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The Hostile Stars

XXI. Unvanquished

Sergeant Lokhiarealaw nodded at him, and stepped back to open the doors. The automatic controls were still not online again.

Moak strode into the vast circular compartment. Battle scars showed everywhere. Several of the display screens had been shot out, and the main holodisplay in the center of the room was showing only a ghostly, off-color map of the Jasmine system. Technicians, most still in combat armor, were hunched over many of the consoles, feverishly working amidst a tangled web of cabling.

"Captain on the bridge," some one said.

The bridge. My bridge.

Suddenly everyone was standing at attention. "As you were," Moak muttered, and descended the ramp to the circular control well in the center of the bridge. The command chair was blackened with soot marks, but he sank into it with a sigh. His shoulder was still throbbing from the bullet he had taken - was it only hours ago? It seemed longer, somehow.

"Message from Audubon," said a Marine standing near the communications panel. Moak nodded. The regular communications officer was working in Engineering.

"Go ahead."

"Yes sir. Captain Burman reports he is ready to leave and will rendezvous with us if possible."

"Send him my compliments and tell him to move it. We are getting underway immediately." Some one - a pretty Marine - handed him a cup of coffee. He glanced at her face. Corporal Julie Taverashav. She had personally killed four Zhodani troopers when Engineering had been retaken.

He sipped his coffee meditatively.

"Computer," Moak said.

"Oui, mon capitain?"

He glanced around in surprise. The computer's voice was different now, sounding like a human female. There was some unidentifiable accent to it as well. "Tactical display, please. Composite last known positions and vectors of all enemy ships."

"Working," the computer said. "Resulting projection has an estimated 91% accuracy. I've had to use my intuition to solve some of the problems, of course."

"Your - intuition?"

"Mmm-hmm. Don't trouble yourself about it doll; I'm rarely wrong."

"I see." Moak studied the glowing images in the holodisplay. "Do we have communication with the rest of the task force?"

"Yes, routed through Unicorn. I'm chatting with the computer on Gilgamesh now; he's a real tease."

Moak nearly spat out his coffee. What was wrong with the computer? "Um...good. Plot in a minimum time course to intercept the Zhodani tankers. I want to hit them when they begin to boost out of Jasmine's atmosphere."

"Aye Aye, boss. Plotted. Displaying them now, in order of my preference."

He studied the display, using a light pen to highlight each course. Numbers hovered in the air next to the arching parabolas of the courses the computer had calculated. "Why is this one given such a low recommendation? It's the shortest possible time to intercept."

"Yes...well, there are other factors."

"Such as?"

"It takes us right through the dust ring."

Moak studied the course, then used the console on his command chair to call up data on the dust ring. Like many gas giants, Jasmine had a ring of particles circling it; however, unlike the fantastic icy rings of Saturn in Sol system, Jasmine had a poor collection of dust particles and other debris that drifted around it like a dirty smoke ring, invisible against the blackness of outer space. He nodded. "Inconsequential, computer. The ship's armor is more than sufficient to shield us from anything we'd encounter in the ring." Was he really having an argument with his computer?

"Yes, but it's so dirty in there. All those organic compounds. The ship will be positively sooty."

Moak raised his eyes up and called down the blessings of the Goddess of Space and all her mischievous demons upon himself and his crew. What the hell was going on here?

He saw one of the technicians watching him with a broad grin on his face. When he noticed the Captain looking at him, he quickly bent down to his task of rewiring a computer console. "Something amusing, Mr. Asherwal?" Moak said.

"Uh, no, Captain, just that you seem not to be acquainted with our new computer system -"

"No, I'm not. And can some one please explain to me what is wrong with it?"

"Nothing that we can find out, sir. It seems to have been designed that way."

"Designed that way? To argue with me? To refuse to take the best option? To talk like a, like a -"

"I really don't know, sir. You'd have to ask Burman about it - he's the only one with any experience with GORGIAS."

"All I can say is that now I know why the Navy never adopted it."

"I wouldn't be so sure, sir. The computer is running faster than ever. It has ever since GORGIAS absorbed the navigation system. We still don't know why."

"Oh." Moak thought for a moment. He could live with a computer that talked like a starport comfort girl, if it meant his ship would be able to fight better.

Anton acknowledged the salutes of the Marine guards stationed by the doors to the bridge. Arkadian, who had stripped off his combat armor and was wearing a wrinkled dress uniform, bounced next to him in the ship's variable gravity. Rhylanor was turning to face attacking Zhodani ships.

"My compliments to the Chief Gunner and tell him to please take the remaining destroyer under fire with all batteries. Computer, when will the meson gun be on-line?

"Commander Lloergrez tells me it will be very shortly. Isn't he wonderful? And so cute."

Anton shot Moak a surprised look. The Captain shook his head and threw up his good arm in exasperation. "Don't ask. I want you to look at something."

He punched at his control console. The main holodisplay filled with a tactical display showing the small Scout cruiser and two larger ships - Zhodani destroyers.

"Compliments from the Chief Gunner. He says that the second target has been disabled," said the Marine who was serving as communications officer.

"My regards to him and request that he please destroy that ship." Moak turned to Darrell. "They won't report back to main fleet, although they'll be missed pretty soon. We need to move fast."

As if on cue, acceleration warnings rang out through the ship. Rhylanor shuddered, and weight settled over them like a cloak of lead as she began to accelerate at 1.5 gees. Moak settled back in his command chair and motioned for Darrell and Arkadian to join him. "Watch," he said. "This is when the Zhodani began to attack."

"How did they figure out that we had retaken the Scout ship?" asked Darrell.

"We don't know. We got a quick message from her that the Zhodani had seen through the ruse, but that was all. Now, watch this part."

The holodisplay changed. The tactical display shrank and floated down to the bottom of the image, while the rest of the display was taken up by a picture of the Scout cruiser, taken from Rhylanor's telescopes. A Zhodani destroyer inched into view below the cruiser.

Suddenly, the Scout ship exploded.

"Near as we can figure, she was deliberately scuttled. A cutter from the Zhodani destroyer was in the area, probably to drop off boarders. We lost contact with it. It was damaged pretty heavily by the blast."

"Any chance of survivors?"

"The computer doesn't think so. And I am assured that whatever else has changed, the computer has retained its accuracy.

"I don't understand it, Anton. The ship wasn't that badly damaged. Did Burman strike you as the man to make that kind of sacrifice?"

"No...but you know what he was faced with. A lot of people would prefer death to...having your mind..."

"Hmm...have all our prisoners been accounted for?"

"Yes. 'Ensign Olivetti'--" he glanced at Arkadian--"has interrogated them himself. It is his belief that we have all of the boarders accounted for, either dead, captured, or retreated to their own ship."

"What about their commander?"

"We believe he left with the others. Commander Luzammi reports that he was injured when she escaped."

The ship lurched again and their weight increased. "Doesn't the gravity on this barge work anymore?" gasped Arkadian?

"We can't spare the power," Moak said. "We should be intercepting the Zhodani in twenty-five minutes."

"Longest...half hour...of my life..."

Darrell grinned. "Isn't hi-gee training part of the Academy curriculum anymore?"


"Computer, get me Chief Lloergrez. I want an update on the main armament."

Arkadian suddenly turned pale. "Something's wrong," he said with clenched teeth. The words came out like a hiss.

"I'm unable to raise him, boss."

"What? Where could he be?"

"Last reported in the forward weapons magazine."

Anton pressed a key on his chair's console. "Kelly, take a squad forward to look for the Chief Engineer."

Arkadian suddenly groaned.

"What's the matter?" Moak said.

"We were wrong," said the Intelligence officer. "He's still onboard."


"Tlienjpraviashav. The Zhodani commander."

Rhylanor shuddered again as her acceleration increased. But Darrell knew that wasn't the reason for the sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.

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