Chapter Four

Pham Tuaphong picked up her phone. "Tuaphong here," she answered. A tinny voice responded in her ear. "Thank you," she said, her voice raspier than usual.

She struggled to sit up in her bed. But it was too painful for her little, frail body. She'd never felt pain like this in her whole life. Even the intravenous line poking into her left arm, feeding her life-saving drugs, burned. The pain was intense enough to set her to scream.

Except she'd stopped screaming twelve days ago.

Bone cancer. Bad. On Earth, they could cure it. Out here, a couple thousand light years away from her ancestor's planet, she lay in the hospital, fighting to stay alive since her annual medical exam had landed her here.

And with the war finally begun, the chances of an emergency trip to Earth were now zero.

She was dead, and she knew it. The date was marked on her calendar: seven weeks, three days. She'd live to see her 59th birthday, with a couple weeks to spare.

The phone call had just come from the commanding officer. They had jumped into the Icroka system. It was one-of-a-kind, the sort of solar system only possible by the sheer number of ordinary star systems out there. How lucky they were to have it in their own Galaxy, the Milky Way.

And how unfortunate it was an Arion Imperial Province. Like Earth recently had been.

Their mission was simple: engage and destroy any Arion support ships in the vicinity. As was typical of Colony strategy, they didn't care about the planet per se. But the Prime ruling the planet was old, fatally so. A fresh Prime was expected to replace her within a four-day span. By intercepting the Prime's ship in deep space, they could remove her from the picture.

That could pave the way for Icroka I's native population to rebel when their Overlord died in a few months of old age. (Pham privately regretted the Prime would still outlive her.) The idea of a rebellion appealed to Admiral Yevgeni and Fleet staff, and so here they were.

It looked good on paper. Before her exam, she looked good on paper too. The longest-serving captain in the Colonies, until then. After that, she bowed to the inevitable: relief of command, and promotion to Commodore's rank which everyone but her felt she deserved.

Commodores are retired Captains, she thought. Advisors, consultants... guests. Baggage. She'd known a few captains who took the bump up; though they were outwardly happy about the promotion, they knew what it meant. They yearned for command again. The command she could never have again.

Two days late to Icroka. The Arion ship could already have exchanged Primes and departed by now. Tuaphong sighed. Intelligence had given them a four-day window, and thanks to repairs to their navigation system, they'd already blown two days of it.

She picked up the remote control, and set the hospital cabin television to exterior camera 80. Icroka I, the planet they now orbited.

The Colony ship had to get the attention of the natives hundreds of kilometers "below" them, as they called the direction towards a gravity well they entered. The natives didn't matter. What mattered was whether the new Prime was here to notice as well.

The phone rang again. Grimacing, she brushed her long brown hair out of her eyes with her weak right hand and picked up the phone again. "Tuaphong... Very good, carry on." She hung up again.

Her small lungs sighed once more, in relief this time. No contacts. No Arions - Betas, Primes, or ships - approaching the Colony. News reports intercepted from the surface indicated the new Prime hadn't arrived yet, either.

The Colony had gotten lucky.

"I cannot believe our luck!" the Captain of the Arion warship said. "Have you confirmed silent running?"

"Yes, sir, we are at low-profile electromagnetic radiance." The sensor officer was as giddy as his captain next to him.

Just then there was an incredible knocking on the metal door. Incredible enough; the door was dented in slightly with each knock.

Somebody wasn't happy. Nonetheless, the Captain graciously opened the door. In stepped the woman he was responsible for, the one who had just abandoned her shuttle mere moments before.

The Prime, Eev'hon. "What the hell is so important that you have to stop me from claiming my planet, Captain?" she asked.

Not happy at all. Would you be happy if you were her?

No. The captain answered her with a finger. Not the finger Terrans use to insult each other with, but one pointed at a Terran insult, nonetheless.

A Military Colony vessel. In orbit of Icroka I.

That shut her up. This captain didn't like her any more than any Beta liked a Prime, but at least now she understood - and smiled.

"We just detected it," he said, gloating. "It dropped in mere minutes ago. Had your shuttle launched, they would have detected it. Instead, we immediately changed course and positioned ourselves a good fifty thousand kilometers away. We're now drifting away from them at a relative twenty meters per second. With our radio and engine emissions reduced to nothing, they don't even know we're here."

"Excellent! After what they did to the last of our T'set'lar, they deserve a little pain. What's your plan of attack?"

The captain sighed. Primes, especially new ones, were always impatient, expecting you to have all the answers waiting for them. He really wished he had taught her some manners on the way over here.

But her father was a high-ranking General, damn him. "We don't have one yet, Prime Eev'hon. Encounters with the Colony ships have been rare to date."

Eev'hon growled. It was a barely humanoid sound; the deck plates rattled with her low-pitched volume.

The captain went on as if she'd been silent. "Trying to destroy that thing directly is, as you know, impossible. A well-placed nuclear warhead could do the job of course, but their radar would detect the warhead long before we got close. They'd blast the warhead to pieces before it reached them. So incinerating them is, unfortunately, out."

"However, that's not the only way to eliminate them as a threat-"

In the Colony's hospital, Pham woke up suddenly to klaxons going off, the quietest gong of alarm she'd ever heard.

Of course it's quiet, this is a hospital room, she realized. Throughout the rest of the Colony, however, men, women, and teenagers were rushing to battle stations.

The Arion ship. It had to be. They'd detected the Prime's ship, and were preparing to engage.

They had accomplished their mission. Even as the crew went to full alert, she relaxed. Nonetheless, she strained to hear the petty officer of the watch announce the reason for the general quarters. Probably deploying the micro bombs.

"Repel boarders, repel boarders."

Her mouth opened in shock. She began to breathe very carefully.

Somewhere inside the Colony, the Prime crashed through another sealed steel door. She relished in the hurricane-force decompression of the chamber she'd just entered, enjoying the looks of suffocation on the men and women dying in front of her and the debris flying towards her, trying to knock her back through the hole she'd just created. She knocked the metal wall fragment instead, sending it crashing into another wall. It partially blocked the hole.

Behind her a vacuum existed. Her naked form stood proudly in the artificial gravity, crinkling the metal beneath her toes with her every step. She couldn't hear the metal buckling beneath her, but she felt it. Just like she felt one of these dead Terran's bones snap fron her toes flexing as she stepped on his arm.

The Prime had deliberately taken off all her clothing, all her ornaments, for this short hop of a few thousand kilometers. Besides, an Arion warrior finds garments in space a waste of time. Now the battle was on. A push to get to an engineering compartment.

The decompressions served a different task than just dramatic entrances. They also removed any traces of Terran life used to defend themselves. Stupid Terrans; they never should have fought back in the first place. The ease with which this one Prime killed them, without even having to touch them, proved that to her. A few centimeters of steel were all that protected their precious air, and that wasn't enough to stop an Arion Prime.

Nonetheless, she was getting tired of searching. Only one more door to go, she knew. One more, and she'd be in a power plant.

"Once you get to an engineering section of their asteroid ship, they're done," the Betan captain had advised her. "Not only will we be able to control where the asteroid goes, including taking it to smash against others of their vaunted Armada, you'll also be able to recharge whenever we weaken. Think about how much power it takes to drive one of these things. Think of that power at your command. Within that local area, you'll be invincible and they won't be able to take it back."

She geared herself up and threw herself at another metal door.

In the pilothouse, the captain's beefy hand rested against his side. That tears it, literally. The Arion had broken through all the way from the asteroid surface to a microfusion room. From there, she could have all the power she wanted, to keep herself fully charged to stop any Colony forces employed against her. The Colony's own mist systems were ineffective; there simply wouldn't be enough relative pressure now to really cause anything harmful to the Arion. It would be different if they could keep the shields up (and her out there). But now she was in the power room; she could disrupt any electrical circuits throughout the ship simply by sending massive power surges through the network. The ship's executive officer couldn't rely on the shields, and he certainly couldn't rely on her cooperation.

He called his chief engineer. "Fourteen, is it?"

"Aye, sir, fourteen," the engineer said unhappily. The man in the pilothouse couldn't blame him. If we don't do this now, we'll lose the whole Colony.

He looked to his security officer, the Marine Pilothouse Watch. "The order is Code Tango Fourteen, Major. Step to it."

The major, a petite brunette, snapped to attention and saluted. "Code Tango Fourteen, aye-aye, Commander." She went to her radiophone and began barking orders rapid-fire to her crew.

One thing about the Marines, they don't mess around, the CO thought in admiration.

In Microfusion Room Fourteen, the Prime reveled in the raw electrical feed. Dozens of megawatts poured through these lines every second; megawatts which served to fuel her. She knew now her decision to leave her clothing behind was a good one; she'd never have had a chance of fitting into them like this. Oh, it felt so good...

Finally she let go. She walked forward a couple steps, the metal beneath her melting from her skin temperature, her arms outstretched in triumph and welcome. She wished those Betans were here for her to gloat over, but they couldn't survive the vacuum of space for more than a moment. Ah, well. She'd find a communications room soon enough.

Suddenly she felt a rumbling in the deck beneath her, the miniature pools of molten steel splashing away from her toes up to a meter or two away. Eev'hon fell to the decks from the earthquake.

Except it wasn't an earthquake. It was explosives separating the fourteenth section of the asteroid from the rest. The Colony was busy thrusting itself away from its detached section.

Eev'hon scrambled to her feet, her rage newly returned.

"Code Tango Fourteen complete, sir."

"Excellent, Major. At ease." Now the captain looked up to his pilothouse monitors. Forty-five seconds had passed. Unless he sent a signal to the detached rock in the next fifteen, Tango Fourteen would progress to Poppa Fourteen.

He didn't want to wait. He called up the personnel records for all hands assigned to Section Fourteen. He wanted to know just how many he was letting die.

He scanned the list.

Two thousand and seventy three. Including three hundred children. He closed his eyes, just in time to avoid looking up reflexively at the simultaneous flashes which occurred on the screen before him.

Poppa Fourteen was really Poppa, Section Fourteen, just as Tango Fourteen was really Tango, Section Fourteen. Tango was the code name for the explosive separation sequence, which physically cut off a section of the rock from the rest. This included all cables, air locks, and welded pieces of metal.

Upon the beginning of the Tango sequence, hidden radio receivers within the affected section began a count. Within sixty seconds, according to the instructions of the Tango program, a coded cancellation signal had to be received. Failing that, the computer chips controlling those receivers sent independent electrical charges to the second wave of explosives.

The Poppa sequence ripped every compartment in the section into four separate pieces - and all other chunks of rock in the section to comparable sizes. All the machinery was destroyed. The Prime felt an endless pummeling of rock and metal debris as the section reduced to a cloud of rubble. She was effectively blinded amidst it, and her other senses were equally useless for the time being.

Lacking the machinery needed to maintain it, the Microfusion Energy Bridge collapsed into nothingness. Her source of power was gone.

The Colony ship broke orbit, running at maximum acceleration away from Icroka I. They needed to get out of the Prime's sight, so she couldn't follow them when they did jump. They also needed time to rebalance their energy bridges for the jump.

"2,073, sir," the captain reported to Tuaphong later. Even though he technically didn't owe her any information at all, he'd served under her for five years. His decades of military training could not keep the sadness, the failure, from his voice.

He saw it in her eyes, even as she saw it in his. Two thousand and seventy three lives lost. Because of a series of mistakes.

They were two days late into the Icroka system. They failed to detect the Arion warship in orbit. They failed to detect the approach of the Arion. They failed to slow the Prime down once they had been boarded.

The Arions had gotten the best of them.

"This is war, Captain," she lectured him firmly as she always had. "We fight to win, but we know we're going to lose from time to time. It's unavoidable. The roll of the dice, or the playing of the cards." Her voice cracked at the end, and she took a deep breath.

"But you're right, this is a loss we could not have afforded. Any loss, here in deep space, we cannot afford. Earth needs us, every last one of us, Captain. Even the newborn boy Sergeant Dixon named after you this afternoon."

Earth doesn't need me, though, not a woman dying of cancer, she thought bitterly.

They lapsed into silence.

"If you'll excuse me, sir, I have other matters to attend to."

Pham waved him off, and tried to sleep through the pain.

Eight weeks later...

"Attention on deck!" the Captain bellowed out at his full volume. The crew of the Military Colony snapped to attention. The crack of the boots echoed through the chamber like a series of cannons firing. The Commodore did not notice.

Instead, she proceeded through a column of men, women, and children half a mile long, through the longest shuttle bay in the Colony. Little girls cried; boys wiped away tears stoically. Men and women who grew up under the Commodore's command stood back respectfully, watching and saluting one of the heroes they had grown up with pass by them. The intercom played a rendition of Taps.

The shuttle bay doors opened, facing Earth as the navigator had carefully calculated. The Commodore's honor guard, eight of them in full dress uniform including a Marine, escorted her onto the shuttle, and left her alone, lying down in the shuttle's bed. The doors closed, and a preprogrammed flight computer began the launch sequence almost silently.

"Starboard section, left face! Portside section, right face!" The crew snapped, stomped, another series of cannons firing. The shuttle lifted up and thrusted forward ever so gently in front of their eyes.

As soon as it cleared the ship, its engines powered down, its running lights the only indication that it even existed. Except in their hearts.

"About face! Forward, march!" Snap, stomp. Stomp. Stomp. Stomp. Stomp.

The shuttle bay doors slowly began to close behind them.