Chapter 1: Death and Glory
There was nothing. Nothing but space.
He was alone. He was out in empty space, and he was alone.
Space! Deep. Black. Empty. Not even a grain of dust reflected probing energies back to his sensors. Only on the electromagnetic bands was the dark spangled with the filmy specks of distant star clusters, the fuzzy wisps that were far away galaxies. Rand tossed fitfully in his bunk, aware that this was no dream. With a rush, the scope of his vision expanded to include the complete sphere.
Behind him, seeming almost close enough to touch, the ten thousand suns of the Imperial Cluster filled an entire quadrant, sheltering the Empire's one hundred and forty seven E type worlds with their diverse races. Ahead, a twisted rope of star stuff was the Vortigen Drift, home of the Empire's ruthless enemies. The Drift; less than a thousand suns, yet a full seventy or eighty of them were thought to warm habitable worlds.
A few dozen light centuries to the galactic south, the great wheel of Mother Galaxy stretched away in all directions, a streaked and banded backdrop for his vision. It was from there that a faint disturbance reached him, nearly blanketed by a random splatter of synchrotron emissions from the Hub. The vision, along with a subliminal flow of data that he'd hardly noticed, faded as Rand struggled to waken. He realized that somehow he'd been peeking over the ship's shoulder, seeing in his mind what Skryben's sensors were relaying to her central computers.
"YELLOW ALERT! YELLOW ALERT!" Far into second shift, and Skryben's intercoms woke echoes through near empty corridors. "BATTLE STATIONS! BATTLE STATIONS, ALL HANDS!"
"Enemy ships approaching! R.A. +135o; Dec. minus 47o..." The ship's voice went on as Rand struggled out of his bunk, shocked awake as bare feet hit the yielding metallo organic floor. He'd been standing watch and watch duty most of the mission. Third Officer Inol, Skryben's navigator, was a finicky teacher who couldn't believe that a mere Junior Third Officer was capable of mastering deep space navigation without being pushed to the limit. Under Inol's tutelage, free time was almost too precious a commodity to waste on anything but food or sleep.
Gravity was set at 0.650 standard G, 650 centimeters per second, squared, since most of the ship's crew hailed from the Cluster's smaller planets. Rand was grateful to his heavy planet upbringing as he scrambled up narrow stairs, climbing the two levels from Junior Officers' Quarters to Skryben's bridge.
Captain Jeryth was already there, of course. For all Rand knew, he might well have slept at his post. If he slept at all, that is. Tall, unhumanly slim, the Captain was a statue cast from living gold. His metallo organic body had been lovingly crafted from the same stuff as his ship. Rumor was that the construct had been an emergency replacement for a body destroyed by the violence of interstellar combat.
Right now, the Captain's eyes were closed, his built in rapport with Skryben showing him vividly detailed pictures of the ship and its surroundings. The rest of the officers on the bridge could only scan the same pictures in lesser detail as they were presented on the great curving view screens that made up the walls and ceiling of the bridge, and curved under its transparent floor. A diffuse glow, too faint to be resolved into separate components, centered itself on the forward screen as the pilot turned Skryben to meet her foe.
"Minimum time to contact, twenty four minutes from... Mark." The ship's voice was somehow dry, precise, as though it reflected the personality of Third Officer Inol who had read in the data. "Minimum time to next jump, twenty four minutes and seventeen seconds. Twenty nine minutes and fifty four seconds if weapons and drive are employed at maximum energy drain."
"Rand Korsun, Junior Third Officer, reporting," he whispered into his throat mike as he reached his station, relaxing slightly as the 'confirmed' light came on above his console. He watched the dancing numbers that were echoed on his own screen as Arls Inol set up problem after problem on the navigation console.
First, the vectors and times involved if Skryben were to flee through normal space: No good! The Vortigen ship, or ships, would be on her before she could move far enough to make any difference.
Second, the results of a premature jump: No good there, either. The Vortigen would be close enough to read her course and distance. They would easily follow Skryben through null space, arriving with capacitors still partly charged. Enough energy would remain to crush Skryben's frail defenses while her engines were still laboring to recharge her empty capacitors for another jump.
No, her one chance was to stand and fight. Her only hope, that the Vortigen weren't too strong. Not likely that the bastards would have a large force out this far from their home stars, Rand thought...
A quick glance at the big screen dashed that hope. Mother Galaxy! This was no lone ship approaching. The blur resolved itself into a ragged cluster of flickering points. Six of them, at least. And, so far behind them as to barely register, another blur of light that told of more ships on the way! By Vortigen standards, practically a battle fleet.
Rand sent a whispered prayer Hubward. Fragmentary echoes throughout Skryben told of crew members heading for their battle stations, then heavy blast doors cut off most outside sounds as the bridge was sealed off from the rest of the ship.
"Communications!" Captain Jeryth's low, yet penetrating voice seemed to fill the control room. "Set up electronic counter measures to amplify our image on their screens. Pilot, full power on ion engines, but only one quarter power on inertial drive. Let the Vortigen think that we're a mauler, headed their way and ready to fight. They'll be a little more cautious. With luck, this'll give us time to jump."
Rand's nerves were quivering. Fear, mingled with anger at his own helplessness. The first group of Vortigen ships was closing too fast, he thought to himself; they must have already been moving in this direction when they caught the energy burst from Skryben's jump through null space. That was the one weakness of the Empire's 'Infinite Translocation' drive. The burst of energy that propelled them a couple of light years across null space was released in a 'splash' of energy at their destination, and had to be replenished before they could jump again.
Jump; splash! Wait... Jump; splash! Wait... Jump; splash! Wait... Like a big fat frog, hopping laboriously across a too shallow puddle.
The Captain's trick was working! On the forward screen, he could see all but three of the Vortigen angling off. Small ships, unwilling to face what they thought was a larger foe, even for a brief encounter. Typical Vortigen strategy would be for them to hang back, since it took a mauler at least an hour to recharge for a jump, and close in after their fellow ships had the Empire vessel in trouble. Then they would dash in, nipping viciously at Skryben's flanks as they were joined by the second cluster of ships.
Officially, in memos from Imperial bureaucrats, the Vortigen were called privateers, since no formal state of war existed so far between the Empire Cluster and the Vortigen Drift. This, since there had been no contact between the two governments, only meant that the two forces usually restricted themselves to attacks on each others' ships. Raids on planets were the exception, not the rule. It was easier to swoop down on unarmed freighters and passenger ships, than to try to loot cities defended by ground based weapons. No one was using weapons of mass destruction, either. The scaly bastards knew they'd come out on the short end of it, trading planet busters with the Empire!
"RED ALERT! RED ALERT!" The Captain's voice echoed throughout Skryben, cutting off Rand's train of thought. "CONTACT WITH THE ENEMY IN THREE MINUTES FROM... MARK!"
The raiders' images swelled in the forward screen. They were slowing, now, at a rate that would have them hanging nearly motionless in space as they closed on Skryben. Communications Officer Teeve's auxiliary screen was picking up their broadcasts, the flickering red lit pictures and jumbled bursts of scratchy voices that were all that the Empire knew of their foes. As expected, the angular ships of dead, gray metal came lunging in at a full two standard gees, the highest acceleration they could maintain, pouring their full power into both ion and inertial drives. When they were fully committed...
"Now!" The Captain's command was a whip crack of sound. "Full ahead, ion and inertial drives! We'll be past them before they can stop. First Officer! Ready all weapons. Hit them with everything we've got, the instant you can reach them!"
At the Weapons console, Joerd Tshegh flipped switches, muttering commands into the mike at his throat. Subdued whines told of turrets springing to life, two of Skryben's six batteries centering on each of her attackers. Dull thumps, more felt than heard, as torpedoes sped away. Then, seconds later, the lights on the bridge dimmed as lambent beams of destruction lashed out.
Seconds seemed to pass like hours, everything moving in ultra slow motion as the ships flicked past each other. Rand could sense their own beams, scoring the dead metal of the enemy's flanks, the hungry reaching of dimly sentient torpedoes. The angry whips of enemy beams reached out in turn, raggedly, not quite as closely coordinated as Skryben's.
Skryben screamed! The great, smoothly curved golden hull clanged in torment, shuddering as Vortigen weapons struck home. Rand could almost feel her agony. He smelled the bitter tang of ozone as enemy beams sliced through their screens, and the lights around him flickered and died. Leaking air howled out through breaches in the hull, and he could hear air tight doors slamming shut, cutting off the flow of precious atmosphere. Showers of sparks cascaded and died as power was cut off to damaged consoles.
Her drives faltered and died, leaving Skryben tumbling aimlessly as the wrecked Vortigen ships swept past. A strangled moan was choked off in a liquid cough, and the only sound was the deep thrum of her main engines, still pouring energy into her banks of capacitors for their next jump. As the emergency lights came on, Rand realized that his superior, Third Officer Arls Inol, was slumped over his console.
"Acting Third Officer Korsun, report!"
Almost in a daze, Rand let drilled in habits take over. Punching in a request for data, he scanned his screen.
"Inertial guidance tracking," he answered, trying to hold his voice steady against his pounding pulse. "Capacitors charged. Ready for jump."
"Ship heading now steady," Tasca answered, her voice holding the bare trace of a tremor. "Ready for jump."
Again the lights blinked, and Rand felt the shock of confusion and nausea that always accompanied passage through null space. He waited as the jumble of figures on his screen steadied.
"Jump completed," Tasca reported.
"Jump completed," he confirmed. "Coordinates logged into the data banks."
He relaxed long enough to take a deep breath, leaning back in his seat. Those Vortigen ships wouldn't follow, not with the damage they'd taken. The second group of enemy ships would be along later, but he'd let the Captain worry about that...
"STAND DOWN FROM ALERT STATUS!" Skryben's speakers relayed the Captain's voice to all parts of the ship, ordering the crew to commence clean up and repair duties. Medics hurried in through the now open blast doors, and Rand realized with a sudden shock that two of the three command consoles were empty! Both Second Officer Teeve and Third Officer Inol were casualties of the savage encounter, their bodies scorched and crumpled by the pencil of energy that had sliced diagonally through the bridge. A little to one side, and he wouldn't have been in any condition to worry about further enemy attacks.
The great screens brightened, coming back to life as back up circuits came into play. Lights on the bridge strengthened, steadied, and he knew that Skryben had cut off sensation from her damaged areas, trusting to the ship repair medics to heal her aching wounds. The view seemed no different than before the jump. She'd only moved a little less than two light years, after all. They were far outside the Cluster, and only a close look would show any shift in the positions of the nearer stars. The images on the screens were steady, with none of the flickering pulses that warned of enemy ships.