I fought for one of the most evil war machines in history. To disobey orders was to die, but by being brave and always volunteering for another risk, I stayed away from the plague-bomb duties, from the mass-driver bombardments, while skirting and threading my way past the horrors of which summary execution was the most merciful. In a terrible spasm of violence, we swept through the galaxy annihilating races in the service of our leaders’ terrible knowledge that our own extinction was inevitable if we did not evacuate our homeworld, Omelos.
In that war, commanding a destroyer in the First Strike Fleet, I was shot down, my ship destroyed, my shuttle crashed, over an unpeopled world in Sector 83. To a desolate barren rock was my fate, shared with only one other -- a Human named Kaveri Varma, serving our great and terrible enemy, Earthforce. They say hope springs eternal, and there it did. I was spared by Warmaster Jha’dur for my act of miscegenation, for the war was not going well, and that brilliant woman, the like of her we will not see for another ten thousand years, found me more useful than my ‘crime’ was repulsive.
The war continued, and our fleets died their bitter deaths defending our front position at Balos to the very last. At the third battle of Balos, Warmaster Jha’dur disappeared, and with my ruined ships we returned to Omelos for the last battles. But I was a colonial, Rohric born and bred, and when the others were called to die at Omelos against the Liberation Navy, I fled, and hid. If it was a coward’s lot, then it was also my lot to save our people.
I spent decades studying humans. Their literature, history, stories, games. Part of it was for the sake of love, but I had to be practical. I studied them so that I would know how to beg when the hour came that I could present the case for the survival of my species to them. I had little hope from it except for bare survival. What I found instead was a chance to fight alongside these heroes of an undiscovered frontier, beyond space itself.
Now, the Alliance gives us hope, let us stand on our own feet. They have saved our tiny numbers, our forty-four million, from annihilation at the hands of our old enemies. They have helped us know peace. And I would repay the favour. We Dilgar have a lot to prove, a galaxy--no, a multiverse--who need to learn we are not irredeemable monsters. So I asked the Alliance for a chance -- a ship jointly crewed by the Union and the Alliance, half Dilgar, half Human and alien. And to its crew, my Kaveri has given her daughter, and I my youngest.
This is our great chance, our great hope -- to purchase our own redemption with our own efforts, to establish our name anew, on terms this young generation will decide for itself. This Multiverse is a dangerous place, and it needs brave ships. The Aurora which helped save us may be the shining symbol of these first days, of the formation of the Alliance, but without the fleet, she would be one Champion in the sea of Hell. This is the story of those who have answered the call of the colours -- this is the story of the Huáscar and all who go in her. Of our redemption, and the heroes we call our friends.
-- Warmaster Shai’jhur, private remarks after the commissioning of the ASV Huáscar.
"Called to the Colours"
She was laid at the Thalla Concordia Yards over the Gersallian Colony of Chamra. The world of Chamra had always been marginally habitable and so it made a natural location according to Gersallian principles of consensus and environmental respect for the concentration of heavy industry. The Enterprise -class, fully integrating Darglan technology, were some of the largest ships built in the Alliance, and the upgrades to the yard required to handle construction of Darglan technology had been enormous. The Federated Stars Primary Terran Fleet Dockyards had built the first Enterprises, and as the rate of construction increased, Hull No.1168 would now be the first built by Thalla Concordia.
To upgrade the yards to Darglan technology specifications a contract had been let with the Bechtel Corporation of the Federated Stars, Universe L2M1. Bechtel was a centuries old major engineering contracting firm which also existed in a few other universes, though only in L2M1 had they retained their position as a premier contractor during the interstellar age. The Human engineers, hard-working, hard drinking and consuming endless burnt coffee, were up against the shot-clock of massive bonuses for meeting completion milestones under a CPIF (Cost-plus-incentive fee) contracting instrument with the Bureau of Allied Forces that handled relations between the UAS military proper and the subordinate militaries of the constituent states.
The major sub providing the workers for spacesuit welding ops was the infamous Sir Robert MacAlpine plc, from H1E4 and taking its first foray into interstellar contracting in the auspices of the UAS. The lack of zero-gravity experience for most of their contract laborers, hired on the cheap from undeveloped nations, had started causing slow-downs and incidents on the jobsite. To try and keep the timeline bonuses Bechtel had brought in additional subs from Gersal, biting into the incentives on the 80/20 cost sharing ratio for overruns and putting enormous pressure on the engineers to find other ways to cut costs. The Gersallian shipyard managers had grown increasingly concerned as the Program Manager Alice Theriault grew grey hairs in real time. With shaking hands from the endless coffee, she kept trying to balance fifty competing priorities as the wartime construction requirements of the Defense Ministry pressed Bechtel to meet the incentive timeline, hell or high water. War was a risky time for contracts because during wartime the contract could be altered with little legal recourse if they fell too far behind schedule.
Every day, the Gersallians sat in the group with the PM at the table surrounded by a half a dozen of her Bechtel section leads and the Bechtel contracting officer, a group of three construction leads from MacAlpine frequently arguing with them. The words being exchanged were never kind, leaving the Program Lead of the Gersallian sub, Xanalt Ltd., looking progressively more horrified as Alice used his company as a hammer to press MacAlpine into meeting milestones. The government Contracting Officer Representative team from L2M1 frequently sided with her as they dug into change order after change order and as a result MacAlpine repeatedly protested the Defense OIG about bias in the CORs and CORs violating contracting law by issuing orders directly to them instead of routing through Alice and Bechtel.
As the timetable continued to slip, the personalities became more important. Usually the only thing keeping the meetings from dissolving into a table pounding argument was Alice’s veteran practice of keeping a large tin of candies in the middle of the table during the sync meetings, which in combination with the locals’ heavy cream which was being used in lieu of proper creamer for the coffee had made every single one of the Human engineers gain at least two kilos since the start of the contract except for one lanky engineer named Robert Lansky who appeared to have stopped eating anything except coffee and candy and thus actually lost weight. Not like he needed that. Bastard.
They nearly lost the completion milestone for substantial completion and commencement of the Punch List review by the govt CORs when sixteen MacAlpine welders were arrested by the local Gersallian authorities for assaulting people on the space station during an alcohol-fueled riot exacerbated by “cultural differences”. That was finally the moment when Alice couldn’t stop the govt CORs from getting into a screaming match with the MacAlpine sub reps which subsequently led to a new Dorei COR being sent from BAF headquarters.
Somehow, we keep muddling along. Alice had put in so much time, her engineers had put in so much time, but they were not done yet. They had finished all the design work, and that meant it was time for another trick from her book. Rubbing her eyes and reviewing the personnel utilization figures, she made the call to take all of her engineers during the last 72 hours before the deadline, and selected the ones certified for spacesuit ops.
“You’re going out there and you’re going to get the job done! There’s nothing more to it. You know what to do, and the techs need the support. We are standing at the critical pathway for success on this contract and there isn’t going to be any whining: This is your chance to get out from behind your computers and bend metal! We are a team, and the next four days are going to decide whether or not our professional reputation is legit. Get out there and get it done!” With that none-too-polished speech, Alice simply threw them at the primary matter converter assemblies to reinforce the welding teams. The ones who weren’t also welding certified could act as SOs and work leads so MacAlpine and Xanalt could throw their own leads and wage grade supervisors into the direct work and the rest would melt metal just like the underpaid subs!
The Instrumentation and Controls subs were thrown in the moment that the welding was half completed and the primary matter converters were sufficiently secure that they could start being aligned for the building bays. They were predominantly Computer and Software Engineers who thrived on coding and extreme deadlines and even as the physical construction component of the work was finished and the Punch List review started by the government CORs they were already working to complete the primary alignment and the software linkages with the construction tractor-beams following exactly 54 hours later.
They were now on a two-week timetable to complete the software and instrumentation alignment and programming. In theory this was just about adjusting variables to reflect the specific configuration of the shipyard and to guarantee that the control computers recognised the integral control of the different components. In practice, every single line of the code failed. Nobody could really adequately explain to Alice how this happened or why, but she had never led an instrumentation and controls project in which the SCADA system actually worked as designed. Ever. They were tested dozens of times, they were installed and working somewhere else, the company had modified them based on past practice, the people in both the Government contracting office and for that matter Bechtel headquarters all spent hours on comm lines with each other pretending in some giant game of charades like they would function as designed, and they still failed every single time. Pre-multiverse Human, post-multiverse Darglan, it didn’t matter, the controls software failed the first time it was installed.
The project was so high priority that the SCADA firms were trying to issue updates to correct deficiencies directly from their headquarters by network link. This failed when the local Gersallian security officer shut down the network link because of ‘the risk of Nazi hacking and sabotage attempts’ using his authority as the Site Security Officer since even though the contract was being run by the BAF, it was still a Gersallian facility and so they had Safety and Security responsibilities. This gave Alice her first break in weeks because delays caused by the site security did not impact Bechtel’s incentive fees, so she could, and did, use the security issues as an excuse for literally everything. The government CORs were screaming on the phone to BAF headquarters to get the network link cleared by Gersallian security, and her team all went out and got drunk and actually had a solid sixteen hours off work for the first time in a month. Sadly someone at fleet headquarters was excited enough about their self-inflicted delay that the issue was resolved within 36 hours and the rush was back on with only a limited cost-plus charge from Bechtel.
Things seemed like they were improving in terms of meeting performance deadlines, but that didn’t change a growing perception in Portland that the contract was spiralling out of control. Two days after they resumed work on the SCADA for the shipyard installation, Alice had to field a no-warning comm call from an advisor to the Assistant Secretary for Naval Construction. He fit the type to a T, some kind of politically connected square-jawed clean shaven man in his late 30s in a business suit who felt his position made him into a Decider and allowed him to spend the next thirty minutes cussing out Bechtel and Alice personally and demanding to know why they were behind schedule. Alice, who was texting with her office of legal counsel under the desk the entire time, answered over and over again that it was a Government Imposed Delay and under the contract that was exclusively assumed by the government without impacting the CPIF schedule and by the way he wasn’t the Contracting Officer (KO) so she wasn’t taking instructions from him, which of course resulted in more vigorous swearing and a threat from the advisor that they would have the contract pulled and reassigned, which she knew was ridiculous because every engineering services firm in the UAS was around 120% booked already due to the war.
Having gotten nowhere, the advisor started a ten minute long monologue which consisted of how important he was, how smart he was, and how powerful he was, as well as how he was going to get Alice fired and make Bechtel look bad. He liberally dropped f-bombs throughout the entire monologue and then hung up the comm-line with his face red looking like he was going to give himself a heart attack. Alice simply turned around to her computer and worked with Bechtel legal counsel to file an OIG complaint about the contract violations; the KO called to apologize to her an hour later, but of course nothing would happen to the guy.
Despite all the drama, they legitimately needed to do something to get back on schedule, and not because of Mr. Bigshot, but because Bechtel was going to lose at least 35% of the Incentives if they failed to get a ship laid down on time, and the lay-down date for Hull No.1168 was now only three weeks away. Headquarters had abandoned all hope of getting the separate bonus for an early lay down, but most of the other incentives having melted away in the cost overruns, Alice wasn’t about to give up. She was an engineer, damnit. And thirty years worth of construction contracting experience had left her with a few mildly underhanded but perfectly legal tricks up her sleeve.
That night after her core team’s twelve hour day was finished, they congregated in an on-station establishment that served alcohol and had a private room. They brainstormed with the paper and pencils out, old school to keep it focused and avoid distraction on the net. “Look, boss,” Martin Gemmon looked to Alice expectantly. “The obvious solution is that we just get the shipyard to start building the ship. They’re under a government cost-plus contract, it doesn’t matter what they do to get it done.”
“I think we’re thinking along the same lines. Welders?”
“Lansky, how much is Xanalt per day? MacAlpine’s are crap, we can let them go home, they’re not shipyard rated anyway -- is Xanalt ship repair qualled?”
“Ten thousand a week per employee, full burdened effective,” Lansky answered almost instantly. “And they’re all ship repair qualled.”
“Six hundred welders, full burdened effective means the supes are already buried in that. So we’re looking at, let’s say we’re two weeks late on the actual automation, that’s five weeks -- thirty million creds. Our penalty for failing to meet the construction timetable incentives for ship lay-down is eighty million, that’s no freakin’ contest. And we’d be starting early, so we can argue with the KO for the forty million early lay-down bonus. So we could clear ninety million. Sarah, the long leads are already being delivered to the yard?”
“Yeah, for hull 1168.”
Alice sighed. “The Gersallians are probably all already asleep. This is worse than working in the Latin Union, you better freaking believe it! All right. We’ll ask for an urgent meeting first thing tomorrow morning. I think a lot of their employees are ship repair qualified on Darglan hulls. We’re not going to be impacting the stand-up of the systems at all, am I clear? So this is keel and primary girder welding well inside the shipyard box. We’ll need a double shift of safety officers to deconflict. Can’t have any automated welding arm homing routine splatting an EVA dude.”
“We need buy-in from corporate,” Lansky remained her.
“I’ll get it tonight,” she said. “The maths add up. Nothing in the contract says the Gersallians have to start construction early with the automation, if they’re hand welding the keel that’s still commencement of construction. We can win this one and still get the bonus. Corporate’s done it before.”
“Right. I’ll start pulling the slides together to convince the Gersallians.”
“Do that. Sex ‘em up real hard, too. We want to make this look patriotic for the war effort, get them on board with the idea. Which it is, anyway. We’re going to be getting Hull No.1168 to the front a month faster if we do this, even with how slow hand-welding Darglan crap is.”
“One problem, boss,” Mark Desamoto looked up from his drawings on the table. “The retaining clamps are controlled by the SCADA system.”
“Can it, Marty.”
“Freak,” Martin groaned, and for more reason than one. “How are we going to hold the keel then?”
“Wait, wait, no worries, guys,” Sarahh grinned. “We can have a supplier deliver twenty klicks of 200 megapascal cable and get a shipping line to deliver forty or fifty cargo container magna-clamps. We’ll manually tension and centre the keel by clamping with cable. When the SCADA is up-checked they can transfer over with shipyard tugs to the retaining clamps in like a sixteen hour op tops.”
“Get that into the slides, if the shipyard will go along with it, we’re still in business, then,” Alice snapped. “All right. Get some sleep if you can. I’m going to comm corporate.”
The next day, Alice came back with a triumphant, exhausted look. “The strategy got us support at corporate and the brief won the Gersallians over. We’re on, guys. Do we have quotes on that cable and the magna-clamps?”
“One-four for the entire package.”
“Send it to corporate for resourcing, we need to start the supply immediately to avoid disruptions from the wartime transport,” Alice replied. There was little in the way of a party precisely because everyone abruptly had even more work to do. And work they did.
What had essentially been proposed was to start building a starship by hand in the middle of a dockyard still in its final completion punchlist. The Xanalt welders would reinforce the Gersallian shipyard workers and the metal would be fed in, secured by cabling around the still-deactivated automated systems, and EVA welders would proceed to do the work with safety officers deconflicting the two ops.
Deconfliction was the primary challenge of allowing a yard still in her hands for upgrades to start building. Alice knew that as long as both tasks weren’t impinging upon each other she could spin it as a complete success. Nasty accidents could result from a failure to keep track of the two parallel operations and that, for the sake of corporate, she needed to be most focused upon.
To some extent, it was a vindication for the Gersallians, though. Rather than rely on the new technology, they were starting the ship by hand and by the skill of their welders, and that counted for a lot. There were several near-misses in the deconfliction which made everyone pucker at how close they had come, but the debugging of the SCADA and the construction of the keels and primary hull girders continued apace. Corporate went to town for the bonuses and the throwdown over the completion negotiations started.
Three weeks later, the team from Bechtel packed up and finished. They needed to start work on a naqia processing facility pegged for a moon in L2M1 and it was time to start pre-project mobilisation and begin holding kickoff sessions. The successful handoff occurred two weeks late, but with five weeks of primary hull construction having been completed on No.1168 already.
The trick netted them the bonus, and now the hull was very much in the hands of the shipyard construction crews. They were supposed to complete the ship using the new technology in the blazingly fast time of only six months, but the schedule had been ambitious to a fault. Even after five weeks of preparatory manual work, the automated work itself progressed more slowly than anticipated.
Four months later, the ship was finished enough that the naval officers began to arrive, since there was enough ship for them to board and actually work with the constructors on fittings and reactor installation, now. At the head of the contingent was a trim woman of average height, black hair and a bit dusky in her skin. She was still wearing the uniform of a constituent Navy, the Union of Tira and Rohric’s Combined Fleet, and the eye flash of an intelligence officer contrasted oddly with the tabs indicating her line branch affiliation. In the Alliance Navy her substantiative rank of Lieutenant Commander had already been affirmed, but her formal start date wasn’t in yet, and for her first few weeks on the yard, she would wear the blue and grey of the old Imperium despite being a Human.
The other prominent thing, of course, were her crisp black leather gloves. A few of the farisa approached her to ask, and she politely affirmed that she was indeed a Telepath and yes, she was from that Earth, but had no interest in moving to Gersal. The Mha’dorn had welcomed her, however uncomfortably, and she was learning to stay sane around the minds of aliens, now. It would be a critical skill to allow her to act as a bridge in the unique crew hull No.1168 would have.
The Captain would not arrive until the pre-commissioning shakedown cruise, and so for the construction phase, it was Elia Saumarez of the Guernsey Saumarez Family -- a woman who only knew that family, by the laws of Psi-Corps, from reading articles on illustrious ancestors -- who would bring the ship to life. Her name had already been selected by special request, and it was a new one for the Alliance, though famous (or infamous) enough in general. The Telepath who had in her home nation been banned from military service and legally defined as a recording device was going to become one of the plank-owners for the ASV Huáscar. The memory would live on under a new flag -- of Pacocha, Iquique, Angamos, Arica, Callao, Taltal -- the indomitable spirit of the Inka Lords of Tawantinsuyu -- and of the stand over Tira most of all. The selection of the Captain was obvious. The spirit of the Tiran Huáscareños would live on in Elia Saumarez -- and Zhengli Varma.
She would be coming out of the yards a month late, but hull No.1168 was going to be truly grand. Now they would start to bring her to life.
She sat on the bridge of a warship foreign to her people, the people she had been foreign to until only weeks before. The Ghatarn, ‘ Lancer’ in English, was one of the new Traynari -class War Emergency Heavy Cruisers of the Alliance, simplified versions of the Igasana class which had been turned out in enormous numbers for the war effort. Now there was a squadron of five of them with Dilgar squadron and clan markings flashing across their hulls.
They had spent the past weeks on shakedown, and around her a ready and eager Dilgar crew sat. Their uniforms slashed with red sashes and scarves to hide the blood of Rohric, they looked a gaudy and 19th century crew, like so many fire-zouaves. They were veterans, but fresh to the technology of the ship, which had made the working up so very hard. They were desperately needed at the front, by an Alliance running out of people before it ran out of ships.
The crew was all immensely proud to be serving their country in this capacity, the Honourable Union of Tira and Rohric. They at least had a commander who was a veteran of past hard fighting, but Zhen’var was her own unknown quantity. At least here, they all implicitly trusted her, in the way she doubted a Human crew ever would again.
Out there, beyond their Pentacon of lend-lease ships, stood the rest of Warmaster Shai’jhur’s contribution to the war against the Nazi Reich. A Pentacon of warp-capable Ochlavita s, brought back up to full strength after Tira. Two Pentacons of warp-capable Shofab- class cruisers rebuilt from Markab ships served as the bulk of the force, and finally there was the Heavy Pentacon, with the flagship the Magaratha, the Mankhat -class dreadnought Otoros, and three Sekhmets, as the Liberation Navy had called them. Two were survivors of the Tira Crisis. One … was a survivor of altogether much more. Her recognition markings called her the Wrath, but her nameplate said Imperial Wrath and her more famous name had been Vendetta.
The Dilgar, with their incredible skill at engineering, had tugged the hull of the wreck back during the retreat of the remnants of the fleet from Balos. She was supposed to be stripped to provide equipment for another Sekhmet, during the pathos of the last weeks of the Imperium when people continued to make plans and build things and pretend they were a functional state instead of the wreck of a nation. Instead, the hulk had remained floating around the outer Brown Dwarf of the Rohric system for the next thirty-two years.
During that time, the men and women maintaining the reserve yards had quietly stockpiled equipment from other wrecks, removed the blasted components, and made half-hearted efforts to consider rebuilding the ship, since they would never again, it seemed, have the ability to construct new ships. The flood of lend-lease material had changed that, and quickly. As a symbol of the Dilgar resurgence and to meet the urgent requirements of the War, Shai’jhur had authorized the ship’s reconstruction, under the more politic short-form name Wrath, and in what was clearly a gesture intended to remind her old veteran officers of what the future was, had given the commander’s chair to Battlemaster Kaveri Varma, her mother.
Following Alliance practice the Heavy Pentacon was carrying umbilical docking tubes for five lend-lease light attackers, not counting toward the total formation strength as a Pentacon-of-Pentacons, but serving as heavy support for the organic fighter complement. Full strength of the fleet was obtained with the addition of five carriers that the pentacon-of-pentacons was escorting. Zhen’var’s reverie was not idle. A direct line from the Wrath was trilling for her attention, and she rose to take it in her ready room. They were about to enter battle, and her mother wanted to talk.
A hint of a smile, despite the dire nature of the hour, crossed her face as soon as the screen blinked on. “ Ghatarn Actual here, go ahead.” The formality of her speech couldn’t hide the grin in her voice.
The grey-haired woman commanding the Wrath shook her head fractionally. “Zhen’var, you haven’t changed, thank the Divine. I just wanted to see your face again before we head into the fray once more.”
“You are still my daughter, no matter what face I see on the viewscreen. You’ll be on the far right flank, and you know your place if we form the three-dee pentacon. Be careful, Zhen’var. If fate is kind, I will see you after the battle.”
“Whether fate is kind or not, I intend to keep that meeting, mom.” Her lips split into a tight smile, but Zhen’var’s gaze was level and firm as she looked to the video pickup.
Kaveri smiled. “The soul of a kshatriya is ever the same, no matter the skin they were born to wear. I’m building an estate like the old family one, on Tira. The climate of the island is similar enough for a garden just like the one the servants kept when you were a girl. I know that, fates being kind or not, you will find your way to it. So will I.”
“Thank you, mother. If they’re very kind, we won’t be the last of the line to enjoy it, but now’s not the time to talk about that .”
“Surgeon-Commander Nah’dur was given the power of a Deva in her biological talents, I will leave that garden to its best keeper. Though when it comes to keepers of legacies, I confess I never expected to have the honour to command Supreme Warmaster Jha’dur’s former flagship,” Kaveri added after a moment. “She will likely be the last command I hold, and it feels thus like the course of my life has been one great wheel of dharma.”
“We can only stand to our charge laid upon us by birth and duty, mother. The ship has always stood against the enemies of the Dilgar, and now she does again. Her spirit won’t let you down.”
“May you strike true and deep, my daughter.”
“And may you spill your enemy’s lifeblood, mother.”
“I can think of few more righteous targets. Until later, Zhen’var.” Kaveri still had a smile when the connection flashed out. She was sitting in Jha’dur’s command chair, on Jha’dur’s bridge, a human woman who had fought in the Liberation Navy. She had a wife and daughters who were all Dilgar. And on the other side…
The screen flashed on with a fleet signal. There was Shai’jhur in the uniform of a Warmaster with a sword buckled to her side, with Fei’nur standing at her right side, as it was at Tira. “Dilgar,” Shai’jhur began without preamble. “Let them know our names. You have your orders and your headings. All ships to their stations! The Union of Tira and Rohric records valour on this day!”
Zhen’var’s component pentacon was on the right of the Dilgar formation. The objective of the force was to act as the reinforcement to the flanking assault on Epilson Eridani, one of the main supporting elements for the Big Push on Epsilon Indi. Major elements of the Systems Alliance fleet already committed to the action were now engaged, pinning the Reich fleet in position.
Using their multiple drive capability, the ships were maneouvring through hyperspace using a risky tactic of following two beacons transmitting across the real-hyper boundary (a derivative of Solarian technology) from opposite flanks of the Systems Alliance fleet. The broadcasts created just enough of a delta for them to navigate without a beacon network for a short distance.
They were a small part of a massive fleet battle, but a decisive one. In the pre-operation brief, Shai’jhur had enthusiastically likened it to being the Imperial Guards of the old House of Art. They would wait until the decisive moment on the battlefield, and when committed, slash through the critical enemy concentration and rout them from the field. It promised to be bloody work.
The last seconds counted down until their reversion to realspace, the massive spiralling distortions of jump drives utterly distinctive as they punched back through from hyperspace. The difference was that the real “space” they were jumping into was the atmosphere of Epsilon Eridani C. The Ghatarn bucked under her like a bronc as she slammed into the density of even the thin upper atmosphere, the lights rigged red, the ship set at the Dilgar full equivalent of general quarters, ZEBRA throughout.
“Configure shields for atmospheric operations – ahead full impulse!” Zhen’var knew what her position and orders were. They swept into the right planar flank as the group converged out of the atmosphere against one of the big Reich defensive stations in orbit. As she did, the coordination orders for the tri-Dee pentacon came together and synchronized. “Adjust until formation is held, helm.”
“Firing signal from Magaratha, Battlemaster!”
“Fire on pointer!” A Dilgar pentacon-of-pentacons was meant to coordinate fire across the central ship, with the best sensors, when formed into a three-dimensional Pentacon, the four arms converging on the centre star, which held her mothers’ ships, with the XRAY Special sensors. One couldn’t help but feel that the formation was a bit of overkill when the central Pentacon alone was directing nine Hyach spinal lasers into the heart of the Reich battlestation while its shields and weapons remained configured to fire at the Systems Alliance ships attacking from outside of orbit.
The objective of the massive firepower was total and rapid destruction before the station could reorient its defences, the carriers turning hard to the port where the Systems Alliance fleet in orbit was closer to the planet and better positioned to cover them, launching starfighters enmasse into the atmosphere to destroy ground defences. Even Governor Ari’shan’s son Lar’shan was in their number in his first action.
Ahead of them, Zhen’var watched as the beams tore and carved through the enemy battlestation until the Hyach lasers of one of the Sekhmets—the Vanquisher class in the translation of the actual Dilgar name—exploded the primary battery reactors. The station erupted into pieces. The ship that had scored the decisive hits was the Wrath herself. Jha’dur’s flagship, thirty-three years later, striking home.
“ Wrath has the triumph, as in days of old!” One of the greyfur veterans in the crew exclaimed.
“Mind your stations,” Zhen’var ordered, though her tone was mild.
“Right Pentacon, tractor beams!” Warmaster Shai’jhur’s voice snapped over the TBS.
The orders were translated through the Battlemaster commanding the Pentacon. They were the only force in the fleet formation with a full outfit of tractor beams, and they hastily locked them onto the largest debris, bodily swinging them to the side to avoid having to break formation as they exited the atmosphere through the place that the great battlestation had previously occupied.
The smaller debris making the shields of the ships glow as they battered past them, the fleet signals were turning the pentacon to the port. That position was where the Reich was hard-pressed and the Systems Alliance ships had already made their greatest penetration into the defensive perimeter. Since they were the right wing of the formation, they had the greatest distance to travel.
In battle, trig matters, and to maintain fire concentration while turning to the port, the fleet was actually having to skew as well, using their maneouvring thrusters to keep their bows from tracking with the angle their drives and gravitic vanes had dictated. As they did, the next objective of the force was concentrated before them.
In the classic wet navy terms, the submarines called it an ‘overlap’. The positions of the ships meant that, as the Reich fleet had refused their left flank, they created a series of interlocking targets from the central-left position to which Shai’jhur’s force was now attacking from. In short, the point of concentration for the three-dimensional pentacon held three Reich dreadnoughts instead of one. They just couldn’t miss.
The fleet central director gave the order, and every ship opened up with all her forward bearing weapons and torpedoes. Being already under heavy attack from multiple squadrons of Systems Alliance cruisers, the Reich dreadnoughts were now caught between two fires. Twenty-five ships laid on every gun that could bear against three, salvo after salvo of missiles and torpedoes following them while their shields had already been weakened by sustained combat from ahead.
Further to the left flank, the Reich light was under massed attack from the hundreds of heavy fighters launched from the Dilgar carriers. Here several more squadrons of Systems Alliance cruisers were taking advantage of the situation to break the Reich formation, and the carriers surged to safety through their effort, their own massive frontal batteries, a Dilgar specialty, annihilating a Reich heavy cruiser squadron en passant, screened from counterattack by the Dilgar light attacker pentacon as the carriers spoke with the firepower of battlecruisers right ahead.
Ahead of the main force, the Systems Alliance ships now moved in fast and hard. They maneouvred to avoid the heavy frontal batteries of the Reich dreadnoughts and fired missiles and torpedoes into their flanks as they closed to point-blank range. A rippling column of explosions gouged the side of one of the dreadnoughts, and then she exploded outright.
Lined up and with their courses set and straight, Shai’jhur’s formation was pummeling the Reich ships again and again. There were now only two Reich ships in their sights, and they were suffering all the more for the loss of their compatriot and the redoubling of fires concentration from the Dilgar ships.
Judging the Systems Alliance cruisers far less of a threat than the heavy force behind them, despite the fact that it would totally disrupt their defensive formation over the planet and turn the battle into a general melee, the Reich dreadnought squadron commander ordered a starboard turn to bring his heavy spinal guns against the enemy as fast as he could. That maneouvre temporarily pinned his formation in place without guaranteeing a collision with the ships of a supporting squadron in any other direction, because adding thrust for evasive maneouvres during the turn would carry them into the maneouvring space of the other ships.
That was exactly what Shai’jhur had wanted. “ Olakant, fire mass-driver !”
The lone, old Mankhat class dreadnought in the central pentacon fired her mass driver. In regular combat it was useless, firing at ships they could easily dodge. The Reich vessels had however pinned themselves into a position where they could not so easily dodge, and the massive power of the mass driver had flung the rock straight and true.
Zhen’var watched with baited breath as it spat across low orbit of Epsilon Eridani C and hurled between the two dreadnoughts. That should have been a miss, exactly as one would expect from a mass driver. Then the proximity fused nuclear mines went off, turning the asteroid into a giant anti-ship claymore. A hail of broken pieces of heavy iron rock ripped through the flanks of the two dreadnoughts, their shields collapsing.
The Hyach spinal lasers of the central pentacon spoke, hungry.
“All torpedo magazines, maximum rapidity! Get them while we’ve got the chance!” Their torpedo magazines being rapidly exhausted, spiralling trails of ten torpedoes each lanced from the forward launchers. The order Zhen’var had given was followed by the other War Emergency cruisers, and more than two hundred torpedoes converged into one of the unshielded Reich dreadnoughts. She came apart at the seams with a lit fire of orange and yellow, a brilliant shining star for a moment before she disappeared forever.
The power of the entire pentacon was now concentrated on one unshielded dreadnought, the frontal batteries of two dreadnoughts and three battlecruisers leading the way, the centrally directed XRAY special targeting almost creepily unerring. Thirty-seven seconds later, exactly, the last of the targeted dreadnoughts exploded just before she could bring her main spinal disruptor to bear on the Magaratha.
Triumphant, the Systems Alliance cruiser squadrons and the pentacon-of-pentacons passed through each other as the Reich formation disintegrated around them and began to retreat. Epsilon Eridani was their’s, and one gaping road to Welthauptstadt Germania was open.
The Doctor & The Spectre
Nah’dur looked down from the hospital guest room balcony of the floor where she had just finished operating on her sister. They were about a thousand stories off the lower levels, and she found it rather pleasant, holding a “super meat cardiac special” yum disc slice in one hand and a can of some multiversal beer she’d found called Turbo King which had a large picture of a Lion on it. All in all, she felt very good with herself and her surgical team. A comfortable place for the families of patients and visiting surgeons like herself, Nah’dur had taken full advantage of the nominal privacy (the one-way energy field on the balcony helped) to cheerfully dress in sweatpants and a T-shirt which prominently said ‘NO FILTER’ across her breasts.
“Do you like the dinner, Fei’nur?” she called back into the room.
“It is… interesting , Nah’dur.” That was the most she could say - Nah’dur’s antics, in a place as dangerous as this, left the old Spectre as on edge as she ever could be these days.
“I am given to understand that these already exist on our Earth and are called pizzas. Do you think they would be popular amongst Dilgar? I think the crust could stand to be thinner…” She turned back from the balcony, eyes bright and her expression relaxed as she moved to sit on the couch in the suite’s living room. “Are you interested in seeing Zhen’var when she’s taken out of the ICU? Admit it, you are!” A light grin crossed her lips as she pushed up close to Fei’nur.
“I’m not sure. They’re an interesting flavour, but we’ve already lost so many foods of our people. They probably would, if they were inexpensive enough, and had more meat to them. Especially for those in a hurry who have access to replicators?” Glancing over to Nah’dur, the Spectre slid fractionally away on the couch. “I am interested in seeing your sister. You say everything went very well, and I want to see just what you think very well is.”
“Well, pretty much, we modified everything we could to be Dilgar or Dilgar-form, and then we used cybernetics to simulate the rest. And there’s a progressive rewriting of substantial portions of the genetic code! I don’t boast idly, Fei’nur. It would be unbecoming.”
“So much like your mothers, that way.” Fei’nur had a smile on her face as she said it. “If you did what you say, she will be happy, I hope.”
“It’s all I can do for the woman who helped save us. Daughter of my mother’s love, sister of my heart.” Nah’dur stretched. “I like to think my other mother would be pleased, wherever she was. Thank you, Fei’nur. You know I always appreciate kind words from you. You’re the only one who knows… ”
“Everyone is listening in Solaria, Nah’dur. Everyone and everything.”
“... how much I love you. ” The sentence finished with a smooth grin, and in Nah’dur’s case it was impossible to tell whether or not it was improv. She leaned in closer, her neck bare to Fei’nur’s side. “Nobody needs to know, I’m satisfied with just having you…”
“Ancestors, Nah’dur, do you ever give up?”
“...I’m hurt. Surely you know that stubbornness is one of my good traits.”
“Just like your mothers… we should be there before Zhen’var is released from ICU, anyhow.” Internally, she shuddered. I am never going to put myself in a position to have to explain anything remotely untoward to the Warmaster as a mother !
“ Oh, don’t worry, we certainly shall. That won’t be for a while yet, though.” She yawned grandly. “Perhaps a nap, and then we could take a trip to the bottom of the tower to look for the legendary Solarian ratburgers for supper? I really want to try one!”
“Gods, give me strength. Very well, Nah’dur, but you’ll have to give me time to get properly dressed.” Fei’nur was already calculating how many more weapons she would need to conceal about her person for this indulgence. There was only one thing she had been able to consistently resist Nah’dur upon; and she’d just done so again.
“Oh, don’t worry. I’ll take the nap first.” She stretched, brushing against Fei’nur, and then smiled guilelessly. “I’m happy to share this with you, Fei’nur,” Nah’dur said, curling on the large plush couch and burying her hands against her button-nose. “I finally feel free.”
“If you feel free now , just wait until we’re in space that’s never seen Dilgar before. Where we won’t have the reputation we do back home. Go, sleep. I’ll be here when you wake up.”
Nah’dur yawned. “Thank you. That always matters so much to me.” She stretched one last time, and kicking deeper into the cushions, was asleep in minutes. Fourteen hours of surgery at the bleeding edge of technology was exhausting for anyone, but Nah’dur had the ability to sleep of a veteran soldier on the front-line.
It was only after she was asleep that Fei’nur would rest a hand on the sleeping form of the young Dilgar. Rest, young child of Dur. The multiverse has no idea what they’re in for.
After sleeping for eight hours, Nah’dur had dragged Fei’nur down to the lower levels. They managed to (somehow) not get robbed for the ten minutes it took them to find a ratburger street cart vendor. Nah’dur immediately ordered one with double cheese and guinea pig bacon for each of them.
“Nah’dur, was this really necessary…?” The old Spectre was thinking that, perhaps, this might be more dangerous than some of her weeks on Balos. That was actively concerning, given what aftermath of the Balosians catching other Dilgar stragglers she’d seen had been.
“Oh, of course it was. You cannot go to a planet without trying their authentic street cuisine ! Especially when it’s a remarkably underutilized meat very similar to what we evolved to consume on Omelos. The base dish--the ‘burger’--is incredibly common on Earth, but usually uses boring meat from methane belching midsized ungulates.”
“Well, all right, I admit, it’s certainly quite appetizing, and makes me almost melancholy for when I was young, but this is not the best district to take a stroll within.”
“Wait, you’re aliens, not mods?” The woman behind the cart asked in surprise as she finished bagging the food.
“Oh, absolutely!” Nah’dur said with bright eyes as she stepped forward, paying with a chit and taking the bags. The declaration had already attracted attention. “We are a felinoid race called the…”
Fei’nur moved quickly , her hand darting out to grab the back of Nah’dur’s neck and squeezing sharply, her other hand grabbing the bags before they could hit the ground. She smiled sweetly to the vendor. “I’m sorry, she’s not been off world much before, and she tends to ramble. Come along, dear.”
Nah’dur made a small cut-off noise, dropping the bags into Fei’nur’s waiting hand and being pulled back along by the scruff of her neck, going along like an automaton with a wide, frozen look on her face. The grip didn’t let up until Fei’nur had safely keyed them back through the security lobby at the base of the tower.
“We do not have the best reputation, Doctor , and the Warmaster gave me a charge to protect your sister and yourself.” Fei’nur’s voice held restrained anger in it. “The area was already insecure.”
Nah’dur, sighing, leaned up against Fei’nur. “My heroine. Thank you for protecting me from my own poor impulses.”
“I don’t want to fail another of the Clan of Dur, Nah’dur. Once was more than enough, if the gods had the grace to not take my life for it.”
Nah’dur nuzzled her as they stepped into the lift. “I’m so very thankful you’re alive in general. You’re clearly here for us. For me. For mother. Never regret that, please.”
“I don’t. I can’t. I won’t. Come on, let’s have our ‘burgers’.”
“I love the fact I’m sharing them with you. And that there was danger involved in getting them.” A grin flickered back on her face as she waltzed out of the lift back on their level, a sway in her hips for Fei’nur behind her.
Ancestors, give me strength to endure the trials this girl puts me through, no matter how endearing she may be. With a long-suffering shake of her head, Fei’nur moved to follow.
Nah’dur was grinning through the whole of the meal, but her grin grew larger when she checked her omnitool as they finished. “Exactly as I predicted, Zhen’var is waking up. I’m going to go clean up and get my scrubs on. I know you want to see her, so of course we’ll go together!”
And this is why I put up with it.
“All right, Nah’dur, we’ll go together. Someone has to keep you out of trouble.” She was grinning as she said it, at least lessening the sting a little.`
“Harm’s way is the valiant way, etc,” Nah’dur replied in an old Dilgar aphorism. She quickly dressed in her scrubs and lab coat and washed up, leading them down into the hospital’s main levels. She had the visiting doctor’s badge which got her through all the doors, and she was hardly the only specialist there with a bodyguard. Body modification was Serious Business on Solaris.
Zhen’var’s recovery room was pleasant, with a view of the cityscape and complete privacy. Nah’dur breezed in, taking reports from the nurses and briefly conversing with one of the doctors she’d collaborated with before going to the side of her adopted sister.
“Zhen’var, can you hear me? You should be able to speak just fine now.”
“Yes, I can… Nah’dur, did everything go well…?” She’d always had something of an accent before, finding it hard to form some of the syllables the hissing and growling of Dilgar assumed one could make a purring sound for. That was certainly lacking now, as the only slurring was from the lingering effects of the drugs used to put her under.
“Oh yes! There’s no evidence of incipient rejection, all the cybernetics are functioning normally… The cloned skin grafts have fully taken and there’s no infection around the cranial restructuring. Or the joint replacements for that matter. I mean, we already discussed the long-term side-effects and the fact you’ll need a second surgery at some point in the future when I’ve sorted out cloning reproductive organs. But, the surgery was a brilliant success. Some excess swelling made it take longer than I expected, but we dealt with all of that. Are you feeling all right?”
Before her was a Dilgar, in a hospital bed, with at least some family resemblance to a Jhur. Nah’dur waved Fei’nur forward behind her, encouraging her to come closer as she checked some IV feeds and vitals indicators.
Fei’nur was staring; while she had known Nah’dur was a gifted prodigy, this was more than she’d expected to see. It was more than a little unnerving.
“I am, yes. Soreness, certainly, but that’s not unbearable. I know it will take time for vision to return, but I can hear you just fine, better than before, even. I can’t wait to be able to look in a mirror . You’re satisfied with the result too?”
“Let’s hear it from the Ogkharin workingwoman,” Nah’dur said, a grin showing her teeth even if Zhen’var couldn’t see it.
“You look like Nah’dur’s half-sister, Zhen’var.” She was muttering it in a sheepish sort of shock. “Really, I can see the family resemblance, and I’ve seen worse damage on soldiers in hospital beds before. I… hadn’t expected it to be so perfect this quickly.”
Nah’dur snapped her fingers. “Brilliant. I told you, Zhen’var, you’d fit in by the time I was done. And you do. I love you, sister. You’re one of us, and you always will be. You could have walked through Ogkharin in the Old Imperium and attracted only compliments for your appearance. You’re a normal Dilgar now.”
“Thank you , Nah’dur… thank you .”
“Oh, sister, there’s no need for that. Sisters help each other. And I like showing off.” She gently reached down and brushed a finger over Zhen’var’s forehead. “Give it a month, and we’ll have you in a cruiser.”
“I don’t mind being shown off if you’ve done your usual work.” There was a smile in Zhen’var’s voice. “I can feel you staring, Fei’nur.” she finished with, mock-seriously, as the Spectre shifted.
“Nah’dur has, assuredly, done her usual work, Battle Captain.” She forced any uneasiness aside, her second charge was now assuredly Zhen’var in every visual respect. While that would make her job twice as hard... Somehow, on reflection, she didn’t mind the prospect.