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The Hostile Stars

XXII. Discovery

Tlienjpraviashav pressed a button on the wrist plate of his combat armor. There was a slight prick near his elbow joint, and a cool sensation traveled up his arm. For a second, the world seemed out of focus. Then, gradually, a euphoric feeling of control, of power rose up in him. He grinned coldly. He needed to take the drugs to boost his psionic powers. But there were dangers. He could become addicted. He could overdose, and lose some or all of his powers.

He would take them. Revenge was all that mattered.

Rhylanor shuddered as it whipped around Jasmine. It raced through the upper fringes of the frigid planet's atmosphere, bucking in the turbulence stirred up by the impact of the Snowball. Within the huge starship, gun crews stood at the ready by their wrecked control stations, willing to make for in wits and training and raw desire what the ship's smashed systems could no longer provide. Damage control teams balanced haste with caution as they urgently worked what repairs they could in the ship's variable gravity.

On the bridge, Moak brooded and planned his attack. Messages went out from him to the remnants of the Imperial fleet. They had one chance to strike, and it would have to be coordinated perfectly. There were risks. If he failed here, the main Zhodani fleet would be able to refuel and jump outsystem, or even turn on their pursuers and smash them. Either way, the war would be extended, bringing each side closer to collapse.

He would take the risks. Having the chance was all that mattered.

The lift cage shook as it descended from the bridge. Darrell undid his helmet so that he could speak without using his radio. He wanted to make sure that this conversation was between the two of them. "You're sure he's here," he said to Arkadian.
"Definitely. I can't describe what I felt before, but there's no doubt that it was him."

"I wish you could convince me."

"I could. But you'd have to open up your mind to -"

"That's not an option."

"Then you'll just have to take my word for it."

They rode in silence for a moment. "There's something else you should know," Arkadian said.


"He deliberately opened up his mind. As if he was daring anybody to find him."

"Then he'll know we're coming."

"I'd say he will be expecting some response."

Darrell nodded. "It makes our job harder in some ways. But it also makes his options more predictable."

"I wouldn't know about such things."

"I didn't expect you to." Darrell studied the psion carefully. "There's something I want to talk to you about."


"That young officer we killed. I killed. The one you extracted information from -"

"Huh? What about him? I hardly think this is the time -"

"This is definitely the time," said Anton. He put one heavy hand on Arakadian's shoulder and squeezed. Tiny servo motors enhanced his natural strength tremendously, and the Intelligence officer winced. He was still wearing only his wrinkled dress uniform. "Something happened during the fight. It was right after he set off that grenade."

"Yes," Arkadian said levelly. There was no inflection in his voice. His face was growing pale, though.

"I got caught in the beam of whatever weapon you were using to disrupt his psionic power. There was feedback, like you said there would be. I was already pretty disoriented from the concussion from the explosion. But then something happened."
"And what was that?" Arkadian's voice was hoarse, and he was panting heavily. Anton kept up the pressure on his shoulder. He could keep it up all day.

"I was filled with rage. Intense, primal rage, like I've never felt before. I've fought many places, Pavel, under many suns, against many opponents. I've been a soldier for over twenty years. But I've never felt that way before. It was like every blind moment of hate I've ever had in my life was balled up into one, overwhelming urge to kill.

"I could have torn that boy to pieces with my bare hands. I took the first opportunity I had - his helmet had been knocked off, and I broke his neck. And then it was gone. The hate. I felt nothing anymore."

"So why are you telling me this?" There was something desperate in Arkadian's voice, something beyond the pain he was feeling.

"I've been thinking about that moment. And I've realized something. Those weren't my feelings - or if they were, they weren't my natural feelings. And then I realized something else. When that beam crossed my psionic shield, it knocked down my defenses. Against anybody's psionic power. Including yours."

He bent down and put his face directly in front of Arakadian's. "I know you manipulated me. If you ever do that again - to anybody - I'll kill you. Right where you stand."

He released his grip on Arkadian's shoulder and tossed him against the wall of the lift car. Arkadian gasped, breathed in deeply, and clutched his shoulder with his other hand. The car suddenly slowed down and came to a stop. Its doors opened up. Beyond them, a corridor lay deep in shadow. Alarms rang out a far distance away, sounding strangely muted, almost expectant. Anton closed his helmet and stepped into the hallway, his laser rifle at the ready. Arkadian followed closely behind, clutching his strange pistol, its parabolic dish already extended.

Tlienjpraviashav worked his way through the companionways of the half-dead ship carefully, clutching his captured Imperial weapon close to his chest. His awareness extended all around him, psionic senses still over-stimulated by the drugs he had taken. One corner of his mind kept watch on the Imperial he had captured. The man walked in a daze, stumbling sometimes as he pushed along the grav cart that floated in the air before him. Tlienjpraviashav had to sometimes turn around and physically redirect the man, to keep him from bumping into the cart and spilling its cargo on the floor. The heavy thing it carried was not dangerous - it wasn't armed yet - but he couldn't risk damaging it. There would be no chance to get another.

Paul Marak-Enshluggi followed along behind the handsome officer who had found him in the missile magazine. He didn't quite understand what he had been ordered to do, but that wasn't too much different then normal. Anyway, he knew that it wasn't important to know. He wasn't sure why that was so, but it was. Everything in the universe seemed to tell him so. If he had doubts or worries, they were unimportant. Like why the handsome officer had sneaked up behind Lloergrez and hit him with a wrench. That must have been necessary, although the reasons for it seemed a little fuzzy. Or why he had had to disassemble one of the missiles and put its warhead on this cart.

He decided it would all make sense eventually. After all, everything in the universe seemed to be telling him that.

The escorts and destroyers came hurtling down towards Jasmine from behind one of her moons, firing as they closed in on the Zhodani ships. Two destroyers broke away from the tankers, screening them while they engaged the Imperial ships. The damaged Imperial ships were no match for them. Soon one of the cruisers rose slowly from the gas giant's atmosphere, its tanks full of fuel and ready to add the weight of its guns to the unequal fight.

Without grace, the tankers themselves began to boost out of the atmosphere, collapsible fuel tanks bloated with hydrogen sucked from the very stuff Jasmine was made of. They waddled on their way towards the edge of the planet's gravity well, where they would be in perfect position to refuel the rest of the fleet. Far away, off to one side of them, their escorts battled the Imperials, but they moved on slowly, with a stately unconcern for the fight.

One of them sparkled suddenly, blue and white flashes of arc lightening traveling up and down its length. The ship stopped accelerating and began to drift behind its sisters. The rest of them tried to move faster. There was almost a touch of hysteria to their movements, like a herd of herbivores startled by the appearance of a predator in their midst.

Rhylanor erupted out of Jasmine's atmosphere. She brought her meson cannon to bear on another of the tankers, and the ship exploded, a puff of incandescent flame that dissipated quickly in the empty vacuum of space. The Zhodani cruisers turned away from the rest of the Imperial fleet and began to move towards Rhylanor, but they were too late, too slow; the battle cruiser had more than enough time to run down each of the tankers and destroy them.

On the bridge, Moak felt a grim exultation, although his voice betrayed no emotion. After he destroyed the tankers, nothing else would matter. Let the rest of the Zhodani fleet pound him to smithereens - he had won the battle.

They followed predetermined routes, through the darkened corridors, so that they could maintain radio silence. Arkadian forced himself to calm down, using the mental and physical techniques he had studied for years. Some detached part of himself could almost measure the amount of adrenaline in his blood based on his physical responses, and he worked towards lowering it. He had to keep control of his reason.

Idly, he reflected that there were a great many detached parts of him. He was capable of acting without any emotion. This bothered him obscurely.
He was coming up on one of the portside airlocks. He cautiously edged up to it.

The inner door was open. Beside it, in the dim light, he could see a floating grav cart with a large piece of equipment on it. The light from the airlock chamber dimmed momentarily, as if something was moving inside it.

There was no unsteadiness in his movements. The detached part of his mind noticed that time seemed to have slowed down incredibly as he crept with his back flattened against the wall. Smoothly, with no hesitation, he jumped into the doorway of the airlock. There were two men inside, a short one wearing an Imperial uniform, and a tall one wearing Zhodani combat armor. He raised his pistol and shot the Zhodani.

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