“The drones’ energy weapons holding at seventy percent charge, Admiral.”
“Move the drones into position.” Addressing his Security Chief, Beijing York clasped his hands behind his back and braced his feet on the metal deck. The Skaperian techs had done an excellent job on the holographic projection. For a moment, his audio sensors expected the scrape of his boots on the deck. But neither he nor his men were on this ship; they were safe hundreds of astronomical units away, in another quadrant of the galaxy.
But the enemy needed to believe the Syn-En were on the bridge. Once the enemy became aware of him and his men, once they decloaked and attacked. The cerebral interface at the base of his skull warmed, reminding him that 3-D holoprojection came at a cost to his augmented synthetic-enhancements. Despite being more machine than man, he still considered his Humanity his greatest strength.
An image of his wife smiled at him from his memory files.
His cardiac sensors malfunctioned and hammered out an extra two beats. He isolated the anomaly and sent it to a quarantine folder. The Wireless Array that mentally linked all the Syn-En seethed with suppressed rage, anger, and desperation.
Sometimes, being Human was also his greatest weakness.
“Moving drones into position.” A soft rasp filled the room as Security Chief Frankfort Rome executed the order.
The movement shouldn’t have caused a sound. Bei and his Synthetically-Enhanced soldiers could control nearly every circuit with a thought. Bei glanced across the wedge-shaped bridge.
“Just want to give any watching ETs the full show.” Seated at the right-hand station, the blond Syn-En Security Chief winked. A lethal fire burned in his blue eyes despite his relaxed jaw and skin on his Teutonic cheekbones.
Bei jerked his chin in acknowledgement.
Rome had a wife and newborn son to protect. All of his men had found someone special and valued the freedom the Founders’ War threatened.
Helming the controls next to Rome, the Chief Engineer nodded. Both cyborgs occupied the aft arc of command hubs.
Alone at the forward arc, Iggy, the pink and green Amarook, bared her fangs. While the Amarooks resembled extinct Earth wolves, they possessed a slim set of arms attached to their chests between their forelegs. Feathers covered their heads but fur coated their bodies, and they were telepathic. Canine bloodlust mingled freely in the Wireless Array despite all attempts to block the Amarooks’ access. Perched on the metal seat in front of the communication hub, Iggy wrapped her fluffy tail around her hide quarters.
“Once we are visible to the enemy, l propose we give the Founders the full show.” The LED buttons on her collar glowed as her thoughts were transmitted into words. “Bringing forward view screens on-line.”
Bei eyed the screens. The black panels in the vee-shaped bridge shimmered with static before seeming to melt into portholes. The burn in his cerebral interface dulled as the relays on the bridge switched from his brain power to the transmitter on the ship that currently housed their physical bodies. The image displayed the enemy convoy stretched nearly across the multiplanet solar system, heading, no doubt, to the jump gate ten A.U.s behind the red dwarf star behind his ship. Most were already within his drone’s range. The rest would soon be.
Chief Engineer Sydney Shang’hai whistled through her teeth. The beads at the tips of her pink dreadlocks clacked against her ebony skin, and her almond-shaped eyes narrowed to slits. “I count forty cargo ships and two personal cruisers. That’s a lot of bon-bons and silk stockings to lose.”
Bei shot a request for translation of the slang to the Combat Information Center. The CIC returned a vague reference to a long ago Earth conflict. Someone had been watching the video clips Bei’s wife had supplied.
Rome cracked his knuckles. “Not a security vessel or escort ship in sight.”
Shang’hai snorted. “Why would they need an escort? They’re kicking our Syn-En asses.”
“The event horizon is still open.” Bei pointed out the obvious. The blunt nose of another cargo ship jutted from the wormhole. “The Founders’ military escort could be covering their six.”
His engineer’s assessment of the situation was correct.
Since declaring war six months ago, the bloated Neo-Sentient Alliance the Syn-En defended had lost territory, ships, and lives. Bitterness flooded Bei’s mouth.
So many lives.
And so many Humans had been stuffed back into brutal slavery and medical experimentation.
Anger scrambled his codes.
Rome’s chin jutted forward. “If the Bug-Ugly cowards would just fight us one on one, the Founders wouldn’t be so cock sure they can beat us.”
“The Founders know their Scraptor Army cannot best us.” The feathers on Iggy’s head stood at attention. “That is why they choose to fight us from a distance. Where they have the advantage.”
Rome snorted. “Leave it to us to side with a race whose technology is a hundred years behind the enemy.”
“The Skaperians had to place themselves into dormancy to survive the Surlat Plague.” Shang’hai slid her fingers over the engineering console. Schematics overlaid each ship in the convoy. Red areas indicated propulsion and engine targets of the fist-shaped cargo vessels, then the bladed hull of the private cruisers. “Their hundred-twenty year nap saved them from the Plague that wiped out nearly all advanced life in the universe.”
The Plague had given rise to the Syn-En on Earth. Bei’s own wife had survived and recovered from it. He scuttled the thought. Now was not the time for emotional distractions.
This raid had to count. Destroying this convoy would hit the enemy where it mattered most—the support of the civilians funding this war. Break them and the enemy will sue for peace. Compression sensors flared in Bei’s palms. He relaxed his fists and let his arms hang at his side.
“Yeah. Yeah. That little truth earned us a lot more allies with absolutely no military.” Rome’s blue eyes darkened to black as he boosted the link between his mind and the attack drones nearing the convoy. The spheres glowed white in the Infrared view screen as they moved into range of their targets. Thanks to their hull design, the drones would remain undetected until their batteries powered fully and the battle began.
“Enough.” Bei cut off his engineer, then pinged both Syn-En officers. Now was not the time for debate or distractions. “There’s already a hundredth of a second delay between our orders and execution.”
The Skaperian techs hadn’t been able to reduce that eternity. He just hoped it wouldn’t cost them the victory.
“Aye, Sir,” Rome spoke to minimize the load on his signal.
“Aye.” Shang’hai gathered her pink dreadlocks in a ponytail and secured it with a metal twist.
Iggy sat up higher in her seat. Her four-fingered hands floated over the communication console, waiting for the order to block the enemy’s signal.
The event horizon shimmered in an unbroken pool of blazing white. A second later it collapsed into a pin-prick of light then snuffed out.
“No military escort.” Rome snorted. “They’ll regret that.”
Yes, they would. Bei stepped to the captain’s console located behind the others. He set his hands on the smooth plastic but didn’t bother pretending to operate it. “Defenses?”
“Small guns on the private cruisers.” Rome kept the drones in position as the convoy leisurely glided through space. “The cargo vessels have twelve torpedoes each. Ten kilotons per load.”
Bei mentally did the math. Collectively the forty-five vessels had a lot of fire power, but it would only be effective if they all aimed at the same region of his ship. The Striker-class cruiser was retrofitted for stealth and reconnaissance missions, not open warfare.
The Founders had never seen anything like it
But that was about to change. He rolled the tension from his shoulders. “Attack on my mark.”
Rome caught his breath. Shang’hai hunkered over her console. Iggy leaned forward until the Amarook nearly slid off her seat.
“Fire.” Bei savored the sweet word.
“Firing drones. Targeting propulsion.” A hundred silver balls materialized against black space. Infrared sensors showed them glowing white hot, then spitting lightning bolts. Rome’s hands stilled on the console.
Iggy’s hackles rose and the lower half of her body turned transparent. “Blocking communication signal. Interrupting chain of command on cargo ships.”
With a thought, Bei checked her vitals. Her brainwaves pegged the meter and kept growing.
Her presence stalked the Wireless Array and her fury smashed the barriers containing the Syn-Ens’ emotions. She siphoned off the energy, used it to amplify her telepathic powers. Sparkles appeared on the sensors monitoring the battlefield. They streamed toward the cargo ships, then wrapped them in gossamer webs. Her feathers quivered, clacking together like communicating antennae. Alien presences ghosted into cyberspace—the elvin Municians and the pteryodactyl-like Decrepi. Both members of the Founding Five. She snapped at their heels, herding them into a dark corner and ripping them apart.
Then she howled.
Bei’s synthetic black hair stood on end and primal fear fisted his gut.
“Holy shit!” Rome shook his blond head. “How is she doing that?”
Her pack materialized just as more of the Founders were sucked into vortex she created. Bone crunched. Wet patches shone in the darkness.
“Focus Rome!” Shang’hai gripped the console. Her eyes were onyx in her jet skin. She pulled two drones away from the action. The spheres streaked toward the two cargo ships veering out of line.
Rome leaned forward. “Oh, no you don’t, you Bug-Ugly bastards.”
Two white arrows pierced their hulls. Red and white balls blossomed on the infrared screen as missiles scored direct hits on their propulsion systems.
In the middle of the line, one cargo ship slammed into the back of the one in front of it. Metal buckled, then flaked off like dead skin. Red and yellow flames emerged where the fires scavenged oxygen. Through the cracked hull of the front vessel, plasma glowed blue.
Rome’s lips pulled back in a feral smile. “Guess the idiots did link propulsion with their steering controls.”
Just as the Skaperian science teams had predicted from the intelligence Bei and his men had collected during the mission on Surlat. His featherheaded allies had also been right about something else—the Founders would rather die than surrender.
If the trend continued, this war would be bloody and brutal, perhaps even ending in genocide. Surrender was a time-tested tactic. If the Founders didn’t know that, he wasn’t obliged to educate them.
Bei isolated the thought and sent it to his trash bin. Time to test the Syn-Ens’ new weapons. With a thought, Bei labeled the burning targets, selecting the ones without too much internal damage. No one knew when they’d have an opportunity to test them again. “Target Alphanumeric ships with torpedoes.”
That should take out half of them.
Iggy and her pack’s yips filled his head. To silence them, he would have to disconnect. And if he disconnected, he couldn’t lead the attack. That would never happen.
“Targeting Alphanumeric ships.” Rome tilted his head as he circled the drones around the targets.
The Striker’s nacelles hummed. Inside Bei’s head, sensors confirmed the ship’s cloaking device had been disabled to fire. With their backs to the sun, the enemy wouldn’t be able to lock onto his ship. “Fire.”
Bei’s ship bucked under the force of the salvo. Bei’s holographic feet disappeared in the deck for a second before the vessel stabilized. He mentally sent a report to the Skaperian engineers to fix it. The battlefield was the worst place to have his ship’s belly exposed.
Ahead, hot vapor trails streaked across the Infrared screen. A glowing mesh encircled the bullet-shaped torpedoes as the electronics hummed to life. Shang’hai arranged the detonation order of the explosives to annihilate the targets. “Impact in five. Four. Three.”
Saliva glistened on Iggy’s fangs. “Leadership on target ships in disarray. And someone accidentally locked all command codes.” She ran a pink and black tongue over her feathery lips. “No alien transmissions have been detected from any vessel.”
Bei expected nothing less. “Keep it that way.”
“Two. One.” Shang’hai’s white teeth flashed. “Bye-bye bad guys.”
Orange geysers of fire marked the hit of the torpedoes and the ejection of atmosphere. The vapor trails dissipated. He started a countdown. A white suppository burrowed deep into the heart of each cargo ship. It cozied up to the red spot marking the fusion engines.
The white oval expanded into a circle. More colors joined the mix as coolants, gases, and the fusion reactor merged with the explosion. The ships swelled then fractured along hard and soft points. At the last timed detonation, the cargo vessels blew apart. The metal and burning bits danced like fireflies, then slammed in a slurry of shrapnel into the hulls of the private cruisers. Soon, the frigid vacuum of space cooled the debris.
Bei scanned for lifepods. Nothing. Total extermination. He leaned against the console in front of him. “Rome, power up the drones. Prepare to splinter half of them.”
“Goodbye old friends. Enjoy your flash-bang of glory while it lasts.” Rome’s hands curled into fists. “Armaments ready. Spare drones falling back.”
Bei’s skin prickled.
Iggy stiffened. “Admiral, we are being scanned. Forward enemy vessels are circling back.”
“They are powering weapons.” Shang’hai crossed her arms over her chest. “Preparing on board batteries. Shields are at max.”
Ten cargo ships circled like lumbering whales.
Iggy’s hackles rose. “I’m detecting a signal.”
Bei leaned on his knuckles. “No signal. Nothing gets through.”
The Syn-En couldn’t lose this round. They needed the victory too much.
The Amarook and her pack chased balls of light around cyberspace. Instead of shredding each one they caught, the canines swallowed them whole, then belched a lump of scrambled code.
Problem solved. For now. Bei rocked back on heels and forced his shoulders to relax. Time for the first test. “Rome, target all ships.”
The attack drones glowed a dull red and spun toward the vessels.
“Two hundred kilometers and closing.” A black grid overlaid the orb. “One hundred.”
On command, the sphere splintered, with the fragments shooting toward their targets.
Bei tapped into the weapons’ control systems, preparing to back up his Security Chief, if needed.
Three tiny pods ejected from the farthest ship.
“Life pods?” Bei double-checked his visuals, then ran a diagnostic.
Shang’hai nodded her head. “Lifepods. I’m scanning for biological signatures.”
“Ten kilometers. Nine,” Rome continued his countdown until impact with the enemy ship. “Eight.”
Energy shields glittered in front of the MIRVed drone.
“They’ve penetrated the shields.” Rome grinned and slammed his fist on the console. “Impact in three…two…one.”
The shards glowed white hot then sliced into enemy’s hulls, igniting the cargo stored inside. Fires erupted.
“I can’t believe that actually worked.” Shang’hai smiled. “Not that I’m complaining.”
“Ah, but that’s not all they do.” Rome clasped his hands behind his head. “Wait for it.”
Bei cocked his thumb and forefinger and aimed at the forward screens like an old fashioned gunfighter. He pulled the trigger.
Attached to the splinters, tiny fusion bombs ignited. The Founder’s ships shuddered from the shockwave. Then the fusion reactors exploded, turning the insides into a furnace of death. Bulkheads formed striped ribs in the carcasses. Bit by bit, the hulls deformed then crumpled.
Rome clapped. “What do you know? The featherheads’ weapon actually worked.”
“Admiral.” Shang’hai’s smile slipped off her face. “Life signs in the pods are Syn-En.”
“What!” Rome leapt to his feet. “We don’t leave anyone behind. We wouldn’t.”
Bei double-checked his roles. He’d lost one hundred thirty-three men in the last six months. He could account for every one of them. But there were platoons of his men in hidden posts everywhere. Could one of them have been overrun? “Double check.”
“I triple-checked.” Shang’hai chewed on the end of one of her dreadlocks. “It’s reading as Syn-En.”
Bei checked her reading then sent his own transmission. Using his command codes, he demanded an identity. Nothing. Even dead Syn-En obeyed identification orders. What the hell had the enemy done to his men?
“It’s a trap.” Rome planted his fists on his hips. “It has to be.”
“Indeed.” All of Bei’s logic circuits reached the same conclusion. But what if they were flawed? “Set an intercept course.”
Iggy’s ears folded back against her head. “I detected a Human signal when the life pods ejected.”
A file replaced the burning debris on the screen.
Alarms flared in Bei’s skull.
The wormhole opened. A Founder’s dreadnaught poked its weapon-laden nose across the event horizon. Its rocket turrets registered as armed.