The first batch of images were cloudy and it was difficult to make out the odd shape. Computer enhancing helped, but it was only when the last few shots were processed that there was a clear view of the strange vessel. At best there were three distinct shots before the image was distorted by growing red field.
“What is this?” a reptilian hand with long gold painted claws pointed at the monitor.
“The energy weapon that destroyed our probe, My Ly.”
“What distance was this thing?” the green scaly hand with three fingers stroked its face. Two short slender fingers with only two knuckles were adjacent to a larger more flexible three-knuckled digit. The face had an elongated snout with thin lips that revealed dark gray teeth as the being spoke. Large yellow eyes with slits for pupils turned up at the subordinate, demanding answers.
The similar looking subordinate cautiously chose his words as he responded. “The sensors were unable to acquire any readings. There may have been a malfunction.”
“Malfunction?” the leader the growled.
“There was no data received on this object other than these visual scans.”
“Show me all the sensor information from the time these shots were taken,” he called out to someone off in the darkness. He was seated on a raised platform in the middle of a large, dimly lit chamber. Surrounding him were successive rows of manned workstations. Each occupied by someone ready to jump at his every whim. The domed ceiling was a seamless view of the stars outside his ship, which could change to other views or anything else he wished. All of the ship’s movements were mastered from that one chair.
The requested data appeared on the ceiling facing the leader. It showed all the usual information. The star, the planets, other ships in the system, other than a fracture in ex-space, which first caught the probes attention, there was no sign of the alien ship.
“If there was a malfunction, how is it the rest of this data is intact?”
The subordinate hesitated. “Perhaps this vessel was able to elude our scanners,” he said gingerly.
“Of course it was able to elude our scanners!” the leader bellowed. “It was also able to discover the probe itself.”
He leaned into his monitor to study the images more closely. The strange looking object disturbed him. It had a familiarity to it. It resembled something he’d seen in a design meeting he’d attended before Delphia had started building their own fleet of carriers.
For all of their advanced systems, the biggest deficiency in the Imperial Fleet was the Slone’s reluctance to grasp the fighter transport strategy. That had cost them in their last few encounters with the humans. Their bitter enemy had deployed an effective carrier force long before anyone else. This had been a costly mistake for Delphia. One that, even as a junior officer at the time, he had spoken out about. At great expense, Delphia had managed to develop and deploy four of the finest carriers in the sector, with two more being outfitted at that very time.
“Have the remaining probes in that system converge on this area,” he ordered. “I want more information on this ship.”
“I will need to authorize that with the Slone,” stated one of the officers seated in the first row of the surrounding stations.
The leader grunted his approval. Control of the intelligence network was not within his dominion, as he had been reminded before. They would act on his recommendation this time. Surely they would see the threat of the humans allying themselves with some new race.
The more advanced Delphian communication systems would give him an immediate response. The military leader’s quorum, called the Slone, had taken notice of the intruder. However they did not see the same significance in it that he had. They lacked his foresight and instinct in his opinion. The message had sighted the amount of outward damage to the vessel and attributed its discovery of their probe as a fluke. He, Ly Hess, leader of the offensive unit in the Darcane system, was to send a recognizance ship to investigate. The Slone viewed the mission to capture the precious green world, which rightfully belonged to them, as the higher priority. Nothing could interfere with the final implementation of their great plan.
Actually Delphia viewed all stars as belonging to them. The darkness of Hess’ command center told much of their world. The lighting was actually quite bright in those large round eyes. The darkened sky of his home world had been obscured even further by centuries of pollution. For far too long they had been reliant on off world farms for the vast majority of their food supply. The flat grassy planes of Darcane were a much-needed resource for their overpopulated world. The fact that those loathsome smooth skins needed it for the very same reason was unfortunate, for them.
How could his arrogant superiors be so blind as to not see this new vessel as the danger he had? A vessel that could hide from their sensors had to possess a higher technology. Their more advanced technology was what kept the Empire strong. Their ships were faster and had greater firing range than any others in the sector. He was the single greatest military leader in all of civilized space; which meant the Empire alone. His intuition told him that the Empire must have that ship. If it was in fact a new race, they must not be allowed to join with the humans. Either way this was a far greater matter than the Slone had perceived. Hess would not be satisfied with just a reconnaissance ship.
“Have you received any information from the other probes in that system?” he asked one of his staff officers.
“No, My Ly. I shall inquire immediately.”
After a short time the same officer was pleading for his leader’s attention, “My Ly, of the two remaining probes in that system, one has been destroyed by the humans and the other is under attack by fighter craft.”
“What! So not only have they acted against us, they have provided the humans with that same information. A second act of wanton aggression.”
Angered, he would speak with the Slone directly. After pushing several buttons on his console, the chair in which he sat sank into the floor. Slowly, Hess was lowered into a small chamber where he could send secret transmissions. He entered a code on a small control panel that swung out in front of him. As he impatiently waited, the close quartered walls blackened. Large distorted faces materialized all around him as the link was established. Few officers could get such a fast response from the Slone.
“Speak to the Slone, noble Hess,” commanded one of the faces, the highest of the leaders.
“Great ruler of all that exists,” Hess stated, his true feelings were wisely kept to himself. “There is a new menace to our exalted people. An alien ship has committed acts of aggression against us. Surely this wise assembly has recognized this fact.”
“We have,” spoke another one of the floating heads. “In further consideration, this counsel has deemed this ship a threat to our people. Not only has it orchestrated the destruction of our intelligence gathering apprentice in the Arkonus system, they have presided over the discovery of all of our probes, in all of human space. Each is being systematically eliminated, as well as our covert personnel.”
“A truly devious act, my leaders.” Hess had not realized the extent of the damage to their war effort. Those probes had provided him with all the intelligence he needed on human supply convoys and ship movements. He was suddenly blind to their operations. A great surge of anger began to consume him. These aliens were now his enemy.
“We have perceived that the humans are seeking an alliance with these invaders. A warship has left their home world carrying a number of their top officials. You are to ensure that this arrangement does not come to be. Capture the human leaders and convince the aliens to either leave or join with us.”
“If they chose neither?”
“Take their vessel so that we may study it and learn its secrets.”
Hess had a smile of evil. “So it shall be done, my magnificent ones.”
“Do not allow this to interfere with our offensive operation.”
“I shall go to the Arkonus system myself and deal with these meddlesome creatures before our final preparations are made. Our extravagant victory shall occur as planned.”
Vice-General Yanex was awoken by a call from the Communication Sub-Section. With his ship safely hidden in the asteroid field, he’d finally been able to get some much needed rest.
“What is it?” Yanex grumbled as he reached over to the communication pad mounted into his nightstand.
“Sorry to disturb you, sir, but there has been a nationwide warning about a number of Delphian ships that have broken off from the main fleet at Darcane.”
“Did Fleet Com’ contact us specifically?”
“No sir, this was sent to all other defensive units.”
“Is there any heading information?”
“No sir, apparently there was no way to track the ships once they went to ex-space.”
“Keep me informed of any updates, and notify Colonel Marcone.”
Yanex swung himself out of bed. Still groggy, he stumbled across the darkened room to the latrine. The bright light coming on caused him to wince and he reached to dim it. He couldn’t believe how tired he was after sleeping for over four cenda (ten hours). That was the longest he’d been able to sleep for as far back as he could remember, probably since they last left Earth.
Somehow he felt disappointed that Fleet Command had not addressed a warning to them as well. It indicated that they were still not accepted. They hadn’t even bothered to thank him for revealing those Delphian probes. He couldn’t blame them though, his story was pretty farfetched. But, at some point they would have to start trusting him.
Once again the call of his communication system broke the quiet. He let the ringing go unanswered as he completed his business. When he did finally return to its beckoning, it was Marcone’s face that filled the monitor.
“Good day, Commander,” smiled the Colonel as he caught sight of the shirtless man. “We’ve received word of a major Delphian fleet movement.”
“I’m aware of it,” Yanex mumbled. It was like Marcone to try to show he was on top of things.
“With our encounter with that intelligence probe, there is reason to believe that those ships may be headed in this direction. I’d like your permission to bring the inter-phased scanners online to establish their heading.”
Encountering the Delphians did not figure into Yanex’s plans. He had found the idea of remaining a secret most appealing and was taking steps to ensure it. A Delphian taskforce was going to complicate that. That is if they were in fact headed towards them. He’d spent some time reading through his restricted history files before going to bed, there was no mention of any diversionary attacks before the invasion of Darcane. Perhaps his compromising their spy network had forced some contingency plan. There was only one way to know.
“Do so,” Yanex ordered. “I’ll be up shortly.”
The long-range and inter-phased scanners had been shut down as part of their covert entry into the Earth system ten days before. It took some time to reactivate them as well as the time it took to actually conduct the scan. Energy waves sent out into ex-space had to find their objective and make their way back. Where the long-range scanners could sweep most of the system they were in, inter-phased was fundamentally the same system only operating in ex-space. This meant that Oronos could detect objects traveling in ex-space up to ten light-years away, although not in any great detail.
“It’s coming in now, sir,” Marcone said as a wide spectrum of dots came into focus on the monitor. He’d been hovering over the sensor station awaiting the results.
“Okay,” Lorran reported, “we have multiple targets, mostly civilian.”
She pointed at a small group of spots on her screen and the image zoomed in. “Five targets in close formation. At this range we can’t get exact typing, but mass and configuration would suggest two Delphian first generation carriers and,” her voice slowed with apprehension, “three battleships. They’re definitely headed this way.”
“ETA?” asked Marcone.
“Seventeen cenda.” (Forty-two and a half hours)
“That should give us a good head start,” Marcone said.
“Has the diplomatic mission left Aultra yet?” Yanex asked.
“Yes sir,” Lorran pointed at her monitor, “one Bata Class Battleship. They should drop out in about ten cenda.”
“Can we warn that ship?” asked Marcone.
“No, they can’t receive any signals while in ex-space.”
Marcone turned to the General with a hushed voice. “They should have enough time to get back into ex-space before that fleet arrives.”
Yanex was not happy with what he was suggesting. Nothing was going to delay his meeting with those representatives.
“That base can’t run away,” he stated aloud.
Yanex turned toward the Command Station with the Colonel close behind. Marcone pulled off his microphone to say, “You’re not thinking of taking on that fleet, are you? We’ve no shields and only sixty-four serviceable interceptors. Each of those carriers can support a hundred and fifty ships.”
“We greatly out class them in equipment and operations,” Yanex said with a hint of irritation. “Plus the Attragone is fully armed, and there are four ground based units.”
“Commander, I wouldn’t exactly call those units at our disposal. Fleet Command hasn’t even seen fit to make direct contact with us. I severely doubt they’re ready to give us operational command of this system.”
“They will,” Yanex said confidently, “they will.”
They would have too, otherwise risk losing a major mining outpost. They would have to depend on him, and he wouldn’t let them down.
Yanex called the communication liaison up to him. “Send a dispatch directly to Marshal Grindell at Fleet Command. Give the current position and heading of that Delphian taskforce. Inform him that we are preparing a contingence plan.”
“Yes sir,” responded Lieutenant Nather.
“Also,” Yanex added, “make sure they know it’s from us. Once that’s off, get me a link with General Gilderith.”
Contact Gilderith after the message was sent, there would be no doubt where this information was coming from. No one was going to take his credit this time. Yanex had read the dispatch from the Arkonus base commander to Fleet Com’. “We discovered a network of spy drones,” not, “The Oronos told us about...” Too many of his achievements had been used to make others look good. As a “loyal” officer, he’d been all too modest, thinking that his good deeds would be rewarded someday. They were, upon less scrupulous others. Those days were over. He was in control now.
Sands had mistakenly let his fear of spiders slip out in front of the wrong people one day. So, of course, when he opened his quarter’s door the next morning a large spider swung into his face. It was hanging from a string on the outside of his door. He shrieked like a little girl.
“Where did you get a rubber spider?” Aurora asked while eating her breakfast.
Lazell modestly said, “There are ways to get things, if you know the right people.”
“You got it from Sully, didn’t you?”
Lazell smiled and nodded vigorously.
“I should have never introduced you to him. He’s my secret source.”
“He threw the spider in the dayroom trash, so I got it back. I gotta find a way to get into his room so I can put it under his pillow.
“Hey, you go into his room sometimes.”
“Why do you fuck with him all the time? He is your commanding officer.”
“Yeah, but he’s always so dower and boring. ‘Fuck this, fuck that’. I bet he likes me paying attention to him.”
“He’s gonna write you up.”
“No he’s not.
“I got him by the balls,” she held her hand out in a clutched grip and slowly turned it with skewed sneer and growl.
“I’m gonna twist ’em till they turn from black to purple.”
She dropped the twisting growling thing and sat back. “Do you think you’d be able to tell? I mean he is pretty dark.
“Do earthmen even have balls?”
“Some of them.”
“I don’t know. He’s on his way over, why’d you find out.”
“I will.” The clutched grip slowly turning with skewed sneer and growl was back.
Against his better judgment Sands cautiously walk up to the table.
The clutched, twisting grip continued, only the skewed sneer and growl were turned up at him.
That was it for Aurora, she fell into an uncontrollable laughing fit.
As Sands slowly backed away, Lazell snarled, “Your mine.” And growled even louder.
Aurora was howling with laughter and banging on the table.
Lazell went back to normal, normal for her. “What? It wasn’t that funny.”
Aurora couldn’t even get out that it was. She was throwing herself around.
When Sands sat at another table with Ecar and some of his flight, Ecar asked, “What’s with her? She having a stroke or something?”
“I don’t know, couple of crazy bitchs.”
He looked at them only to have Lazell flash the twisting sneer. Aurora laughed even louder; she almost fell back in her chair.
Sands only got a few bites down when he was rocked by Aurora coming up behind him and throwing arms around his neck.
To the bewilderment of the others, it took her a moment stop laughing long enough to say, “Okay, it’s official, you’re victim number one.”
“Great,” he mumbled.
Then he pointed at Ecar and called over, “Hey Lezzy, he says you can’t make him laugh.”
She jumped up with an indignant look and started storming over.
“Hey man, don’t get me involved in your shit.”
By then she was standing opposite him at the table. She had her hands on her hips, glared at him. Suddenly she dropped her elbow on the table and did the clutching twisting growl.
Ecar burst out laughing, as did the rest of the table.
“I don’t even know what that means.”
“Do the math,” Sands sighed.
That got the growling even louder and snapped at him. He even couldn’t help laughing, even just at the face.
Aurora stood up, rubbed the top of his head and staggered away laughing.
Lazell stood up, looked around the table, which made people laugh even more, did a little curtsy and walked off overly shaking her hips.
They were laughing so hard that they didn’t notice General Yanex standing right next to them at first. Finally one of them called attention to him. They all stood, but that didn’t stop the snickering.
“Alright, all of you taking drug tests unless someone can tell what’s so funny?”
That brought back the laughing. Sands managed to point towards the door where Lazell was talking to someone. “Her.”
She looked and saw who looking at her and rushed back with her big toothy grin.
“Good morning, Commander,” she said pleasantly.
“Good morning, Lieutenant?”
“Lazell, sir. Lieutenant Lazell.”
“These, rather amused officers tell me you have quite the sense of humor.”
“Oh no,” she said innocently, “not me, sir. I’m dull and boring.”
She leaned towards him and loudly whispered while pointing at Sands. “Like him.
“But I’m working on it, sir.”
“Very good, Lieutenant. Carry on.”
As she started to leave Sands jabbed his thumb at the General. “Hey Lezzy, you want a challenge?”
“Oh no,” she said in a meek little voice, “that would be disrespectful.”
In a lowered voice, “Besides he can throw me in jail.”
Starting to finally get over his laughing fit, Sands said, “I can throw you in jail.”
“Ooo, you wouldn’t do that now?” She snapped her shoulder around so Yanex couldn’t see the clutched turning grip. He did see the twisted sneer and briefly heard the growl. The table busted up again.
She turned back to the General, give him a big toothy grin, did her little curtsy, and left.
Yanex half snickered and turned back to Sands. “Colonel, you wanna tell me what that was?”
“Sir, sorry sir. That was pure insanity. I’d eighty-six her if she wasn’t one of the best combat pilots on the ship.”
Yanex shook his head. “I miss shit like this.”