight smile on his face, the light of battle in his eyes. Now he would have his revenge.

The bugle sounded the canter, the fleet leaping forward as if in response, throwing the enemy weapons off track. Even so, energy discharges erupted between the ships, taking their toll. Here and there, shields flared as they absorbed the impact, or flared brighter in overload and died, leaving the ships defenseless.

Yet, those that could still maneuver drove forward, unwavering in their course towards the enemy position. The Enemy targeting scanners re-computed the new speed, compensating, bringing weapons too bare to renew the slaughter: Smaller ships flared into non-existence, larger ones absorbed the damage or died by inches as air leaked to space. Many ships were already dead in space, waiting for the final blow that would destroy them.

"Half way point, Admiral." Blackman said, wincing as the cruiser rocked and rang with the impact of several direct hits, deck plate peeling back to expose the interior, the point defense system totally inadequate to handle the number of incoming missiles.

Whole sections of the superstructure were torn from their mounting by silent explosions to go whirling and spinning away into the darkness.

"Acknowledged, Number One." Gray said, his face tight, watching and waiting for the right moment. "Helm, full speed if you please," Gray ordered, praying that the old girl would hold together long enough to do the job.

"Aye, aye, sir, full speed it is," the helmsman voice remained calm and sure. One way or another he was going to get her there. The pounding beat of the Tyco drums increased, becoming louder, the bugle sounded the gallop and the drive trails of the fleet brightened in response, but so did the intensity of the incoming fire.

The Zarell realized then, that the Earthier Fleet wasn't about to turn and run, as so many others had.

"Two thirds, sir!" Blackman reported as the cruiser rocked again He heard plates groan and buckle and men and women scream as the inter-ship communications overloaded with shouted commands and the cries of the dying.

"Now, helm! Flank speed!" Admiral Gray barked, leaning forward in expectation.

The bugle sounded the cavalry charge, and none in the fleet had any doubt what it was. The Tyco drum pounded out their beat, louder and louder, driving away any thought of fear or turning back.

The men and women of the fleet screamed their hatred, pounding on consuls and weapons casings, finger twitching on weapon controls, waiting for the order to fire; the end of the Cul-de-Sac and the enemy coming closer and closer by the second. Yet many would never live to see it.

The far end of the Cul-de-Sac erupted in a maelstrom of death as high energy laser beams lashed out, criss-crossing the void in lances of fire, missiles racing away from their launchers on silent wings of death, like the hounds of hell unleashed. The space around them filled with ravaging fury, targeting screens lit with multiple contact as ship-killing missiles swept towards them, but it didn't matter. Nothing mattered now except reaching the enemy and destroying him, not family and friends, not god, not county, not even death!

For a moment, the starboard shield of the heavy cruiser buckled, permitting a second beam to hit the hull amidships, armor plate glowed red, then white hot before it exploded into the void, the beam probing deeper, cutting metal and flesh before it died.

"Damage control party to the bridge on the double." the Engineering officer sang out, spraying quick seal foam on an air leak.

"Guns! order all units to open fire directly ahead." The Admiral snapped, his voice tight with emotion.

"Aye, aye, sir, opening fire now." The gunnery officer acknowledged as he released the main weaponry, coughing blood as he did.

Brilliant lances of fire flashed out ahead of the fleet as external ordinance lifted from their racks, drive units flaring bright blue as they sped silently after the beams of destruction.

The bridge of the heavy cruiser was a mess, half in darkness, with the sharp screaming hiss of escaping air and cries of injured people. Smoke obscured the main battle screen as bright blue-white sparks from shorting electrical circuits danced in the air. It didn't matter, nothing mattered now, they only had one way to go, and Admiral Gray sat back in his command chair, one side of his battle armor badly scorched, at peace with himself at last. It wasn't important if he lived or died today, only that the stain be wiped from his unit.

If only one ship survived to tell the tale, it would be enough. For a moment he thought of his wife and children, dead in the rubble of their home, knowing this was as much for them as anything. He would have his revenge today, not just for their death but all the others' families that had died on Zaharapol and Christchurch. Never again would he have to hear someone say that all the ships of his fleet should be painted yellow.

"Gray to all ships, comm-execute pattern Delta Rose once we are through the enemy lines."

"AYE, AYE, SIR!" The communications officer yelled back, nursing a broken arm and forgetting that his face-plate, along with the others, was closed, at last his fear forgotten. Gray winced and smiled, forgiving the man the oversight of shouting. "Sending message now, sir."

The fleet drove straight into the maelstrom of death and down the barrels of the guns, none veering from its course. The enemy watched in disbelief and horror as the Earthier ships kept coming, seemingly oblivious to the death and destruction around them.

Fleets do not attack heavily defended positions, fleets attack other fleet in space, they do not plunge in headlong flight against a wall of weapons, nor continue after suffering such staggering loses, especially one as under gunned as this one. Yet this one did, barbaric drums pounding out a hypnotic beat, flashing its unit recognition signal like some archaic battle flag, getting closer and closer by the second, until at last they closed with their enemy.

The remnants of the 21 passed through the cauldron of fire and smashed into and through the Zarell lines, some driving their dying ships into opposing units to open up a hole for the remainder of the fleet to pass through. The moment they did, the fleet blossomed into the Delta Rose formation, flowing in all directions around the rear of the enemy position.

Inertial dampening fields and the pseudo gravity generators screamed and groaned as they attempted to compensate for the abrupt turn, as did the men and women of the fleet, who saw red at the edge of their vision, some blacking out as gee forces pulled at their bodies.

It was an impossible turn, born of desperation and the knowledge that they were through, they had survived, and now had the enemy at their mercy. There was no way the Zarell could bring their drive units up to turn their ships to escape the slaughter, and with no drive flares to worry about, the Terran fleet could sweep across their sterns with impunity, firing and destroying ship after ship. The Zarell found no mercy that day.

"Get us out of here!" The Zarell Commander screamed, seeing the battered Terran heavy cruiser, coming straight at him.

"Let take this one out, Number One." Admiral Gray said, his voice calm as he indicated a Zarell battleship in front of them, ignoring the fire storm of high energy coming at them.

"Aye, aye, sir!" Blackman answered, a savage grin on his face. "Guns! all weapons to concentrate on designated target!" He called, just as the assistant gunnery rating moved his dead commander out of the way and took over the station, wiping blood off the view screen.

"Aye, aye sir-all weapons coming to bear now!" The woman acknowledged in a shaky voice.

Had the Zarell commander kept his drive units on line and managed to turn his ship only slightly, he might have escaped the worst of the incoming laser fire and missiles. He didn't, and a moment later his rear shields flared and buckled, a missile warhead finishing the job. As the heavy cruiser passed across and under the enemy ship's stern, Admiral Gray could see it leaking drive plasma and air to space, it's engine room a shambles. It was dead in space, weapons useless without the energy to power them. There was life aboard, but life without purpose as they awaited the end, knowing they had failed. The slaughter continued for an hour as the remnants of the battle group sated itself in an orgy of destruction before heeding the call to re-group. Admiral Gray sighed tiredly as the last ship reported in, turning to his second-in- command.

"What's the butcher's bill, Number One?" He asked in a scratchy voice, unsealing his face plate as the damage control officer gave him the thumbs up sign. He realized that he too had been screaming and shouting as much as any man or woman in the fleet, caught in the moment.

"We lost over 300 ships, sir." There was a note of sadness in Andy Blackman's equally tired sounding voice.

"Good lord! Is that all?" Admiral Gray said in surprise.

"All, sir?" Blackman asked, a note of anger creeping into his words.

"Yes, Number One, I expected to lose most of this command." Admiral Gray turned back to the main screen. "We won a great victory here today in more ways than one, and it will not soon be forgotten." Surprised as much as anyone that he was still alive.

"At what price, Admiral, at what price!" Andy Blackman shouted back angrily, his emotions getting away from him.

"At the price of doing our duty Mr. Blackman, no matter what the cost, that's what we are here for." Admiral Gray snapped back, dismissing the angry comment, putting it down to relief and shame that he had survived when so many others hadn't.

"Comm, get a message torp off to HQ advising them of our situation," Gray ordered. "Then get down to sick bay and have that arm taken care of."

"Aye, aye, sir! sending message torp." Lieutenant Dunn acknowledged proudly as he downloaded the message and data, including a log of the battle. He launched it into the void, tears running down his face. This time he hadn't broken and run away.

"Engineering, send out search and rescue as soon as you are able."

"Aye, sir." He answered, knowing that there was always hope that some of their ship-mates had survived inside the scattered, broken hulls of the fleet.

A few of the Zarell had managed to launch their life boats before the end, their emergency beacon flashing forlornly among the uncaring stars, but they would be the last that Search and Rescue would go after.

The board of inquiry rendered its decision quickly, and recommended Admiral Richard Gray for immediate promotion, as it did for all surviving members of the fleet. The President of the Terran Alliance bestowed Medals on all the members of the fleet, both dead and alive, with unit citations to each ship, and the fleet as a whole. Admiral Gray, and now-Captain Blackman, each received the Victoria Cross, and the Medal of honor. The success of their mad, glorious charge down the Cul-de-Sac was measured by the fact that the war was over.

The moment they received Admiral Gray's signal, HQ had mobilized as many ships as it could, taking advantage of the hole in the Zarell lines, learning the reason for such heavy defense of the Cul-de-Sac. Just beyond was a major warp point, a back door that lead straight to the Zarell home world, and after a short decisive battle, Terran forces captured the planet, and the Zarell ruling military council.

Captain Blackman now sat in the command chair of his newly commissioned ship, a light cruiser, with a fleet of 125 other ships at his command, part of a rebuilt 21 Attack Squadron, yet he was not a happy man.

The price had been too high, considering all the men and women who had died to put him there, men and women who would never come home again. The thought of all those deaths still weighted heavily on him.

"Message torp coming in, Captain." His communications officer called.

"Acknowledged, Mr. MacAlister" There was nothing of any urgency in the incoming messages, until later in his day cabin, the Marine guard announced that the communications officer wished to see him.

"Send her in Gunny."

"Aye, sir."

"What do you have Charily?" He asked the young woman who stepped into his cabin.

"Something out of the ordinary, sir, a personal package for you," she said, saluting.

"Oh! Who from?"

"From Admiral of the Black, Sir Richard Gray, sir."

"Now that is odd." He muttered, accepting the package and opening it.

He and Admiral Gray had not parted on good terms, as yet he couldn't forgive him. The price of glory had been too high by far. Opening the package, he found a data chip, a book and a short note. The book was the Golden Collection of World Poetry, something you didn't see much of nowadays, a hard copy of a book.

Puzzled, he opened the note and read it, a frown crinkling his forehead.


Please excuse the method of transmission, but I thought you might like to read this. As to my comment after the battle concerning duty. Please read the official report first, then the poem I have marked. A great man penned this over 250 years ago just after the event, and is still true today as it was then. Now we join that company of heroes. The name of that unit was the 21 Lancers, better know as the Light Brigade.


Gray. Admiral. OBE.VC.KTG

Andy Blackman placed the data chip in the reader, his brow furrowing as the words scrolled passed. Then he opened the book at the page the Admiral had marked and began to read. First a smiled crossed his face, then a tear coursed its way down his cheek and he nodded in pride and understanding.


Alfred Lord Tennyson


Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
"Forward, the Light Brigade!
"Charge for the guns!" he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.


"Forward, the Light Brigade!"
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Someone had blunder'd:
Their's not to make reply,
Their's not to reason why,
Their's but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.


Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.


Flash'd all their sabres bare,
Flash'd as they turn'd in air,
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wonder'd:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro' the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel'd from the sabre stroke
Shatter'd and sunder'd.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.


When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honor the charge they made,
Honor the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred.


Copyright 1997 by Robert Buckingham


Dennis St.John is a self confessed adventure, joining the merchant navy at 15 and spent the next three years roaming the world. At 18 he joined the British army and spent six years of his life enjoying the dubious pleasure of being a soldier, both of these activities he did, ...just because I felt like it... After that he emigrated to the United States and partook of the pleasure of California, until the call of the wild pulled him to South America in search of sunken treasure and gold mining in the Amason jungle. Upon returning to the United States he brought back some Spanish treasure in the form a beautiful wife and two lovely daughters, settling down to an interesting career in the Oil-Petrochemical, engineering and construction fields. His writing career started as a part time leisure activity to see if he could write about some of his adventures. This proved less than successful, but undaunted he pressed on with his first full length action adventure novel, 'Pillar of Fire', followed by 'Slave', then 'Heart of Stone'

At this time he lives with his wife in Orange County, California and is working on the sequel to 'Heart of Stone, 'Heart of Fire'.

His main interest is Sci-Fi/Action adventure with a little romance and sex thrown in for good measure and make a 'well rounded story'

At this time he his writing full time and working on several project, including book two of the 'Heart' series, called 'Heart of Fire', several short stories and doing freelance work of 'ETC' and 'FEMALE' Magazine.

Dennis can be e-mailed at templa@hotmail.com

...The moving finger writes, and having written moves on, and not all your piety and wit can move it back to change half a line, not all your tears wash away a word... Omar K (Omar the tent maker)

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