"Couple of hours my ass," muttered Axe. He was standing next to Zean, showing him how to fully utilise the tools and other thing-a-ma-jigs that the designers had apparently thought necessary in the command chair, such as a cup holder. Zean did his best not to yawn as Axe took him through the tutorial for the automatic soap-dispenser hidden underneath an armrest. Axe pretended not to notice.
The reason for Axe's annoyed muttering was that the navigator had overestimating the speed at which they moved through the tunnel just a bit. They had now been travelling for over six hours, and the waiting was stressing, the frustration showing itself in various ways. Zean got incredibly tired and couldn't stop thinking about his strange dreams, Lex kicked the people she knew in the shins with huffs of annoyance, Axe kept growling to people and Olly – from the hospital bay – kept asking for Dellie, who was busy in the hangar. The only one who didn't seem too affected was Aaron, but he was asleep in special quarters assigned to him, so it was hard to see how he was feeling.
"How much time left?" asked Axe, directing the question at no one in particular.
"Approximately fifty minutes, sir," said someone.
Axe calmly looked up at the man who had spoken. He was one of the gunners, and he was apparently a close acquaintance of the navigator since they stood so close together. Axe stared at the navigator, who looked nervous. "Care to tell me why you didn't tell us any sooner? How are we going to prepare for a fight properly in fifty minutes?"
"It'll be a challenge?" asked the gunner hopefully. Axe's hateful look sent him scurrying away to his fellow gunner.
"Sir, I was as surprised when I checked myself," said the navigator. "The tunnel is interfering with our equipment, and I haven't been able to get an accurate fix on the estimated arrival time before now."
"Interfering? That hasn't happened before," said Axe, now truly curious. "What happened?"
"It seems that one of the hits we took during the battle has weakened the shield protecting us from the radiation and energy fluctuations of the tunnel. It's not dangerous for us," he said quickly when Zean opened his mouth, "but our sensors aren't very happy about it."
"I see," said Axe, "well, sorry for snapping then. Captain, tell the crew to prepare for battle," he told Zean, who gave the order. Instantly, activity erupted all over the ship as fighters and bombers were prepped for flight, soldiers and marines putting on their gear and gun crews started loading torpedo tube, missile launchers and flak batteries.
"What kind of havoc do you think that infiltrator of Abel's has caused?" asked Zean, observing the various crews doing different things on a small screen on his chair, which was getting more and more comfortable as time went by.
"Probably a lot," answered Axe. "Infiltrators are a mean bunch, and they're the best trained people we have."
"They're like special forces, then?"
"More like agents. They act as assassins, saboteurs…you name it, they can do it. If we didn't have them, we'd have lost the war a long time ago when the psychics entered the fray."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, three decades or so ago, psychics were being used more frequently against us, so Abel stepped up the training programme to involve assassinating them as well."
"So…they kill children?" asked Zean slowly, dislike lacing his voice.
"No, not children, at least not those who aren't showing aggressive behaviour. Larki, for example, would not be one of the targets. Sai, the most dangerous and efficient psychic they have, on the other hand, is the top priority. Of course, since he's already interred into one of the Ruxian ships, the only way we can kill him is if we destroy the ship he's connected to or at the very least destroy the computer mainframe."
"How many people has this Sai killed, exactly?"
"Well, up to now, he's been directly responsible for the destruction of thirty-two cruiser-size ships. The average crew number is…about a hundred to a hundred and fifty, which means he has killed over four thousand people."
Zean choked. Although that kill count was dwarfed by his own, it was still a remarkable and shocking number. "And he's how old?"
"We're not sure of his exact age, although we think he's either in his late teens or early twenties. When we get Larki back, that's one of the things we're going to find out."
Zean sincerely hoped it was going to "when" and not "if". And then he remembered an earlier part of the conversation.
"By the way," he whispered, "how old is the trio?"
By Ghost's calculations, the fleet should have been there by then, but the continuing absence was tearing away more and more of is reason for being on the bridge. He had intercepted a message from the engineering corps on the ship that the captain had requested someone to check out and repair eventual malfunctioning equipment on the bridge, most likely caused by the violent stop. Ghost had also intercepted said engineer, and had tactfully – and forcefully – ended the man's shift and taken it over. He was fiddling around with the navigational computer, finding and fixing imaginary errors. The navigator himself was standing over him, fuming at having an unknown person messing around with his computer. Ghost gave him a cold look, sending the navigator backwards a few steps.
"Are you done soon? I need to plot the new course for Home," said the navigator impatiently, looking to his captain for help, but finding none since Xoin was busy arguing with the people in the engine bay trying to fix the power plant.
"Hold your horses, this is sensitive equipment," said Ghost. "One wrong move and the whole thing goes to hell."
"You've said that about the other two computers you've been working on, and both of them worked find until after you were done with them!"
"Okay, so I made some tiny mistakes, I'll fix them after I'm done with thi—hello, what's this?" He pointed at a small circular disc hidden underneath the edge of the screen. He carefully pried it out from between the glass and metal and examined it. "This is a camera," he said. Ghost stood up and looked at Xoin. "Captain!" he bellowed. "We have a spy onboard!"
Xoin looked up from his conversation with the engine bay crew. "What?" he hissed.
Ghost walked forward, holding the disc for everyone to see. "This is a small video camera. I found it on the navigational computer. Someone is using it to see where we're going and probably reporting back to someone."
Xoin took the disc and looked closely at it. "My god, you're right. They could be rebels, and if they're rebels, the rest of the miserable bunch will know where we are!" He turned to the microphone to speak to the engine bay again. "Get to work you lazy bastards! We need to get the hell out of here, right now!" He then turned to the two guarding marines who stood at the entrance to the bridge. "You two! Organise a search-and-kill party, find the spy and silence him before all is lost, now go!"
Ghost watched as the two guards quickly left the bridge area, chuckling inwardly at the way Xoin had just done half of his job for him. He also took a second to thank whoever's in charge for letting him plant that camera without anyone seeing him.
"Five minutes remaining, and counting," announced the navigator.
"Damn!" shouted Zean and patched himself through to the hangar. "This is the captain speaking, prepare to launch ships immediately upon re-entry. Eliminate their AA capabilities and other weapons. Remember, we need everyone on that ship alive." He told the communications officer to relay that message to the other ships as well.
"Good idea," said Axe, "that'll surprise them entirely. It's risky too, though. We arrive through the tunnels pretty fast; the fighters can get torn apart at those speeds."
"It's a risk I'm willing to take," said Zean. "Every second we waste is another second for the Imperials to realise one their own is struggling and returning."
"True, true," Axe concurred.
"Two minutes and counting!"
"Well, here we go," said Zean. "Let's hope we're not too late."
"I'm glad you found this," said Xoin approvingly. "Who knows how long the rebels have been watching us."
"No idea, sir, but at least we can rest assured that they will be spying on us no more," said Ghost, trying his best not to smile. He wondered how Xoin would take it when the fleet attacked. A small bleep from a corner of the bridge drew the attention of the captain, and Ghost knew what was about to happen. He put a hand in his pocket, fingering the handle of his pistol.
Here we go…
"What's going on over there?" asked Xoin, knowing fully well what was happening. He had heard that sound many times before.
"Anomalies, sir," said a technician. "The pattern corresponds with the rebels' tunnels…"
Xoin's face went white. Here he was, stranded in the middle of nowhere with an incoming enemy ship, possibly more. The radio was gone, and so was their main mode of propulsion. In other words, they were sitting ducks. "How many?"
"Not sure, sir, but the number and pattern seems to indicate at least two, or possibly three!"
"Prepare the AA batteries, and launch all our fighters and bombers! Tell everyone to prepare for combat!" Xoin shouted, sweating nervously.
Unseen, Ghost melted into the background of the hubbub on the bridge, standing quietly in a corner, waiting for an opportune moment. He needed the entire bridge distracted from their surroundings and focused on what was going on outside.
"Contact. Two, three…no, four! Four radiation spikes detected! Rebel ships are emerging from the Void!"
"The Void" was what the Imperials called the tunnels the rebels utilised to quickly go from one place or another. Seeing as Imperials had yet to capture one of the tunnel generators, and having only been able to see the back ends of the rebel ships disappearing into the tunnels, the Imperials had named it so, for the myriad of colours and inherent darkness beyond reminded Rydan scientists of another dimension, or something else.
Ghost couldn't hold it in and grinned. The Imperials were in for a rough ride.
"We have a confirmed sighting of the Imperial ship. Fighters launched."
"Don't let them fire a shot," said Zean, "I don't want a single casualty."
"An impossibility, I believe," said Aaron, carefully watching the holo-projected battlemap. "But since they are so severely weakened and unprepared, I suppose miracles can happen."
Zean ignored the much older man and continued issuing orders; most of them along the lines of "destroy this" and "disable that". A large number of green squares representing the rebel fighters emerged from the larger squares representing the cruisers and headed for the big red one. Slowly, a much smaller number of tiny red squares poured from the red cruiser and headed to intercept the rebel fighters. It was a doomed battle to begin with. The rebels had emerged from their tunnels all around the Imperial ship, cutting off any chance of escape, and while two groups of rebel fighters engaged the Imperial ones, the two remaining groups headed to disable the outer weapons of the cruiser.
"Our fighters are going down like flies, they can't hold out against the rebels! There's just too many of them!" yelled an officer, trying to pierce through the sheer wall of sound that the combined yelling, screaming and noise that permeated the bridge. Panicking gunners tried to shoot down enemy fighters, but ended up hitting their own more often than the enemy, and the pilots were frantically attempting to get the Fenriz to move using only the weak thrusters that were usually only meant for steering and slowing down the cruiser.
Xoin kept screaming "Get us out of here!" to the frightened crewmen, who could do nothing but hit and kick their equipment in frustration.
This general panic was spreading all over ship when it became known that they were completely helpless against the superior forces of the rebellion. Somehow, a containment field in one of the separated hangars was disabled, sending a good number of men, ships and weapons into the vacuum of space. Imperial pilots, sticking close to the cruiser for fear of getting shot down, found themselves crashing into the main hull itself because of bodies that blocked their sights.
"For heaven's sake," shouted Xoin when the ship shook as a missile hit its mark, a powerful AA battery right on top of the bridge, "why haven't you raised the shields?"
"We're trying, sir, but the explosion that destroyed the powerplant also took out our shield generators!"
The Fenriz's fighter squadrons were now at a mere 1/3 of its original strength, and the external defences were soon completely gone. Ghost mentally weighed the pros and cons of the current situation.
Now is the time!
He slowly walked forward, positioning himself behind Xoin. He looked around the bridge to make sure there weren't any armed forces inside. Seeing none, he carefully pulled out his pistol, unseen by all. Standing directly behind Xoin, he, in one quick, fluid motion, placed his arm around Xoin's neck, cutting off his air supply, and put the barrel of the silencer to one of his temples.
"Time to surrender, don't you think?" said Ghost quietly.
To be continued…
Short chapter, I know, but I'm planning on the next chapter to finish it all, and I'm saving the best for last, I think. The next chapter will answer a question that I didn't know how the hell to adequately respond to for at least half of the time I spent writing this, so hopefully you'll like it. Anyway, read and review, please, for the end is coming…