"Thank you for your interest in the Olympus Corporation," The voice on the recording droned on. "The person you are trying to reach . . .Captain . . .Meridius . . .Soldato . . .is not available. Please press the message button on your screen if you would like to leave a mess--"
"Verdammt! END!" Count Heinrich Straeger bellowed. He slapped the off button in such anger that he missed it the first time and quickly smacked it again. His blood red eyes narrowed on the screen and, if he could have destroyed it with a hateful glare, he would have.
"Problems?" The blue-skinned woman leaning against the doorframe behind him asked, bemused.
"I have no time for your sarcasm now, Indiga," Straeger snarled.
"Oh forgive me, my Count," Indiga replied, making no effort at all to cloak her sarcasm and naked contempt. "It's just unusual for a lowly technician like myself to see a member of the feared Black Lens being frustrated by an answering service. Hardly what one expects of a servant of the Rigellian Empire."
Straeger rose from his chair, looking over his shoulder at her. "It's not the service I find annoying, Indiga," he said, adjusting his black uniform as he brushed his light blue hair away from his eyes. He glanced at the weapon he wore on his right hand and momentarily thought about using it on Indiga. The Lens was an efficient weapon and the namesake of the organization he served. But it wasn't something to be used to kill on a whim.
"If I didnt know better," he mused. "I'd say I was being deliberately put off."
"It's possible," Indiga said. "After all, there's no one in this galaxy who thinks you are as important as you do, is there?"
Straeger glared at her. "If youre done with your attempts at humor, perhaps you might bring me all the charts available for this sector of space, as well as all the information on the Olympus Corporation's holdings outside of Earth's solar system."
"You've already seen the information on Olympus' holdings," Indiga said. "Besides which, I'm not your librarian."
"You are whatever I require you to be, Indiga," Straeger said. "I have to go to the bridge. See that the data is on my desk by the time I return."
Straeger shoved past her and exited the dark shadowed room. Indiga's black lips curled into a sneer as he walked past.
Even for a Rigellian he's so convinced of his own superiority, he's stubborn and arrogant, she thought ruefully. I warned him he was sowing the seeds of his own doom when he started this pursuit.
Captain Meridius Soldato stood alone in his private garden, lost in his thoughts. Sometimes the miracle of this time and place struck him with an almost palatable sense of wonder.
He smiled, flicking his head slightly to move his jet-black hair from his eyes. Above him, a clear window specially designed to magnify the sky full of stars shone down on him. At the moment he felt absolutely alone, but not lonely.
Ten years ago, he'd been the last son of a doomed colony on Jupiter, fated to be forever crippled by a condition he'd never known to fear until he left the colony. A condition that kept him from his dreams.
He had his own army, his own corporation, his own destiny.
Not bad for a man who's one press of a button away from withering under the force of gravity, he thought.
He smiled, still looking at the stars. He stood there quietly, lost in thought for a few minutes until someone covered his eyes.
"Guess who?" a soft voice whispered.
Soldato smiled. "Hello, Silhouette."
Silhouette kissed the back of his neck and threw her arms around his waist. Underneath his black tunic, she could feel his body armor, strange, hard and unyielding, but she had, over the past two years of being with him, learned not to mind.
The armor was the most obvious evidence of his condition. It kept her out as it kept his Jovian Syndrome under control. It allowed them only the most minor kinds of intimacy, maybe a glance, a stolen kiss, but to the two of them it was all the more precious.
Absence made the heart grow fonder, after all.
"Mmmm . . ." she whispered, softly brushing her lips against his ear. "And what were you thinking about?"
Soldato smiled. "Apart from the obvious?"
"I was thinking of what brought me here," Soldato said. "Fifteen years ago, I couldn't even walk on my own power, much less ever hope to see open space. Now look at me."
"You've done a lot," Silhouette said. "No question of that."
Soldato smiled, looked back at her. "Did I ever tell you about my first day at the Rhean University?"
Silhouette shook her head. She walked around to face him, wrapping her arms around his waist. Silhouette was perhaps the only person in the entire base who didnt wear a variation of Soldato's Olympus Vanguard uniform, preferring her black and blue bodysuit to their black, red and blue armored finery.
He'd never pressed her to join his cause, she still didnt even really know what his cause was, in truth, but there was something in him she couldnt leave alone.
"I was accepted to the Rhean University after I completed the tests from my hospital bed on Tethys," Soldato said. "I hadnt seen the outside of that institute for five years, but I was determined to make it, and I was determined to walk into the University on my own power."
He ran a white-gloved hand over his chest. "I had on an early version of the G-armor and as I crossed over from the shuttle I started dialing down the internal gravity. I felt my heart starting to race, even walking became difficult. The worst thing about Jovian Syndrome is you can literally feel your body disintegrating under the different gravity.
"I made it about halfway down the hall and then I felt my legs break in two places. They couldn't handle my weight and I collapsed. I had to be helped to the registration desk by two of the students."
"That's so awful," Silhouette said. "You must have been in such pain."
"Oh no, Silhouette," Soldato said. "On the contrary. It was a victory."
"Some victory," Silhouette said.
"The best kind, Silhouette," Soldato said, smiling. "I was determined to get there on my own power, to overcome the condition that had limited me ever since I'd left my home. From that day on, I determined where I could go by my own will. The Jovian Syndrome had no more power over me."
Silhouette shook her head. "Only you could see that as a victory. And only you could make me believe it."
Soldato smiled. "Victory and defeat are two sides of the same coin," he said. "Sometimes even closer than that. Sometimes you have to lose a little to win it all."
"I wouldnt know," Silhouette sighed. Her blue-green eyes darkened. "I havent had many victories. Just things I barely survive. "
Soldato regarded her with curiosity. "If you dont mind me asking, ever since you arrived, you've been a little moody. What's wrong?"
"You noticed, did you?" Silhouette said.
"I'd hoped youd talk about it in time," Soldato said. "Whatever it is has been weighing on you quite a lot, obviously. Is there anything I can do to help?"
"Help me?" Silhouette asked. "No, I dont think so. I just have this feeling lately, like I've made one enemy too many."
Soldato didn't know what to say to that, so he did what came naturally, and took her into his arms.
"The Elysian Nebula," Warmaster Krieger said, his eyes scanning the data clipboard that sat on his lap. "Particulate matter, charged particles, spiral nebula, prone to periodic electromagnetic storms that will, from all accounts, overload our scanning suites and leave us flying blind."
"I dont need a science lesson from you, Warmaster," Straeger sneered. "I only need you to make preparations to take the Vidar inside the nebula. I have reason to believe there's a base in that nebula, and I intend to find it."
"Mind your place, Straeger," Krieger replied. "The Vidar is my ship, I decide where it goes. Your capacity on this ship is advisory--"
"And your capacity is to follow orders," Straeger said. "I was seconded to the Vidar to facilitate an investigation. Your role is to carry out any and all orders pursuant to that investigation's completion. Your opinion, Warmaster, does not interest me."
Krieger grimaced. He'd come to despise Straeger, his overbearing sense of superiority, and the hateful agency he served. He hated the Count's overbearing manner, detested his Oneiran servant and the strange robed alien who loomed behind Straeger like a massive shadow.
The Rigellians were a proud people, a race of warriors who fought, ruled and conquered the whole galaxy once, he thought. And we did it meeting our enemies sword to sword. Not by stabbing them in the back like an agent might.
"The Vidar is a small destroyer, Count Straeger," Krieger said. "If we manage to navigate the nebula without our navigation systems leading us in circles, for all we know, there could be a heavily-armed fleet waiting for us on the other side."
"Warmaster Krieger, if I didnt know better, I'd say you were making excuses," Straeger said. "A Warmaster is supposed to welcome combat, not to hide behind his alleged limitations."
"You dare to question my will to fight on my own bridge?" Krieger said, leaping from his seat and sending the data clipboard crashing to the deck. He drew his saber from its place on his hip as he turned on Straeger.
A shadow moved between Krieger and Straeger. Krieger aimed the tip of his saber at Straeger's chest, as Straeger's massive bodyguard leveled his own blade at Krieger's chest.
Straeger laughed. "Skanda is a useful bodyguard, wouldn't you say? He's sworn to me that no one will kill me but himself, and even your wounded honor would not cause him to yield that pleasure to you, Warmaster. "
"I'd be willing to risk it," Krieger said, still holding the blade at Straeger's chest. "My crew would avenge me."
Straeger looked around at the crew, all of whom were turned away from their stations, watching the tense scene before them.
"Any crewmember that acts against me or my people will be judged a mutineer and executed summarily," Straeger said. He looked over the crewmembers, making sure he met every glance. "In addition, orders will be sent back to my superiors that your families will be persecuted for your disobedience as well."
Krieger glared at him.
"Now you only have yourself and your crew and their families to account for," Straeger said. "Sheathe your saber and I will forget your insubordination, Warmaster."
Krieger glowered at him. Straeger had stacked the odds in his favor, all right. If he killed Straeger, he'd ruin the lives of his crew's family, and while his hatred for Straeger was so pronounced he'd gladly exchange his own life to see it done, he wasn't willing to risk theirs.
He sighed and sheathed his saber, sitting back down. Skanda's cutlass vanished beneath his robes and he took his place behind Straeger as though the standoff hadn't ever really happened at all.
"Now," Straeger said, a thin smile playing across his lips. "Seeing as how you're so unwilling to risk the Vidar on whatever may be on the other side of the nebula, I will see for myself. Prepare my Phantom. Allow me to show you how a true son of Rigellia accomplishes his mission--no excuses, no fear."
Above the soldiers, a shock of color in the dull polished metal, the black banner of Soldato's Olympus Vanguard swayed in the breeze like an omen over the both of them. Emblazoned on the banner was a winged planet, crossed by a sword and a bolt of lighting fashioned into a hammer.
The hammer symbolized both the Vanguard's speed and Soldato's facility at creating weapons, not unlike the ancient God Hephaestus, who was also a master of arms despite being trapped in his own afflicted body.
The sword symbolized their might, and their resolve. It also called to mind the chivalrous knights of old, soldiers and nobility in one. To echo that age-old chivalry, the officers who commanded the Olympus Vanguard's forces all wore swords, the better to remind them of the code they served.
"You only have one offensive weapon," Commander Amanda Vietsche said, walking back and forth along the rows of black-armored soldiers. Her white boots echoed on the metal floor of the vast training range. In her hands she balanced a long javelin-like weapon. "The shot lancer is a multi-purpose weapon. Initially, you'll burn your way into a ship with it, then use the small blasters as long as those last. You are to fight your way to your objective, plant charges and hold off the enemy for as long as possible."
She flipped the shot lancer forward, pressing a hidden button. The stock at the end of the weapon extended outward and she held the weapon forward like a lancer of old.
"Once the power cells have been extended, you fight hand to hand, but you do not--under any circumstances--give up. Youre marines, the Olympus Vanguards elite shock troopers, and my own personal project." She tossed the shot lancer to the leader.
"Dont disappoint me," she said. She turned to the leader of the marines, pointing the crop she carried at him. "Burn drills, Sergeant, and I want you through those bulkheads in ten seconds this time."
"Yes sir," the lead marine said, readying his shot lancer as the rest of the front line did the same. Vietsche stepped behind a console and flipped a series of buttons. Ten-inch thick metal plates rolled forward on a track toward the first line of marines.
The marines swung their shot lancers forward, the burning orange tip of the weapon puncturing the metal like a bayonet through flesh. Behind her glasses, Vietcshe's eyes narrowed. Silently, she counted the seconds as the bulkheads began to glow and buckle.
The Olympus Vanguard, the private army of the Olympus Corporation, had never engaged in any active combat, and certainly nothing that would require heavily-armed marines trained to burn through the bulkheads of an enemy ship.
But the leader of the Vanguard demanded the very best from his people. Soldiers, commanders, anyone in the vanguard. And just as Veitsche's marines hated to disappoint her, Vietsche hated to disappoint him.
She'd served under many people previous to Soldato, but even without the chain of command, Vietsche would have followed him to the ends of the galaxy. Part of it was a debt she owed him. But mostly it was because he was the kind of leader you knew wouldnt waste your life in a futile gesture.
No, every single soldier was precious to Soldato, she thought. He knows every soldier in the Vanguard by name. He demands the best, and youre glad to give it.
If we ever get to show what we can do, in any case . . .
The first line broke through at 9.998 seconds. Veitsche smiled and moved the next row of targets forward. She raised her crop and pointed towards the next line of marines.
"Five seconds for you," she said. "GO!"
The small black fighter penetrated the nebula like a silent shadow. Straeger felt the distortions of the nebula on the edge of his perceptions like the first beginnings of a migraine behind his eyes. Straeger willed the background noise away.
Piloting the Phantom took discipline, as it was controlled directly by his own telepathic powers. If he marshaled his full powers to control the ship, it was invisible and unbeatable in combat. But a break in concentration or the merest distraction would disrupt the connection, and as Straeger had learned the hard way, it could cost him.
Outside the canopy, the soft dark purple of the nebula stretched on and on, an endless shroud in space. Straeger ignored it, willing the Phantom's long-range sensors to their maximum extent.
It must be here, he thought. No one would buy shipping and colonizing rights for a sector of space close to a spiral arm of a nebula that defies nearly all scanning devices unless they had something to hide.
After all, that's what Black Lens would do.
He kept pushing. Further and further out. In his mind, he saw in all directions, his thoughts engaging the different sensors. Nothing on the energy imagers. No mass shadows on the gravimetric scanner. Nothing--
The Phantom banked hard, barrel rolling down to where the nebula's dust cloud was thinned. Gradually, shapes came into view. Vague, punctuated by jolts of static that manifested themselves in his mind as bitter, slicing, pain.
Five--no, six signals, plus a larger mass shadow in the distance, he thought. I should go in closer. The Vidar's a small ship--even if all they manufacture at this base are fighters, enough could be mobilized to overwhelm us.
His focus shifted. One of the signals was coming closer into view. He narrowed the Phantom's scanners on it. Better to have some idea of what we may encounter than to go in completely blind.
Gradually the computer took over, reading the ship's silhouette and searching the records for a match. Straeger's recorded the information to the Phantom's memory banks and vanished back into the nebula.
There wasn't much to go on, but it was enough that it was actually there. Now, if necessary, Straeger could force a confrontation, but one way or another, he would meet this Captain Soldato face to face.
"Yes, this is Count Heinrich Straeger, Rigellian Intelligence calling AGAIN for--"
"Erase," Soldato said, leaning back in his seat. He'd been erasing messages from this man for the past two weeks. He couldnt imagine what the Rigellian Intelligence Bureau could want with him.
The Olympus Corporation does business with the Rigellians, but only in civilian capacities, Soldato thought. All our military work is done for Earth. Plus, I havent been back to Rigellia in years.
The door chime broke his concentration before he could explore the idea further.
"Enter," he said. Silhouette walked in silently, watching him as he sat staring at his screen, brow furrowed in deep concentration.
"No, not really," he said. He drummed his fingertips on the desk. "Somewhat curious as to why Rigellian Intelligence seems so eager to contact me, but no immediate--"
"Rigellian Intelligence?" Silhouette said, her face completely ashen.
"Yes," Soldato said. "A Count Heinrich Straeger."
Silhouette sank into the seat on the other side of Soldato's desk. She sighed and looked at the floor.
Silhouette stared at the desk. "Nothing. Probably better you dont know."
"You know this man?"
"Soldato . . .Meridius . . .I thought when we agreed to be together we weren't going to do this," she said. "Involve each other in our personal conflicts. Let's just say the Count and I have met, and leave it at that."
"You believe he's traced you through me?" Soldato asked.
"Dont know, but it seems to fit," Silhouette said. She rose from her chair, slowly. "Anyways, I know him. He won't stop until he gets what he wants, which means me, which means every second I stay I put you in more danger. I should go."
"I'd rather you didn't."
"I know," Silhouette said. She looked back at him, the yearning in her eyes telling him how hard it was for her to make this choice. "But I can't ask you to protect me, can I?"
"Maybe I want to."
"I dont think you can, Meridius," Silhouette said. "Just please, let me go, let me stay away for awhile until he moves on."
Soldato was open to open his mouth to respond when the piercing noise of the klaxon cut him off.
He tapped the intercom button on his console. "Command and Control, this is Soldato," he said. "Confirm alert status?"
"Confirmed," Vietsche replied. "We have a ship coming through the nebula."
Soldato looked at Silhouette. He tapped the button again. "It wouldn't be a Rigellian ship by any chance, would it?"
"Er . . .yes. Yes sir. Destroyer. Dorvac class," Vietsche responded. "Running registry information through our database now."
"No energy spikes, no screens up, no gun ports open," Veitsche said. "They just cleared the dust cloud, and are slowing their approach."
Soldato juggled the various bits and pieces of information he had for a few seconds, then tapped the button again.
"Stall them, Commander," he said. "I'm on my way up. Soldato out."
Silhouette looked at him. Soldato put his hand on her shoulder.
"It appears you can't leave after all," he said.
"If you left now, they'd surely detect you, Silhouette," Soldato said. "No. Elysium is big enough to lose one woman in, at least long enough to see them on their way. Give me time to see what they want and formulate a plan."
"Meridius, what abou--"
"I know what we promised," he said, holding her gaze with his. "And I'm not asking any questions. I may have to before all this is over, but for now, let me protect you."
Silhouette grimaced. "You know I can't really say no, right?"
Soldato gave her an easy smile. "That's sort of the point, Silhouette. For now, stay in your quarters and wait for the call. Trust your loyal knight." He smiled again as he walked out of his office.
"He wont easily give up his beloved damsel."
"Status?" Straeger said, standing quietly behind Krieger's seat.
"We've attempted full scans of the installation, but my technicians are still cleaning the dust out of our sensor suites," Krieger said. "We cannot get a very detailed picture at the moment."
Straeger started to pace behind the chair. "Have they scrambled any defensive craft?"
"No," Krieger said. "But that brings to mind something I've been meaning to address with you, Count."
"That fighter you scanned when you took the Phantom here before," Krieger said. "That's a Centaur class fighter, built by the Olympus Corporation for Earth's armed forces."
"I know all that, Warmaster," Straeger said. "What of it?"
"I hope youre also aware then, my dear Count, we could be committing an act of war if there are any Earth troops present in this installation."
"Unlikely," Straeger bluffed. He hadnt taken that into account, assuming that Soldato had been using his own private security force. However, if it came out that there were any troops . . .even for a resupply . . .
"Very well," Straeger said. "Let's stay at a full stop until Soldato shows himself. You needn't worry yourself, Warmaster. I am just as eager to avoid a shooting war as you are."
"Are you now," Krieger muttered under his breath. Straeger momentarily pondered whether or not he should make an issue of it, assume command of the Vidar now.
No, he thought. That would be foolish. I could find myself fighting a war within and without. I'll wait until my position is clearer before I act.
Then I'll deal with Krieger.
"They're requesting communications," a crewman at the forward station said.
Krieger turned in his seat and looked at Straeger.
"Put them through," Straeger said.
"Status?" Soldato said, moving next to Vietsche. In the command and control center crewmen and technicians milled about before the image of the destroyer on screen. In a smaller window, a wireframe model of the ship slowly turned 360 degrees as data on the design and capabilities scrolled past.
"They're just sitting there," Vietsche said, pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose. "No weapons or fighters. They havent even bothered to do any sensor sweeps."
"Mmm, I suspect they're unable to at the moment," Soldato said, quickly looking over the various readouts. "Rigellian sensors arent quite as refined as ours. Something like our nebula could easily overload them. Just in case theyre not permanently blind, however, notify our patrol ships to stay in the farthest quadrant of Elysium. No reason to show them any more than what they can already see."
"Yes sir," Vietsche said. "And our fighter patrols?"
"On standby," Soldato said. "I'd like to keep as many options open as possible. Let's let them make the first move, eh Commander?"
"They've opened a channel."
"On screen, this station."
In one of the smaller screens, the image of Count Straeger snapped into view.
"This is Count Heinrich Straeger, Rigellian Intelligence Directorate," He sneered. "To whom am I speaking."
"You are speaking to Captain Meridius Soldato," Soldato replied, smiling gently.
"I have a few questions for you . . .Captain," Straeger said.
"As I do for you," Soldato said. "Chief among them, what are you doing in a secret installation belonging to a private group? This is an inherently provocative move."
"I mean no provocation," Straeger said. "I merely have some questions to ask you concerning a theft at Zwei Base three years ago."
Soldato raised an eyebrow. Curiouser and curiouser, he thought.
"You'll pardon me for asking, Count Straeger, but what does an agent of Black Lens care about a theft from an Earth installation three years old?"
"We've run across information that may be useful to you in recovering your property, Captain," Straeger replied. Soldato watched his body language. Lensmen were telepaths, but a perceptive enough person could discern a lot from their body language.
I'm being baited, he thought.
"Count Straeger," he said. "In one hours time I will arrive to discuss the matter. In the meantime, please hold your position. Launch no fighters, initiate no scans. I will arrive in one hour's time. Soldato out."
Soldato waited long enough for a nod of acknowledgement from Straeger and closed the channel.
"Stand down from alert status," Soldato said. "In one half-hour you and I will meet with Lt. Mosul in the situation room."
Vietsche stared at her captain for a long time.
Soldato smiled. "Yes, Vietsche?"
"Permission to speak freely, Captain?"
"This seems like a trap, sir,"
"If it were a trap, Commander, they'd have brought more than one ship," Soldato said. "It's a bluff. Before we can call their bluff, however, I need information. For now, Commander, just keep your eyes on them."
Soldato turned on his heel and walked out of the Command and Control center, the room so quiet with tension the gentle whine of his armor's servomotors could be clearly heard as he exited.
"Captain," Veitsche called after him. "What if it's not a bluff? What if they're here for a fight?"
"Then, my dear Commander," Soldato said. "I promise you we will give them one."
"He's confident," Krieger said.
"He's bluffing," Straeger said. "He's not even a real Captain, it's just an honorary title."
"You're taking quite a risk that he's a paper soldier," Krieger said. "For all we know, he could have an army hidden within that installation, and with the damage to our sensors we'd never see it."
"How long until they're ready to be repaired?"
"The maintenance crew gave me an estimate of one and a half hours to clean out the sensor ports, then another two hours repair time," Krieger said. "Even then, to thwart their scanners we'll have to power them up gradually."
"I see," Straeger said. "In the meantime, put the fighter crews on alert. I want the ship at prime alert status."
"All this for one visitor, Count Straeger?"
"His visit is not the reason for the alert," Straeger replied. "No, it's for what happens after. What is our communications status?"
"We have long-range communications," Krieger said.
Straeger stayed silent for some time, weighing his options. He wanted the information Soldato could provide. It might break his investigation open, it might just be another piece of the puzzle.
It also might get them killed.
I dont much care about the ends of the crew of the Vidar, Straeger thought. But if I die so does the investigation. No. Bravado will not win the day. We need more.
"Send a message to Rigellian Fleet Command," he said. "Give them our position and request immediate assistance. At maximum Space Drive they should be here within the amount of time it will take us to repair our sensor arrays."
Warmaster Krieger sighed, rubbing his chin deep in thought. This situation got worse and worse the more he thought about it. No matter whether they had a fleet behind them or not, the fact remained the Vidar was a small destroyer, with ten fighters (eleven, counting Straeger's Phantom) and fifty troops.
They could put up a good fight, but against any odds, they were overmatched. If Straeger rattled his saber too much with this Soldato, it could end with the Vidar's destruction.
And he was virtually certain Straeger didn't care at all.
"In the meantime?"
"In the meantime, Warmaster Krieger, we continue to play our dangerous game."
Silhouette sat on the edge of the bed, her luggage already packed and keeping her company on the bed. Soldato watched her, leaning against the wall.
"When we met, two years ago, I asked you if you knew anything about the man who stole from me," he said slowly. There wasn't any anger in his voice, but Silhouette hid behind her hair.
"You never answered me, and I pretended to forget, but I'm afraid now I have to insist."
Silhouette sighed. She was caught out after all.
"You knew all the time, didnt you?"
"That you knew the man who'd stolen them?" Soldato asked. "I'd suspected it, but I never pressed you for it. But I'm afraid now the lives of my people may depend on knowing what you know, and I'm sorry, but I have to insist."
"No way out, is there?"
"You'd do precisely the same if our positions were reversed," Soldato said.
"All right," Silhouette said, sighing and looking up. Her eyes teared up a bit as she took a slow deep breath as if she were moving a weight off her chest, speaking slowly and deliberately.
"The man who stole those experimental fighters is named Kienan Ademetria," she said. "Years ago, he and I were . . ."
"Lovers," Soldato finished.
Silhouette nodded. "He's an assassin, he works for the syndicates on the Frontier. I formed my group as a response to doing that kind of work."
"That explains a great deal," Soldato said. "The man who broke into Zwei Base was determined, ruthless, and highly trained in several unorthodox methods. No wonder I was impressed enough to let him have the fighters."
"I'm sorry," Silhouette said. "You let him steal them?"
Soldato raised and eyebrow. "Oh yes," he said. "Even with his two companions, I could have had him blasted out of the stars any time I wished. But there was something about him that impressed me.
"His will to win rivals my own. I'm looking forward to meeting him one day."
"I can guarantee he wont feel the same way," Silhouette said. She looked at Soldato with icy regard. "Youre a lot like him, Meridius, but never forget this: Kienan isnt like you at all. He doesn't do what he does to serve any higher ideals, he doesnt follow any code of honor except his own."
"That could be said about anyone, Silhouette," Soldato said. "But we'll put Ademetria aside for now. I need to know everything you know about this Count Straeger. Have you met him?"
Silhouette stood up. "Yes," she said. "A year ago, I made my way to a planet on the outskirts of the Empire. Soldato was there, guarding what Id come to destroy.
"Anyway, we fought, and would have killed each other, if Kienan hadnt broken up the fight and saved me."
Soldato raised an eyebrow. "Hm," he said.
It's curious a man whom you just said felt nothing for anyone would risk his life to save you, he thought.
"Ademetria is quite a fascinating man," Soldato said. "And Straeger?"
"Kienan wounded him, but he's obviously not dead. Just my luck," Silhouette said ruefully. "It was my fault. I drew him into it, and I couldnt even accomplish the mission I set out to do. For all I know he's looking for me and Kienan."
"I see," Soldato said. He walked over to Silhouette, gently cupping her chin with the palm of his hand. Despite years of trying to ignore it, Silhouette felt the metal of his armor underneath his glove rather than the tenderness she'd tried to reach out to under all the layers of his armor.
"I'm sorry, Silhouette," he said, holding her eyes with his own. "That couldn't have been an easy admission. Any of it."
"If you want me to go, I'll understand," Silhouette said.
"I dont want you to go," Soldato said. "I dont love you any less because you and Ademetria were lovers. This changes nothing between us."
"I hope not," Silhouette said. "Meridius, I dont want to be here just because I'm something you could steal back from Kienan. I'm no one's property. Not even yours."
Soldato smiled. "You must give me more credit than that, Lady Silhouette," he said. "This changes nothing between us, as I said."
"Well," Silhouette said. "Maybe one thing."
Soldato looked at her, waiting.
"I've told you what I know now," Silhouette said. "I guess that means our agreement to . . .not talk about what we did is over with."
Soldato smiled. "Yes, I suppose it is."
"Youre not afraid?"
"Of being honest with you?" Soldato asked. "No. Why would I be?"
"I . . .dont know," Silhouette said. "I wasn't really . . .expecting you to say that."
"Have I ever been what you expected?"
Silhouette blushed a bit.
Soldato brushed the hair from her eyes very tenderly and reluctantly slipped from her embrace. "There is one more thing, Silhouette."
"What is it?"
"At the moment, Straeger and myself are in a stalemate," he said. "If it comes to an actual battle, I will protect you. The Vanguard will protect you. But with that pledge comes a certain responsibility to your protectors."
"You know I'd do anything you ask, Meridius."
"I know," Soldato said. "But the debt isnt to me. It's to the people who may die to protect you."
Silhouette sighed. "The worst part of this is, this place, being with you, used to be my sanctuary," she said. "It was the one place in the galaxy I could go without looking over my shoulder, wondering when danger was going to find me."
"It wont always be this way," Soldato said. He smiles and put a hand on her shoulder. "And I promise you, when this is over, we'll do something so wonderful we won't have to think about danger, or be afraid of shadows that might fall over us."
"That sounds nice," Silhouette said. "What did you have in mind?"
Soldato smiled. "You found me out," he said. "I had nothing specific in mind. Perhaps we'll dance together."
Half an hour later, the small shuttle emblazoned with the Olympus Vanguard's insignia came to a top inside the Vidar's landing bay. Along the markers on the landing deck were lined the full troop complement of the destroyer. The burly green-armored soldiers formed an impassive wall, the only movement, the slow oscillation of the mono-eye sensors in their helmets.
Soldato noted them as he walked past. He'd seen plenty before, even taken a tour of the proving grounds for the elite squads. Rigellian troopers were technically lower in the chain of command than Warmasters or Lensmen, but they wore the red falcon with a determined pride.
In fact, while training his own troopers, he'd made sure to cross-train them with Rigellian methods. All the better to recognize them and better surmount them in the field.
Just in case.
At the end of the row stood Straeger and a man whom Straeger assumed from his black and blue Warmaster's uniform was the captain of the vessel. Behind Straeger stood two other beings, one an Oneiran woman whose eyes stayed focused on the back of Straeger's head and radiated such hate it threatened to burn through his skull.
Next to her stood a taller man, bronze-skinned, clearly alien, but Soldato had never seen the type before. From his close proximity to Straeger, Soldato assumed he was the Count's bodyguard.
Careful man, Soldato noted.
"Count Straeger," Soldato said. "Face to face at last."
"Mister Soldato," Straeger said.
"Captain Soldato," he corrected.
"That title is an honorary one," Straeger countered. "The Rigellian Empire recognizes you with no special rank in Earth's military structure."
"Youre right at that, my dear count," Soldato said. He smiled thinly. "In fact, I believe I was given the title of Warmaster by your last Emperor."
Straeger sneered at him. Part of him bristled at being outmaneuvered by a human, but even more alarming, he found himself unable to read this human. Probing his mind was like waves crashing against a rock face.
"Very well then . . .Captain . . .Soldato," Straeger said. "This is Warmaster Krieger, captain of the Vidar. Behind me are my assistant, Indiga and my bodyguard Skanda."
"A pleasure, Warmaster Krieger," Soldato said, clicking his heels and bowing in a flawless formal greeting of the Rigellian court. He offered a nod to both Skanda and Indiga as well, until Straeger moved forward, steadily becoming more annoyed by the Captain.
"If youd care to follow me, Captain, we have a room prepared for our conference," Straeger said.
"I'm in your hands, Count Straeger," Soldato said, following him. Behind Soldato followed two of the Rigellian troopers.
"Yes," Straeger hissed. He spared Soldato a look over his shoulder. "Your uniform. It's not regulation for Earth soldiers, is it?"
"No," Soldato said. "However, my obligations to Earth entitle me to a kind of detached service. One result of that is my Olympus Vanguard. We have standing in the Earth military, but only as an auxiliary branch. Technical advisors."
"Of course," Straeger said. "So youre not really soldiers at all, then."
"Forgive the Count, Captain," Krieger said. "A Lensman could never understand the duties of a true soldier."
Straeger stopped and turned on Krieger. "In addition, Captain, you must forgive the Warmaster for forgetting his place."
"I'll have to plead both of you for forgiveness then," Soldato said. "This is not my concern. I'm eager to assist you and send you on your way and prevent further disruption of my installation's activities."
"By all means, Captain," Straeger said. "Out of curiosity, what is the role of this installation?"
"You know I cant answer that, Count," Soldato said. "I have treaties with your government ensuring confidentiality even against an inquiry from your organization."
"I have seen them," Straeger said, more defensively than he meant to.
"Then I'm certain you realize your presence here is a violation of that treaty," Soldato said.
"We've sent no one over to investigate your installation, Captain," Straeger said. "Besides, what would a private company do against our Empire? Declare war?"
The doors to the conference area slid open. Straeger, Krieger, and Straeger's entourage filed to one end of the table as Soldato stood at the other end. Behind him, the two troopers guarded the door.
"Now," Straeger said. "Some details of our investigation require a telepathic scan, and I must secure permission from you before I attempt contact."
Soldato smiled. "By all means," he said.
Straeger's eyes narrowed on Soldato.
"You may find this easier if you sit down, Captain."
"Is it necessary for your scan?"
Soldato smiled. "Then I prefer to stand."
"Very well," Straeger said. He concentrated, bringing his mental faculties to bear, but just as when he'd tried to before, there was nothing. Soldato was blocking his probe, and even more embarrassingly, making it look easy. Soldato stood, arms folded behind his back, eyes closed, smiling.
"Something wrong, Count Straeger?" Indiga asked.
Soldato's eyes opened. "I believe I know," he said. "His scan isnt working. Perhaps your telepathic abilities encounter resistance when faced with someone with great strength of will."
"Perhaps," Straeger said. "I'll forego the scan for now. Now Captain, you've been in the munitions business for the past . . ."
". . .seven years."
"Of course," Straeger said. "And before that you participated in an exchange program with our munitions makers in the empire."
"Yes," Soldato said. "The Vulcanus Company. They were eager to hear my thoughts on new energy weapon delivery systems."
"And during that time you became involved with the daughter of the head of Vulcanus . . .Gala Minos."
Soldato's eyes narrowed. "Count, your initial inquiries mentioned only the theft at Zwei Base. If you intend to read me my resume back to me and make insinuations, I believe I have real work I could be doing back at my installation."
"Merely trying to confirm a few facts before I begin my line of question, Captain," Straeger said. He offered his best attempt at an ingratiating smile. "Standard operating procedure."
"No it isn't," Soldato said. "I've dealt with Lensmen before, Straeger. I'm not a fool. Thus, you dont have to treat me as one. I'm certain your assistant has a hard copy of my file?"
Straeger nodded to Indiga who slid a data clipboard to Straeger, who pushed it along to Soldato. He picked it up and made a show of reading it.
"Fascinating," Soldato said. "Are my eyes really blue?"
"Yes, yes, this is all accurate," Soldato said. "May we now get to the questions about Zwei Base?"
Straeger punched a series of buttons on his side of the console. The center of the table glowed from within as a three-dimensional image formed above it.
"This is gun-camera footage salvaged from a battle on the outskirts of our Empire from almost two years ago," Straeger began. He tapped the keys again. One block of the image isolated and enhanced, resolving into the profile of a bronze triple-winged fighter, its shape faintly that of a fish.
Two more sections were highlighted, one depicting another fish-shaped fighter, the other, a smaller fighter Soldato had never seen.
"Can you confirm these fighters belong to you?" Straeger asked.
"Two of them are my designs, yes," Soldato said. He pointed to the fish-shaped fighters. "These are the Angelfish prototypes I designed and built at Zwei Base three years ago."
"And the third fighter?"
"Not mine," Soldato responded. "From the lack of markings Id say it was a hand-built ship."
"We also have confirmed eyewitness accounts of a fourth fighter," Straeger said. "No silhouette or image was recovered but eyewitnesses say it possessed a special defense system they described as "wings of light." Investigation has turned up reports of a ship of that name, being spotted on the Frontier. Our sources determined it is called the Umbra. Was this another prototype of yours, Captain?"
"We've been experimenting with variable-geometry, solid-energy shield technology, but nothing practical has been developed," Soldato said. "Certainly nothing that we could mount on a fighter."
"I see," Straeger said. "Now that I've confirmed the technology used, I'd like to ask you if you could help us identify these four people."
Here it comes, Soldato thought.
The image area split again, forming four quadrants. In each section, another picture snapped into focus. They were crude, obviously cleaned up many times from thoroughly damaged files.
Two of the pictures meant nothing to him. Two women he didn't even know. One he'd seen only minutes before boarding the ship. It was murky but unmistakably Silhouette.
The other face he'd seen only once before. Two years ago, when the thief had escaped with his prototype fighters, he'd faced him down with his own. He could have ended the thief's mission then and there. But he was so impressed with the man's bravado and resourcefulness that he let him go.
This was Kienan Ademetria.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I dont know any of them. By the time the thieves made off with the fighters they were well disguised by their flight gear. I can't provide you with any more positive an identification than that."
"That's fine," Straeger said. "When we've analyzed your own records, perhaps we will find something your people missed."
"That day you will never see, Count," Soldato said. "This is the extent of my cooperation with your investigation. Nothing was ever said about offering my records up for your scrutiny."
"Captain," Straeger said. "Surely you realize your aid is in everyone's best interest. Perhaps with your cooperation we could even return your stolen property to you?"
"Tempting," Soldato said. "But I was well compensated by my insurance, and if I wanted another, I could easily build one. It's a flawed design, Count Straeger. No human could possibly fly it and survive."
"But surely you want the people responsible?"
Soldato shook his head. "Not really, no," he said. "What I truly want is for you and your ships to leave this area. This interview--and any urge I have to assist your investigation further--is at an end."
"Think carefully, Captain," Straeger said. "There's nothing stopping me from ordering you held prisoner until your people capitulate."
"I dont recommend you try, Count Straeger," Soldato said. "For one thing, my people would never allow me to be captured. Nor would Earth, or your own Rigellian Empire. And as for the other . . ." He turned to one of the troopers, inspecting the rank bars on the trooper's pauldron. "Sergeant, may I see your rifle, please?"
The sergeant looked over to Warmaster Krieger who nodded to him. The trooper handed the rifle to Soldato, who inspected it with the appreciative eye of one who knew weapons well.
"A Vulcanus M-96 plasma repeating rifle," Soldato said. "Nearly 60 years old, but kept in service because it's a versatile, reliable weapon."
"You don't expect to shoot your way out of this chamber," Straeger said, lifting his gloved hand where he knew Skanda was waiting.
"Hardly, my dear Count," Soldato said. He pressed a release, ejecting the energy cap and tossing it to Krieger, who caught it with a perceptible flinch. "I'm merely illustrating the other reason you cant hold me here."
"And that is?"
Soldato put the palm of his hand on the butt of the rifle and the other hand on the end of the barrel. He pressed his hands together, smashing the rifle between them. Straeger's red eyes narrowed on the twisted metal, which Soldato tossed casually in front of him.
"The other reason, Count Straeger, is that I will not be held captive."
He turned his back to them for a moment. "Forgive me Sergeant," he said quietly. "The Olympus Corporation will compensate you for the rifle."
Then he turned back to Straeger. "As for you," he said. "I've enjoyed our little talk. But that is, I'm afraid, all I'm willing to give. My advice to you is to cut your losses."
Straeger stood up. The lens on his right hand glowed with a soft purple light. His psychic talents might not work on Soldato, but the Lens could eliminate him easily. One solid-energy spike to the brain and he'd be dead, freakish strength or no.
"Captain," Straeger said. "If you walk out that door and frustrate my investigation, I swear I'll see you pay for it."
Soldato turned to face him again. "I suggest again you dont try to force the issue, Count," he said. "You Lensmen cloak yourself in the might of the Empire you serve, but individually, youre powerless, unless youre standing in the shadow of someone mightier."
Straeger was livid. "You have one hour to allow us access to your records, or I will order this ship to strike your installation, and we will occupy it and take what we want."
"With one ship, Count Straeger?" Soldato said.
"One ship is all I need to take a installation full of technicians pretending to be soldiers."
Soldato smiled thinly. "Is this a threat, Count Straeger?"
Straeger's eyes met his. "Yes."
Soldato mulled it over for a second. "I see," he said. "Then I'll have something sent to you before your deadline. A book. A cautionary tale about hubris and arrogant aggression leading to total ruin, perhaps.
"Translated into Rigellian, of course."
"They're going to attack," Soldato said, pacing back and forth in the conference room. It had taken ten minutes to get back to Elysium from the Vidar, which left less than fifty minutes for everything he had in mind to respond to Straeger's challenge. "I suspect this Count Straeger thinks we're simply a research and development facility and we can't put up enough of a fight to offer resistance at least until reinforcements cross the nebula."
"Theyre on the way?" Lt. Omar Mosul, the commander of Soldato's fighter wings said nervously, as he fidgeted with his dark glasses.
"C and C said they'd picked up communications traffic from six Rigellian ships on a heading for our position," Vietsche said. "Their ETA was one hour, forty-five minutes at last report."
"So what do we do about it?" Mosul asked. "Fight these Rigellians?"
"Absolutely," Vietsche said. "We should hit them so hard they'll never want to hear or see us again."
"Not quite what I had in mind, Commander," Soldato said. "While the thought of destroying Count Straeger has a certain appeal, I'm afraid it might cause more problems than it would solve. Besides, it wouldnt serve our purpose."
"Which is?" Mosul asked.
"We're going to defeat the Rigellians, not destroy them," Soldato said. "I intend to order the Vanguard to cripple the Vidar's ability to strike at us. Destruction gives them far too much honor. No. I intend to humble them. "
"And their reinforcements?"
"I'll deal with the reinforcements," Soldato said.
"How, sir?" Vietsche said. "We've built a pretty impressive operation here, but this is the kind of thing that could easily get out of control."
"How will have to remain my secret for now," Soldato said. "For now, we have forty-five minutes to implement the plan. Veitsche, get out to the Pallas Athena, ready the ship for battle and standby for further orders."
"Yes sir," Vietsche said, standing up sand saluting. Soldato returned the salute and nodded for her dismissal.
"Sir, a word?" Mosul asked.
Soldato turned to a nearby console and began tapping a series of codes. "Youre about to ask me if I'm going to break my word to you?"
"Sir, when I joined you two years ago, you promised me you wouldn't waste men's lives on reckless ventures. You'll forgive me for saying so, but this situation looks like exactly that."
"I understand Lieutenant," Soldato said. "Understand, I did not make the decision recklessly. It's time the Olympus Vanguard drew the sword we've been sharpening out here for the past few years and take our place in the stars. I told you once that I would never ask you to take any risk that I myself wouldn't take, didnt I?"
"Yes sir, you did."
"And I keep my word, always," Soldato said. "That's why I'll be on the line with you when the time comes."
"Sir," Mosul said. "That's very reckless and not at all necessary."
"Yes it is," Lieutenant," he said. "Both to keep my word to you and to send a message to our opponent."
"The Olympus Vanguard doesn't hide. We dont have to," Soldato replied. "Now, Lieutenant, if I've assuaged your doubts, I think you should ready all available fighter wings for immediate launch."
"Sir," Mosul said, saluting. "Thank you, sir."
"Dissmissed, Lieutenant," Soldato said.
Soldato heard the door slide shut. Smiling, he tapped the final series of codes, opening a highly secure channel he was certain Straeger couldn't detect.
On the small screen next to the keypad, a face shimmered into view. Soldato smiled.
"Hello," he said. "It's certainly been awhile, hasnt it?"
"YOU HAD NO RIGHT!" Krieger demanded angrily. He paced around Straeger like a hungry tiger, the heat in the small Captain's office becoming unbearable.
"My position gives me the right," Straeger said. "Soldato wont dare fire on a Rigellian ship, it would be an act of war. This is a bluff."
"And precisely what do you think we are engaging in, Count Straeger?" Krieger said. "We have no indication of the capabilities of his installation. Our communications have been jammed."
"We were able to send a call for reinforcements before the jamming."
"THAT IS NOT THE POINT!" Krieger shouted. "We have one hundred troopers--hardly enough to occupy even a fourth of the installation."
"We wont need to occupy it for long," Straeger said. "Just hold it long enough to get the information I require."
"You're gambling my ship for this," Krieger said. "I swear to you, Straeger, you will pay for this. If I have to drag you before the Imperial Tribunal myself, I will make you pay."
"You'll do nothing of the kind, Krieger," Straeger said. "While I may have overextended us a little, you have no choice now but to follow orders. Your own code requires you to stand and fight, does it not?"
Krieger fumed. "Only because you marched us off this precipice. And I damn your soul for it."
"We have thirty minutes, Warmaster," Straeger said. "I suggest you leave the metaphysical questions for after the confrontation is ended. We have a battle plan to work out."
Fifteen minutes, Mosul thought. How in the hell are we going to make it?
Around him, technicians were locking down some fighters in launch catapults, and opening the rear compartments on others. A line of the black armored marines Mosul had seen Vietsche drilling hours before were slotted into the compartments, which were then slammed shut.
Meanwhile, his pilots were suiting up and completing the final checks on their fighters. Mosul ambled over to his fighter as he slipped his space helmet over his head.
He understood this would happen one day. The Olympus Vanguard meant more than just a fancy uniform and special training. Over the years, Soldato had taught him it was a system of ideals, a way of life.
"In our ideals, there is strength," Mosul remembered him saying as he sat in the seat of his Centaur, quickly strapping himself in. "And only when those ideals are tested, whether in combat, in contemplation, or in our hearts, do we ever approach truth."
Pretty florid stuff, Mosul thought. But he'd heard similar things before. Mosul's father was a devout Zionist. Before he'd joined up, he'd heard many nights about how his people had a destiny, and they'd only achieve it through strength, determination, and conflict. Whether it had been in their native Holy Land (a dim memory of Mosul's father--he himself had never been to Earth) or in the stars. God would lead them to their home.
Soldato's not God, though, Mosul reminded himself. The Vanguard only thinks he is. But damn him if he doesnt make a strong case for it . . .
The clear canopy closed around the cockpit of Mosul's fighter as he linked himself to the fighter's oxygen supply.
Five minutes, Mosul thought. He made a check of his systems, then broadcast a message to his fighters.
"All fighters, this is Black Leader," he said. "Group leaders, report status."
"Red Leader, standing by."
"Blue Leader, standing by."
"All right squad leaders, " Mosul said. "The captain launches first, then Black Squad, then Red, then Blue. Two-minute intervals, form into a column behind the Captain once you clear the station. Just remember your training, and we'll get through this just fine.
"You have my word."
The diamond-shaped fighters streamed from the forward launch bay of the Vidar. Leading the charge was Straeger's Phantom. Despite his calm mental control of the fighter, even he felt anxious as his sensors detected the fighters before him.
Calm yourself, Heinrich, he reminded himself. They cant see the Phantom, and they'll be so busy engaging the Marauders and the Vidar that they won't even notice you slipping through their battle line and attacking the base itself.
He smiled. The Phantom was a one of a kind fighter all right, and a double threat, both invisible to detection and powerful enough to take on a capital ship single-handedly.
The numbers were against them--five-to-one, according to his sensors, but Straeger remained confident. He did a scan of the ships on the line.
Fifty Centaur fighters, he thought. Led by . . .yes, that's the other prototype of Soldato's. The one that wasn't stolen. The Gryphon
The fighter in question was a massive, ungainly machine that seemed less an elegant starfighter than a giant block of metal. It bristled with weapons and massive maneuvering engines.
Straeger would have cursed himself for ignoring most of the data on the Gryphon had his attention not been caught by the Gryphon's wingman.
It couldnt be, he thought. He'd said--
But you couldn't scan him, could you? You had no way of determining if he was lying.
The fourth, unconfirmed fighter. The Umbra.
Straeger opened a channel to the Gryphon.
"Your hour is up, Captain," he said. "And you've lied to me."
"I dont know what you mean, Count Straeger," Soldato responded, smiling.
"You know damned well what I mean," Straeger said. "That fighter . . .your wingman . . ."
"Oh," Soldato said. "Her. I didnt lie, Straeger. I had a suspicion however, that it might have more impact if you saw it for yourself."
"You'll suffer for this, Soldato," Straeger said, trembling with such rage his control of the Phantom fluctuated. "I promise you. No one makes a fool of me."
"And no one declares war on me, Count Straeger," Soldato replied. "And now I'm going to show you why."
"Captain Soldato to all ships: Olympus Vanguard . . .to victory!"
With that, the Gryphon's engines flared to life and he flew into the fray, followed by the Umbra. Silhouette held tight to the controls, activating a switch. Underneath the small fighter two small generators flipped out on either side.
There was a flare of energy, and suddenly the generators streamed forth with broad planes of light that seemed to illuminate the perpetual dark of space. The Marauders flanking the Phantom fired a volley at the Umbra, which easily deflected the shots and banked between the fighters, returning fire and giving chase.
"Meridius," Silhouette said. "I can read the other fighters, but I get nothing on Straeger's. It's like his communications call came from empty space."
"I see," Soldato said. "Watch your back then. I have a feeling he's coming after you. Draw his fire to you, and I'll come in after him."
"Wait, why am I the decoy?"
"He seemed more interested in you," Soldato said, activating two weapons bays on either side of the cockpit. "Whatever his other failings, I can't fault his taste."
He pressed the trigger on his weapons console. Two small modules launched from the Gryphon's weapon's bays, headed for the two Marauders chasing down the Umbra. The modules exploded outward as they launched dozens of small missiles, the contrails from them seeming to spin a cocoon around the Rigellian ships mere seconds before slamming into and destroying the fighters.
Soldato banked towards the Umbra, keeping his eyes open for Straeger. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the phalanx of Centaurs behind him, moving towards the Vidar.
He smiled. For years he'd waited for this day. And though he would have his own battle to fight with Straeger, he felt pride and confidence that today would belong to the Olympus Vanguard.
"Status?" Krieger asked, pacing the bridge.
"Five of their fighters downed," one of the crewmen said, his eyes flitting over his console. "Three of our fighters destroyed, one damaged."
"Have they started a run at us yet?"
"No sir," the crewman responded. "They seem to be taking their time and engaging the fighters before attacking us."
Logical enough, Krieger thought. They must know on our own we arent that impressive an opponent, and I'd be more than content to sit out the battle, if I were at all confident that devil Straeger would be killed as well.
"Let's show them the folly of that, Crewman," Krieger said. "Plot a firing solution, arm weapons. I want a full spread directed at their fighter squadrons. Let's break their formation."
"Aye sir," the crewman said. He gestured to two of his comrades. "Solution plotted, weapons armed."
"Lock in solution and fire," Krieger said.
The Vidar's weapons turned and fired a stream of cannon fire and missiles right at the swarm of Centaurs. For a second, the darkness of space seemed to bristle with stars, each star an exploding fighter.
"They're reforming, coming in .35," the crewman responded. "Our Marauders are pursuing."
"Fire all forward guns, full spread," Krieger said. "Let's see if we cant catch them between the Marauders and us."
Mosul banked hard left, weaving his fighter through the fire. "Black leader here," he said into his communicator. "Who's on my wing?"
"Black Three, Black Nineteen and Black Twenty-One sir," the response came. "We lost a few men when the Rigellian ship's spread caught us out."
"I know that," Mosul said. A blast from one of the Vidar's cannons came with millimeters of shearing his left wing off. "Blue Squad, we need you up here."
"Black Leader, this is Blue Leader."
"Blue Leader, listen carefully," Mosul said. "Gather your squad in a tight formation. Black Squad, listen up. Surround Blue Squad. Both Squads, form on me, tight formation, full speed, right for that ship. Full power to forward screens."
The Centaurs banked high in a graceful barrel roll, like a tight swarm of insects, they rocketed toward the Vidar. The Vidar's cannons let loose volley after volley, some glancing off the defensive screens of the Centaurs, some smashing through the screens and destroying the fighters.
"Stay tight and low," Mosul said, dodging another burst from the Vidar. He kept a careful eye on his targeting sensors. "All right Black Squad--fire all weapons on the ship, keep close. Buzz the damned bridge if you have to. Blue Squadron, once we move off, drop your payload and clear out."
Mosul's squad fanned out, their weapons blazing as they moved over the destroyer. The surface of the Vidar began to burn and buckle as their weapons tore through the armor of the Rigellian ship.
The remaining Centaurs slowed only a fraction from their previous dizzying speed. Explosive bolts on the rear compartments of their ships opened and, one by one, the marines within descended with the help of maneuvering jets in their armor down to the Vidar.
Once on the surface of the ship, the marines readied their shot lancers and slammed the glowing tips of the weapons into the bulkheads. The shot lancers began to drill into the surface of the Vidar, and no matter how durable the Vidar's armor, now it was only a matter of time.
The Marauders flew past the marines without comprehending what was happening, just in time to clear the Vidar's perimeter and find the Centaurs they'd been chasing waiting for them.
Mosul's squadron ripped them to pieces before they could begin their evasive maneuvers. Three of the Rigellians were destroyed as they flew headlong into the curtain of fire, the remaining two broke off and headed back the way they came. The marines were aboard now, he thought. Now it was just a matter of time until the Vidar, like the Marauders, would be taken out of the game.
And that only leaves what, six Rigellian ships closing in on us? Mosul thought.
Aboard the Vidar, the Marines were doing their work well, and that work was raising utter hell. When the marines couldnt drill into an airlock, they blew their way in with explosive charges, flushing oxygen out into space and forcing Krieger to close off vital areas and send his troopers in.
Deck after deck, section after section, as the minutes stretched on like hours, a similar pattern emerged. A marine blew his way in, the emergency bulkheads closed in, and he blew those out as well. A few minutes later, a squad of troopers would burst in and begin showering him with rifle fire.
But the marines were ready. Their armor's energy shields were sufficient to withstand a small squad's fire long enough to bring his shot lancer's firepower to bear, and whether he survived their attack or they survived his, it served its purpose.
Every marine holding a squad at bay kept them occupied while other marines made their way to vital centers--communications, weapons relays, navigation -- virtually unchallenged. What they were unable to sabotage, they destroyed outright with charges.
Finally, they were able to rout the troopers on their own ship. Gradually the Vidar became unable to move, unable to attack, unable to launch any weapons.
Krieger slumped in his seat upon reading the news. No communications, no weapons, no engines. The intruders had crippled the Vidar in twenty minutes.
He couldnt help but be impressed by the suicidal audacity of the plan. The fighters had launched the marines at the ship, and they had managed to slip through the Vidar's shields, thanks to the pounding the Centaur's had given them.
Then, he thought, it was only a matter of time. Taking the ship became a matter of taking every vital center out from under us. The only place they havent been is--
There was a sound like grinding metal behind him. Krieger leapt from his seat and drew his pistol from his hip. Two marines were forcing the door open and coming in. One of the crewmen swore in Rigellian behind him.
The marines saw Krieger's gun and pointed their shot lancers at him. Krieger smelled the ozone of the weapon's charging and knew he was undone.
And in a way it was a relief.
He turned the pistol and offered it to the marines.
"My name is Warmaster Krieger," he said. "The Vidar is my ship, and I and my ship, now yield to you."
On the edge of the nebula, Soldato and Silhouette danced around the coruscating dust clouds. The Phantom was slippery prey for sure. Straeger was a master at leading them on, seeming to vanish, and then turning up in another position and firing at them.
It was working, too. Soldato's shields were nearly exhausted, most of his armor now riddled with hits. Silhouette had had a luckier time of it, only taking a few hits in critical areas while her shield-wings had absorbed the real punishment from Straeger.
Part of that was smart design. Soldato had built the Umbra for Silhouette partially to test out the new technology he'd been developing at the time.
Perhaps subconsciously I'd also designed it to be as the defensive counterpart to my Gryphon, he thought. He smiled thinly. Perhaps destiny was guiding my hand even then. We do work well together.
"Closer," Soldato said. "Keep leading him toward the nebula."
"Fine," Silhouette said. "What the hell am I supposed to do when I get there?"
Straeger roared by the Gryphon, firing into one of his thrusters. Soldato grimaced and shut down the engine, returning fire with one of his forward cannons.
His eyes surveyed the Gryphon's remaining armament. Most of it had been exhausted in trying to nail Straeger and the rest wouldnt be any good against a ship that fast.
Demolition chains and static pulse mines are only good against slower targets, he thought. However limited Straeger's tactics are, he has the speed to make the best use of them.
His eyes went over his communication console and over to the nebula.
Unless . . .
He armed the pulse mines and fired them towards the nebula, all the while, never taking his eyes off the console.
"Silhouette," he said. "On my mark, come at me."
Soldato's fingers flew over his communication console, watching the signal strength of a critical readout. Slowly it got stronger and stronger.
He's close, he thought. His hands closed over the controls for his thrusters. Just a little closer, now.
"Silhouette," he said. "NOW!"
A shadow fell over the Gryphon as Straeger flew by, pummeling one of the Gryphon's weapons bays. The ship rocked with the impact. Soldato gunned his engines as the Gryphon flew backward and the Umbra soared towards the passing Phantom.
The Umbra's wings of light sliced into the Phantom's wings. White hot energy peeled off the Phantom's special stealth material, shearing it down to the superstructure and bouncing Straeger towards the nebula.
Soldato smiled. I hadnt planned on Silhouette damaging Straeger's ship, he thought. But it should make this easier.
As Straeger tumbled into the nebula, thrusters firing as he tried to right himself, Soldato activated his pulse mines, charging the nebula's dust with charged particles, causing even more damage to the Phantom, and rendering its stealth capabilities useless.
Soldato took his chance and armed the two grappling claws on the underside of the Gryphon. In less time than it took for Straeger to realize what was happening, he was caught and being reeled in by Soldato, and although he couldnt see the human captain, he was almost certain that the insufferable man was grinning that hateful grin of his at him.
"You are beaten, Count Straeger," Soldato said. "I ask for your surrender."
"I will NOT!" Straeger shouted. He attempted to will his craft to move, but he couldnt manage to get much more than one thruster working. Not enough to get himself free. Whatever these grapples were, they were magnetically locked to the Phantom's spaceframe. Even if he could rocket free, he ran a high risk of ripping his own fighter to pieces.
"I see you must be shown," Soldato said. "Very well."
The Gryphon moved slowly, towing the Phantom back towards the war zone. The Vidar was still there, but it wasn't alone anymore. Facing it in space was another ship, slightly larger, a narrow black, red and silver dart trained on his ship.
"That, Count Straeger, is the Pallas Athena," Soldato said. "It happens to be the ship of my second in command. The Vidar is helpless, and even if it were able to continue fighting, I have 50 more ships I could call in."
"Youre lying," Straeger said.
"You thought I was bluffing before," Soldato said. "And because of your arrogance, you've lost your fighter wing, plus your ally. Warmaster Krieger has surrendered to my forces. And pardon my saying so, but as impressive as your stealth fighter is, you're in no condition to prosecute this battle on your own."
Straeger seethed with rage so powerful the Phantom's control systems threatened to cut out all together. He forced his mind to clear away the anger and took stock of the situation. The Vidar was taken, no Marauders seemed to have survived the assault, and the Phantom was damaged and vulnerable.
His heart would have sunk further had he not noticed the six sensor contacts moving through the nebula.
"Perhaps I dont have to . . .Captain."
Soldato looked out as six massive ships, the smallest of them twice as large as the Vidar had been, moved into position all around them. One of them, a massive golden cruiser moved past them very slowly, its bright running lights casting a long shadow over Soldato.
"My reinforcements, Captain," Straeger said. "Now, let's discuss your surrender."
"Indeed," Soldato said, smiling.
"This is Warduke Droegan of the Rigellian Twelfth Fleet," a voice boomed over Soldato and Straeger's communicators. "Count Heinrich Straeger, you have attacked an ally of the Rigellian Empire, thus committing and act of war. Surrender immediately or we will fire on you."
"What?" Straeger said. "But . . ."
"That's right," Soldato said. "The only way your overbearing threats made any sense to me was for you to have called for reinforcements before you started making demands. But I have my own contacts within your Empire. It was a simple matter to make a call and explain the situation to them, my dear Count."
"Then why fight at all?" Straeger said. "All you had to do was hold the line until they arrived."
"That's easy enough to explain," Soldato said. "I wanted to teach you a lesson. In my life, I've been dismissed, passed over, mocked, derided, and underestimated. As you underestimated me. Now you've been made to pay for it."
"Soldato, you have no idea what you've started today."
"Perhaps not," Soldato said. "But I think you have a very clear idea of what awaits you the next time you try anything like this with me or the Olympus Vanguard. Challenge me again, Count Straeger, and even an invisible ship won't save you. Do I make myself clear?"
"Count Straeger," Warduke Droegan cut in. "You are ordered to disarm your weapons and stand by for towing aboard our ship."
Straeger weighed his options. Lensmen had no standing in the military, in fact they were despised by them. He had no friends among them. On the other hand, his pride stung so much at this moment, the taste of his defeat like acid in his mouth.
He made one last mental check of his systems and smiled.
Very well, he thought. I'm defeated, but not powerless.
"All right," he sighed. "I surrender."
Soldato released the grapples and the Phantom used its remaining thruster to drift backwards from him. A second, maybe two, passed.
Then Straeger fired on the Gryphon with the only remaining weapon he had left.
The blast from the Phantom's heavy cannon cut into the Gryphon amidships, shearing the fighter's engine cluster from the body of the fighter. Soldato turned, using the momentum the blast had given him to bring the last of his weapons to bear on Straeger's ship.
The Phantom's wing tore free and blew apart. Soldato watched for signs of another strike, but none came. Finally, two Marauders from Droegan's ship grappled to the Phantom and towed it away.
"This isn't over, Soldato," Straeger said over the communications as he was taken to Droegan's ship. "You'll pay for this if it takes me a whole decade. And next time, I promise you, I won't just leave you in a ruined hulk of a ship."
Soldato didnt say a word. He quietly shut down the Gryphon's remaining systems. The fighter was badly damaged, but not unsalvageable. He'd been lucky enough that Straeger's cannon hadnt stuck the weapons bays. Otherwise, Soldato himself might be unsalvageable.
He disconnected himself from the Gryphon's oxygen supply and connected it up with the back of his space helmet. With his armor he had little need for a full spacesuit, which was just as well.
At the moment, he just wanted to be free.
He depressurized the Gryphon's cockpit and opened the canopy, unstrapping himself and floating away from the fighter with short bursts of his maneuvering jets.
Above him, the Marauders were docking with Droegan's ship. Once they had seen to the Vidar, they'd be gone, and Soldato could better tend to the needs of his own men.
He drifted along, looking down at the Pallas Athena. Shuttles were being launched, collecting survivors, recovering crippled ships, and noting casualties.
Soldato sighed. They'd be considerable. He'd seen the Rigellian's destroy some of his men before pursuing Straeger. The casualties, the dead, would be substantial.
Undoubtedly, the casualties on the Rigellian side weren't much better. Rigellians were trained for an early age to fight to the bitter end. Soldato wondered how many troopers, pilots, and crewmen on the Vidar had chosen death before surrender, and he mourned for them as well.
But I hope the souls of these men can rest easy, he thought. Their sacrifice has led the Olympus Vanguard to its first victory. We survived our trial by fire, and survived it with honor.
What more could I ask?
He was jarred out of his thought by the white light before him. He brought his drift to a stop.
Before him was the Umbra.
"You know how to make a woman worry, Meridius," Silhouette said.
Soldato smiled. "I was just taking a walk."
"Uh-huh. You promised me dancing, Captain. And your beloved damsel doesnt give up on you so easy."
"So I did. And so you don't."
The Umbra's lighted dimmed as the fighter's cockpit dropped. Silhouette floated forward, catching Soldato in her arms and holding him tightly around the waist, drifting in a slow waltz through the silent cold darkness around them.
"Before we have another war, I think I better collect on that promise," Silhouette said, holding him close. The helmets made it a bit difficult to be as near as she'd prefer, but her relief that he was alive overrode any frustration with not being able to touch him, to fully confirm he was holding her.
Somehow, at this moment, this was enough after all.
"I believe he's in good hands, now," Soldato said. "Rigellians, more than anything, hate embarrassment, and he's handed them quite a colossal one. We wont see him for some time."
Silhouette looked down at the debris field below her. From time to time, a piece of burning metal floated by. Whether it was from one of theirs or from one of the Vanguard's she didnt know, but she knew what it meant.
And she felt saddened by it.
Silhouette held tight to Soldato as they drifted in silence. Soldato held her close, idly running one of his hands up and down her back. For a minute, he closed his eyes.
"Are you all right?"
Soldato looked at Silhouette, still holding onto him, eyes closed, the tension gone from her face.
"Yes Commander," he said. "We're fine. What's our status?"
"Preliminary casualty reports were just handed to me. We lost thirty-two men, most of them pilots."
"I see," Soldato said. "Give me their names later today. We must see that these men are properly honored."
"Yes sir," Vietsche said. "Should I send someone to get you and Silhouette?"
Soldato looked at Silhouette. She gave his hands a gentle squeeze that he felt even through the armored gauntlets. He smiled and held her a little tighter, and slowly, they resumed their slow drifting waltz through space.
Despite the emptiness around them, they felt complete. Despite the unyielding cold they felt the warmth of each other between them.
"In good time, Commander," he said. "For now, Lady Silhouette and I are taking a moment.