Chapter P 1 2 3 4

False Colors

Copyright 1999
ISBN: 0671-57784-0
Publication January 1999
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by Wiliam R. Forstchen
& Andrew Keith

•  Prologue


"Better Death with claws extended than Life without honor."

from the Fourth Codex
18:35:3

Flag Bridge, KIS Karga
Near Vaku VII, Vaku System
1335 hours (CST), 2669.315

Admiral Largka Cakg dai Nokhtak gripped the arms of his command chair as the ship shuddered under the impact of multiple torpedo hits and the red lights flickered in protest. "Damage report," he ordered tautly, studying the Kilrathi Hyilghar in front of him with a stern eye. Young, proud, with a stiffly erect bearing and green eyes gleaming against his tawny fur, the staff officer was the very picture of a young Kilrathi warrior. He wore his beard and mane short in the most recent court fashion, and his fangs gleamed in the dim orange light of the flag bridge.

"Lord Admiral, neither the command bridge nor the secondary control center respond." The young officer’s voice quavered a little, but he kept himself under rigid control. Largka allowed himself a moment’s pride. It was his sister’s son’s first deep-space assignment, his first brush with the God of the Running Death, and Hyilghar Murragh Cakg dai Nokhtak was bearing up with courage and honor. "The launch bays have ceased operation to repair damage to the flight control computer, and the port side hangar deck is blocked by debris. With the previous damage to the starboard hangar deck, we cannot retrieve the fighters we have already deployed. Structural integrity in the stern section between bulkheads fifty and seventy-two is down by better than seventy percent. We have lost long-range sensors, interstellar drive, and the main tactical computer. Backup systems are functional but overloaded. Defensive weaponry is operable, but without the tactical computer must be directed manually. Offensive weapons are still functional, but with intermittent power failures . . ."

Largka waved his nephew to silence. "That is sufficient," he said quietly. "Neither the Captain nor the Exec is available?"

Murragh extended a clawed hand palm-up, the empty hand of negation. "Neither bridge is in contact with the rest of the ship," he said. "I fear both took direct hits. Nhagrah ko Lannis is the senior officer, but he is Chief Engineer, not fit for a combat command . . ."

The Admiral made the grasping gesture of understanding. "What of the apes?" The ship shuddered again as if to emphasize his question.

"Both cruisers are concentrating on us now that the Frawqirg is out of the action, Lord Admiral," Murragh said. "At last report one of them was showing definite power drops and was trailing atmosphere at a rate that indicated imminent structural failure. That was before the sensors went off-line. The other cruiser is also damaged, but to a lesser extent."

"And your assessment of our options, young Hyilghar?" he asked quietly, maintaining a rigid calm to counter the grim situation. "An exercise for a young officer."

Murragh didn’t answer right away. Finally he spoke. "We cannot run. Our chances of defeating both ape ships are small, given the extent of the damage. The fighters we have deployed already are running low on fuel and ammunition, and they cannot resupply while the hangar bays are down." His eyes met his uncle’s. "What other option is there save to die with honor?"

Largka showed his teeth. "What option, indeed?" Inwardly his heart was filled with pride, knowing Murragh could meet the final race with the Running Death with the true Kilrathi spirit. But pride was balanced by rage. They had come so close to victory, but it had eluded their grasping hands by less than a claw’s-length. "Return to your post, Hyilghar," he said quietly. "And reflect on this . . . you have done well, young Murragh. Your entire clan would be proud today . . . as I am."

He turned back to the bank of readouts and monitors, most of them blank, that were supposed to allow him to direct a multi-ship deep-space battle. Irony tasted bitter in Largka’s mouth. He had argued for months that he should be given a battle command instead of being confined to a staff job on Kilrah, and always his cousin Thrakhath had said there was no available command large enough to sustain the honor of the Imperial Family. Largka had appealed directly to Thrakhath’s grandfather, the Emperor himself, protesting that he would take any squadron, however small or unimportant.

And the Emperor had granted his request. A tiny raiding squadron operating on the fringes of the war zone between humans and Kilrathi, one of the new supercarriers and a scratch supporting battle group of only four escorts. And those had fallen one by one during the disastrous raid on the world the humans called "Landreich." First the two cruisers, then the destroyer Takh’lath, and finally the escort Frawqirg, caught by the two Terran cruisers and badly damaged before Karga could secure from jump and assist him. The crippled escort had last been seen shaping an orbit for the inner moon of the oversized gas giant Vaku, a marginally habitable world where they might manage a landing and await a rescue . . . if the Kilrathi won the engagement in space.

But it was clear that wasn’t the likely outcome of today’s battle. Without escorts, even a supercarrier was vulnerable to a sustained attack by conventional warships. Carriers weren’t supposed to fight in the thick of the fray. Karga had been forced to do just that, though, and it would take a miracle for him to pull through.

But before he died, the carrier would give a good account of himself against the apes. Largka vowed to make the Terrans remember Vaku, one way or another.

"Concentrate fire on the lead Terran cruiser," he ordered. It was strange to be making tactical decisions again, fighting a ship instead of directing a whole squadron. But with both the carrier’s control rooms out of operation, his flag bridge was the closest thing to a tactical control center left on Karga. "Ignore the other one . . . but kill that ape cruiser!"

"As you order, Lord Admiral," one of his aides acknowledged.

Largka studied his monitor screen with the chill calm of a warrior determined to fight to the bitter end.

Engineering Control Center, TCS Juneau
Near Vaku VII, Vaku System
1342 hours (CST)

Commander Douglas Scott Graham stared at the image on his monitor screen in horror and disbelief, hardly able to watch but equally unable to tear his eyes away.

He was watching a ship die, a sight all too common for a Terran Confederation Navy officer in this thirty-fifth year of continuous warfare with the Kilrathi Empire. Plenty of ships had been lost over that decades-long span, but that didn’t make it any easier to watch TCS Juneau’s consort, Dover, coming apart under the incredible bombardment generated by the Kilrathi carrier the two Terran ships faced today.

 

Kruger wanted revenge, he thought bitterly. I hope it’s worth the price we’re paying.

The two cruisers were part of a Terran Confederation task force operating among the frontier worlds in loose cooperation with colonial military units and semi-autonomous planetary governments. The most prominent of these was Landreich, neither wholly independent nor fully cooperative under the leadership of its maverick president, Max Kruger. Kruger had reluctantly played the role of cavalry-to-the-rescue during the Kilrathi assault against the Sol system three years back, and now when Kruger sneezed there was a scramble among Confederation leaders to see who could hand him a handkerchief the fastest. So when the small but deadly Kilrathi carrier battle group had launched a raid on Landreich itself, every ship in the region had been summoned to intercept them before they could return to Imperial space.

The running pursuit had knocked out three of the five Kilrathi ships . . . but the carrier and her escort were still formidable foes when the two Terran cruisers had spotted them jumping into the Vaku system and moved to engage.

The proof of that was on his monitor. Ignoring Juneau entirely, the Cat carrier was pumping everything she could fire into the unfortunate Dover. Under that intensive bombardment, the cruiser wouldn’t last long. Graham could see the rippling of shields burned through by energy beams, and the Confederation cruiser seemed to stagger under wave after wave of missiles from the carrier and the swarm of Kilrathi fighters that clustered around her.

"Christ, look at her," someone said behind Graham. "She’s a goner for sure. . . ."

"Back to your post, spacer," Graham snapped. "Chief, get these slackers back to work now, or they’ll have a lot worse than the Cats to answer to."

"Aye aye, sir." Chief Ellen Quinlan responded smartly. "All right, you sons-of-Cats, you heard the man! Eyes on your consoles and heads in the game! And if any of you aren’t afraid of what an officer might do to you, just keep in mind what I’ll do! Do I make myself clear?"

Graham hid a chuckle as the engineering control center grew suddenly quiet and thoroughly businesslike under the Chief’s stern glare. A stern, hatchet-faced CPO of the old school, Quinlan could generate more sheer terror than a whole squadron of incoming Cat fighters. She was also one hell of a good engineer.

The monitor flashed as explosions ran along the spine of the crippled Dover, bringing Graham’s attention back to the fight. For an instant the flare of light was blinding before the computer cut in the compensators. Even then, it was difficult to distinguish details. One moment Dover was whole. The next she was shards of wreckage whirling away in all directions, ship and crew alike consumed by the fearsome energies unleashed by the concentrated Kilrathi attack.

That left Juneau and the Cat carrier alone under the mottled light of Vaku. Cruiser against carrier . . . and that carrier had just done in a Terran cruiser in one furious assault.

Graham swallowed. Now it was Juneau’s turn.

Flag Bridge, KIS Karga
Near Vaku VII, Vaku System
1348 hours (CST)

Admiral Cakg dai Nokhtak bared his teeth in defiance as the Terran cruiser broke apart. Victory is still possible! he told himself. If Karga could just put some time and distance between himself and the surviving Terran, they could effect repairs to the jump engines and escape back into Imperial territory, where songs of this day’s action would be sung for eight-eights of years to come.

"Target the cruiser’s engineering section," he ordered, keeping his voice level and firm despite the urge to let the emotions inside him run free. "Helm Officer, take us in closer to Vaku."

"Lord Admiral . . ." The staff officer who had suddenly found himself acting as helmsman for the crippled supercarrier was almost visibly shivering as he questioned his superior’s order. "Lord Admiral, the shields are already weak, and the radiation from this star . . ."

"Will kill us in minutes if they fail," Largka finished the sentence for him. "Nonetheless, you will carry out my order. I want a tight hyperbolic orbit that will take us through the plane of Vaku’s ring system. If we can cripple the Terran ship’s engines, the ring debris and that same radiation you are afraid of will serve to mask a course change as we move out of their range. This will give us our chance to break off this fight."

"You would run away from battle, Lord Admiral?" That was Baron Grathal nar Khirgh, whose official title of Fleet Intelligence Officer masked his real position as the Imperial Family’s spy and political officer aboard the carrier. "The Prince would not like to hear that one of his noble cousins chose to run rather than fight."

The admiral half-rose from his chair, unsheathing the claws of his powerful right hand before he forced himself to ignore the insult. "Thrakhath would be more concerned still to hear that I lost a supercarrier in battle with the apes," he said through tight lips. "Once we have broken off the action and made repairs to engines and flight bays, we can come back and deal with that cruiser. Right now the important thing is to preserve the Karga."

He sank back in his seat, but his eyes remained locked on Khirgh’s until the Intelligence Officer gave a reluctant grasped-claw gesture and turned away.

"Course laid in, Lord Admiral," the Helm Officer said, sounding nervous. Largka couldn’t blame him. No one wanted to get involved in court politics at the best of times, and certainly not when a battle was raging around them.

 

Damn Thrakhath and his idiot followers! The Emperor’s grandson had consistently mismanaged the war against the Terrans, and no small part of that mismanagement was the way he’d treated the nobility that should have been the mainstay of Imperial support. Thrakhath’s policy of using court favorites as watchdogs over nobles he didn’t trust only magnified the rifts in the Kilrathi war machine. Even if he managed to win the final victory he was always touting, Thrakhath might very well fall to the sharp claws of the factions he had created.

And perhaps a member of the Imperial Family who had distinguished himself in battle might hope to take advantage should the Emperor’s favorite grandson stumble. . . .

"Execute course change," he ordered, pushing his bitter thoughts from his mind and focusing once again on the battle unfolding beyond the supercarrier’s bulkheads.

"I have targeting solutions on the Terran cruiser," the Acting Weapons Officer announced. "Locking energy batteries on the engineering section. . . ."

"Fire all batteries!" the admiral ordered.

Bridge, TCS Juneau
Near Vaku VII, Vaku System
1351 hours (CST)

Unimaginable energies battered at the cruiser as the Kilrathi supercarrier loosed its barrage. Captain Ekaterina Tereshkova tightened her grip and closed her eyes for a moment as she felt her beloved cruiser shuddering under blast after blast from the Kilrathi ship’s main guns. She had seen what had happened to Captain Fowler’s Dover when the Cats had turned their full power against that ship. She wasn’t going to let them do the same thing to Juneau.

"All batteries, fire!" she grated. "Give me everything you’ve got, Guns!"

"Aye aye, skipper," her Fire Control Officer responded. On the monitor screen in front of her, lasers stabbed back at the Kilrathi carrier, probing the kilometer-long ship’s weakened defenses.

 

How much more punishment can the Cats take, anyway? Tereshkova wouldn’t have believed it possible for the Kilrathi ship to hold out this long. Even a Kilrathi carrier wasn’t supposed to be able to handle a stand-up fight with Terran cruisers. Their primary weapons were the fighter squadrons they carried, and with a few exceptions they hadn’t been able to launch fighters with their hangar decks crippled in the first exchange of fire. But whoever was skippering that carrier was as brilliant as he was stubborn.

The cruiser lurched again, the red bridge lights flickering and then going out as power was interrupted. After a long moment a backup power source kicked in, but there were plenty of dead consoles around the bridge . . . and the ones that were still registering were lit up with warning lights.

"Heavy damage to the rear shields," her XO reported, gripping a stanchion with one hand and holding his earpiece communications link in place with the other. Commander Lindstrom’s voice was matter-of-fact, as if he wasn’t really a part of the chaos that had erupted on the bridge after that hit. Tereshkova’s eyes flicked from one station to another, taking in the body of the FCO slumped across his board and the young commo officer kneeling beside his chair trying to give first aid.

"Armor’s gone from sections sixty-four through seventy-one," Lindstrom went on. "Maneuvering drives are off-line. Fusion generator’s still functioning, but we’ve got multiple ruptures in the power grid. Damage control crews are re-routing now, but we don’t have weapons power until we get the grid hooked up again. Estimated repair time is ten minutes. Shields are still holding except around the burn-through point. Graham’s deploying portable shield units to protect engineering from radiation effects."

"Repair estimate on the drive?" Tereshkova snapped.

Lindstrom looked grim. "An hour . . . maybe more."

"We don’t have an hour, Commander," she said quietly. "Tell Mr. Graham—"

"We nailed him! We nailed the bastard!" The shout from someone on the far side of the bridge brought a wave of cheers from the stunned crew, and Tereshkova turned in her chair to study her monitor screen again.

The computer-enhanced image showing there was subtly different, but it took a few seconds for her fatigue-numbed brain to interpret what she was seeing. She raised her eyes to meet Lindstrom’s again, and this time she had a savage smile on her lips.

"Her shields are down," she said. "She’s helpless out there. . . ."

"And us with no weapons power," Lindstrom replied with a frown.

"But without shields, Mr. Lindstrom, those Cats are going to fry in a matter of minutes," she said. "They’re even closer to Vaku’s weird star than we are, and that means they’re getting a full broadside of radiation sleeting right through their hull as we speak. Unless they get their generators back on-line pretty damned soon, they’re all dead meat over there . . . unless they surrender and let us try to extend our own shields around them."

"Let ’em fry," Lindstrom said harshly. After thirty-five years of warfare people didn’t talk much about compassion for the enemy. Not after the losses inflicted on Earth herself, or the plague on Locanda, or any of the other atrocities the Kilrathi had carried out over the years.

But Tereshkova shook her head. "We’ll give them a chance to surrender, Commander," she said. "Just think about the propaganda value of leading that big sucker in to port back at Landreich . . . with her surviving crew as prisoners. It’ll be the biggest thing since Ralgha nar Hhallas defected. Might give some people the idea it’s worthwhile keeping up the fight a little while longer. God knows we’ve had few enough victories, large or small, to boost morale back home." She turned again. "Lieutenant, let someone else look after Mr. Martinez. Get back to your post and put a message out to those Cats. Surrender, and we will impose our shields against the star’s radiation until they can get their damage control sorted out."

"Aye aye, Captain," the communications officer said.

Tereshkova slumped back in her chair. It was almost over. . . .

Flag Bridge, KIS Karga
Near Vaku VII, Vaku System
1356 hours (CST)

"Surrender! Would the apes see us dishonored? Would you, Lord Admiral?"

Largka Cakg bared his teeth at the Fleet Intelligence Officer but did not reply. His eyes found Murragh, and he gestured his sister’s son forward. "Status?"

"Shields are down and cannot be restored short of a full-scale overhaul, Lord Admiral," Murragh said. "Lethal radiation dosages will be reached within the next ten cycles; it is already too late for many in Engineering or who have already received significant doses of radiation previous to this. We still have maneuvering drive and limited weapons availability, but we cannot run from the radiation fast enough to save the crew, and we cannot fight the cruiser with the weapons we have left."

"And the apes?"

"Damage assessment suggests they have lost their maneuvering capability. There would appear to be gaps in their power distribution grid. Their shields are intact except in their Engineering section. We have no way of estimating the extent of their damage, Lord Admiral, save by observation, and they may be holding back. . . ."

Largka cut him off with a claw-grasp. "Without other capital ships we cannot even abandon ship and hope to survive. Lifepods would shield us from the radiation for a few hours at best, but that would be insufficient without other ships to perform search and rescue. Nor do we have adequate powered craft to evacuate the entire crew with the launch bays out of action. A few lifeboats are all that can escape; the rest of Karga’s crew will die without shields."

"Would you actually consider surrender to the apes?" Khirgh demanded, snarling.

"No, Lord Khirgh, I would not. Murragh, pass orders for the Cadre to evacuate in available lifeboats. Senior officers to remain at their posts, but get the designated Cadre out. The inner moon of Vaku is marginally habitable, and we saw Frawqirg heading there when they broke off the action." The Cadre—fifty specialist officers and petty officers out of the five thousand aboard the supercarrier—would survive to carry their individual skills back to the Fleet. "You will act as my deputy, Murragh," Largka added. "Take charge of the Cadre until you meet a senior line officer to pass the command to."

"But my place is here—"

"You are the last of our branch of the Clan," Largka told him. "You must survive to carry on the Clan’s name and honor. There is no shame in obeying orders."

"There is no shame," Murragh repeated formally. "I obey."

As Murragh hastened from the flag bridge Largka slumped back in his chair, trying to control the reflexive movement of his fingers and claws. He did not want any of his crew to see him betray weakness at this of all moments.

By the God of War, they had come so close. And now the whole crew was condemned to a slow and agonizing death, because of a lucky shot by the ape cruiser.

There was nothing left now but to let Karga end his service in glory.

"Helm, plot an intercept course with the Terran ship. Get us everything you can from the engines. We will ram the apes if that is the only way to ensure they don’t see home again. Engineering, coordinate with the helm. I want self-destruct systems rigged to explode the ship as we reach the cruiser. Full destruct—reactors, ordnance, auxiliary generators, munitions and fuel stores . . . everything rigged to the computer destruct program."

"Yes, my Lord." The engineering officer looked shaken, but raised no word of protest.

"Communications, I will record a message."

"Ready, Lord Admiral."

Largka paused for a moment in contemplation before speaking into the microphone at his side. "This is Admiral Largka Cakg dai Nokhtak. Karga is the last ship of the squadron, and we have lost shields while passing close to an anomalous brown dwarf in the Vaku system. As a result, lethal dosages of radiation will soon render the ship’s crew dead, something the apes who have attacked us could not do themselves."

He paused, seeing the orange jungles of Kilrah again in his mind’s eye. One last hunt would have been pleasant, but the God of War demanded otherwise. "Even in death we have a last chance to grasp the enemy in our claws. Our last surviving opponent appears incapable of maneuver, and I have ordered an intercept course. We will destroy the ship once it is close alongside the Terran cruiser, so we will not go to the afterlife without a proper escort of our dead and defeated foes. Weapons stations should continue to fire as they are able, until the end. We die for the glory of the Empire, and to honor the hero whose name our vessel bears. Remember the words of the Tenth Codex: Even in Death there can be Victory!"

He signaled to the communications officer that he was finished. "Have that announcement broadcast on all internal comm channels," he ordered. "And send it by hypercast with the appropriate codes inserted, so that Governor Ragark knows Karga has carried out his final duty to the Empire."

"Yes, my Lord."

Largka contemplated his tactical monitor, content in the knowledge that his death, and the deaths of these valiant warriors, would not be in vain.

Bridge, TCS Juneau
Near Vaku VII, Vaku System
1400 hours (CST)

"God damn it, that bastard’s changing course and powering up his maneuver drives!"

Tereshkova called up the tactical plot and quickly confirmed Lindstrom’s report. The Kilrathi supercarrier was changing vector, all right . . . and the projected course would bring them straight in to an intercept with the Juneau.

"You don’t suppose the Cats are coming alongside so we can extend our shields around them, do you?" someone said behind her. "Maybe their comm system’s down and they can’t accept the surrender offer."

As if in response energy pulsed from the carrier’s forward turret. "If that’s a surrender, I’m a Cat pacifist," Lindstrom said. The cruiser’s screens handled the incoming fire, but Tereshkova could see that the shield reserves were getting weaker by the minute.

"What about the maneuver drives?" she asked. "Any progress getting them back?"

"Negative, skipper," Lindstrom told her. "Graham says half the section’s fused together back there. We’re not stepping out of the way on this one."

"Estimated time to course intersect?"

"Five minutes, Captain," the helmsman reported crisply. He might have been commenting on the weather back home.

"We can’t blow them up . . . we can’t get the hell out of the way." Tereshkova met Lindstrom’s eyes. "Ever see any statistics on the survival prospects of a cruiser getting rammed by a supercarrier?"

He shrugged. "Not that I remember," he said with a sour, gallows humor smile. "And I doubt it would matter much if we could survive a collision. If that Cat over there realizes that his people are going to cop it from this weird brown dwarf’s radiation anyway, he’s liable to order the destruct systems armed. That way he gets us even if we don’t collide. Probably takes out any last-minute lifepods we dump, too."

"Options?" Tereshkova knew what they were, but she had to hear Lindstrom confirm them. When the safety of her crew was at stake, she wouldn’t overlook any possibilities.

"We sit here and fry," he said. "Or we pray for a miracle with the weapons or the drives . . . and fry if we don’t happen to get it." He paused. "Or we sound Abandon Ship. Lifepods can handle the radiation for a little while, and if we deploy our shuttles now they should be able to round up most of the crew and get them to a safe distance before the dosages become critical. There’ll be casualties. A lot of them. And long-term survival’s another thing entirely."

"There’s a habitable moon in this system. That’s something."

"And a flock of Kilrathi, too. The fighters that were cut off from their hangar deck, and that escort that withdrew. They could still be a threat."

"They’re a possible problem." She jabbed a finger at the tactical display. "That’s a threat." She sighed. "Sound Abandon Ship, Mr. Lindstrom. And download the navigation data on that moon to all the shuttle computers. Better make it fast—that Cat’s not going to juggle his schedule just to let us finish the job."

"Aye aye, skipper," Lindstrom said. "Permission to take the bridge during the evacuation?"

"Denied," she said harshly. "You get to your lifepod. The captain’s supposed to go down with the ship. I’ll ride herd on the old girl while the crew gets clear."

She turned away from Lindstrom and studied the monitor again, unwilling to let him see the emotion in her eyes.

Slowly, ponderously, the two blips on the screen that represented the Terran cruiser and the Kilrathi carrier began to move toward one another, and there was nothing Captain Tereshkova could do to stop it.

Flag Bridge, KIS Karga
Orbiting Vaku System
1413 hours (CST)

"Lifepods. The apes are escaping in lifepods."

Largka heard the anger in Khirgh’s voice and wondered at the intelligence officer’s blind hatred. Why did so many Kilrathi—Thrakhath’s followers in particular—nurse such enmity for the Terrans? They were brave fighters, tenacious in battle even when the odds were against them. Hadn’t the hero Karga himself won glory for honoring a brave but outmatched warrior who had challenged him in battle? Perhaps if the Empire had accorded a status higher than that of prey to the humans the war would not have stretched on so long.

"Let them," Largka said calmly. "They can burn slowly in the radiation of the brown dwarf, or quickly in the explosion of the Karga. Even if they escape, they will be marooned on the habitable moon, and some of our warriors are still there. We have achieved our purpose, regardless."

"At a high cost, Admiral," Khirgh commented.

"You would have preferred to evacuate with the Cadre?" That was a sneer. There were no political repercussions left for Largka now, no more need to pretend to support the Emperor, or Thrakhath, or their toadies.

"I know my duty," Khirgh snarled. "But you cannot deny the cost of this exercise."

"If your precious Prince had planned something more worthwhile than a mere raid to be avenged for what the humans on Landreich did at the Battle of Earth, if he had given us sound objectives and the forces we needed to achieve them, rather than sending us out with blunted fangs, this ‘exercise’ might have had a better outcome. But instead Thrakhath has thrown away this squadron as he has thrown away so many other warriors and ships, for nothing but his own vanity. One day it may be that he will throw away the Empire itself. And perhaps my sister’s son will still be alive to claim the throne as the last surviving member of the branch of the Imperial hrai worthy of holding it."

"Treason!" Khirgh surged toward Largka, claws extending. "The Prince was right about your treacherous ambitions!"

Largka rose from his command chair, drawing his ceremonial dagger. His thrust met Khirgh’s rush, and blood pumped from the intelligence officer’s slit throat. Khirgh’s claws grasped ineffectually at Largka’s chest before Thrakhath’s agent sagged to the deck. The admiral studied the body for a long moment, but there was no savor to the kill.

"Lord Admiral," one of the bridge crew said, voice a little unsteady after witnessing the short but savage clash between the two officers. "Lord Admiral, the cruiser’s shields are failing!"

He jerked his attention to the monitor. Minimum sensors had been restored, and they could read the wild fluctuations in the energy levels powering the cruiser’s defensive grid. A rapid string of energy pulses from Karga’s forward batteries played across the Terran ship’s bow, and suddenly the sensor readings showed the shields entirely down.

The next barrage tore through the Confederation ship like claws through soft flesh. On the main viewscreen he could see the rippling series of explosions as every system overloaded at once and the cruiser came apart.

So . . . there would be no collision, no need to count on the self-destruct system to ensure the Terran ship’s destruction. Karga’s foe was already dead.

But the countdown to destruction would go on. His ship and crew were already dead as well, thanks to the shield failure and the radiation sleeting through the hull. Best to deny Karga to those who might find him drifting out here, derelict, a prize to be claimed and dishonored.

With one foot he rolled the body of Khirgh away from his command chair and sat down once again. "Time to self-destruct?" he demanded.

"Two minutes, Lord Admiral." The voice was calm and resigned. There was one officer, at least, ready to meet a warrior’s death.

The time passed slowly for Largka as he meditated over the familiar words of the Fifth Codex. Honor shall flow to the warrior who does his duty, for his Clan shall earn glory by his deeds. Honor shall flow to the warrior who meets death in battle, for his name shall be remembered. Honor shall flow to the warrior who strikes down his foe, for he shall win victory for his people . . .

"Eight seconds . . ." someone said. Largka heard another crewman quoting the Codices, and felt a swelling pride within. They had all done their duty . . .

A long moment later he realized the count had passed zero, but nothing was changed. "Report," he snapped.

"The computer has gone off-line, Lord Admiral," the engineering officer said. "Self-destruct sequence cannot be completed. I do not believe we could even trigger it manually. There is too much damage to internal systems."

"Vraxar!" he swore. Was he to be denied the chance to take Karga out in one last moment of glory? Would he preside over a crew of the dead and dying, like the Wandering Conquistador of Kilrathi legend?

No . . . that was too much to ask.

"Communications Officer! Can you at least put me on internal channels? Or must I shout a message to the crew?"

"Internal channels, Lord Admiral."

Largka licked lips gone dry and summoned up the will to speak. "This is Admiral dai Nokhtak. Our self-destruct system has failed. The ship has won a glorious victory over the Terrans, but all estimates indicate that we have already received lethal dosages of radiation. Repairs are impossible without the support of a base or a fleet tender; by the time we could accomplish anything on our own we would all be dead anyway."

He paused. "Any crew member who wishes to take his chances in lifepods is welcome to do so. Some of our comrades may still be alive outside the ship and able to render aid. For myself, I choose the only honorable option, Zu’kara. Any who wish to do the same will do honor to their hrai, seeking a clean death in the moment of victory. Follow the dictates of your own consciences. That is all."

Largka sensed the emotion in the flag bridge. Zu’kara—ritual suicide—was the ultimate expression of the warrior’s creed. The Kilrathi warrior took his own life if he or his clan stood to be dishonored, or to enhance honor when the odds were hopeless and there was no prospect of either survival or a warrior’s death in battle. It was not a decision to be made lightly.

The admiral ignored the currents of uncertainty that ran through the bridge around him. He took up the knife he had used to kill Khirgh, knelt beside the command chair, and placed the point of the blade directly above his heart.

 

Honor shall flow to the warrior who is true, to his hrai, to his comrades, to his people, and to himself, for only the true warrior shall know the gods hereafter.

His last thought was of the warriors under his command. He wished them all a chance at glory in death.

Then he drove the point of the dagger home, and felt the blood running free.

Shuttle Juneau Delta
Vaku VIIa, Vaku System
1747 hours (CST)

The overloaded shuttle bucked and shuddered as it descended through the roiling atmosphere toward the planet’s surface. Donald Graham held on to the stick and fought to keep the craft on course as it bled off speed, all too conscious of his precious cargo. Sadness vied with relief within him as he contemplated the planet below. Three of the cruiser’s shuttles had escaped the Juneau’s destruction, and they had collected enough lifepods en route to pack each of the craft with survivors. But many more had died, including Commander Lindstrom and the entire contingent aboard Shuttle Alpha, caught by the last explosions that had consumed Juneau while trying to rescue a cluster of lifepods that hadn’t won clear of the ship.

Three shuttles packed to the gills . . . maybe a hundred men and women, all told, out of the cruiser’s complement of three hundred sixty. It was hard to even think of the loss of two-thirds of his shipmates.

But for the moment Graham couldn’t afford to let emotion tear at him. He was the senior surviving officer left out of the Juneau’s wardroom, and he had a responsibility to the survivors. The main job at the moment was to find a safe place to land and pray the conditions on the surface of this miserable planet wouldn’t be too harsh. It was listed as "marginally habitable" in the navigation files, but his sensor readings didn’t look promising.

A few degrees off his heading, the sensors were registering a concentration of metal and a few sporadic energy readings. That would be the Kilrathi survivors who had made it down earlier, from the damaged escort ship and whatever fighters and escape vessels had managed to get clear of the carrier. His first impulse was to put plenty of distance between his survivors and the Cats.

Then Graham considered again, and moved the stick to bank left and line up on the sensor readings.

He had no way of knowing what had happened to the Cats. They might be strong enough to be a real threat to the human survivors, in which case a quick overflight before they realized there were humans in the area might be the one chance Graham would have for estimating the danger. And if they were in worse shape than the Juneau’s survivors, there was always the chance the humans could overpower them and make use of whatever equipment and supplies they had on hand. After all, the shuttles carried plenty of people, but little else. They needed food, water, shelter . . . just about everything, in fact.

The shuttle broke through a cloud layer and Graham saw the wreck of the Cat escort ship spread out below. They’d come down hard, no doubt about that. Close by were a handful of shuttles and a line of fighters drawn up on a reasonably smooth stretch of ground. Figures were racing back and forth across the open plain, some stopping to point or raise clawed hands to the sky in defiance.

Graham swallowed, his eyes on those fighters. If they took off . . .

He reached for the control that would activate the shuttle’s weapons pod. Kilrathi had never been prone to surrender, even in the face of overwhelming odds. But that ragtag group on the ground looked confused and unready to fight. Could he force them to surrender?

Or persuade them that they had to work together with the human survivors if either group was going to see their homes again before the brown dwarf’s strange radiation filtered through the clouds and killed them slowly.


Copyright 1999 by William R. Forstchen & Andrew Keith
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Baen Books 02/02/03