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By Tom Beck
Page 2 of 6

"I told you, Base Commander Descol is dead!" shrilled the voice. "Who am I? Chettick, Subcommander, Quartermaster Corps... I head--headed--the Medical Records Center, sir.... No, I don't know where the deputy commander is. I don't know where anybody is. We've been attacked, sir! Destroyed! Yes, I know you're the Sector Commander. I don't care if you're the Supreme Commander, I still can't manufacture information. Why didn't Taliant Control warn us of this?.... You didn't know? Well, how should I know who hit us, then? It happened so quickly. We had no warning at all! Probably an entire flotilla, from the amount of damage they did.... No, there's almost nothing left. Took out the whole base they did. Wait, I'm getting a report."

The scene was a Mobile Communication Track Vehicle. It was about the only thing on the base that wasn't burning, or smoking, or in ruins. Outside the noise was incredible, the churning chaos and carnage overwhelming. Inside it wasn't much better. Officers, petty officers, and enlistees, of all ranks and branches, were crammed in trying desperately to make sense of the situation.

Chettick turned to face a new arrival carrying a portable computer. After reading the screen, he reported back to the Sector Commander on Taliant. "Yes sir, Pursuit Three is intact. They were off planet doing torpedo drills when all this happened.... Yes sir, they already have their orders. Already underway, in fact, sir. Only eight ships, though, sir, and three of them are trainers, useless in a fight.... They were overdue for refit and reinforcement, sir, scheduled for two weeks from today.... We were backed up in the shops, sir.... Most of those ships were destroyed, the first place hit was the repair center.... Well, of course, sir, but that wasn't my department.... I don't know why we didn't have more ships in space when they hit us, I'm not in Tactical. I told you, I'm in Quartermaster!.... sorry sir.... Subcommander Sloman, sir. Don't know him myself.... Wait a second, let me call up his record.... Ah...welI, he's young, sir. Graduated the Academy five years ago.... Yes sir, that's very fast to make subcommander. Several medals and commendations. Took over Pursuit Three just last year. Never been in combat with it though,sir.... Yes sir.... Yes, I'll keep you informed, sir. Chettick out."

He rolled his eyes. Turned to face the others in the cramped vehicle. "Well, I'm in temporary tactical command until we can locate and dig out some senior brass. If there's any left. Get me a permanent line to Pursuit Three. Keep a plot of Sloman's movements. Even if he can't catch the intruders, maybe we can figure out where they went."

But where the hell did they come from, he wondered, before turning back to his impossible task.


The quiet after the storm. Two storms. Blake was sulking in his cabin, Avon on the flight deck. Cally was happily listening to reports from Argyros, where the small planetary garrison had been overwhelmed by the rebels, emboldened by the destruction of the force on Sparloc, whose star system bordered theirs. The sector fleet was too far away to intervene. Taliant wasn't even close to either Sparloc or to Argyros. That's why the destruction of Sparloc Base was such a victory over the Federation in this sector. A victory for Blake.

Jenna was doing some manual flying to ward off boredom and also to be in position in case of an emergency. Gan and Vila were supposed to be watching out for pursuit, but neither was really doing it with any diligence. Both figured that Avon and especially Orac could cope with any sudden Federation attention.

Liberator flew on for almost an hour. She was well out of the Sparloc system now, headed toward sparsely settled Federation space, still in Sector Six but partially uncharted. A good place to hide before heading back for more action in the heart of the Federation. Blake and Jenna had planned it; they'd worked it this way several times already: Shoot and scoot, lie low, and then come back for more. Blake had some ideas involving the Terra Nostra and Space City that he wanted to try out next.

Just then, Zen spoke up. "Information. Unidentified space vessels at extreme range. They are following our course at approximately Standard by eight."

Avon consulted a screen. "They could be Federation pursuit ships. We might not have destroyed them all. Get Blake up here, Jenna. Zen, what's the maximum speed we can manage now?"

"The attack drained one energy bank. Any speed greater than Standard by six will not allow Liberator to recharge."

Blake was back with them. "How many ships are there, Zen? And how far away?"

"At least seven--no, eight. Distance, two hundred thousand spacials and closing."

"Two hundred thousand!" Jenna exclaimed. "How did they get so close?"

"Because someone was sleeping," Avon said, glaring at Vila.

"That's enough," Blake snapped. "At this rate, they'll catch up with us soon. Let's find a place to lose them. Zen, what's up ahead?"

"Approaching the Rona Star System," said the ship. "Three planets. The third planet, Terona, is a gas giant. The second, Derona, is barely habitable. It has two moons."

Blake nodded. "Okay, we'll try to outrun them. Let's get ready to fight, though. Zen, put the battle computers on line and raise the force wall. Gan, take the weapons station. Cally, help him. Avon, try to find out who they are and where they came from."

"Plasma bolt is launched and running," Zen announced calmly.

Waiting for a plasma bolt is sort of like running a red light. You think you can make it, but you're never sure. Liberator shook under its force, but the shields held.

"Fire the neutron blasters," Blake ordered. Pencil-thin beams of energy lanced out from Liberator, striking unerringly on the Federation ships. Avon quickly totted up the damage.

"Hits on all eight ships. Two of them destroyed. Extensive damage on the others. They are still closing on us. We have also sustained some damage. Now what, Blake?" Avon asked sardonically.

"All right, Avon. We've been pursued before. We'll increase speed briefly, then brake, turn and fire. Standard by ten, Jenna. I know we can't sustain it, but just for a few seconds. Zen, when we brake, I want widest possible dispersal on the plasma bolts. Random firing of the neutron blasters. Keep them from hitting back. One salvo, then we turn and run, fastest possible speed."

"Confirmed," Zen replied.

"You're starting to sound like an old spacedog, Blake," said Jenna with an amused and admiring smile.

"You sure you were never in the Space Service?" asked Vila.

"I've watched a lot of war movies," Blake grinned. "Get ready, Jenna. Standard by ten!"

Again, it was all over in seconds. Liberator leaped forward, putting distance between herself and her pursuers. Then, suddenly, she was almost dead in space, turning to attack her foe. A mighty hailstorm of radiation burst from her weapons banks and engulfed the enemy ships.

"Damage report!" shouted Blake.

"Two more pursuit ships destroyed," Gan announced. "Hits on all the others."

"Get us out of here, Jenna," Blake ordered. He turned to Avon. "Well, that ought to discourage them. Half the squadron destroyed. They'll probably turn back now, return to Sparloc. We'll orbit the second planet, rest for a while, and--"

He was interrupted by a plasma bolt shaking the ship. "Where the hell did that come from?" he demanded.

"They're still after us," reported Cally. "Four ships traveling at Standard by eight, distance fifty thousand spacials and closing rapidly."

Plasma bolts detonated against the ship with sickening regularity. "Whoever they are, they certainly know how to shoot straight," said Vila.

"I'm sure their commander will appreciate your admiration, Vila," said Blake. "You can send him a fan letter. If we ever get out of this." He shook his head, trying to think. "We've got to shake them. Jenna, head for that gas giant. We'll use its gravity to swing us around quickly and then go right for them. Liberator should be able to outshoot them. They won't be expecting a frontal assault."

"Right, Blake," Jenna said calmly. She began the difficult maneuver. Liberator's speed increased audibly.

Blake turned back to Avon. "Try to find out who they are. Eight ships isn't a lot for a pursuit squadron attached to a major base." He stared at the screen.

Seen from a distance, a space battle would be extremely boring. The ships fight at tremendous distances, so they would appear as tiny dots against a speckled black backdrop. Energy weapon blasts don't look like much in reality (as opposed to the sharp bright flashes of vidform entertainments). And, of course, there's no sound. In a word, boring. From a distance.

On s ship involved in a space battle, it's a different matter. Liberator swung around Terona, her speed increasing. So did her crew's nervousness. They all knew that Blake was taking a major gamble, staking everything on a very risky tactic. They also knew that they had few alternatives.

The tension affected everyone. Vila was biting his nails. Gan and Cally monitored the ship's condition. Even Avon was too intent on his task to snipe at Blake.

The speed passed Standard by eleven. Jenna was finding it hard to control the giant ship. "Zen," she called, struggling with the bucking helm harness. "How long before we break orbit?"

"And can the ship stand it till we do?" Avon asked softly.

"Two point one six minutes," replied the ship.

"Battle computers on line!" Blake ordered. "Vila, Gan, be ready to fire the moment you spot those ships. Stand by with the force wall, Cally."

The time passed quickly. As the ship approached breakout point, her speed rose to Standard by fourteen. In her damaged condition, she couldn't take it. Jenna's forehead was gleaming with perspiration. She looked exhausted. She couldn't take it much longer, either.

"Breaking free from Terona orbit," announced Zen. "Speed decreasing to Standard by ten. Pursuit ships are in front of us, heading away from us. Distance seventy thousand spacials and closing fast."

"I see them!" shouted Vila. "We've got 'em from the rear! Firing the neutron blasters!" His fingers danced over the weapons control buttons.

"Plasma bolts launched and running," said Gan.

The Federation ships in the viewscreen loomed larger and larger as Liberator continued to close them. Seconds before overtaking the pursuit squadron, violently bright lights flashed on the screen.

"We got them!" Vila cried. "Great shooting, eh?" No one replied, they were too intent on the viewscreen. It showed nothing.

"Are they all destroyed?" asked Blake.

"No," said Jenna. "They're just not on-screen anymore. We were going so fast, we passed right through."

Avon checked some readouts. "Sorry to disappoint you, Vila, you only got one of them," he said.

"Only one?" Vila asked with a pout. "My aim was better than that!"

"Perhaps," Avon replied. "But our velocity made this an unstable platform to fire from. You're lucky you got even one."

Blake frowned. "That means there's still three ships left. Well, they'll probably break off now and head back. Silly to risk further destruction. They can't catch us now."

"I don't know, Blake," said Cally. "They do not appear to be breaking off. My scanner shows them beginning to gain on us."

"Gaining on us?" asked Blake. "They shouldn't even be chasing us in the shape they're in. Jenna, increase our speed. Lose them."

"That high-speed run didn't do us any good," said Jenna. "The best we can do now is Standard by four. Any faster and we'll shake apart."

"Plasma bolt launched and running," said Zen.

"Force wall on!" Blake ordered. The ship rocked from the blast. "This is insane. Who are they? Avon, can't you unscramble their signals?"

"I'm trying, Blake, but they're using a different code. Orac is working on it. Knowing who they are won't help us defeat them, though."

"No," Blake agreed, "but it might let us know how much they're willing to risk to try and get us." Another plasma bolt rocked the ship. "Vila," Blake said sharply, "you might try shooting back at them, you know."

The thief jumped as if electrocuted. "Right, Blake," he said. "Firing the neutron blasters." Seconds passed as he fired again and again.

"A hit," Gan reported. "Scratch another pursuit ship!" he called out as an explosion flared across the viewscreen.

"Six ships destroyed," Blake mused. "Now they have to break off."

"Would you care to tell that to their commander?" asked Avon. "They're still gaining on us."

In quick succession, two more plasma bolts struck the ship.

"Our shields may not last much longer," Avon pointed out. "I suggest we run like hell."

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