Captain Moak stared into the depths of the recroom's large holodisplay. Three distinct images confronted him. One was the dark, impassive face of Sergeant Major Jawaharlal Kelly, Rhylanor's capable senior non-commissioned officer. Floating near his head like a bubble was an image of the recaptured scout cruiser's computer room and Acting Able Spaceman Harrison Burman. A third bubble showed a view of a spaceship's wrecked bridge. A man in the uniform of a Naval lieutenant, his face blackened and burned, sat in the foreground. Moak turned towards Burman. "Report," he said.
"Aye, sir. We're almost finished downloading the GORGIAS files to your computer core. You should be getting some function already."
Moak turned to an aide, who nodded. "Yes, we're beginning to restore the computer now."
"Excellent. We are continuing to attempt to make contact with the rest of the fleet through the connection to the Unicorn."
Moak turned towards the man on the wrecked bridge. "Lieutenant Paduac, what's your status?"
"Not good, Captain. Main drive remains out. We are attempting to maintain station and keep communications open."
"What was the status of the task force before you were disabled?"
"Still intact. We lost a close escort, and one of the defense boats. The rest of the fleet fled behind Delta moon. The Zhodani were still in pursuit."
"Telemetry established with the Unicorn, sir," said Moak's aide in a low whisper.
Figures and graphs scrolled across the bottom of the holodisplay. Moak regarded them for a long moment. "Lieutenant, I think you should transfer to your boat and try to maintain communications from there."
Paduac laughed. "Our gig was the first thing that got shot off during the battle, sir. We haven't even had time to repair the life-support system. It's taking all our efforts to keep the comm system up and running."
"I see." Moak stared at the readouts again. They had maybe four hours before their air ran out - less if they lost power. Marooned as they were at the far edge of a solar system, the ship would freeze rapidly. "Carry on, then." The image died out.
"Uh, Captain?" Burman's voice, still nervous even in only the virtual presence of a high-ranking officer, interrupted Moak's reverie. "Captain, when can we expect relief."
"What? Don't be ridiculous."
"I haven't a man or a rating to spare. You have to hold the cruiser."
"Sir, I'm not sure that's wise...I don't know how long Gorgeous can keep up the fiction that the ship is still crewed by Zhodani."
Did he say Gorgeous or GORGIAS? Interesting. "You'll have to help the computer, then."
"But sir...but sir, I'm just a technician!"
"Mr. Burman, it is vital that we maintain that cruiser! It is our only link to the rest of the task force, and to the main fleet back insystem!"
"Now, is there anything else?"
"Well...Sergeant Loki wants to move the ship to a more defensible orbit, and to cover Rhylanor."
"Hmm...could you convince the Zhodani the move was necessary?"
"Oh, Gorgeous could do it, I'm sure..."
"You seem to think that would be a bad idea, though."
"Yes, sir. The Zhos think the ship is expendable. And right now it's in a perfect position to act as relay for their fleet. If we move it, will lose contact with them. They might get suspicious."
"True." And we would lose all the intelligence we'll gather on their fleet movements as soon as our computer is up. "Then keep her where she is."
"Is there another problem?"
"Well, sir, I'm just an acting spacehand. I'm not even in the Navy, really, just a transferred Scout."
"So you're finding it hard to convince Sergeant Lokhiarealaw?"
"Hmm...very well. Acting Able Spacehand Harrison Burman, formerly of His Majesty's Imperial Interstellar Scout Service, I hereby promote you to the grade of Acting Ensign, Imperial Space Navy, subject to the approval of His Majesty. I further assign to your command the Imperial Interstellar Scout Ship...what's the name of that ship? Audubon. Aide, make a note of this in the log. Satisfactory, Mr. Burman?"
"Uh...no...yes...Captain, I'm no captain!"
"You'll have to make do, Captain. We all are a little pressed right now. Carry on." He broke contact, and sighed. "Sergeant Kelly, what can I do for you?"
"No problems, sir. We are moving the Zhodani back on all fronts except the engine room. Resistance remains stiff there."
"Where is General Darrell?"
"Still accompanying Ensign Olivetti." Kelly's face remained blank, although Moak suspected he was burning with curiosity as to why Rhylanor's senior Marine had perilously fought his way through enemy territory to rescue one ensign. Leave him guessing. Arkadian's - Olivetti's - talents were too secret, too dangerous to make public knowledge. "They report they are trying to take an officer prisoner, if they can," continued Kelly.
"Tell them not to dally. Perhaps it would be best if General Darrell took over at the engine room?"
"He has already told me that that is what he is going to do. In the meantime, I am going there myself."
"Good. Keep me informed." Moak broke contact. His shoulders slumped. Coffee was angrily trying to burn a hole through his stomach, and it seemed like years had passed since he last slept. "How's the reprogramming coming?" he asked his aide.
"Very well, Captain. We should have full control within the hour...although the technicians report that the system is reacting, well, oddly."
"How so? It's not unstable, is it?"
"No...just that the verbal interface is, ur, unique."
Moak closed his eyes. It didn't matter, and he didn't want to know. As long as the computer core was restored to full function, he didn't care if it recited epic sonnets in Vilani.
"Message from Fleet, sir, routed through Unicorn and Audubon," said his aide. He activated the large holodisplay and Fleet Admiral Cranston's craggy features leapt into place.
" - repeat, approximately fourteen hours ago Zhodani forces withdrew from line of battle and moved in heavy formation in the direction of Jasmine. We are in pursuit but frankly Dealos they caught us with our pants down. Looks like some kind of a breakout attempt, so be ready for action. Keep their tankers away and we'll grind them up together when we get there. Cranston out. Message repeats - "
Moak felt no fear. His mind was already working on the problem, breaking it down and trying to see how the parts fit together. Cranston thought the Zhos were moving towards another Imperial fleet, and that they lacked enough tankers to refuel and jump out. But instead they were moving towards their own fleet, and if a few hours their tankers would have gathered enough fuel to supply most of their ships. The fleet could jump out and rejoin the rest of the invading forces, and all the work they had done to keep them there, the promise of capturing an entire Zhodani strike fleet, would come undone. Something had to be done.
"Inform Sergeant Kelly and General Darrell that they must attack the engine room immediately. We need to be underway in an hour." He turned to address the remnants of his senior staff gathered in the recroom. "Sorry, gentlemen, but our schedule has been moved up again. We have to destroy those tankers."
He could rest easier now. The orders had been given, and he had merely to wait for the battle to be decided. It seemed to him that an inexorable force - fate? - had finally seized him like a river in flood and all he could do was hold on as it drove him forward, blind, upon its course.