— by Ted R. Blasingame, with Steve Carter
Kehtan set his jaw and stared out the forward windows. Without a word of explanation or advance warning, Captain Kehtan activated the switch beneath his finger. No one expected what happened next. The blackness of space in front of the ship seemed to bleach to a shade of grey for a brief heartbeat, and then the nose of the Zephyr glowed suddenly with an inner orange light. Before anyone had a chance to register what was happening, a brilliant pulse of pure energy shot out from the nose cone toward the approaching enemy.
The bridge crew watched in stunned silence as the radiant beam hit the massive attacking force dead through its center. The destruction of those in the direct path was instant as the Shroomers simply ceased to exist. The drones not directly vaporized but within a kilometer of the beam exploded in violent fireballs, and those further out were completely immobilized; only their forward momentum kept their derelict husks in motion. In less than thirty seconds, the entire Shroomer fleet was defeated.
When the last of the fireballs dissipated into space, Ree stood up slowly and leaned heavily on his console as he stared at the scene. Dayl turned shocked eyes toward the captain, and within moments, most of the bridge crew was doing likewise.
"C-Captain?" Trin stammered. "What...how...?"
Kehtan closed the shielded switch and stood up. He looked down at his amazed personnel and stared at each one darkly with his small, penetrating eyes. "You have just seen something that I had hoped you wouldn't have to," he said slowly. "Within the very heart of this vessel is a potentially powerful weapon that has been hidden from all but my senior officers."
"Captain," Zahn said hesitantly, "The Zephyr is a science vessel... Isn't a weapon of this magnitude on a non-military ship a violation of the Planetary Alliance General Restrictions?"
"Yes, Zahn, it is. When the Zephyr was under construction, I contacted the engineers and conspired with them secretly to install this weapon into the ship, unknown to the rest of the Alliance."
"But, why?" Dayl asked.
"I believe its justification has just been proven. This ship was designed to penetrate deeper into unknown space than any other vessel has ever had the capability to travel. We are alone out here, far from any military support. I felt the need to bring along extra insurance in the event we ran into trouble that our mere pulse cannons couldn't handle."
"What kind of weapon is it?" Ree asked. "I've never heard of one that could do this before, even in research."
The captaincrossed his arms. "This weapon, which I fondly refer to as the Parasite, is not known to the Planetary Alliance. It's been a pet project of mine in secret for several years." He gestured toward the forward windows. "You may have noticed that we fired off more energy than we could have possibly stored on board, even in conservation."
"Where did the extra power come from?" Rojur asked.
Kehtan looked at him and answered. "The device emits a wide omni-directional beam that locates all forms of usable energy and then promptly draws into itself that energy it finds. The process is almost instantaneous and the power is then re-focused into a mighty blast of power that it directs away from its collector built the nose of the Zephyr. The strength of the beam is dependent upon how much extra energy it sucks up from the surrounding area. With nearly four hundred of the alien Shroomers bearing down on us, it had plenty of power to draw in. Some of the energy we directed to Forward Circuit A007 was kept in a specially sealed storage so the Parasite collector wouldn't leave us powerless as well." He looked down at the Navigator and said, "Zahn, scan for more enemy ships."
"Sir," Trin asked, "how did you discover this process? Projects like that usually take many years just in research and development and always make rounds through scientific journals. Yet, you have a working model of the device."
"That is because the development of it was already completed when I found it." He looked at Chieko and locked eyes with her. "I discovered the plans for it several years ago when I was captain of the Two Star. The Parasite is one of the fabled devices of Shraelon. After I deciphered the plans, I had one built on a small scale."
"Shraelon!" Chieko exclaimed.
"Even a small scale version is rather powerful."
"Why haven't you made it known to the Alliance?" Dayl asked. "You would have been well paid for it, I'm sure."
"Because even a weapon used for peace can be corrupted." Kehtan gave Trin a dark look. "Now that the secret is out among the crew, it can also be known that there is a fail-safe mechanism built into it that was activated the moment it fired. It will melt down and eject the operating heart of the device once we are within point-five light-years of any Alliance outpost."
"Why?" Ree asked.
"To keep anyone from commandeering it when we return home."
Rojur walked down the circular staircase to the lower command deck and stepped up to the forward windows.
A loud warning beep began sounding from the speakers. Zahn turned back to his monitor and gasped. "Proximity Alert!" he exclaimed. "One of the modified Crabs is drifting into the ship!"
Before anyone could react, a violent shudder rocked the ship for an instant, and a brief change of air pressure meant only one thing as Ree’s hands went to his head again.
"We have a hull breach where the Crab crashed into us!" Trin said in horror. "The automatic system is sealing off the area!"
"It was probably still trying to get back to the Zephyr when its power was drained," the esper offered in explanation. "Its momentum was likely pretty high."
"Where did it hit?" Kehtan asked.
Though he had been silent since coming onto the bridge, Maku monitored the crash over Sahni's shoulder at her panel.
"Sir..." he said weakly, "it hit the Infirmary."
Sahni let out a weak yelp and punched a control on her terminal. "Dr. Tralen, are you there?" There was only silence. "Doctor! Respond, please!"
Blake's voice came over the intercom speaker. "Bridge...the doctor is dead..." he choked. "He was treating one of the radiation-burn patients in Intensive Care when we lost all cabin pressure... if I hadn't been out in the hall corridor at the time..."
Captain Kehtan sat back in his chair in stunned silence. He gulped back his fear and looked down at the esper. "Rojur," he said quietly, "Get down there and see if there's anything you can do."
"Aye, sir." Not caring who saw this time, Rojur teleported away instantly. Kehtan noticed that none of the bridge crew seemed especially surprised at the esper's talent. They already knew, or suspected - which is probably why he had been drugged earlier.
"Blake," he said into the intercom, "who is the senior medical officer on board, now?"
"I... guess I am, sir. We also lost Tiller… along with eight others who were in Infirmary at the time," the medic sounded as if he were ill.
"I see," the captain said. "All right, son, I want you to man the forward first-aid station, unless there's something you can do there."
"No, sir. Everything's sealed off," Blake replied weakly. "I'm on my way to forward station."
Rojur's voice cut in then. "Captain, there is nothing I can do here. Another Crab will be required to remove the one imbedded in the hull breach. There's also wounded personnel from the surrounding compartments looking for medical attention."
"Would you see that they make it to the forward first-aid station?" Kehtan asked. "It's larger than the aft station and will have to serve as our new Infirmary for now."
To himself, the captain muttered angrily, "Who's the idiot who designed the Infirmary near the outer hull?"He shook his head and then said, "Ree, give me ship-wide."
"Aye, sir. Go ahead."
"Alex Blackthorne," he broadcast, "please report to the forward first-aid station. Your medical skills are needed."He disconnected the circuit and then looked down at the navigator, who had just turned to him in shock.
"What is it, Zahn."
"Captain, there is another large force of Shroomers launching from the fourth planet!"
"ETA and number?"
"Thirty minutes, sir. They're still too far away for us to get a number yet."
Kehtan turned to the security officer. "Maku, get someone in one of the Crabs that just came in and have them go rescue the remaining pilots stranded out there before any more of them drift into the ship."
As the large man left, the captain switched on the intercom again. "Engineering."
"Toco here, captain," was the quick response.
"What shape are the engines in?"
"There's nothing wrong with them, in spite of the madness these idiots put them through," was the bald man's reply. "We had to reroute power from the main generators around the damage, but we just finished with it."
"How soon before we can make a jump?"
"A jump? I wouldn't advise that, sir."
Kehtan looked annoyed. "I thought you said the engines were fine."
"Aye, they are, but the structural integrity of the ship was weakened by that last hull breach," Toco explained. "I would recommend a few days of repair before we go anywhere, Captain."
"The enemy fleet that's approaching us will give you no more than twenty-five minutes to do any repairs. You will have to negotiate an extension with them."
"Understood, sir. In that case, I would recommend a short jump, at least enough to get away from the enemy," the engineer replied. "That way we won't put the ship under too much stress."
"Very well. Prepare the Zephyr for a jump."
* * *
"Dad," Brandon said to the adult. "I'm scared."
Blackthorne held his child close for comfort. They were in the first-aid station where Alex had helped bind what wounds were needed. Miraculously, there was nothing serious for him to attend to, so Blake had just relieved him. He and Brandon left the room.
Ten minutes later, they arrived at the forward observation lounge, a place where they always seemed to go for refuge. Brandon rushed up to the window and placed his hands on the glass.
"What is it?" Alex asked, knowing the child's eyesight was much better than his was.
Brandon bit his lower lip as he tried to come up with a number. The boy was quite a bit more intelligent than most children his age were, though he sometimes acted younger.
He looked up and said, "A little over two thousand."
Alex smiled, even though he was surprised, but let it fade as the realization of the number of enemy ships approaching hit him.
Alex's knees weakened and he sat down hard. |Rojur!| he exclaimed in his thoughts. |Over two thousand enemy ships are almost upon us! There's no way the Zephyr can survive that kind of attack - take us home right now!|
* * *
"Captain! Use the Parasite!" Sahni exclaimed when Zahn reported the number of Shroomers on their way.
Kehtan gritted his teeth and replied. "It will take less power to make a jump than it will to fire it again, and there's no time for another full storage generation! Zahn, ETA of enemy?"
"Seven minutes, sir."
"No time... no time..." Kehtan muttered to himself.
The intercom came to life suddenly with Maku's voice. "Everyone's aboard, captain."
"That's just what I wanted to hear!" Kehtan said in relief. "Dayl, make the jump! Now!"
The first of the Shroomers began firing upon the Zephyr and blasts rocked the ship.
Captain Kehtan heard several of the automatic pulse cannons fire at the attackers and a heartbeat later felt the dull thump of an explosion near the bridge — just as the star field smudged in the windows. They had made the jump with no time to spare.
— NEXT CHAPTER —
Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.