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The Aslan - Part II

High in orbit over the terrestrial planet of Iilgan, five 10,000 displacement ton Fitzgerald-class Tobian transports hung motionless in space. Inside each of the transports chaos appeared to reign supreme as the ships' crews and the mercenaries of the Tobian Legion scrambled to get their equipment on the ground. The Tobian mercenaries had arrived at Iilgan at the request of the colonial government to assist in their militia's counterinsurgency effort. The first deployment of the Tobian mercenaries had been successful; a detachment of deep reconnaissance troops had been placed on the surface of the planet in close proximity to what the government had believed was the largest concentration of the rebel forces. The initial intelligence data was beginning to come in even as the rest of the Legion prepared to move to the surface.

Commandant Mark O'Neill sipped his morning coffee as he listened to his staff officers as they worked around him. His staff had converted the areas just outside the flight deck of the transport, near the ship's computer room into a makeshift tactical operations center. From here he was able to watch the deployment of his first wave of armored grav vehicles as well as the status of the five super transports.

"Good morning Commandant." A large man approached O'Neill, apparently also enjoying his morning cup of coffee. Captain Ghislani Allson was the senior captain of the five merchant ships and acting commodore of the expedition's transport fleet.

"Good morning Ghis, how are your spacers this morning?" O'Neill asked as he continued to sip his quickly cooling coffee.

"Tired, very tired my friend. They will be very happy when you have your Legionaries on the surface of this ball of rock. Any idea when you will release the main force to land?" queried the veteran merchant captain.

"Our probes are sending back information now. One team has already found an apparent rebel cache. We are preparing to extract that team and move it to another location so as not to give our presence away."

"Ah yes, very touchy this time for you is it not? You do not want to deploy your troops too far from the action, yet at the same time you do not want them in a tactically unsound position from which they will be under constant attack," continued Captain Allson.

Major "Boner" Alpheus stepped up to the two talking men to interrupt, "Commandant the picture is shaping up pretty much the way the Iilgan Bureau of Security projected. The main rebel concentrations appear to be distributed along the Ysolde River stretched between the cities of Old Ysolde and the southern coast. Most are within a few hundred kilometers of the city limits in the jungle."

"Very well Major Alpheus, order the heavy grav vehicles to begin transferring the 4th Regiment to the Ysolde Starport ground facility. We will stage our heavy forces from the port. That way we can also monitor off world movement of personnel or material. We will keep the bulk of the 2nd Regiment here in the transports to assist in the movement of the 4th Regiment. Once they are grounded we should have enough tactical information to deploy the 2nd Regiment for direct action operations against the YRAR troop concentrations."

"Yes sir I pass that on to the regimental commanders." Major Alpheus turned and returned to the adhoc regimental communication center.

The off loading and transport to the surface of the Tobian Legion's 4th Regiment went very quickly. The jump troops of the 2nd Regiment were very experienced in pushing their 4th Regiment Lift Infantry associates off the transports first. The tactic of putting the scouts out first, then establishing the main support base with the heavy force followed by a quick first strike by the jump troops was O'Neill's motif. It had worked well for the Legion at New Moscow and every one from the two regimental commanders to the newest private was confident it would work here too. Within six hours the entire 4th Regiment would occupy the region of the Ysolde Starport nearest the river. The 4th Regiment then would establish secure defensive positions for the maintenance and support of the CDS grav vehicles and static point defense guns.

From the distant flight control deck of the heavy transport Captain Allson heard one of his officers yelling. "Excuse me Commandant, I think I need to go back to the bridge." Setting his coffee cup down on the nearest table, Captain Allson then quickly made his way around O'Neill's staff officers and exited the command center. On a hunch O'Neill decided to follow the merchant captain. The Fitzgerald-class transport was heavily used in the Tobian subsector and throughout the Imperium's Deneb and Spinward Marches sectors as well. At 10,000 displacement tons the transports could haul a lot of material, but required a large crew to run the thing. Captain Allson had a reputation of being as good as any navy captain when it came to running his ship. Captain Allson had worked with the Tobian Legionaries carrying them and their equipment all over the subsector.

As O'Neill entered the flight deck his attention was quickly drawn to the gunnery console on the far side of the crowded room. Allson's first officer and chief gunnery officer were hunched over the console discussing something. Allson's knitted brow did not bode well for the developing situation.

"What is the situation Captain?" O'Neill asked as he joined the three men.

"We have a very large number of sensor hits at long range inbound to the planet from deep space." Allson said matter of factly.

The seriousness of the situation was not lost on O'Neill, "Large number? How many do you have?"

Allson nodded toward the console. "Look for yourself Commandant. We're running with active sensors due to the large number of our own auxiliary craft operating in close proximity to our five transports. I wanted to know if anything was moving around out there."

"Understandable," O'Neill muttered as he moved between the three men to get a better look at the console they had been talking about. He was familiar with the Tobian sensors, but what he saw on them was not what he had expected. There on the repeater was not the anticipated number of commercial ships hurriedly pressed into service by the opposition leader Baron Gulian Olofuli but a fleet...an actual fleet of starships. "What are they?" he whispered.

"The only thing they could be are the Aslan," returned Allson calmly.

"The Aslan?" repeated O'Neill.

"We've been expecting them to move for decades. It was only a matter of time," replied Allson now rubbing the bridge of his nose.

"This is absurd," began O'Neill, "The Tobian subsector is a claimed by the Imperium, the Aslan and the Imperium are allies, it is an act of war for the Aslan to enter our space with a force that large."

"These Aslan are not allies of the Imperium, they are landless nobles that can only achieve honor through the accumulation of lands of their own, they are the Ihatei," explained Allson.

"I have heard of the Ihatei, every human living on this side of the Great Rift has heard of them. But they are not capable of launching such a massive fleet. They use house troops loaned to them by their patron to squat on unclaimed or undeveloped lands, not seize territory by force of arms," returned O'Neill.

Allson grunted a laugh, "Who else could assemble a fleet that large? And who else would have an interest in Iilgan?"

"Yes, that is a good question Allson. Why is such a large fleet here at Iilgan, unless it's an Imperial fleet showing the flag along the rimward frontier? But in either case you're right to be alarmed. What can you do?" questioned O'Neill.

"There is not much we can do, we did not refuel when we entered the system. We traversed the space between the jump-in point and planetary orbit to conceal your arrival. Our hydrogen tanks are empty." Allson moved to seat himself in his captain's chair just off from the gunnery console. "We're trapped and we sure as hell can not fight whatever it is that is coming toward us, there are just too many of them."

O'Neill stood and thought for a moment before coming to a decision, "Very well. Continue to offload the Legion. I want to get as much of our equipment and ordnance on the surface as we can. If it’s a hostile force my troopers will stand a better chance of survival on the surface."

Allson interrupted, "Take as many of my people as want to go Commandant. We don't stand a chance up here and some of them may not want to fall into the hands of an Aslan Ihatei lordling."

"Alright then how long do we have before they can fire on us?" asked O'Neill.

"If we can see them they have seen us, and if they can see us they can shoot us with their missile weapons. Remember that tactically most commanders do not like to engage anything over two or three light-seconds distant, which is where they are probably at - say between half a million and a million kilometers from Iilgan's orbit." Allson paused in thought, "However they are going to be operating a long way from home so they are probably conserving their missiles and will wait to engage us at short range with their energy weapons."

"Well like I said, how long does that give us?" repeated O'Neill.

Captain Allison rubbed his chin as he mentally calculated the answer to O'Neill's question, "Iilgan is a small world; the Aslan could have jumped in as close as 640,000 kilometers. It could take them between four hours to a little under two hours depending on how many Gs they can pull."

"Two hours doesn't give us much time. Two hours to off load everything and get our troops disbursed on the surface in case these Aslan want to come in fighting." O'Neill thought out loud. "It takes almost an hour to travel to the surface and back to orbit in a ship's boat. That means we can only make two trips with your shuttles Captain Allison."

O'Neill then walked back toward his makeshift combat information center and shouted for Major Alpheus. "Major we have a tactical alert situation, we have a very large number of incoming ships currently between two to four hours out. Their numbers suggest an Aslan Ihatei invasion fleet. Captain Allison believes they may either neutralize or take by force our ships."

Major Alpheus interrupted, "You want everything off the transports now."

"Get ready to transfer the command center to the surface of the planet ASAP." Without another word the experienced Chief of Staff turned on his heels and started spouting orders to the staff.

Colonel O'Neill turned to Captain Allison who had followed him from the gunnery station, "Captain I will be taking my senior staff and departing your ship. Good luck Ghislani," O'Neill reached out to grasp the other man's hand in a parting handshake.

"Better luck to you Mark, you're taking your men to the surface of a planet that already has a well entrenched enemy with a possibly more deadly enemy closing in on you. What ever tactical advantage these ships would have given you being in orbit the Aslan will now have."

Mark O'Neill gave his old friend a strong handshake then slapped him on the left shoulder, "Play smart." O'Neill then turned and looked for Major "Boner" Alpheus before leaving the command center. Quickly he conferred with Alpheus before leaving for his quarters and the boat deck for transport to the surface.

The passageways leading from the control room of the transport to the high passenger cabins where he and his senior staff had been staying was now a buzz with activity. Stewards and headquarters personnel were quickly packing the personal belongings of his senior staff and other regimental officers and move them to the boat deck. O'Neill was pleased to see his field uniform and load bearing equipment had already been laid out on his bunk as he entered his quarters. O'Neill stepped quickly through the living area to the sleep area to inspect what the orderly had lain out. His load bearing equipment consisted of a belt and harness that allowed him to carry on his person communications and survival equipment with a side arm. Also laid out on the bunk was his field uniform. O'Neill quickly shed his shipboard flight suit-coverall and donned the Combat Environment Suit or CES that the Legion wore for combat operations. The uniform like most of the Legion's equipment was of Tobian manufacture meaning it was rated as a TL15 item. O'Neill quickly checked out the fit of his one-piece CES before slinging on the harness and belt load-bearing equipment combo. He quickly checked the sealed leg pockets that held the suit's gloves and inflatable fishbowl helmet. Next O'Neill drew his service pistol and checked its action and ammunition. Satisfied he returned it to its holster. Quickly he moved to his cabin desk and opened the desk's safe. He extracted the documents he had stored there since their departure from New Moscow and quickly stuffed them into his ancient canvas map case that served him as his brief case during many field deployments. Then satisfied that he had all his critical belongings he exited the room and headed down the crowded passageway for the bay holding the two pinnaces detailed to carry the command staff to the surface of Iilgan.

Hundreds of thousands of kilometers away the Aslan vanguard was completing its move into attack its position for the close on the primary world of the system. Six Hwaietao or "Hunter" class attack cruisers fanned out into their stalking formation. At the center of the formation was the Lahraioir, the flagship of the vanguard. In the position of honor on the left side of the leader was the Ireoilr, trailed by the Iyaosea. To the right of Lahraioir moved the Oouoi followed by the Itekya and the Yaleikha.

"Begin launching the fighter screens," ordered Admiral Ailakhya from the bridge of the Lahraioir. Commandant Aosaii turned to relay the order to the flight control officer. Through out the ship the vibration and the noise of twenty ten-ton Talon-class fighters launching echoed. The saucer shaped heavy fighters streaked from the larger assault cruisers toward their targets nearer the primary world of the system. Quickly the fighters spread out to maximize their sensor capabilities and to avoid become themselves targets of opportunity for nuclear missile fire. Below the bridge the launch crews readied the next salvo of Talon fighters. The fighter screen divided into five flights and accelerated off to their assigned patrol areas to cover the advance of the fleet and extend its eyes and ears for contact with possible enemy attack.

"Honored Captain," reported Senior Lieutenant Soiftelel, "our trackers have located a number of large ships in orbit above Iilgan. Their mass is 10,000 displacement tons."

Captain Ailakhya moved to the large tactical holographic display table in the center of the bridge. He stepped silently beside the veteran petty officer operating the tactical plot. "Show me the large ships orbiting Iilgan," he commanded. The technician nodded acknowledging his superior's command and then manipulated the controls to zoom the small electronic model of the planet to five icons floating above the planet. The ship icons were generic displays indicating large mass objects. The icons would change their configuration once the identities of the five objects were known. "Order two flights of the Talons to focus on identifying the five capital ships," ordered Captain Ailakhya. Then he turned to the attack cruiser's senior pilot, "Commandant Alryelrua bring the ship to pursuit speed!"

"Bring the ship to pursuit speed, aye!" repeated Senior Lieutenant Soiftelel who then turned and relayed the order to senior pilot Commandant Alryelrua.

Alryelrua tapped the navigation console with his index claw, pecking in the information a quickly as he could. On the black navigation screen the information rolled back in red glyphs. Then turning to look over his shoulder he reports back to the captain and first officer, "Honored Captain we will close to orbit within three hours at present speed."

"Very well Commandant Alryelrua, Senior Lieutenant Soiftelel I want to engage the capital ships as soon as possible," ordered Captain Ailakhya. "When will Commandant Lieutenant Eaioi's fighter group be within range to identify the targets?"

Senior Lieutenant Soiftelel quickly checked his data from the screen on his weapons console, "Sir the fighters will be within range to identify the enemy in just over an hour."

"Is there any indication at all that there are any other ships in this system?" queried Captain Ailakhya.

Senior Lieutenant Soiftelel quickly replied, "Yes Honored Captain, there is a commercial ship of the two hundred displacement tons class currently skirting our sensors at one gravity acceleration, presumably moving to its jump point. But its range is to great for it to have detected us."

"Order a fighter flight to intercept and disable the ship, then dispatch a team of warriors on a shuttle to retrieve it. I want to interrogate the crew of that ship myself," ordered the Captain.

Senior Lieutenant Soiftelel bowed slightly and gave the ritual response, "By your will my captain."

The Imperial Merchant Ship Nermushug was nearing its planned jump point when its sensors detected the incoming Aslan Talon fighters. The four fighters approached the Nermushug at six-gravity acceleration. Captain Brodhead Barlumru quickly sat his herbal tea down splashing the toxic liquid on the flight console when the avionics sensor alarms sounded. "Ashley come to the cockpit on the double!" he shouted into the intercom.

"Aye captain, on my way!" replied the first officer Ashley Newbold. She gave the engineer a sideways glance then took off for the bridge at a dead sprint. Captain Barlumru was running the data from the sensors through the computer a second time when she entered the spacious cockpit of the Far Trader-class merchant ship. "What is the problem captain, space junk blocking our jump point?"

"I wish it was only space junk, look at the radar," ordered Captain Barlumru.

First Officer Newbold leaned over the captain's shoulder to look at the radar display that sat between the pilot and navigator's workstations just below the cockpit windows. The oversized acceleration couches made looking over someone's shoulder when the chairs were pulled into the workstation socket very hard to do. "Four contacts moving in at six gravities?" She quickly hit the release that automatically moved the navigator's seat on the right side of the cockpit back so that she could be seated. Then she hit the button allowing the hydraulics to pull it back into position in front of her console. "All right captain, I'm placing the navigation program in storage and bring the tactical configuration online."

"Have they got a target lock on us?" asked Captain Barlumru.

"Affirmative sir, we are being pinged with targeting radars," confirmed Newbold.

"Range?" queried Captain Barlumru.

"Less than a hundred thousand kilometers."

"Damn, they will be on us in less than an hour at their present speed," mused Captain Barlumru as he gnawed on his lip. "What is their mass?"

Newbold looked at the data scrolling across the dark screen in green letters or numbers, "They look to be about twenty displacement tons."

"Twenty displacement tons!" Barlumru's surprise was evident in his voice. "They're not the standard Imperial interceptors then, could be missiles..."

"Who would waste four missiles on a far trader captain?" Newbold gave Captain Barlumru a worried look.

"Yeah, besides a twenty ton displacement missile would have to have been fired from a major size warship, none of those here last time I looked," smiled Captain Barlumru. "Probably some type of system defense exercise and we just stumbled into the middle of it."

"Well just to be on the safe side get the crew to battle stations," then smiling Barlumru added, "Just to be on the safe side incase it is someone wanting our cargo."

Battles in space were long drawn out affairs that took hours if not days to run their course because of the distances that they were fought at. Anything beyond one light-second distance created shadows or false signals on the various radars and other electronic sensors. Therefore ship commanders tended to want to close to within a light second or two to ensure accurate data for their fire control computers to direct fires with. Firing with data based on information from targets further out meant inaccurate firing solutions for the fire control computers making it easier for the target ships to evade or block with sand incoming fire.

The flight of four Aslan Talon fighters closed on the merchant ship as it moved toward its intended jump-point. The fighters were primarily used for reconnaissance and therefore were armed with laser weapons rather than missiles. Gracefully the four oval ships slid into their attack formation then the lead ship fired its nose-laser followed by the other three craft. Like knights of old riding in a joust the laser beams leapt from the four fighters like lances of light shooting silently past the Imperial merchant ship into the void. The engines of the far trader fired more brightly as it tried to add velocity to escape the closing Talons. Time crawled by as the Aslan quietly pursued their prey burning their engines at six gravities to close the distance. Slowly twenty standard minutes passed before the leading Aslan pilot reactivated his computer for an updated firing solution on the targeted merchant ship. Following his lead the other three pilots fired after him. His beam was still wide and to the right of the target. The second beam bracketed the merchant firing to far to the left. The third and fourth shot hit the target square, one impacting on the right side of the ship shattering the internal fuel tank igniting the hydrogen gas in a single glorious fireball belching from the side of the running ship. The second hit impacted on the upper hull ripping through the plating but doing negligible damage to the ship.

On the flight deck of the Nermushug Captain Barlumru slammed his hand against the arm of his accelerator couch as he read the stream of data scrolling across the dark screen of his engineering monitor. "Alright..." flipping the intercom for the Nermushug, "Talbot return fire on those animals!"

"Aye-aye captain!" returned the gunner from the flight deck computer workstation. A ruby red beam shot from the side turret of the Nermushug out into the void in the general direction of the approaching Aslan Talons.

"Damn, Talbot, you trying to kill them by making them laugh themselves to death?" cursed Captain Barlumru over the intercom.

"Captain, what do you expect with a dinky computer like this one doing the calculations? How's a man supposed to shoot something he can't see?" complained Talbot as he punched in the new set of directions for the computer to calculate the targeting solution with. The Nermushug used a targeting program to coordinate the two port and starboard turrets rather than manning each one.

"Just you and Fennis keep them off our back so they don't bleed our fuel before we can jump," ordered the captain who himself was busy recalculating the jump figures based on the fuel lost already due to the Aslan attack.

"Aye-aye captain," Barlumru could hear Fennis' heavy breathing behind him at the main computer workstation. He quietly listened to the tapping and popping of the keys as Fennis typed in commands based on the new telemetry from the ship's electronic sensors.

"Range?" Barlumru asked nervously.

"Hold on captain," Fennis shifted his attention from the key board and computer screen to look at the sensor repeater, "less than 50,000 kilometers continuing to accelerate at six gravities."

"They are definitely going to catch us," Barlumru whispered to himself. "Where did they come from is what I want to know?"

"Captain there is no doubt where they came from, question is why are they here?" offered Fennis. Sudden flash from outside the hull flooded through the flight deck windows. Four needle width red beams seared past the bow of the Nermushug and continued out into the void. Since there had been no physical contact with the ship there was nothing else to indicate the near miss of the attackers. Had the two men not been on the flight deck there would have been no indication they had been attacked again.

"How long until they fly by?" asked Barlumru.

Fennis tapped the keyboard then looked at secondary computer screen, "Sixty-eight minutes sir."

"We have an hour..." a defeated Captain Barlumru muttered to the universe-at-large and no one in particular.

The ride to the surface of Iilgan seemed almost dreamlike for Colonel Mark O'Neill now with the threat of a probable attack at the forefront of his thoughts. He sat quietly as the Combat Drop Ship violently shook and rattled as it passed through the ionosphere in its controlled fall toward the surface. The drop ship was nothing more than a glorified or juiced up Tobian grav vehicle used to hall his Legionaries and their equipment to and from their support ships. The ride took less than a few minutes to get from the orbiting transport to the surface. Then the pilot flew very low to the ground, nap of the earth, to avoid detection as he brought the vehicle to the designated landing site. Once the drop ship had stopped its fall and began moving horizontally O'Neill stood up and walked easily to the cockpit to check with the pilot. Like most combat grav vehicles in Imperial space the Tobian drop ships were relatively streamlined and heavily armored. The drop ship or "CDS" as the Legionaries referred to it, cruised at over 700 kilometers per hour within a standard density atmosphere and could maintain a speed of 190 kilometers per hour when flying near the surface in the nap-of-the-earth mode. The flora of Iilgan was flashing by the cockpit windows as the pilot expertly flew the vehicle to the ship's first landing site.

"Ten kilometers sir," the pilot announced over his right shoulder to O'Neill who was now standing in the threshold to the flight deck. O'Neill just nodded and continued to look out the windows as the CDS swept over some treetops at over 100 kilometers per hour. O'Neill turned and walked back to his spot on the bench that lined the bulkhead of the CDS' interior. He readjusted his load-bearing equipment harness as he retook his seat with the others on this particular flight. He looked at the lieutenant that was setting across from him. The CDS that he had been put on by his executive officer was carrying a regular rifle platoon from the Legion's fourth regiment.

"What is your platoon's mission lieutenant?" asked O'Neill as he worked through his memory of this particular mercenary officer and his unit.

"Sir when we get to the insertion point we are to establish local security for the following drop ships to land in. The defensive perimeter will increase in size as our ground force does. We will tie following platoons in with our flanks as we slowly expand the defensive ring and secure our forward ground base," replied the lieutenant.

"Very good Lieutenant Petekov," both O'Neill and Lieutenant Petekov's attention was directed to the front of the CDS as the pilot leaned over to his right to announce they were approaching the landing site.

Suddenly O'Neill was conscious of a blinding white flash and sudden rush of burning heat that swept his face and hands in an instant, instantly the air was sucked from his mouth and lungs by sudden decompression of the drop ship's troop compartment. O'Neill's eardrums both ruptured from the sudden change in air pressure giving the chaos around him a muffled sound. He felt vertigo from the drop ship's change in vector from the sudden impact it has just taken. O'Neill felt the ship rolling over on its left side indicating that the ship's artificial gravity had been damaged or lost power. The drop ship began shaking violently, much more violently than when it had pierced the atmosphere just minutes earlier. Instinctively he reached up and pulled the crash bar down and over his abdomen locking him in to his spot on the hull bench. Just as he heard the mechanism for the crash-bar lock into place the entire ship jarred and he slammed toward the nose and the flight deck. O'Neill's vision is suddenly reddened before he blacked out from the force of the impact as the CDS crashed into the wooded landscape of Iilgan.

The Imperial Light Cruiser Akagi sat in low orbit over the desert planet Romar, the wedge shaped starship fired maneuver thrusters from time to time to keep the ship in geo-synchronous orbit over the Imperial naval base on the surface. Communications between the newly arrived Imperial warship and the grounded naval base increased as the various departments from both the ship and the base exchanged routine information. Romar was the home of the 2140th Squadron of the 100th Imperial Fleet. But being the furthest rimward Imperial naval base for the Spinward Marches, Romar was also the last Imperial outpost before exiting the Third Imperium, or the first depending on the direction being traveled. Thus it was that none of the five battle cruisers assigned to the 2140th Squadron were present as the Akagi arrived. Two were on training maneuvers at the outer edge of the Romar system, the third was back at the Class-A starport at Glisten for repairs, and the last two were patrolling in the Pax Rulin subsector of the Trojan Reach.

Captain Aart and the squadron commodore had exchanged the required formal greeting and information; including confidential reports and other intelligence on the Aslan move into the rimward subsectors of Trojan Reach. Slowly eight Aslan starships slid into high orbit over the Imperial world of Romar in the Glisten subsector of the Spinward Marched. They were relatively small ships for the distance they had traveled. The two military escorts only displaced a thousand metric tons each, four of the remaining ships displaced 800 metric tons of hydrogen, while the remaining two were even lighter with a 600 metric ton displacement. Very small to have traveled the many months to arrive at Romar from the Trojan Reach Sector and Aslan claimed space. Captain Blenda Aart sat at the conference table chewing her thumbnail as she examined the images of the Aslan flotilla on a computer monitor setting before her. Her professional training had included being a forward observer for naval gunners; she used that experience now as she analyzed the Aslan's hulls.

"Captain," Lieutenant Commander Alexi Davion announced himself as he entered the wardroom at his captain's summons. He snapped to rigid attention with a click of his heels as he stopped at the head of the table opposite of where Captain Aart was setting.

"Alexi I asked Force Commander Bast and Major Connopo Brionii to join us, as well as Lieutenant Calder your senior fire control officer," she explained as she motioned for Commander Davion to take his customary seat at the opposite end of the table.

"Very good ma'am," replied Davion tritely.

Wanting to get right to the point of the meeting, Captain Aart jumped right into the meeting despite the absence of the other officers. "You did well to invite the commander of the Aslan to visit the Akagi, I want to know why the Aslan are so deep into our borders with an armed flotilla."

"Yes ma'am," responded Davion just as the other three officers entered the wardroom. Each of them acknowledged the presence of Captain Aart before seating themselves. Force Commander Bast took some tea before seating himself at Captain Aart's right hand. Davion continued, "The Aslan range throughout the Trojan Reach with the Imperium's support due to the strategic location of the Zhodani Consulate to our Spinward Marches. It has only been recently when they have began to migrate toward the Marches with their Ihatei fleets that there has been concern that they will flood Imperial worlds rather than target the Zhodani or their Avalarn allies in the Foreven Sector."

"Because of the damned Darrians ma'am," blurted out Lieutenant Astolphe Calder, Davion's senior fire control officer.

"How so lieutenant?" countered Captain Aart thoughtfully.

An embarrassed junior officer cleared his throat before continuing. "Well ma'am, we all know that the Darrians are no friends of the Zhodani or the Avalar Consulates, and that the Darrians lack the military prowess to defend their borders without Imperial support or the use of their doomsday weapons. They have always invited the Aslan to settle in their space and on their worlds to provide soldiers for their defense forces."

Lieutenant Commander Davion interjected, "Captain it has been Imperial policy for decades to welcome the Aslan in our space. They have been valuable allies against the Solomani and the other enemies of the Imperium for generations; no other non-Imperial civilization has been as loyal or steadfast as our Aslan neighbors. But with the rise of the Ihatei fleets, there has been growing concern that the young nobles will see our friendliness and loyalty to them as a sign of weakness and an opportunity to establish lands for themselves at minimal cost in manpower or material."

Force Commander Bast interrupted with his question, "Why are the Ihatei fleets such a threat, you just said that the Aslan have been traditionally welcomed in our space?"

"Because of their size," responded Captain Aart, "the Imperium has never turned away migrating Aslan from our worlds when they arrive in small groups of ships representing independent families or small groups of travelers, but an Ihatei fleet is something entirely different."

"They are better described as armadas commander," offered Lieutenant Commander Davion. "An Ihatei fleet usually is centered around assault troop transports carrying colonists in low berth, thousands, sometimes tens or hundreds of thousands of Aslan civilians. When they set their sites on a world they land their civilians as soon as possible with military precision and establish a settlement. A settlement that is usually very resource dependent."

Major Brionii quickly added his information to the discussion, "Militarily they are rarely aggressive against the native or already established colonial population on the world outright, but they defend their own settlements decisively and with great force. If their new colony needs to control a local resource then they will take control of that resource even if it is already being developed by another group."

"Fleet Command's concern and the crux of our mission is the increased presence of the Aslan in the rimward regions of the Trojan Reaches and the approaches toward the Spinward Marches," added Captain Aart. "Intelligence indicates that the Aslan have formed an Ihatei fleet in the Trojan Reaches. Our concern is where is that fleet going? Will it proceed toward the Avalar Consulate's borders or will it turn on the Imperial colonies in the Tobian subsector?"

Davion spoke up. "The routes to the Avalar Consulate are long and treacherous with many minor independent states along the way. In the long run it would be most advantageous for the Aslan to move toward the Avalar. But the expense in time and resources for them may be too much to bear. The Aslan nobles leading the Ihatei fleet need to establish their claims now to reap the benefits of their labors immediately while they are young enough to enjoy the prestige their conquests will bring them. I agree with Fleet Command, I think the Aslan Ihatei will turn on their allies and invade the Imperial regions of the Trojan Reaches."

"Commander Davion has invited the Aslan officers of the flotilla onboard the Akagi for a social call, I agree with him, we need to gather some information about the route these traders took getting here," said Captain Aart.

"I think that their route taken here will be a good indicator of the route the Ihatei will take," explained Lieutenant Commander Davion.

"Are we abandoning our mission to the Albe system?" queried Compel Bast.

"No," interjected Captain Aart. "Albe is a strategic independent system located in a position to indicate which direction the Aslan are heading, if there is any increased military traffic in the Albe system then the Aslan are headed our way. If they are moving on the Avalar Consulate then their presence around Albe will be minimal."

"We've begun our swapping out of Imperial Marines with the Romar garrison. The Romar Marines are desert operations qualified. Our fleet marine contingent will replace them on the surface and assume their garrison duties for the starport here," said Major Brionii.

"Connopo it's been a pleasure serving with you, I look forward to seeing you on our return from Albe," Captain Aart smiled then stood to shake the major's hand.

"The pleasure has been mine ma'am. I just wish me and my boys were going with you to Albe."

Quickly looking at Force Commander Bast before speaking Captain Aart returned, "I would like to have had you along with us too, but Fleet Command has given this mission to Commander Bast and the Romar Marines. Who are we to argue with Fleet Command?"

"Who indeed ma'am," answered Major Connopo Brionii with his infamous toothy smile.

"Don't worry Connopo, I will return your ship to you in good shape." Force Commander Compel Bast also smiled broadly as he too shook the other Imperial Marine's hand.

"Ma'am I am trusting you to keep him in line with our area of the Akagi, you know how sloppy Marine tankers can be." Everyone erupted into general laughter and small talk as the meeting ended and they returned to their stations until the arrival of the Aslan for their formal meal.

"Imperial grid 2815, Ardasii, B650684-9. Trade classifications are non-industrial, desert world, and poor. Astronomical data is as follows: Type F7 dwarf star, one asteroid belt, no gas giants." Freetrader captain Val Salvis repeated to himself as he readied his fartrader for orbital insertion and landing. Quietly his computer specialist and long time companion Angelica Shimmer sat watching his hands flying over the console as he did his final pre-landing checks. Salvis had owned the Glory for sometime, inheriting it from its previous captain. Salvis was a native of the planet Pandora in the rimward region of this subsector. Ardasii was smaller than his homeworld of Pandora which had a library profile of 2820 B878313-B Ni Lo 401 F0 D. To a veteran traveler the Universal World Profile meant that his home world had a higher surface gravity than Ardasii, a denser atmosphere with standing oceans of liquid water covering the majority of its surface. Pandora also had a substantially smaller population before he left a number of years ago. He could only guess the size of the population with the growing tensions with the Aslan.

"What Val?" queried Angelica as she also scanned the flight console. "You say something?" Angelica Shimmer was a telepath that had worked for the Imperial Ministry of Justice before running afoul of the government herself. She was born and raised in the Spinward Marches, the Imperial sector coreward of the Trojan Reaches. Once her enemies had discovered she was a functional telepath they used that against her forcing her from the post she had come to enjoy. Her experience as an Imperial law enforcer had served her and Val greatly once they had teamed up, almost as much as her skills as a telepath. Her attention was quickly drawn back to the image that laid before the Glory's nose, the vast vista of the desert planet of Ardasii dominated the clear windows of the fartrader's flight deck.

Angelica was not pilot trained, but Val spoke the landing sequence out loud just as he would have if he had his friend and copilot of many years setting beside him. Zack Prax had died on the Aslan derelict while they were attempting to save the Aslan crew's lives. He had died of explosive decompression when his space helmet had been fractured by an Aslan ambush. Fate had always been cruel to his friend.

"Firing main engine for final deceleration and orbital insertion," he announced. He reached over and pressed the throttle forward to its full position.

"Glory this is Ardasii Control again, we track you still inbound at 0.4 gravity velocity, and dropping; confirm."

"Affirmative Ardasii, have begun final deceleration. I am dropping to entry speed for atmosphere insertion," returned Val.

"Affirmative Glory, you are green on final deceleration and atmosphere insertion," the flight controller dropped his official voice and spoke in a friendlier tone, "Welcome back to Ardasii, Captain Salvis, enjoy your stay."

"Thanks Ardasii Control, I'll see you once we're down," Val smiled as he punched course instructions into the Glory's flight computer. The old freetrader was a half a dozen generations old, Val had no idea of how many captains had been the ship's master since it had first lifted into space a couple of hundred years ago. But the Glory was a capable and well-tested starship with a proud tradition here in the Trojan Reach. The freetrader's distinctive yellow and green checkered paint scheme was well known from Fist to Tobia and back.

"Alright Angelica, flipping the nose back to the direction of travel on my mark...one...two...mark!" Val fired the nose reaction thrusters and began the quick movement of the always frozen stars upward as the bow dipped. Dramatically the reddish-brown horizon of Ardasii loomed up from under the nose of the starship as it came to a stop ready for atmospheric insertion. Slowly the windows of the flight deck began to take on a rose color as friction with the atmosphere began to build. Then suddenly visibility was completely obscured as the heat from the friction intensified to the point of flame as the old ship shook and rattled violently. Then just as suddenly shaking stopped and the fire outside flight deck windows disappeared and was replaced with a violet blanket of the planet's atmosphere's ionosphere. Val had brought the Glory in on the dark side of the planet's rotation so the ship was coming in to the down port at night. Angelica had called up the navigation file for Ardasii prior to insertion into the atmosphere for Val to use on the final approach to the downport. Below on the surface scattered like tossed jewels were the lights of the various settlements dotting the landscape. Slowly the flight computer brought the nose pointedly toward the largest cluster of the shimmering lights. At 10,000 meters Val disengaged the flight computer and asked for final clearance to approach the port for planetfall. When the flight controller gave him the go-ahead Val eased the handgrips of his pilot's chair back raising the nose of the Glory while dipping the portside of the ship to begin the swing around for landing. When he saw that the ship was closing on 1,000-meter altitude he engaged the ship's gravitics and cut the maneuver drive for a controlled touchdown at the designated landing pad. The Glory made a textbook approach to the landing pad and slowed to hover momentarily 20-meters off the tarmac as Val lined her main loading hatch with the port terminal before touching down. Once down he powered down the grav engines and shut down the maneuver engines completely.

Before taking his headset off Val contacted the flight controller once more, "Ardasii Control, we are down and waiting Port Authority clearance."

"Roger Glory, Customs is on its way to your location right now," returned the flight controller they had been working with.

With that word, Val smiled at Angelica and removed his headset and threw it to its usual place lying on the flight control panel. Then he hit the hydraulics to move his accelerator seat back from its in-flight position so he could stand up and stretch. "Piece of cake," he smiled as he walked to be back of the flight deck.

"What about our passengers Val?" Angelica asked.

"Now that is a different story," smiled Val back. He led Angelica aft through the common area iris valve hatch to the cargo bay to cross to the portside of the main deck and the crew's quarters. In the cargo bay Angelica glanced at the row of sealed cargo containers carrying the lithium they were hauling rimward. She wondered why their contact on Hradus was willing to ship lithium so far a distance on a freetrader instead of one of the main line transports.

"Think its really lithium in those containers Val?" she asked absentmindedly as they approached the portside cargo bay iris valve hatch.

"You tell me?" he countered, "you're the telepath. Did you get any indication from Simon that this was not a legitimate shipment?"

"No," she answered, still with a worried look on her face. They stepped through the iris into the ready area near the portside airlock. She watched as Val stepped over past the airlock to retrieve a handgun from the weapon's locker just forward of the airlock. He snapped the slide of the pistol back to charge a round then smiled at her. She then stepped forward and activated the iris valve hatch of the airlock. The door retracted leaving the circular well of the hatch open. Standing menacingly staring at them were the two Aslan males, their looks indicated they had murder on their minds.

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