At its inner periphery, the Dynasty was close to the heart of the galaxy. Stars were packed together in dense globular clusters, the radiation was intense, and tremendous gravitational cross-currents made navigation hazardous in the extreme. And, but a short distance away, relatively speaking, was the great black hole that formed the galactic heart, the star-swallowing demon known since the time of the Dynasty’s earliest exploration of space as Sag’Aa.
It was, Tristan considered, the perfect place to hide. But he had had enough of hiding. He wanted action. Just a few more days, Bannon had promised him, while they coordinated the last intelligence reports on Aurangzhebb’s movements, and the he would have all the action he could wish for.
And indeed, here he was in command of a Dynastic cruiser, the Starcrusher: a vessel not so different, he considered with irony, from the one which had pursued him and his comrades all the way to Thelema.
He paced the bridge anxiously. He wanted to bring this whole affair to its conclusion, but at the same time, he fretted continuously about Arianne. Had it not been for his body’s self-repair capability, he would have given himself ulcers long since. What had happened to her? He desperately wanted to know, for there had not been the slightest whisper of her whereabouts, and at the same time, he dreaded the truth. The stories of Aurangzhebb’s brutality were legion, and he would have taken particular delight in extending the suffering of such an important prisoner.
The rebel fleet hung motionless in space, clustered together for the most part, but with the Heisenberg, as command ship, slightly aloof from the others, able to flee if danger threatened and then co-ordinate a regrouping. The ships were sheltering in the lee of a pair of binary stars, Scylla and Charybdis, where they were well protected from attack from most directions.
Tristan was overseeing the stowage of a new shipment of xenon capsules, fuel for the ship’s Kaufmann-type ion thrusters, when he got word that there was an urgent message coming through on the secure channel from the Heisenberg. He hastened to his briefing room.
Bannon’s face appeared on the screen. He appeared drawn and solemn. “Tris,” he said softly, “I think it’s starting.”
“Go on,” said Tristan.
“A detachment of Nasty ships has been tracked heading for Carson’s Cluster.”
Tristan nodded sagely. The globular cluster, a densely packed ball of stars, was the location of a critical rebel outpost. “Why hit them now?”
“I don’t think they are the real target,” Bannon replied. “We are.”
“So the Carson base just has to fend for itself?”
“Not at all. If you glance at your starboard field monitor, you will see Cy’s force heading off on an intercept course.”
Tristan glanced over to a subsidiary screen, and sure enough, some twenty ships were weaving their way out of the pack and forming up into a convoy.
“But we can’t...” Tristan began.
“We can. In fact we have to,” said Bannon. “We have to let Aurangzhebb think his plan is working.”
At the mention of the name, Tristan felt a shudder. “And is it?”
“Maybe,” said Bannon enigmatically. “Maybe not. Time will tell.”
An hour later, Tristan was back with the xenon when he received word of another call. He returned to the briefing room.
Bannon’s face appeared once more. “Alcmene this time, Tristan,” he declared. “I should have guessed it.”
“Just look at your chart,” Bannon huffed impatiently.
Tristan looked. Alcmene was almost the same distance from Scylla and Charybdis as Carson’s Cluster, but on a very different heading. “I suppose you’re sending a rescue mission to Alcmene too?”
“Yes,” said Bannon, with a faint ironic smile. “A smaller one, with Dennis in charge.”
“That will leave us pretty depleted,” said Tristan.
“If Aurangzhebb is doing what I think he’s doing, we won’t need a big force.”
Later, as he watched Dennis’ fleet forming up, he muttered softly, “I hope Bannon knows what he’s doing.”
“They’re coming! They’re coming! This is it folks!”
Tristan ran from his quarters, and pounded along the passage to the bridge of the Starcrusher. Already the ship was sounding battle stations and every member of the crew was taking up his or her appointed position with a speed and efficiency that were the result of innumerable drills.
Also thoroughly practiced was the manoeuvering by which the vessels of the rebel fleet took up their individual positions, weaving between one another with expert precision.
“Starcrusher to Heisenberg,” Tristan said proudly. “We are in position as per orders.”
Bannon reappeared on the main bridge monitor. “Very good, Starcrusher. Hold until further notice.”
The position indicator showed the fleet in line astern formation, shielded from open space by the looming bulk of Scylla. Barely perceptible at the upper edge of the screen was part of the twin star, Charybdis. Between them, the empty space was overlaid with concentric pale blue lines, isogravs, delineating the large area where a ship, if it wandered off course, ran a serious risk of being drawn into one or other of the twin stars. Across the middle of the screen, a thin red field delineated the narrow passage through which a ship might pass safely between them. It offered very little margin for error, and could be eliminated altogether by a sudden energy surge by one or other of the two stars.
As they waited, there was a gentle murmur of conversation on the bridge. Tristan fell to thinking again about Arianne. It had been so long, and he had no way of knowing what had befallen her. And now, it seemed, he would die without seeing her again, and possibly she would never learn of his fate. He saw his own body floating endlessly through the bitter infinity of space, alone and unmourned...
He suddenly became aware of a hush that had fallen over the room. He glanced at the screen. The first of Aurangzhebb’s column of ships was entering the channel. Even though these were his enemies, he could not help but respect the courage of those who were navigating in such a dangerous milieu, where the least error could prove fatal.
He recalled again the tactical briefing Bannon had held on board the Heisenberg.
“What’s the first thing they teach you in the Nasty Defence Academy about engaging the enemy in situations like this?” Bannon had demanded. “What’s the golden rule?”
Blank faces stared back at him. “Tristan!” he roared. “It’s not so long since you were there, is it? Or did you sleep through the strategy classes, thinking you were never going to need that stuff?”
He had shrugged. “Sorry, chief. I don’t think I slept, but I didn’t take a whole lot in either.”
“More’s the pity.” Bannon gave an exasperated sigh and turned to the viewscreen. He had marked on it an ascending dotted line to represent a convoy of ships. Then he had drawn another line, a horizontal one this time, cutting across the top of the ascending line.
He had turned again to face his class. “Does this ring any bells?”
A few faces showed the glimmerings of intuition, but there was nothing definite. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll give it to you again. The golden rule is this: never let your enemy cross your T. And what are we going to do to Aurangzhebb?”
A chorus of voices rang out: “Cross his T!”
Tristan snapped out of his reverie. The screen showed the Dynasty fleet creeping slowly between the two stars. It would not be long before the rebel ships would move out to engage them in a last make-or-break struggle for supremacy. Tristan struggled to stifle his fear.
At last the order came. The engines were engaged, and with a shudder the ship began to move. Silhouetted in Scylla’s brilliant light, the line of ships swept out to intercept Aurangzhebb’s fleet.
And then, as they began to cross the black gulf , heading towards Charybdis, they got the first long-range images of the enemy, and all eyes focussed on the Aurangzhebb’s Fist, remarkable both on account of its strange design and for its tremendous size.
“I think it’s safe to assume,” said Bannon, addressing all the ships in the fleet, “that that is Aurangzhebb’s flagship, and consequently our primary target.”
The timing of the interception was perfect. The two fleets closed, weapons blazing, and the lead rebel ship swept serenely across the bows of the first Dynasty ship, bringing Aurangzhebb’s navy to a halt. The crossing of the T was completed, and the Dynasty ships were being pounded from both sides.
Aurangzhebb sought a diversionary manoeuvre by sending a squadron of small fighters to attack the Heisenberg, but he had reckoned without the fleet of escort craft filling the hangar deck of the command ship, and the fighters more than met their match.
From time to time, a disabled ship would drop out of the main fight, until it seemed that there were almost as many ships engaged in minor skirmishes as there were in the central melee. Once or twice, frustrated captains from ships in the rear of Aurangzhebb’s column broke formation, completely in defiance of their orders, and sought to initiate flanking manouevres, only to miscalculate the strength of either Scylla or Charybdis and spiral away to a fiery death.
The hours wore on, and slowly the battle began to turn in the rebels’ favour. Aurangzhebb’s demoralised captains saw that the enemy was far from being the disorganised rabble that he had depicted them as, and that, on the contrary, they fought with courage and spirit, co-ordinating their attacks with tremendous discipline - not surprising, Aurangzhebb’s men conceded, when so many of them had been trained by the Dynasty itself.
A few of Aurangzhebb’s ships even quit the battle.
In spite of the best efforts of all the other ships to surround and protect her, the Aurangzhebb’s Fist was beginning to get a battering. Sitting on her bridge, the warlord saw another of his cruisers disabled, and decided it was time to play his trump card.
“Bring the prisoner to the bridge,” he ordered.
A few minutes later, guards arrived, dragging a thin but still resistant Arianne before him. She gasped when she saw the battle on the bank of monitors in front of Aurangzhebb’s seat.
“Open a channel to all enemy vessels,” Aurangzhebb ordered.
He stepped forward, his large strong hands clasped around Arianne’s biceps, holding her in front of him in spite of her struggle to escape.
“Attention, treacherous rebels!” he boomed. “This is Aurangzhebb, your rightful leader, aboard the Dynastic starship Aurangzhebb’s Fist. As you can see, I am holding one of your collaborators, who I believe may be held in some esteem by you. Unless you cease firing immediately I will have her vaporised. What is your response?”
The Aurangzhebb’s Fist was in the middle of a hornet’s nest of enemy ships. Directly across her bows was the Starcrusher. Tristan gagged at the sight of his sweet Arianne in the grasp of a man who appeared to be the embodiment of pure evil.
“Cease fire!” he screamed. “Cease fire!”
“Tristan, Bannon all of you, listen!” Arianne yelled, wriggling furiously. “You must take out this ship! Now!” Aurangzhebb dragged her out of the monitor’s field of view. Still her shouts could be heard. “Forget me! Take this ship or all is lost!”
Then Bannon was screaming at him. “Tristan! What the fruity fuck are you doing? Resume firing! I repeat, resume firing!”
Stith Karsh, Tristan’s first officer, was at his side. “Tristan, we are in direct line of fire!”
A frigate swept in, weaving between the thickly clustered vessels with consummate skill, looping round the nose of the Aurangzhebb’s Fist, drawing her fire away from the Starcrusher at the critical moment.
Her captain appeared on Tristan’s screen. It was Howard, one of Bannon’s original team. “Tris, old man, get the hell out of there till you get your head together!”
“Captain!” It was the tactical officer. “Aurangzhebb’s Fist is breaking off!”
Tristan stared at the new image on his screen. Siezing the opportunity presented by the momentary lull in the fighting, Aurangzhebb had given the order for his ship to quit the field of battle. She was lifting her nose, rising vertically, presenting her belly to the Starcrusher and the other ships off her bows, and at the same time raking them with a ferocious blast of weapons fire.
The Starcrusher shuddered. “We’re hit!” someone shouted. “Main engines down, self-repair commencing.”
Tristan scarcely acknowledged this information. He was staring at a screen, following the rapidly diminishing image of the Aurangzhebb’s Fist as she accelerated away in a breathtaking display of power. He fed the details of her course into the navigational computer.
Meanwhile, even dead in space, the Starcrusher was still a potent weapons platform, and the fight wore on. Aurangzhebb’s people put up a bold fight, but the departure of the flagship marked the beginning of the end. In another hour or two, it became clear that the battle had been lost, and the Dynasty sued for peace.
The wait for the engines of the Starcrusher to self-repair seemed interminable, and in the interim Tristan refused to allow his crew to join the party aboard the Heisenberg: he said he still had need of them. He had carefully studied the astrogation charts, and had hatched a plan.
Bannon appeared on the screen. Behind him Tristan could see balloons and streamers, ferreted out of a locker dating back to the Heisenberg’s days as a cruise ship. Close by Bannon’s side were Shajah Ha’an and Jahann’ara, and he could see a number of other familiar faces in the background. The celebrations were in full swing.
“Tristan, my man!” Bannon beamed. He was drunk. Tristan could see the Bypass apparatus on the table in front of him, attached to his arm. Vaguely Tristan wondered where he had acquired it, and how long he had had it. “Come and join the party.”
Tristan shook his head sadly. “Sorry, Bannon, I can’t. For me the war isn’t over yet.”
Bannon ripped the Bypass infuser patch off his arm, and shook his head. “What do you have in mind?”
“I’m going after Aurangzhebb.”
“You haven’t a hope. You saw how fast that ship of his moved. You’d never be able to overtake him.”
“Not by conventional means, no,” Tristan conceded. “But I’m planning something unconventional.”