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The Hostile Stars

XVIII. Conquest

Harrison Burman adjusted the breather valve on the main liquid hydrogen tank, and checked the feeder hose again. He stepped over to a nearby console and typed in some inquiries. Nodding at the results, he keyed in a few commands.

He selected the atmosphere test on his helmet display. He watched as the graph began to register the presence of hydrogen gas, noting with pleasure that the oxygen content was falling even more rapidly. It had taken most of an hour, but everything was finally working correctly.

The scout cruiser's cargo bay was gradually filling up with hydrogen. It wouldn't be long before it had enough gas in it to blow the ship apart at the seams. He went over to the fusion reactor and flipped a switch on the crude detonator he had rigged. Then he picked up a datalink. All he had to do was press the right switch, and fusion chamber would explode, releasing star-hot plasma into the engine room and igniting the hydrogen gas in the cargo bay. It was a crude way to scuttle, but it would be effective. The Zhodani wouldn't be able to recover anything afterwards.

Even before that, he knew he would have to destroy the computer's memory core. He had already reconnected the bomb the Zhodani technician had rigged. There was a chance that his plan to scuttle the cruiser wouldn't work. He obviously couldn't test the detonator on the reactor. But he had to be sure that they wouldn't capture the computer.

It bothered him to have to kill GORGIAS.

Just a program, Harrison, he thought. They had already copied it over to Rhylanor. No need to get sentimental.

He left Engineering and began to walk up to the bridge. He paused in one of the crew's lounges. A telescope was focussed on Rhylanor, the big ship beginning to show signs of life again. Soon they would be back underway. He felt even more lonely just thinking about it. He was already the only occupant of the scout cruiser.

Lokhiarealaw and the Marines were already gone, recalled to the Rhylanor when the engine room had been retaken. They had left in the scout cruiser's cutter, a small ship without hyperspace engines. The Aslan sergeant hadn't wanted to leave Burman alone on the cruiser. But he had convinced him that he was necessary to oversee GORGIAS. The longer they could remain in contact with the Zhodani fleet, the better.

There was still another cutter on the cruiser. When the time came, he could blow the computer, flee the ship, and then scuttle her remotely. Then all he had to do was hope the Imperials won. Or for that matter, that somebody - anybody - would find him in the frozen outskirts of the system before his life support failed.

"Boss, we've got a problem," the computer suddenly said.

"What's up, doll?"

"Commander of one of the Zho cruisers wants to speak to Rhylanor. Needs to get in touch with the commander there. My fake job isn't working on him - says he needs to speak to an officer."

"All right," Burman said. He pulled himself up the ladder to the bridge. They had been using GORGIAS' entertainment programming to create a fake Zhodani rating, who did all the "talking" to the rest of the fleet. It was easy enough to set up - after all, a signalman rarely said anything interesting; he just made reports. Most of the communication was between computers, anyway; humans seldom talked to each other.

"Do you think we can whip up an officer quick?" asked Burman as he came on the bridge. "We've got to have pictures of this bucket's commander."

"I couldn't pull it off, big guy. Too much of my capability is going into monitoring the fleet and making sure they don't catch wise to us. Oh, the Zhodani muckity-muck just demanded to see our captain again. I've got our signalman acting flustered, but I don't know how long he can put off a direct order."

"Wait a minute. Let me think." Burman sat down at the communications station and drummed his fingers. "You've been using our damage cover story, right?"

"Yah. Told them one of our antennas got shot off during the fight - limits our communication with the fleet, which makes my job easier - and our reactor is fluctuating."

"Good, good...I've got something." He stood up and went to the main holographic imager in the center of the bridge. "Dollface, there's something tricky I want you to try."

"All right," said the computer slowly. "Remember, I'm a little busy."

"Shouldn't be too hard. Can you map the Zhodani captain's image over mine, translate my voice into his, and then send that to their fleet?"

"I get it. You'd do the thinking, I'd do the talking."

"Yah. I should be more realistic then anything you could whip up. No offense."

"None taken. Program set up, code name 'Cyrano.' Know that story?"

"Of course. But you're my Roxanne."

"Oooh..." the computer sighed. Sighed? Somebody had to get a grip here, Burman thought. He hoped it would be him.

"Step into the imager," the computer said. "You're on in five...four...three..."

The distorted image of a man in a Zhodani naval uniform coalesced in front of Burman. "What is the meaning of this delay?" he snapped angrily. GORGIAS was doing a good job of translation.

"Forgive me, nobly born. Several of our crew are suffering from radiation sickness. I was assisting our chief engineer."

"Connect me immediately to Consul Tlienjpraviashav."

"We are having difficulty raising the Imperial ship. We suspect their crew has damaged their receivers."

"Unacceptable. Move closer to them and try to communicate through their personal communicators."

"Noble one, forgive me, but will that not disrupt communications with the fleet?"

"We will send a ship to handle those duties." The Zhodani paused. He seemed to notice Burman for the first time. His eyes narrowed, and he had the appearance of studying him intently.

"Yes, nobly born. It will take some time. Our reactor..."

"Of course," the Zhodani said smoothly. "Perhaps we should assist you."

"No, no...nobly born. We are all right here. We will be underway shortly."

"I have every confidence in you. Report when you have reached Consul Tlienjpraviashav."

"Yes, nobly born." The image faded away. "Something's not right," said Burman. He felt nervous. "GORGIAS, better send all that to Captain Moak right away."

"Already sending," the computer said. "What are you worried about? Everything seemed to go fine."
"I'm not sure," said Burman. He couldn't quite put his finger on it. But the feeling persisted.

"Captain Moak sends his compliments," the computer said. "Rhylanor is underway. He suggests that now is the time for you to do so as well."

Burman nodded. "Think you can keep them in the dark for a little while longer by yourself?" he said.

"No problem. The boss Zho hasn't even pestered us since you talked to him."

"Hmm...I'm not sure I like that. Doesn't matter much, now."

"I'm warming up the cutter for you."

"Good." Burman stood up and shouldered his laser carbine. He picked up the datalink that was remotely connected to the bomb on the fusion reactor.

"I'm going to miss you, boss."

"Me too," he said, choking up a little. He hadn't told her what he would have to do once he was safely away from the ship.

"Cutter is almost ready. So long, Harrison."

"So long, little girl." He began to clamber down the accessway to the rest of the ship.

"Emergency! Emergency! Two Zho destroyers just came into range."

"What! Damnit! Get Rhylanor on the horn and warn them."

"Aye. Harrison, they are closing on us."

"Oh boy." His mind was racing. What should he do? Move the ship and give himself away? Try to bluff his way out of this mess? Abandon ship and scuttle?

That was probably his best shot. "Are they talking to us?"

"Not yet."

"Don't you say anything, either. Just act like we're all one big happy fleet."


He had almost reached the boat dock when GORGIAS spoke again. "Message from the destroyer," she said. "Boss, it's in Anglic."

"Route it to me."

"To all Imperials onboard the captured vessel Audubon: surrender now and prepare to be boarded."

"Damnit! It's really hit the fan now. Little girl, time to make a run for it. Can you run an evasion course?"

"Both Imperial and Zhodani files are in my memory. I'm trying them both out."

"Better ready weapons, if you can."

"I'm trying." The computerized voice was almost plaintive. "But I can't do everything! I don't have the power!"

"Calm down. I'll get you through this. And try to jam their communications with the rest of the fleet."
"All right. The Zhodani commander is calling. Wants to speak to you."

"To me?"

"Well, to the 'Imperial who impersonated a Zhodani officer.'"

"Patch him through to the boat dock." What the hell. It might buy them some time.

He sat down at the hangar deck's launch controls. The grim officer he had talked to before appeared on the communications screen. "So that is what you look like," he said.

"All right, how did you know?"

"Not all of us are gifted psionically. But there are many ways to communicate. Your stance, the way you held your hands, the tone of your voice - none of these were the way a Zhodani officer would move."

"Oh. I had no idea you knew so much about those things."

"Our psychological disciplines are quite advanced. You could learn much from us."

"I suppose I'll get the chance to do that firsthand."

"Perhaps. It depends you conduct yourself now. Surrender, and things may be handled in a civilized fashion."

"I'm afraid I can't do that. I probably know far too many things that you'd like to find out."

"Such as how you were able to capture your ship? And the status of the Imperial Battle Cruiser nearby? Yes, we have great interest in such things."

"I thought as much. Captain, I have no illusions about my ability to resist torture. So I think I'll just try to escape."

"That is your choice. But remember there are consequences."

The scout cruiser suddenly rocked. "Harrison, they hit us! I'm losing fuel!"

"Surrender. You are conquered," the Zhodani said, calmly.

"Damn you!" Burman shouted at him. He snapped off the circuit. "Can you return fire?" he shouted to the computer.

"I'm trying! I can't get a solution!"

"I'm on my way to the turrets. Rhylanor has to be doing something."

"I can't tell. I've lost some sensors."

Burman bounced heavily down the corridors towards the cruiser's small weapons section. It was hopeless, hopeless...unless Rhylanor decided to take on the destroyers. Even in its weakened condition, the Imperial ship was more than a match for them.

The ship shook again, and the lights dimmed momentarily. "What's happened?" Burman shouted.

"Maneuver drive is out," GORGIAS replied in a monotone. "I can't move."

"Oh my God." He had to get to engineering. If the destroyers could match speeds with the scout -

"Harrison!" the computer had a hysterical edge to its voice. "Boarders! Aft section!"

The computer core. He ran towards the rear of the ship, forgetting everything in his mad rush to get to GORGIAS before it was too late.

The iris valve to the computer room was closed. Burman tried pressing the stud next to the door, but it wouldn't open.

He dropped his datalink and went to a maintenance panel on one side of the iris valve. He used the butt of his carbine to pound it open, and then reached inside and began to pull out the connections for the doors hydraulic motors. Fluid spilled out onto the floor. As soon as he had pulled all of them out, he leapt up to the door and began to pull at the center of the iris. Slowly, the door began to move, the leaves opening like petals on a flower. Then suddenly the resistance gave way and he was able to yank the valve wide and step through.

A man in combat armor was standing near the computer memory bank.

Burman raised his carbine and shot at him. The man staggered back and tried to raise his own weapon. Burman shot again, and this time the trooper stumbled backwards and fell to the floor.

Burman raced over to the computer. "It's all right, it's all right," he said. Nothing had been disturbed.

He turned away from the memory bank. He thought he had heard something in the corridor. He poked his head through the iris valve and stared down the hallway.

Nothing was there.

He was already turning back into the room when he felt some one grab him. Panicked, he threw off the arm and lunged for the computer.

Something grabbed at his leg. He stumbled and fell against the memory bank. He didn't look back. He kicked his leg free and stretched out his arm. Some one seized his ankle. Some one else grabbed his left arm, as, with his free hand, he reached out, touched the bomb on top of the computer, and threw the detonation switch.

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