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The Hostile Stars

IV. Skirmish

Lieutenant Lara Enshluggi, Imperial Marine Corps, gripped her rifle tighter as she looked down the darkened corridor. Over her helmet radio came the voice of Sergeant Major Jawaharlal Kelly, the task force's adjutant, running down final instructions:

"We can expect them to send psionic forces first, especially teleporters. Be extremely careful, and make sure your psi-shields are activated. Look for sudden movement. There are likely to be some velocity differences between us and the Zhodani ships, so teleporters may be disoriented for a few minutes.

"Shoot on sight. Remember, these are the elite of the Zhodani Consulate, and probably members of the Thought Police."

Lara shuddered. The thought of having her mind invaded by those - almost aliens, no matter how closely related they were to the rest of humaniti - was almost too much to bear. She knew all about the atrocities committed by the Zhos and their villainous Thought Police; it was part of basic training for all the services. Far better to die fighting them than to be taken captive. It wasn't torture that frightened her, but what would happen to her personality. People who came back from the Zhodani prison camps were never trusted again. Psionic reeducation was too efficient and undetectable.

Corporal Zarish, her picket-mate, touched his helmet to hers. It was possible to speak that way without using the radio, if you shouted. "Heck of a wedding reception, Looey," he said. "What's the honeymoon going to be? Visit to a slaughterhouse?"

Lara smiled in spite of herself. Just four hours ago, wearing a dress-regs be damned, she wasn't going to her wedding in uniform-cobbled together by Zarish, she had been married, with Captain Moak himself performing the service. But practically before the reception had even begun, the Rhylanor had been thrown into battle; now Paul was back in Engineering, out of contact, and the ship was drifting, in danger of being boarded-

"Intruders spotted on deck 17," said Kelly smoothly over the radio.

"All units aft of deck 22 will hold their positions," General Darrell's gruff voice cut in. "All others, hold out as long as you can, then fall back towards rec room 6."

Lara checked her rifle's ammo, then her suit's telltales, and finally her psionic shield - her only defense against the Zhodani. Then she switched her visor over to tactical display.

A sophisticated false-color image of the corridor jumped into view. The visor combined several sensor technologies - infrared, light amplification, "ladar" (the laser equivalent of radar), and others - to give her better vision than she would have had in the open at full noon. Crosshairs were projected onto her field of view, transmitted directly from her rifle's sight, as well as range and ammo figures.

The rifle itself was a technological marvel. Rather than use anything as primitive as a chemical explosion to propel its bullets, it used a powerful electromagnetic field projected along its barrel. The result was a weapon that could throw a slug faster, more accurately, and at a higher rate of fire than any other gun. Hi-tech armor was good at stopping a round from this gauss rifle, but that wasn't the point. The corridors of a warship are very narrow. Even some one in the powered armor known as battle dress could be knocked down by a ten round burst from a gauss rifle, blocking the people behind him. And even battle dress won't keep a gauss rifle bullet away forever.

A sudden flicker of movement - without thinking, Lara stood up and fired. When intruder alert sounded, Rhylanor's crew was supposed to hit the deck. Anything standing would be an intruder - or unlucky.

Nothing hit - no, something had fallen at the end of the corridor. She swept the rifle slowly from right to left, but there weren't any other targets.

Then suddenly there was a figure in the companionway. It - he? She? - appeared out of nowhere, stumbled heavily, got back up and careened into the wall. Lara hit the figure with two bursts, and it fell down and stopped moving. Air came hissing out of breaches in its armor, boiling away into the near-vacuum of the corridor.

Lara kneeled down to reload while Zarish stood up. She heard him grunt over his suit radio as he fired, but she waited until her weapon was secured before she looked up. Two more Zhodani were lying in the corridor.

"Dumb suckers don't know when to quit," Zarish muttered as he reloaded.

"Mind your weapon, Corporal," she said.

"We could stand off a whole regiment here, if they keep coming piecemeal."

"I doubt - huh!" Three Zhodani had appeared simultaneously in the middle of the hallway, coming at a dead run. She swept the rifle in a narrow arc in front of her, noting distractedly how the bullets ricocheted off their breastplates. Zarish was firing with her, from a low crouch. One of the Zhodani fell, the invisible beam of his x-ray laser cutting an ugly red slash into the corridor wall as it fell from his hands.

Another was down - and she was out of ammo. She jerked the clip free and felt on her belt for a new one - and some one grasped her hand, gently but firmly.

She snapped her head to her right. Zarish had his hands on top of his head, a Zhodani trooper, menacing in the anonymity of his gray combat armor, the two familiar black bug-eyed visor holes giving his helmet an alien cast, standing next to him and disarming him. Five more Zhodani were behind the two Imperials; another was on her left, taking away her rifle, her ammunition, her grenades.

So. It was all over, she was a POW. Goodbye, Paul, I love you -

The troopers hustled them over to one wall. Two kept watch with leveled rifles while the rest lined up. One - judging from the markings on his shoulders an officer - stood off to one side and suddenly saluted. The other troopers followed suit.
A tall Zhodani - all Zhodani are tall, averaging two meters in height, but this one stood over two and a half meters tall - strode in, dressed in elaborately decorated combat armor and wrapped in an enormous, lustrous black cloak. Lara had heard of such cloaks: they were worn by nobles and high-ranking Zhodani officers. They were more than just ornamental, she knew; they could hide a person's infrared signature from sensors, and were very effective against lasers.

The tall Zhodani looked at the two prisoners. Without a gesture from him, the other officer came over to Lara. Two troopers seized her arms and threw her up against the wall, while the officer reached up and began to unfasten her helmet.

What? No! Asphyxiation, explosive decompression in the corridor's zero pressure - even the Zhodani couldn't be that cruel. She struggled, screaming, as air hissed out from the broken neck seal -

No. The Zhos must have restored pressure, curse them. She could breathe, although the air was thin. A trickle of blood dripped from her nose as she fell to her knees. The officer began to remove Zarish's helmet.

The tall Zhodani reached under his chin and unfastened a clasp. His helmet split down the middle, from brow to chin, opening clamshell fashion to reveal a man of about fifty, with iron-gray hair and a glossy black mustache. He looked at Lara and smiled.

Much better. We can talk, now that I've removed your silly shield device.

Sweat poured down her back, but she felt cold. He hadn't spoken. He hadn't spoken! Where were the words coming from?

You are so confused, my child. Your mind is so chaotic!

One day you will learn order.

She had to get away! She tried to crawl. A strange lethargy was gripping her limbs. She was barely aware that she was coughing.

Stong arms were grabbing her, pulling her upright.

You have nothing to fear. Nothing! Later, we may talk of many things. You will not find it unpleasant. When we are done, you will be calm.

Now we will take you to rest.

She was screaming, screaming on the inside! "No," she managed to croak. Her throat seemed to be closing.

The Zhodani noble - for such he must have been; only a noble could have had such a mastery of psionic power - smiled again. "I am Tlienjpraviashav," he said in very precise, almost accentless Anglic. "I want to be your friend."

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