"At What Cost Victory?"
The Conference Room, Aboard the Legion Cruiser, Trom
"It must be a trick," said Jan Arrah.
"No, it's the truth," Salu Digby pleaded.
"The Khundian Battlewagon is the most capable fighting machine in the known universe. Each capable of destroying a small planetoid," Querl Dox added. "The element your people manufactures makes it all possible."
"We're lucky only six are known to exist," said Rokk Krinn. A few short weeks prior he was on Ventura, the gambling world, preparing for an exhibition. He was lucky enough to be a member of his world's championship MagnoBall team. Off-world trips were a luxury few Braalians experienced since the Khundian invasion. A trip to Earth wasn't on the itinerary, but Rokk knew he was more likely to help his folks by joining the resistance on one of the Free Worlds than by turning a hat trick in a meaningless game against another outmatched opponent. He paid a hefty price to a group of Silver Ale smugglers headed to the Sol system to take him along, but the sacrifice was worth it. He was sure he'd find steady employment on Earth and divert half his earnings into his parent's credit accounts back home. Who would have dreamed that a few weeks later he'd be behind enemy lines on an uncharted world fighting the Khundian war machine?
"How do I know these images are real?" Jan asked.
"You've got to believe us," said Salu Digby. "Whole worlds have been destroyed by those butchers. Please do the right thing."
Jan nodded. "I will get this information to His Eminence."
An explosion rocked the ship, knocking Jan and Salu to the ground.
"What the sprock was that?" shouted the Earthgov agent, Lyle Norg.
Tinya Wazzo stumbled into the small conference room. "We're under attack from orbit! Garth said the scanners show a huge ship, maybe a Battlewagon! He's preparing for take-off."
Rokk didn't excuse himself. Whatever Brande's covert squad and the Trommite decided about their legal situation would have to wait. If the cruiser was under attack, his place was on the Bridge with the other Legionnaires. Ranzz was too hot-headed to make decisions under fire. They needed Rokk's grace under pressure to lead them out of this mess. Leadership elections would be a top priority when, and if, they made it back to Earth.
Rokk expected the worst as the Bridge doors whooshed open.
"Imra, bring the thrusters online slowly. We need more power to the shields if you can spare it, Lu." Garth sat calmly in the captain's chair and gave clear, concise orders. Everyone followed his lead in the same manner. Perhaps there was more to Garth Ranzz than Rokk believed.
"Garth?" Rokk asked.
Garth programmed a series of maneuvers into the helm. "We've got trouble, Rokk. Big trouble."
Tinya made her way to the Bridge, followed by the rescued youths and the Trommite native. She settled into the Ops station.
Garth stood and gave Rokk the captain's chair. "No time to argue. If we're going to get out of here alive, I need to be at navigation."
The ship hummed to life and lifted off.
"I must return to my people," Jan protested. His words echoed across the bridge, but no one answered. "Will you add kidnaping to your charges too?"
Lyle pushed the Trommite into a seat and buckled him in. "Add what you like, but it won't matter if we're dead. We'll get you back to your old man in one piece."
The craft roared to life and rose into the air. It quickly broke Trom's thin atmosphere and was in the small planet's orbit in minutes. At first, there was no sign of the ship firing upon them minutes before. Then like a metal-gator sneaking through Braal's southern swamps, a Battlewagon loomed over the planetary horizon. Much was written about the behemoths through the years, but no description Rokk ever read prepared him for the enormity of its size or the sense of awe that comes from staring down a weapons array the size of a small moon. "Holy nass! Give it everything she has, Garth! Get us out of here!"
The comparatively insignificant speck of the Legion's Blackhawk Cruiser shot through space at full throttle. A warning shot seared its hull.
The comm-link beeped to life. "Attention unidentified vessel! Power down your craft and prepare for boarding!"
Rokk turned to Lu at the communications station. "Don't answer their hail. Copy the disk to Brande Industries on a subspace frequency so the resistance gets that information. Too many people risked their lives for no one to see that data. Be sure to include our discovery of Trom and their innocence of the Khund's machinations."
Lu nodded. "Done. Data sent and received."
The comm unit erupted once more. "Unatuhorized Communication! You were warned!"
The Legion's small cruiser came to an abrupt halt.
Garth pounded his fist into the navigation console. "We're caught in a sprocking tractor beam! By Valor's name! They could tow Sol with that thing!"
"Ideas anyone?" Rokk asked.
"Rokk?" said Imra.
"What do you have, Imra?" Rokk expected the Coluan to answer before his either of his teammates. He hoped for good news.
Imra pointed the onscreen monitor. "Demon Fighters at 5 o'clock!"
Medicus One, Within the Mars-Jupiter Asteroid Belt
"When will she awaken?" asked Science Police Lieutenant Kendall Zendak.
Dr Gym'll held Ayla Ranzz's chart in one hand and pointed to the notes scribbled on the Omnicom with another. His upper two arms were aloft in exasperation. Though half as tall as the human Science Police officer, he stretched to an imposing height for his species. "When her body says she's recovered from the trauma! You Science Police are all the same! You want me to work miracles so you can question my patients!"
"This young lady may know the whereabouts of the madman calling himself Lightning Lord. The sooner she's awake, the more lives that may be saved. If we can just awaken her long enough for questioning¼"
Dr. Gym'll looked up at Zendak towering over him and refused his ploy. "Lieutenant Zendak, I've been in medicine for nearly two centuries. Do you think this is the first time I've heard that garbage? Sacrifice a patient's wellbeing for some greater good? You get your information and my patient suffers a probable setback? I think not! I'll let you know when she's ready and not a moment before! Now leave Medicus One or I'll register a complaint with Earthgov!"
Dr. Gym'll waddled off down the pristine, tubular steel corridor.
"Is it safe?" asked the attractive, young Science Police officer hiding around the corner from the confrontation.
"Come on out, Svaughan. I told you he wasn't that bad," Zendak replied.
Officer Svaughan Erin joined her commanding officer. "That wasn't bad? I'd rather run naked through a Khundian market with a sign on my back insulting the Demon Mother than to deal with that!"
Zendak chuckled. "Who knows? One day you may have to deal with far worse."
Khundian Space, Aboard a Legion Blackhawk Cruiser
The Legion's Blackhawk strained against the tractor beam holding it in place.
"It's no good, Rokk. We're sitting ducks," Garth Ranzz yelled over the bedlam. The Blackhawk's creaking hull sounded like the craft would fly apart any second.
"If we had a diversion, I could free us from the tractor beam," announced the Coluan named Dox.
"Impossible," Rokk replied. "You heard Garth. That baby can tow a star."
"I don't know, Rokk," Garth answered. "He's Coluan. If anybody can do it, it would be him. Let's give him a chance."
Lyle stepped forward. "If Dox says he can do it, he can."
"What kind of diversion can we create?" Lu asked.
Tinya protested. "They'll vaporize us if we fire our weapons."
Imra stood and raised her voice over the confusion. "What if those of us with offensive powers leave the ship in transuits and attack the Demon Fighters? It may give us the element of surprise."
"Attack a fleet of Demon Fighters without a ship?" Garth asked. "Are you crazy?"
"I have to go with Garth on this, Imra. It would be suicide," Rokk added.
"What other choice do we have?" asked Lyle. "We get out there and draw their attention while Dox stays aboard and works on the tractor beam."
"I'll need a skeleton crew," said Dox.
"My powers won't be much help out there," Lu volunteered.
"Mine either," echoed Salu.
"You two stay behind and help Dox. Everyone else, into space," Rokk commanded.
"I'm going too," Jan Arrah announced. "This is my fight now."
No one argued with the young man with the long, golden-blonde locks. He had already transmuted his safety harness into inert gas.
Rokk nodded and tossed him a transuit. Jan slipped it on over his royal robes. He looked very regal, almost heroic, with his golden locks hanging to his shoulders. His pink and white robes of piety and flowing green and black cape were inspiring like the legendary heroes of old Earth. Rokk wished the Legion looked more heroic and less like a paramilitary organization. Something else to discuss at the next meeting.
The team made its way to the hangar doors and waited patiently while they hissed open. Rokk could only imagine the curses Lu was receiving at comm. Once the door opened, the rag-tag band of defenders leaped into the void.
Rokk often traveled the space lanes as part of Braal's MagnoBall team, but this was his first space walk. The feeling was unnatural like using one's non-dominant hand for a backhand shot on goal. The Demon Fighers broke formation and headed toward them.
Garth was the first Legionnaire to attack. He sheared the wings off a fighter and the brawl was on. The lack of mobility limited the Legionnaires and their companions but they fought well. Jan Arrah changed the matter around them into a shield of impenetrable inertron. Rokk made a mental note to suggest some form of mobility in space to Brande and also to have communications built into their transuits. So many details learned in the heat of battle.
"Does everyone hear me?"
The voice in Rokk's head was startling, but he recognized it as Imra Ardeen's.
"Loud and clear, Imra."
After everyone else confirmed contact, Imra continued. "Jan has bought us some time with his inertron shield, but we can't stay huddled forever. Garth and Rokk, you take the point. Jan, provide cover and strike when you can, but defense is your primary concern. Tinya, phase through their hulls and see if you can cause them some problems. I'll handle communications. If I get hit, everyone follow Lyle's lead."
Follow Lyle's lead? Rokk couldn't believe his ears! A non-Legionnaire shouldn't lead the team.
"Yes, Rokk. I said Lyle. The team deserves better leadership than you and Garth posturing like Zoonian peacocks." Imra's voice was the same but much stronger and seemed more focused in his mind.
"Rokk, look out!"
Imra's warning nearly came too late. Rokk reached out with his magnetism and ripped the guns from a swooping Demon Fighter. He dismantled the engine next, crippling the ship.
Everyone made a good accounting of his or her powers. Several fighters came to a dead standstill after Tinya phased through their cockpits and slugged the pilots. Jan managed to provide cover with one hand and to convert several Demon Fighters' guns to gasses with the other. Garth continued his potent assault, often stopping short of tearing open the hulls of the crippled Demon Fighters left in his wake. Lyle acted as an extra pair of eyes for Imra and directed the strategy.
The fireworks soon attracted an unwelcome wildcard though, an Energy Beast. The creature was huge, considerably larger than the Blackhawk cruiser, but many times smaller than the Battlewagon. The leviathan swallowed a Demon Fighter whole even as its guns ripped into the beast's maw. Several more Fighters shifted their attention from the Legionnaires to the mindless creature attracted by their fire.
Jan turned his attention to protecting the Energy Beast, but not before three swooping Demon Fighters tore open its left side with a barrage of laser blasts. The monster whipped them away with its mighty tail as it thrashed about in death's throe.
The battle seemed to last forever, but in a matter of minutes the Legionnaires were victorious. A second fleet emerged from the belly of the Battlewagon and met a similar fate. With the wrecked hulls of Demon Fighters strewn about the void of space, Imra ordered everyone back to the cruiser.
Once everyone was safe aboard the cruiser a small celebration erupted.
"We just took out two battalions of Demon Fighters!"
"Great job everybody!"
Even Jan Arrah was pleased with the outcome. "I've never known such elation before! I feel we have done a good thing."
Garth slugged Jan playfully on the shoulder. "You did a great thing out there, Jan. Your people took their first step toward independence today."
Jan's eyes fell. "I fear you're right, Garth Ranzz. My world has not been truly free in my lifetime. Also let's not forget the noble beast that lost its life in this fight. His transformation to the next stage was not a peaceful one."
Garth shrugged off Jan's words. "It's a dumb beast. Don't worry about it."
"What Garth meant to say was that he's sorry such a noble creature lost its life," Imra interjected. "Isn't that right, Garth?"
Garth stood motionless a few seconds as if listening to a voice in his head. When he finally moved again, he spoke with a foolish grin. "Of course. Poor creature."
Luornu Durgo met the group at the entrance to the cargo bay. "Gang, someone's got to go back out there!"
"What? Why?" Rokk asked.
"Somebody's alive out there. He's lying in the wound where the Energy Beast was shot open. Whoever he is, he's in really bad shape and he's not Khundian according to our scans."
"We can't," Garth protested.
"Again, I agree with Garth," said Rokk. "We'll never get the cargo doors open before the Battlewagon can fire upon us."
"Then you've forgotten my power," said Tinya Wazzo. She shifted into her phantom form and slipped through the Blackhawk's hull and into the blackness of space.
Everyone gathered around the monitor on the Bridge and watched Tinya pull the unfortunate soul from the muck of the creature's guts and blood.
"Hurry Tinya, that Battlewagon will power its main guns any second now," Garth muttered.
Moments later, Tinya phased through the hull and dropped a young man to the floor as the Battlewagon's main guns glowed white. Though obviously exhausted and covered in malodorous goo, she positioned herself at Ops.
"We are free of the tractor beam," Dox announced.
Another explosion rocked the Blackhawk.
"That one nearly fried our shields, Rokk!" Tinya shouted. "We can't take another hit like that!"
The ship's communication port beeped to life. "Attention unidentified vessel! This is your last chance! You will surrender immediately or the next shot will open your hull like a rotten Flesh Fruit!"
"Garth, take us out!" Rokk ordered. "Come on people! Let's do what we do best."
Garth shot him an icy look but didn't have to be told twice with a Battlewagon on their tail.
"Let me take navigation," Lyle suggested, practically elbowing Garth aside.
"That's not what I meant," Rokk answered. "This is a Legion vessel. The controls are very touchy." He wasn't about to put the Legionnaire's lives in the hands of a stranger.
"This is our ship! What the sprock do you think you're doing? I've piloted since I was thirteen!" Garth protested.
For once, Rokk welcomed Garth's fiery disposition.
"Look kid, I've flown more combat missions than you've ridden passenger on civilian flights! That's a Khundian Battlewagon out there! Painting a big "L" on the side of a shiny new ship won't do a damn thing to outrun it. We need every advantage," Lyle answered.
"He does have a point," said the Coluan. "He is an excellent pilot."
Rokk eyed the Coluan. He'd never met a Coluan before, but their intellect and judgement were legendary across UP space. If the Coluan vouched for him, Lyle was good. "Garth, maybe you should¼"
"Of all the¼ Fine!" Garth conceded the navigation controls.
While Lyle settled behind the navigation console, Rokk turned to Tinya. "Maybe we should also allow the Coluan to take ops!"
"What?" Tinya asked incredulously.
"He can process information quicker than you. We need our best people at every position," Rokk answered.
Garth looked across the Bridge at Rokk and shook his head. "C'mon Rokk, our own people know our ship better than anyone! We just pulled these guys' fat out of the fire!"
"Everybody can like it or not, but we're getting home in one piece," Rokk shot back. "Naviagation, take us out at top speed!" Rokk ordered. He wasn't ignoring Garth's concerns and hated hurting Tinya's feelings, but even Garth's temper paled next to the firepower of a Battlewagon.
Tinya didn't look happy but surrendered her station to the Coluan.
The cruiser's engines strained against the tractor beam, prompting a second shot from the Battlewagon. Another direct hit.
"Shields to seventeen percent. We can't survive another hit like that," Dox said calmly.
"Suggestions?" Rokk asked.
"Do you have an signal amplifier aboard the ship?" the Coluan asked.
"I'm... not sure," Rokk uttered sheepishly.
"Yes, we do," Tinya answered, eyeing Rokk coldly. "Some of us did study the schematics!"
"My personal force field is impervious," the Coluan suggested. "If I can use the amplifier to boost its signal, we can use it for our shields and divert the extra power to our engines. It will be much more effective than the meager twelve-point defense matrix this vessel is equipped with."
Rokk was impressed. A twelve-point matrix was the best Brande's credits could buy. What kind of personal force shield did the Coluan possess? "We don't have time," Lyle answered. "You'd have to modify the amplifier for it to work, Dox. Your shield may crush our hull."
"Besides, we'd have to drop the shields," Tinya answered. "Not an option I want to try."
"Maybe I could help," Rokk answered. "I could hold the ship together with magnetism while you divert your force field's power into the main systems."
"Let's do it," Dox answered.
Tinya slid back into Ops while Rokk and the Coluan worked together to put their plan into action. In moments, the ship was enveloped by a glowing energy field.
"We just took another direct hit and the shields are at ninety-eight percent efficiency!" Tinya shouted. The joy in her voice was evident.
"We still have a Battlewagon to outrun," Dox reminded everyone.
"Maybe not," Garth answered. "What if you let me direct my power through the amplifier and divert the power to weapons? We may get that Battlewagon off our tail."
"Possibly," Dox answered. "The system I built is crude given the time frame and materials I had to work with. But I think it will hold up."
Garth took hold of the instrument Dox built and channeled his power into it. The sudden power surge caused the controls to blink for a moment. "Now, Salu! Target their engines!"
The Imskian girl looked apprehensive but squeezed the twin triggers at her fingers.
A wicked bolt of laser power mixed with Garth's lightning leaped from the weapons array and struck the Battlewagon. It ripped a gaping hole in the hulk's hull, careening it to one side. Even from the Blackhawk's bridge, the Legionnaires could see only emergency lighting on board.
The Blackhawk cruiser fell silent. The Legion crippled a Battlewagon!
"Now helmsman, take us out of here!" Rokk ordered. Get us back to the Free Worlds, before they send half the Khundian fleet after us!
"Aye aye, Captain!" Lyle mocked. "But enough with the B-grade space opera dialogue! You're killing us all, kid."
The Legionnaires on the bridge chuckled.
The Royal Garden Outside the Palace of Change, The Walled City, Trom
His Eminence plucked a golden flower from its vine. He enjoyed his walks in the Royal Garden. So many decisions were made in its splendor over the years that he thought of it as his personal chambers, a private quarters to separate himself from the clamor of affairs of state.
Inhaling the aromatic bloom, he thought of his son. As Eminence, Jan would one day carve a legacy of his own. His Eminence recalled the prophecies surrounding Jan's birth. He was christened Jan the Caretaker, the Mourning Shepherd. A peculiar title perhaps, but the Way was all wise. It pained His Eminence to think of such weight on his son's shoulders, but knew he was of the stock to bear whatever burden the Way laid upon him. Could the current situation be the beginning of great things for his son? What role would these off-world youths play in his son's destiny? Perhaps it would do him good to be around them. His Eminence sensed nobility within them, a sense of purpose he possessed as a young man. He wanted to change the world and promised Trom would be different when he Ascended. In many ways, Trom was different, but certainly not like he envisioned back then. That was before the Khunds. His Eminence's own father opened the door of diplomacy to Khundia. In two decades the relationship yielded rewards for both societies, but something wasn't right.
Khundia was as insistent as the Academy hardliners that Trom maintain its ancient ways and traditions. The Walled City Accord promised protection from the outside universe. The Khunds were no doubt correct when they stated there were forces in the universe that would misuse the Trommite's transmutation abilities if they were discovered. Lately His Eminence wondered whether or not the Khunds were one of those dangerous forces themselves.
His Eminence's peaceful walk was interrupted by three long blasts from the court trumpeters. An emergency required his attention. He quickly made his way to the eastern entrance of the palace and arrived in chambers. "What is happening?" he asked no one in particular.
His long-time advisor, Bena Bre, didn't bother with the traditional courtesan protocol of bowing whenever His Eminence appeared in chambers. "Your Eminence! The Khunds are pulling out!"
"What do you mean pulling out?"
"They have ordered a mass evacuation of their forces!" Bena answered.
His Eminence was stunned. "Why?"
"We don't know, Your Eminence. Their only communication was a terse statement proclaiming and end to our alliance!"
His Eminence had an uneasy feeling in his stomach. As much as he hated to, he would have to make use of the equipment the Khunds left behind in their haste to recall his son from the off-worlder's ship. A Royal Convention was required to assess the sudden change in diplomatic policy with Khundia. Surely Trom hadn't offended the Khunds in such a manner they were backing out of their arrangement?
His Eminence made his way through the royal chambers to the communications station abandoned by the Khunds. The royal family was shown how to use the equipment in the event of an emergency. His Eminence never dreamed the Khunds themselves would be the emergency. He set the equipment to transmit on all broadband frequencies and pushed the communication button. "This is His Eminence, Connar Arrah of Trom. We have a diplomatic emergency..."
Deep Space, Near the Free Zone, Aboard a Legion cruiser.
"We're receiving a message from Trom," Lu announced.
Jan Arrah rushed to the comm station. "What does it say?"
"On screen," Rokk commanded.
Lu shook her head. "Audio only. It isn't very long." The chestnut-haired girl filtered out the white noise with the controls beneath her fingers and
His Eminence of Trom's voice filled the room.
"This is His Eminence, Connar Arrah, of the world Trom. We have a diplomatic emergency... Please return my son to Trom. Legion cruiser, please return my son to Trom."
"No, father. I will get help," said Jan.
"He can't hear you," said Lu. She touched the young man's shoulder. "The transmission is one way only."
"We can't fly this ship back into Khundian space," said Rokk. "It would be a suicide mission without a military escort."
"Rokk's right," said Imra. "It's much too risky. Every ship in the Khundian armada will be looking for us."
"Jan?" asked Garth.
"To your own world, then," Jan answered. "I will get back to my people And woe to the Khund who stands in my way!"
A chill ran down Rokk's spine as he pondered the weight of the Trommite's words..