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Pursuit

By Tom Beck
Page 1 of 6

It isn't always quietest just before the storm. At least it wasn't that morning on Sparloc, a planet in the sixth sector whose only claim to fame was the enormous Federation military base on its main continent.

Base Commander Descol was preparing his forces for the annual wargames, which meant that all was in chaos, even more so than usual. Ships were landing and taking off constantly, taxiways were jammed with ships going to and from hangars, support and service vehicles were in continuous motion, troops were on the march in all directions, and the comlines were in permanent use. Without a priority, there was no way of calling into or out of the base. Thousands of dependents had no idea where their soldier and spacer relatives were or what they were doing.

Such chaos is inevitable at such times. Completely unavoidable. Descol accepted it as the price of his wargames. It simply made things a little more difficult.

It also made the base a sitting target when Liberator attacked.

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"Information," Zen announced. "Liberator has just entered the Sparloc system."

That got everyone's attention on the flight deck. Especially Blake's. "Increase speed to Standard by ten," he said.

Jenna interrupted him. "We can't attack at that speed," she pointed out. "We'll have to slow down before we begin our run."

"I know that," said Blake. "But this will get us to Sparloc faster, make it harder for them to detect us." He grinned almost wolfishly. "Which is just what we want." He turned. "Zen, put the battle computers on line and prepare to execute the attack program."

"Confirmed."

Blake looked at Avon, who was nursemaiding Orac. "Any change in their readiness status?"

The computer tech consulted a screenread. "No, none at all. They are just starting extensive maneuvers, a military exercise involving the entire force. Their annual summer wargames, according to Orac. Judging by their tactical traffic, the whole base is in disarray at the moment. We are going to catch them completely unawares." He chuckled a little.

"It's a good thing Orac cracked that Federation tactical code," said Vila. "He's actually turning out to be quite useful! I'd hate to have a go at them if we didn't know what they were doing."

That brought a smile to Blake's face. "If we didn't know what they were doing, we'd never risk an attack on such a large base." He went over to the weapons station where Gan was standing. The neutron blasters were cleared, and a number of plasma bolts were ready to be launched. Everything was set.

Hands on hips, he faced his crew. "Right, then. You all know what to do. As soon as the attack starts, Cally, contact your rebel friends on Argyros, tell them they can begin their uprising, that there won't be any Federation reinforcements from this base. Vila and Gan, keep track of the damage we cause down there. If we don't have to make a second attack run, I'll only be too happy. Jenna, get ready to take us out of here as soon as we've leveled the whole complex. Avon, keep monitoring their traffic. We don't want to be surprised by any unexpected resistance or pursuit ships."

"And what will you be doing while we're all busy obeying your orders, Blake?" Avon asked. "Or will you just sit back and watch us do your work for you?"

Blake replied sharply, "I will be figuring out what to do if anything unforeseen occurs. Now get ready. Zen, how soon?"

The ship's voice was as impassive as always. "At present speed, attack will commence in two point two three five minutes. All targets are acquired and weapons systems are locked on. Speed will decrease to Standard by six just prior to start of attack."

Jenna spoke. "Estimate the amount of damage we'll do the first time through, Zen."

"That is not possible," replied the ship. "Conditions on the planet's surface are constantly changing."

"Then I'd better lay in a course for a second attack run, just in case," Jenna said. Zen would control the ship into and through the attack, but to handle anything unexpected would require an experienced pilot at the helm.

Blake nodded at her suggestion. It was good to have a capable person like Jenna with him; not only competent, but completely dedicated to his cause. She would work that much harder for him, because she believed in him and his mission.

As Liberator approached the planet, silence reigned on her flight deck. Gan was standing by to put on the force wall if needed. Cally was in contact with the Argyrian freedom fighters, whose rebellion the attack had been devised to support. Avon was receiving constant updates from the planet through Orac. "No change," he reported. "They have no idea we're coming."

"Good," said the rebel leader. "Let's hit them hard." His face was grimacing in concentration on his self-appointed task of destruction.

Vila noticed. "Blake don't you think it's unfair, striking them like this out of the blue? I mean, there's a lot of civilians around that base."

His remonstrance was barely noticed. Avon looked disgusted. Blake didn't even face him. "Fair? This is war, Vila. The Federation started it, we didn't." He thought for a second. "Zen, I want maximum dispersion of plasma bolts. Blanket them from one end to the other. Concentrate the neutron blasters on their landing fields, launch areas, and hangars. We'll cripple their ability to counterattack."

"Confirmed."

Seconds passed. Liberator swooped toward the planet Sparloc faster than any defense system could keep up with. Time seemed frozen.

Then, everything happened at once.

"Entering primary attack zone," Zen stated. "Attack commencing." Sounds of energy discharges were heard. Cally's voice came through in the background giving the go-ahead to her Argyrian friends. Orac was issuing a stream of incomprehensible military babble. Blake chewed on a fingernail, rapt in concentration. Only a few seconds latter, it was over.

"Attack run completed," said Zen. Moving away from planet Sparloc at Standard by eight."

"Damage assessment!" shouted Blake.

Gan and Vila hastily scanned screens. Both spoke at once. "We hit their main command center," said Vila.

"Got their two largest landing fields," Gan reported.

"Do we need to go back?" Blake asked impatiently. "Avon, what do you have?"

Avon was listening to Orac and reading a screen display.

"Difficult to tell just yet, Blake," he said. "We've certainly raised all kinds of major hell down there, though," he grinned. "I'm just not sure how much."

"But did we do enough damage?" Blake nearly shouted.

Avon checked additional readouts. "The communications center is completely out, they've had to switch to an emergency mobile station. That probably means major disruption in their chain of command."

"Let's see. We've knocked out their damage control and engineering facilities."

Vila grinned. "Well, they won't be putting this base back into service for a long time!" Gan clapped his hands together. On the silent flight deck, it sounded like a thunderclap.

Cally spoke up. "The rebellion on Argyros will be starting very soon. Clissor and his people thank you, Blake. They are very grateful for your offer of aid."

"And of course," said Avon, "their gratitude is worth any risk to us and the Liberator."

Nevertheless, he continued to monitor Sparloc's military communication channels. "They report hundreds of ships burning on the ground. It's created a firestorm, too hot for firefighting units to approach. It may burn for hours."

Blake smiled. "Good, good. Anything else?"

Avon looked sharply at him. "Isn't that enough? It's little more than a minute since we hit them. Even Orac can't correlate all the information that quickly."

"We have to know," said Blake through his teeth.

Jenna was quietly changing course. "Blake, we don't have time to wait and we can't just assume we got everything there. I'm taking us back for another go." Blake nodded. "Avon, what targets should Zen aim for on this pass?" she asked.

He thought for a moment. "To disrupt them totally, keep them from restoring order, concentrate on the perimeter of the complex. Prevent any help from arriving from outside the base."

"Confirmed," Zen boomed.

The second attack went as quickly and smoothly as the first. Within seconds, Liberator was streaking away from Sparloc.

Blake exhaled hugely. "Well done, everyone. That'll certainly shake the Federation's hold on this sector. Cally, keep in touch with Argyros, let me know how it's going there. Vila and Gan, stay on top of the situation. Inform me if there's any pursuit We may not have gotten all of their ships. Avon, keep reading their traffic. I'm curious just how much damage we actually did." He turned to Jenna. "Good work, Jenna, taking us back. A real thorough strike. Good piloting." She beamed at the unexpected praise. Avon scowled.

At times like this, Blake felt a strange sense of unity with his ship and crew. All bent to their tasks, all working toward the same end. Why couldn't it always be like this? Even Avon was forged to his will. That was almost as gratifying as the successful attack.

He shook his head, dispersed the reverie. Too much to do. Blake joined Avon at his station next to Orac. Despite the attack, Sparloc Space Control was still on the air, issuing floods of orders, reports, calls for help, and a great deal of noise. Avon was too intent on following it all to snipe at Blake. There was a lot to listen to. Even Avon was impressed at the extent of the wreckage they'd left behind. He summed it up for the rest.

"At least fifty major buildings completely or almost completely destroyed, including the records storage center, most of the barracks, the armories, space defense headquarters, and planetary weather control. For what it's worth, we hit the brig. A lot of prisoners set free, presumably grateful to Blake for liberating them." He grinned. Blake looked at him with exasperation. Avon continued, "We gutted all their hangars. The runways are extensively pitted and scored. Many are blocked by wrecked ships. Three of the four landing fields are ruined. Most major highways on and around the base have been demolished. At least four hundred ships were destroyed or damaged. And, since they have no repair facilities left, they will stay damaged. All in all, Blake, I must say that as a terrorist, you're a damned good one."

Blake grimaced at that one. He stared at Avon as if to say "thanks a lot." He sighed. He felt very proud of his work today and he wasn't going to let Avon ruin it for him.

Cally had a thoughtful look on her face. "What is the death total?" she asked.

Avon consulted a readout. "Pretty high, from what I can tell. Several thousand troops and officers have been killed or injured. Since we also took out the base hospital, a lot of the injured will probably die as well. Casualties are especially heavy among civilians, though. Our second attack destroyed the residential areas surrounding the base, where the dependents live. Lived. There's a report that a number of women and children were killed."

Blake shook his head. Vila was staring at him. "It doesn't matter," Blake said.

Jenna moved toward Blake, put her hand on his shoulder. "It couldn't be helped," she said. "The Federation didn't have to house civilians so close to the base. Besides, it was Avon's idea to hit the perimeter."

"Generous with blame, aren't you, Jenna?" asked Avon acidly.

"And my decision to go for a second attack," she continued. "Besides, we've helped save how many lives in the future?" she argued. "Lives on Argyros, lives this base won't take later."

Blake shook his head. "No, Jenna, this isn't your or Avon's responsibility, it's mine. I could have stopped our second attack or had Zen hit a different target. But we needed to take this base out. Both for Argyros and for ourselves. That's a lot of ships and Federation troopers we won't have to face later.

"Not all Federation troopers down there," said Vila. "A lot of innocent civilians."

"Why so squeamish, Vila?" asked Avon with a smirk. "You knew our attack plan before we went in."

"Besides," said Cally, "they're not all innocent. They know what the Federation does and they still support it. We have no choice but to attack such people."

"Do we?" asked Avon. "There was nothing pressing us to come to Sparloc, Cally's freedom-fighting friends to the contrary. Only Blake's undying cause. Whatever the cost, to us or to others."

"Now who's squeamish, Avon?" retorted Vila. "I just don't like the idea of us becoming terrorists, that's all. There's enough we can do to hurt the Federation without killing the citizens we're supposed to be trying to free. Isn't that right, Blake?"

"Yes," he replied. "I never intended any civilian deaths. That's the Federation's specialty."

Avon stood over him. "Then you shouldn't have ordered this attack at all. You knew there would be casualties. You just hoped you wouldn't have to face them. Odd that you should be such a coward."

Blake sprang up at the computer tech. Cally and Gan swiftly intervened, struggling to separate the two. "Stop it!" Cally exclaimed. "Avon, having a conscience is not cowardice. Sometimes war makes one commit horrible crimes. Liberator has been very cautious in all its attacks so far. That doesn't excuse killing noncombatants, but sometimes one has to."

An uneasy silence ensued. Blake and Avon stared at each other. Then, Blake stalked away, off the flight deck. Avon stared after him, still gripping the shoulder Blake had almost mauled. He turned to Orac. "I had better see if anyone is chasing us," he said, his voice a little subdued.

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