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The Hostile Stars

III. Ambush

His lordship Captain Dealos hault-Moak, Baron Salonikios, surged backwards into his acceleration couch as Rhylanor accelerated towards the Zhodani fleet. On a commercial ship, the inertial compensators would have kept a passenger from feeling sudden shifts in gravity; but to save space and energy, Rhylanor was built without them. 

The ship shuddered suddenly. "Report," Moak croaked. Two gravities - Rhylanor's top speed - wasn't much for a warship, but the extra weight made everything more difficult. 

"Direct hit, laser battery three. Gunnery officer reports the battery is offline," Commander Raini Luzammi, his second-in-command, said.

"Compensate with the other portside batteries. Maintain fire on the tankers." 

Moak glanced down to the tactical display on the console of his acceleration couch. Several large Zhodani tankers were making the approach orbits that would carry them through the upper reaches of Jasmine, filling their tanks with hydrogen gas for fuel. Three small destroyer sized ships were circling Rhylanor, giving the Imperial ship a heavier beating than they normally would because the battle cruiser was intent on reaching the tankers, rather than repelling the destroyers. As he watched, one of the blinking dots representing a tanker suddenly flared and went out. 

"Direct hit on target number 4 with meson gun. Looks like her computer's fried," said Luzammi. 

Moak nodded. Mesons were high energy subatomic particles that had almost no interaction with normal matter-they could drift right through entire planets. But they only lasted a few miliseconds before exploding and releasing a frightful amount of radiation. Rhylanor's main weapon was an enormous cannon that ran the length of the ship. It accelerated mesons to speeds just short that of light, where relativistic effects made the mesons last for seconds to an outside observer, releasing them in a stream of particles that could penetrate any amount of armor and did terrible damage to crews and electronic systems. "Lay down a pattern fire with the missle batteries," he said. 

The ship shuddered again, and the computer began to read out a new damage report in its precise, detached voice. The computer wasn't independently intelligent - Imperial technology wasn't that good yet - but it simulated intelligence very accurately. Much thought went into the programming of artificial computer personalities; if they displayed too much emotion, humans tended to argue with them; too unemotional, and humans grew afraid of their apparent perfection.

"Computer, get me Commander Lloergrez," Moak said.

The canine features of his Vargr chief engineer swam into view on a holodisplay. "Grr, what is it, Captain?"

"Can you beat another few meters per second out of the drives?" 

"We're running hot as it is," said Lloergrez. "Just lost another generator." 

"Commander, it's imperative we catch those tankers before they enter the atmosphere." Rhylanor was streamlined enough to follow them, but fighting in the extreme conditions of a gas giant was very risky. 

"Grfouf! I can get you another half a gee. No more." The Vargr signed off without waiting for Moak to dismiss him, but the Captain didn't mind. Lloergrez was like many of his species: aggresive, spoiling for a fight, capable of switching loyalties at any moment-the legacy of his ancestors, Terran canines lifted into intelligence and moved hundreds of light years from Earth by the same mysterious ancient race that had scattered humaniti throughout space, hundreds of thousands of years ago-but he was an exceptional, if unorthodox, engineer. Moak could count on him. 

Already the acceleration was increasing. He asked the computer for a revised intercept time for the tanker squadron. Soon Rhylanor would be among them, able to destroy the lightly armored vessels almost at will. Then he could turn on their escorts and treat them in the same way, and the last desperate Zhodani gamble would have failed. 
An alarm suddenly chimed. "Computer, what's that?" Moak said. 

"Fragments of the Snowball are beginning to strike Jasmine." A chart listing the impact energy appeared on his console. "Storm activity on Jasmine is increasing." 

"How soon will the tankers be entering the atmosphere now?" 

"Thirteen minutes." 

Damn! "Commander Luzammi, order the rest of the squadron to break off defending us and concentrate on the tankers." 

"Yes sir." 

Several nervous minutes ticked off. Rhylanor continued to shudder under the attack of the Zhodani destroyers, but now was almost in range of the tankers. Moak stared across the circular space of the bridge, noting with satisfaction that the crew continued to serve their stations quietly and efficiently. Along the rounded walls, complex information flickered on and off the holgraphic monitors. His own seat was mounted near the center of the bridge, on a low platform, designed to be able to rotate even while under acceleration. In a pinch, it could even move. Below him were the first officer's and flag captain's stations, heavily padded and immobile, with holoprojectors and movable control consoles mounted on jointed arms. The captain had to be able to see the entire bridge at any time, if only to project an image of command; but the First Officer needed to be able to run the ship, even if the captain was incapacitated.

Another alarm rang. "New targets," said Luzammi. "Two light cruisers, Tlienqiats class, just jumped in system." She paused. "Two more destroyers just jumped in as well." 

"Helm, start us about," Moak said. Rhylanor would have to forget about the tankers; at their present speed, they could do nothing more than turn to face the new threat while decelerating.

"Destroyers are breaking off attack on us and pursuing the rest of the squadron," Luzammi said. 
"Understood. Meson screens to full. Target the first light cruiser." 

The ship suddenly lurched to one side. Moak fell to the floor, then staggered slowly up against two-and-a-half gravities. "Computer, report!" he barked. 

"Computer is offline, Captain!" the sensors officer said. "Secondary core is down, too. I'm bringing up the tertiary core now." 

"What hit us?" 

"The fusion rocket, sir. The one from the Snowball. Snuck in against portside and hit us with its exhaust, point blank. It's gone now. Missle battery took it out." 

A suicide mission. But how much ship did he have left? "Where are those cruisers?" 

"Got one now," said Luzammi. "In range of our meson gun..." 

He felt it at the same time, a debilitating attack of weakness. Control consoles suddenly went black. There was the smell of burning insulation in the air. "They beat us to it, Raini. Engineering! Get those screens back up." 

Only Lloergrez' voice came through; the console holodisplay was burnt out. "Can't, Captain! We're losing main power! I may have to shut down the reactor-" 

The circuit faded out. "I'm losing helm control," said the helmsman. 

It took less than a second for him to speak, but it felt to him as if he aged considerably in that time. "Break off attack. Put us in an escape orbit around Jasmine. We'll loop around her, build up enough velocity to return to the main fleet. 

"Raini, order the squadron to break off. Top priority is to inform fleet command of our situation. Helm-" 

There was a muffled explosion from deep within the ship. "Maneuver drive is offline," said Luzammi. "Two Zhodani ships are matching vectors." 

"Intruder alert," said the computer. "Deck 17, section four. Deck 14, section eight. Deck-" 

"Moak, I'm on it," crackled Darrell's voice on the intercom. "Get into armor and off the bridge-" 

There was an explosion from the rear of the bridge. Moak wheeled around to face the heavy doors that separated it from the rest of the ship. They burst open, and figures in armored space suits rushed through the smoke, firing as they came. Moak felt a searing pain in his shoulder and fell to the floor, clutching the bullet wound with his hand. 

Commander Luzammi drew her pistol and fired at the invaders, trying to put her body between the Zhodani and Moak-who was still in his dress uniform, not even wearing a vacc suit. Two of Rhylanor's Marines fired their laser rifles at the Zhodani, who began to fall back, leaving several corpses. 

"Computer, execute Operation Hard Frost," Moak said. There was a beeping noise in acknowledgement, and all across the bridge the control consoles began to go black.

Luzammi helped him up. "You've got to get off the bridge," she said. 

"No point. The computer's dead now-" 

"No sir. As long as you're free, we haven't surrendered. Now go." 

He made his way into the lift car with the help of a Marine and several of the bridge tech personnel. As the doors closed he could still see Raini, dressed in combat armor, in the twilit darkness of the dead bridge.

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