Tristan stood on the bridge of the Heisenberg and marvelled at the sight that met his eyes. The fleet loyal to Shajah Ha’an and commanded by Jahann’ara was making its final approach down an avenue formed by two lines of rebel ships, watching for the least indication of treachery. But there was none.
Shajah Ha’an was at Tristan’s side, while Bannon and the others looked on with a strange mixture of suspicion and awe. The Dynastic Leader - past or present - was someone one normally saw only on a viewscreen, not as flesh and blood within arm’s reach.
“Not a bad fleet, eh, my friend?” he chuckled, taking in the scene before them with an expansive sweep of his arm. “My loyalists.”
“I’m not your friend,” Tristan said with restrained menace, “and don’t ever forget it. But yes, it is a good fleet. It will definitely even things up with Aurangzhebb, and hopefully turn this war around, turn it our way.”
Shajah Ha’an’s smaller ships, the fighters, began to arrive on the Heisenberg’s flight deck, bunching up in serried ranks until even the vast space of the old cruise liner was filled to capacity. Shajah Ha’an had at his disposal something which the rebels had as yet been unable to acquire, namely fighters specifically designed for combat within planetary atmospheres. They had wings which took the form of a rhombus with the tips clipped off, and they were fast and manoeuverable, able to surf on air currents and spin and dive in ways that the rebel SLUFF pilots could only dream of.
One of the first to arrive carried Jahann’ara as a passenger. Shajah Ha’an was there on the flight deck to greet her as she stepped from the access ladder, and she bounded joyfully into his embrace.
“Father!” she exulted. “It’s been so long, and I was so frightened, when you went to that wretched cold planet all alone and we didn’t hear from you. I feared the worst.”
He looked into her eyes. “Everything is all right,” he said softly. “Just as I said it would be.” She nodded, her own eyes glistening. “And now,” he went on, “with the help of these fine people, we will make Aurangzhebb pay for what he has done.”
“Oh, yes!” she shouted gleefully, her voice echoing off the metallic walls of the great hangar. “Yes, yes, yes!”
In the months that followed, the tide of the war did indeed begin to turn in the rebels’ favour. The two sides were now far more evenly balanced, although Aurangzhebb continued to have numerical superiority. The rebels were able to open up new fronts, with more resources they were able to take more risks, and with Shajah Ha’an’s larger warships, they were able to do something they had never been able to do before, namely launch frontal assaults on major Dynasty strongholds. And they knew they were having an effect when they began to encounter a new phenomenon, scorched earth: they would arrive at a fortified Dynasty outpost, only to find that all buildings and equipment had had their self-repair capabilities removed, and had been utterly destroyed to keep them from falling into rebel hands.
During one particularly fierce battle, Shajah Ha’an’s atmospheric fighters, escorted by a squadron of Wobbly Goblins, were launching off the Heisenberg, attacking a critical Dynastic base on a sultry, steamy rainforest of a planet called Garpak’s World, softening it up prior to a full scale ground assault, if an attack through swamps and marshes could indeed be categorised as a ground attack.
Tristan, Shajah Ha’an and Jahann’ara were taking a short break from co-ordinating the operation, and were walking down the middle of the flight deck, talking to pilots returning from sorties to get a feel for how the battle was progressing.
Suddenly there was a shout of alarm. “Hey, you! Get off the runway!”
The three of them scrambled for safety just in time, as a fighter swept in with a deafening roar, swerving unsteadily down the middle of the hangar, narrowly missing some of the parked ships, and with sparks flying from its runners screeched to a halt, precisely where the trio had been standing a moment before.
The pilot descended from the access hatch just as one of the maintenance crew came running over.
“What’s the story?” the maintenance man shouted above the din.
“They managed to knock out my assemblers,” the pilot replied. “Look!”
He led the technician around the ship, and Tristan, Shajah Ha’an and Jahann’ara followed at a discreet distance. The pilot pointed to where a large dent, possibly from a collision with flying debris, had severely deformed the clipped-rhomboid wing-tip.
“I can’t control her in the atmosphere,” the pilot explained. “Not at all.”
The technician examined the dent closely, tracing its contours with his fingers. “Don’t worry,” he reassured, “we’ll soon sort it out.”
He walked to a nearby equipment trolley and picked up a large mallet. Swinging it to get a feel for the weight, he then marched around to the other side of the ship and began raining blows onto the opposite wing-tip, hitherto undamaged. In a few minutes of lusty hammering, he created a dent that was almost perfectly symmetrical to the other.
He stepped in front of the ship, looking from one wing to the other and back again, admiring his workmanship. “There,” he said at last. “It should fly perfectly now.”
The three onlookers moved on. Shajah Ha’an was glancing sideways at his daughter, who had the faintest suggestion of a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.
Approaching the stairway leading up to Operations, they walked around the rear of another parked ship, only to be confronted by another technician, who raised his hands, stopping them in their tracks.
“Sorry, folks, you’ll have to go round the other side,” he smiled apologetically. “There’s been a bit of a spill.”
He gestured downwards, and they saw that they had been about to step in a pool of bright green viscous fluid that had gathered on the deck underneath an open hatch in the belly of the ship.
Tristan bent down, leaning on his hands and knees. Through the hatch, he could make out a large dome-shaped object which appeared to be the source of the fluid.
“What is that?” he asked.
“That?” said the technician. “It’s just residual leakeage from the BRT. Happens when the nanos are offline.”
“Thanks,” said Tristan. “Keep it up.”
He began to walk away, and the others fell into step on either side of him. He had gone a few paces when he stopped and spun round. He walked back to the technician, who was switching on a suction device to clean up the mess.
“Excuse me,” said Tristan. “I know I’m going to regret this, but what exactly is the BRT?”
“The BRT?” echoed the technician. “It’s the Big Round Thing.”
Tristan stared at him. “The Big Round Thing!” He roared with laughter.
Shajah Ha’an laughed, and Jahann’ara laughed. They were all still laughing when they got to the top of the stairs outside Operations. Jahann’ara swept inside, still chuckling. As Tristan was about to follow her, Shajah Ha’an touched his arm.
“Do you realise,” he said, wiping the tears from his eyes, “that that is the first time she had laughed since her brother died?”
Tristan stopped short, recalling what he had heard of the grisly death of Dara Shuko. He looked into Shajah Ha’an’s eyes. Despite their ostensible youth, he saw in their depths something very old and tired. “And for you too?”
Shajah Ha’an nodded. “And for me too.” And he walked away.
Over the course of a further year, the rebels scored a string of stupendous victories, and the Dynasty found itself staring at defeat. Aurangzhebb, finding himself like a hunted creature at bay, decided on a last bold throw of the dice, which would decide matters once and for all. He knew where the rebel fleet was holed up, doubtless preparing their own endgame, he had a plan to defeat them, and he had a brilliant new weapon.