Black & White
TINS Reprisalís Flag Bridge was noticeably silent as the members of Gemmell's staff sat at their consoles awaiting the first reports of contact with the enemy fleet. Gemmell stared thoughtfully at the master plot in front of his command chair, trying to guess what the enemy, these so-called Peacekeepers, were going to do. He watched as his own ships slid into formation. It almost guaranteed their deaths but it also promised to take the enemy ships with them. His pride warring with his conscience, he felt sure that if he only thought harder he could find some way of extracting all of his ships and men without the conflagration that would mean the fiery deaths of thousands.
He turned slightly, watching through the holo repeater as Rameriez ordered her ship and arranged its defences. He was confident in her abilities, just as he was confident in the abilities of all of his captains, but still he had small, worrying doubts about his own ability to lead such courageous people to victory.
Braca stood watching wryly as Scorpius raged about the bridge. They had failed to carry out his orders and as a result the enemy had crippled the other Command Carrier. Not only that but his prowler squadrons had been decimated by the combat. Braca knew he had no other choice but to stand there and hope for the best. The fleet had its orders and it was too late to alter the plan to adjust for these new circumstances. He simply hoped that Scorpius realised this as the truth as well as he did. He found it amazing to watch. He had never seen Scorpius lose control in this manner; Niem, his attendant, was pleading with him to calm down, or at least allow her to change his coolant rod.
Braca turned his head back to the holo plotter. The remaining ships had been forced to adopt a ragged formation due to the loss of adequate fighter and the severe damage to one of the Command Carriers. Since the enemy had so few fighters remaining, he felt that their own prowlers should have been used to attack the enemy before he could use his longer ranged weapons against Peacekeeper ships. Scorpius however felt that their use would only result in their destruction for no gain, so he had ordered the prowlers to take defensive positions around the crippled Command carrier. This fight would be ship against ship, with an enemy who possessed superior and longer ranged weapons. However, Braca knew that the Peacekeepers had the advantage in this fight. They had many more ships than the enemy, who was down to two of the larger ships that had proved so effective against Attack Group Two plus twelve smaller escort ships, not forgetting the large Carrier.
The carrier made Braca nervous. So far it had kept out of the fighting, so they had no idea of its offensive capabilities. He knew if it were a Peacekeeper ship, it would have a great capacity for destruction, but since these were aliens, did they even bother to arm it. After all its escort was extremely powerful by normal standards. But these were not normal standards. Braca had never heard of a Peacekeeper fleet this size being gathered for any purpose other than a full-scale war.
The swift and brutal destruction of so many ships shocked Braca to his core. He felt there was no one to blame but Scorpius, he had been so certain of his plan he had over ridden Braca's suggestions and deployed the fleet as he saw fit. The half-breed was a scientist, he had no right to be commanding a Command Carrier, never mind an entire fleet of Peacekeeper ships. Once this enemy was vanquished, Braca looked forward to making his report to High Command. He had always wanted to command this Carrier and now his dream was close to fulfilment, all thanks to Scorpius' mistakes.
For now he kept his own counsel. Best, he felt, to let Scorpius fall on his own, than to give him a helping push. Just in case.
Gemmell watched on his plotter, as the ships appeared to creep together, the illuminated circle designating the maximum range of his weapons touched first one then another Peacekeeper ship. But his ships didnít fire, yet. He had so few missiles available, they must be used to the maximum effect at the appropriate time. More and more of the Peacekeeper ships slid into range, yet there were no fighters coming at him. This worried him. No commander would surrender an advantage no matter how slim. He planned to launch his fighters to draw the enemies away for however long they might survive. Now it seemed he might just have the edge he needed. Individually his fighters were no match for the ships arrayed against him, but collectively they could do enough damage to slow the mass of Cruisers down. He didnít need to destroy them, just slow them long enough to effect his escape. But the timing, as ever, would be critical.
Finally the ranging circles around his ships turned green, signifying energy weapon range, and X-ray lasers and standard nuclear missiles started to tear into the Peacekeeper ships. The nuclear missiles impacting upon the defensive shields around the ships and the x-ray lasers punching holes in the shield and tearing into the fabric of the ships themselves. For several minutes the Imperial ships had immunity from any answering fire and used it to great effect. Peacekeeper ships started to tumble in space, shields gone and oxygen fed fires spewing from their interiors. But not one targeted ship was destroyed. As it fell out of formation, another was targeted. There was no need to destroy these ships, just cripple enough of them to allow the Fleet to slide past with least casualties.
If Scorpius had been angry before, now he was rage incarnate. His carefully crafted plan was falling apart before his eyes and there was nothing he could do. The ships of the first attacking force, sent so far out of position, were still racing to attempt an interception, but unless these aliens were significantly slowed here those ships may as well be a parsec away for all their use. He still had numerical advantage over the enemy, but he was steadily eating away at that from outside his own range. But he was puzzled. If his weapons so significantly were out ranged then why did the other ships close upon his ships inviting their own deaths along with his Cruisers. UnlessÖ.
"Shit." Gemmell swore vehemently. "Someone over there is thinking and too damn well for my tastes." He watched as the Peacekeeper ships increased the distance between their ships as they drove in to get to their own ranges. This change disrupted his plan. It made little difference to his missile crews but the additional distance between ships reduced the number of ships each of his ships could target with energy weapons. Distance made little difference to the power of an x-ray laser but the mounts could only traverse a certain distance. With the enemy ships bunched up and at close range, it was like shooting fish in a barrel, but spread out like this they became much more difficult targets to cripple or destroy. As he ruminated on this change of tactics, he felt a powerful jolt pass through the ship. His immunity had come to an end.
The fire from the Peacekeeper ships was poorly co-ordinated at first, the Imperials having destroyed many of the command ships. The light screen in front of the Dreadnoughts and Carrier began to be fall away like chaff from wheat. Despite all of their advanced weaponry and defensive technology, in the end they were too small to survive the constant pounding upon first their shields, and as they failed, their hulls. The crews knew their duty was to ensure the survival of the larger ships and thatís what they were doing. The range had closed enough to make ramming a viable option for some of the staggering wrecks of the screen. Ships came together at a significant portion of the speed of light, the resulting consequences were too intense to simply be called an explosion. It was almost as if small suns appeared for an instant before submitting to the cold depths of space. Finally the last ship of the Imperial screen died, leaving only a pair of Dreadnoughts and the Fleet Carrier. But the screen's death was not in vain. The Dreadnoughts had used the time to pound away at the enemy ships, many of whom were lying dead in space as the last of the screen died.
Still it seemed not to be enough, the Dreadnoughts were forced to space themselves widely, robbing each other of the normal fire and defensive support they relied upon, in order to defend the Carrier from as much damage as they could.
Scorpius stood gripping the panel before him as the Command Carrier's shield was struck by another wave of missiles. Thankfully these were simple nuclear missiles and not of the type employed earlier to such disastrous effect. The enemy obviously had no more left. It was time to close in for the kill.
"Enemy is closing sir." Gemmell grunted at this obvious comment from Tetrarch Vanessa Husac, his ops officer. He could read the plot as well as she could.
"It seems the time has come to use one of our edges." He knew he need say no more. Vanessa helped draft this plan, she knew what was needed.
"Aye sir," was her only reply.
Braca cursed as he watched a wave of fighters appear from the enemy carrier. There werenít many but he knew the best weapon against a fighter was another fighter. Chilnack alone knew what these were armed with, this entire event was throwing up too many surprises for his liking. He glanced over at Scorpius as the half-breed absorbed this information. He expected this news to set him off once more, but instead it seemed to have the opposite effect. He seemed to crystallise, harden before Braca's eyes.
Then he shattered. In a fit of rage he brought his fist down upon the console. It gave a screech of protest as it buckled under the force of Scorpius' assault. "I want those ships destroyed." The menacing, reverberating tone warned Braca that Scorpius was losing control of his temper.
Braca was hesitant to interrupt at this point but he also understood the uniqueness of the fugitive human they had been seeking for all this time. He took a step towards Scorpius, who snapped around the instant that he started to move. "Sir, you believe these vessels to be of human origin. If thatís the case then it is likely that Crichton is aboard one of them. If we destroy them then we lose him for good."
"That is a risk we must take Braca. If we allow these ships to escape we will almost definitely lose him forever. These ship types have never been sighted before, we wouldnít even have a remote idea of where to look for him if he escapes from us here." As Scorpius was saying this he was advancing slowly upon Braca, who was starting to feel justifiably nervous about his position. He knew he had to raise these objections for the record if he was to achieve his captaincy, but he was starting to wonder if the risk was worth his life.
"I know what youíre doing Braca. You are ambitious and want command. I promised you that you would go far under my command. Donít try to get out from under it, because if I fall, I will make sure you do as well." With that he turned back to the screen. "Bring this ship into range of the enemy Braca. It is time we add our own firepower to that of our remaining ships."
"Enemy carrier closing sir." The young scan tech reported.
"Good timingÖ. For us that is." A shark like smile speared across Gemmell's face as he finally watched the enemy react as he wanted them to.
"Entering weapons range in twenty five microts, Scorpius."
"Fire when ready Lieutenant." So far only light fire had been directed against the carrier, even though it had entered the enemy's range many microts before. Scorpius had the feeling that something, somewhere was wrong but he had no idea what it could be. The enemy had been decimated. They only had three ships left. Admittedly they were the three largest ships in their fleet but Scorpius was confident of his ships' ability to destroy them. But still the persistent disquiet gnawed at his bones.
"What ships are firing upon us?" he inquired of Braca who was studying the sensor readouts.
"All fire is coming from a single source, the enemy carrier. But it is light and sporadic and consisting of either nuclear or chemical explosives. Neither of which are having much weakening effect upon our defence screen." Braca reported, not once looking in Scorpiusí direction, as he held onto the display to retain his balance while the Command Carrier was again rocked by the impacts upon itís shields.
"Yet I sense a trap somewhere. There is something wrong with their deployment. They know they are out matched, yet their formation signals they expect to survive. Why?" even though Scorpius was saying this aloud, Braca realised that he was simply thinking aloud. He glanced back at the tactical plot and understood what was worrying Scorpius. Either the enemy was suicidal, which Braca would not rule out at this point after what had happened to the second attack group, or supremely confident of their survival. Obviously this worried Scorpius and whatever worried that half-breed was terrifying to Braca.
"Closing to range with the remaining light cruisers sir."
"Let me know thirty seconds before the carrier joins the other attacking ships." He turned away from the scan tech without even acknowledging her affirmative reply. He pressed his priority signal to gain Rameriez's attention on her command bridge. In his holo repeater she turned and saw him waiting for her attention.
"Prep our XAM ship killers and have the Dreadnoughts ready their Type Threeís. Then tie their fire command into our net. For this to work all missiles have to reach them at the same time."
"Yes sir, I know, I did help you formulate this course of action you know." Gemmell assumed his best poker face, he couldnít resist this opportunity, and this could be his last chance after all.
"Just checking Gillian, after all, women are the weaker sex. Their minds just get all dizzy sometimes." His poker face started to crack slightly as he watched Rameriez struggle not to burst out laughing in front of her officers. She swiftly suppressed her amusement, but before turning away answered with one of her own.
"Thank you sir, on behalf of the Ďweaker sexí, Iíll be sure to let others know of this kindness you have shown." With that she turned away, letting him know just how much she thought of his comment, and no doubt him as well.
Gemmell winced slightly at what he knew the female crew were going to do to him. But it was worth it to break the tension that was evidently starting to grind her down.
On his command board, he watched as the readiness panels turned from amber to green on the new Type Four ship killers. Seconds later more icons joined them as the Dreadnoughts spun their missiles up to readiness and tied them into the Carrier's command net, thereby transferring fire command to Gemmell's station. This would be something he did personally, so that he could savour the moment.
"Thirty seconds sir." The scan tech chimed out, Gemmell immediately pulled himself back into action.
"Entering range now, preparing to fire." This report sounded out over the Command Carrier's Bridge. Braca nodded his receipt of the report. Scorpius had ordered the enemy Carrier to be made the priority target, and this order was relayed to the remaining ships now forming an arc before the enemy ships. The range continued to close even as they hammered at each other with massive amounts of firepower. The Command Carrier was closing in behind the centre on this arc. Soon it would be the centre of the arc.
"Enemy is now thirty seconds away from the line of enemy ships." Gemmell nodded absently at the tech's report, choosing to concentrate on his own tactical relay. It was almost time, a few seconds more. He passed orders on to the Dreadnoughts and they moved slightly to give themselves better positions from which to fire on the Command Carrier.
Scorpius watched, puzzled that the enemy ships were moving into less efficient firing positions. It made no sense at all, he could only surmise that somebody had panicked, yet that seemed unlikely. His feeling of malaise grew from a gentle gnawing to gut wrenching. He had missed something, miscalculated somehow or underestimated the enemy. He was sure of that now. But things had progressed too far. To withdraw at this stage would be even more disastrous than defeat. It was time to act.
"Braca, come with me."
Gemmell watched on his tactical plot as the Peacekeeper light cruisers started moving to make room for the Command Carrier on the firing line. This was what he had been waiting for. Without hesitation he depressed the firing key.
From each of the Dreadnoughts two Type Three fusion ship killer missiles, leaped from their launchers towards the Command carrier, micro seconds later, the delay due to the carrier being slightly closer, four Type Four anti-matter ship killer missiles thundered from their launchers.
The Peacekeeper ships recognised the significance of the launches immediately and vainly tried to get out of range, and they might have succeeded if it werenít for the Type Four missiles. Only one of these was targeted at the Command Carrier, the other three were programmed to explode in a pattern that would engulf the region in fiery death.
In an eye-tearing explosion, the stars were blotted out, and all the light cruisers within the globe of fire, died instantly. Their shields overloaded and their armour was brushed aside with contempt, death came swift and hard for them. The Command Carrier faired better, its jury-rigged repairs to its shields held long enough to prevent its utter destruction and when they did fail the ship's armour was sufficient to withstand the remnants of the explosion.
Inside the ship was chaos reigned. Propulsion and power were down on most of the ship. Environmental controls were non-existent and large portions were open to the hard vacuum of space. To make matters worse, Scorpius had apparently disappeared. There was nobody in command and nobody willing to take command upon themselves.
So many systems had been damaged that no one noticed the follow up missiles. They were standard nukes but with no shielding to radiate the energy away from the Command Carrier they spelled its death. The carrier was once more plunged into the heart of a pseudo-sun, but this time it didnít survive. It exploded in a spectacular fashion, seeming to crumble in on itself before exploding violently outward.
The few surviving Peacekeeper light cruisers swiftly turned and accelerated to get out of range. The three imperial ships cruised swiftly through the debris field left by the Command Carrier, the other ship-shaving been incinerated leaving no traceable remnants.
In her cell Aeryn let out a breath she didnít realise she had been holding. The ship had finally stopped tossing her and her cellmates about. She could only presume one of two outcomes. Either the Peacekeepers had been defeated or the ship had surrendered. She doubted these humans would have surrendered to the Peacekeepers so that only left one option. She had no idea of the numbers involved or the casualties inflicted on either side, but from the duration of the fight severe losses must have been inflicted upon both sides.
The others in the cell were reacting similarly. They knew that rescue was not an option, not anymore. They would be deemed irreversibly contaminated from their extended contact with this unclassified alien species. It seemed a sick twist of fate that their path for life was with those who killed so many of them in the earlier assault upon their base. Even the tests they were being subjected to were preferable to death. For now at least.
Aeryn felt slightly envious. At least they only had themselves to worry about. She, as ever, had to worry about John too. It seemed that ever since he had entered her life nothing had taken the easy path. He was like a lightening rod for trouble. Even the simplest of tasks John could turn into a life-threatening situation.
This was worse than most though. This time they were both prisoners and not even together. For all she knew he could have been killed in the battle this ship had been involved in. She just had no way of knowing and the worry was beginning to get the better of her.
Dietz climbed back into the bed beside John, where she had been throughout the fighting. She wasnít a line officer and felt no need to watch over Gemmell as the battle raged. No matter what she thought of him personally she was willing to admit, grudgingly, that he was a master tactician. Besides even if they were going to die, she might as well die in bed with a man, there must be worse ways of going.
Whatever had gone wrong in the removal of the neural camouflage and the reinstatement of the dominant personality seemed to have little effect beyond a bit of disorientation when he first awoke. A little less than an hour later he was acting like himself again, arrogant and self-centred. It pleased her to have him back, she had been disgusted at just how weak the other personality had been. A snivelling wretch of a man, not even a pale shadow of his true self. Still he had done his job commendably. It seemed he had come across an application of wormhole technology that not even Imperial scientists had thought of. A momentous discovery and one she had relayed at once back to the Intelligence Directorate.
It had taken considerable persuasion to convince him to stay with her here, instead of going to the bridge and offering his help. He still had to be observed and tested. A smile curved her lips as she remembered her choice of testing. He certainly passed that one. She glanced down at him as he lay sleeping. She ran a finger slowly down his bare back. Passed with flying colours.
"Signal Psyrix sector command that we are on schedule for the portal opening. Also request medical evac teams to be ready to take the most severally injured to the station for treatment. Also advise them on the current casualties, they may as well begin processing the figures now as in three hours." He shot out these orders rapid fire to his aide. He had succeeded in his mission but in doing so he had lost almost fifty thousand men and women and numerous ships. It galled him that this would be considered a successful mission by the Imperium.
What was worse, he had turned a genuine, pleasant person back into the monster he had once been. Just the type of person the Imperium wants now for itís dirty missions. The irony of John Crichtonís situation didnít escape him. He had been sent out as a Far Scout to another galaxy as punishment for his eradication of a planetary population against orders. It was a well-known secret that the only reason he had been punished at all was politics. Now politics were bringing him home to begin the cycle once again.
Aboard a single marauder travelling on a stealth trajectory towards the crippled Command carrier, Scorpius raged. He had lost his quarry and for now, had no way of tracking him down. He had underestimated badly the enemyís technological edge over the Peacekeeper ships. But he had saved the sensor recordings of the battle and enough light cruisers remained to protect the remaining Command Carrier as it was repaired.
He had no doubt that the repercussions of the events here would be severe but with the sensor recordings he knew he had a good chance of surviving his report to High Command. After all he could always alter the records slightly to throw the worst of the blame on Braca if it became necessary. That was why he brought him with him.
On Moya silence reigned. The sheer scale of the destruction frightened them all to the depths of their souls. Never before had they seen or heard of a Peacekeeper Fleet being destroyed in such a manner.
"And you want to catch up with that? Are you all magra farhbot? Theyíll kill us before we get close." Rygel broke into the silence.
"We owe it to them to try at least." Zhaan replied quietly into the hushed silence.
"Iím afraid that catching the Imperial ships is no longer an option." Pilot interjected. "Moya is so far behind that the ship that Commander Crichton and Officer Sun are on will soon be outside her sense horizon. Whatís more the large group of Peacekeeper ships pursuing the Imperial ships is starting to catch up with Moya."
"Then we have no choice, we must starburst now." DíArgo glanced around and saw reluctant agreement from the others, all except Rygel, who was so happy to be escaping he was practically bouncing on his throne sled.
Reaching the location of the portal, the ships went through one by one. First the Fleet carrier, then the remaining two Dreadnoughts. Once the ships were gone the area where the portal existed seemed to waver and distort for almost an arn, eventually the effect dissipated and only normal space remained.
The observing marauder marked the location and returned with its sensor information to the now barely mobile Command Carrier.
The returning ships were met by a swarm of shuttles, collecting the injured for treatment aboard the station. They were also there to collect the prisoners as well as Gemmell, Dietz and Crichton.
The boat bay was barely ordered chaos as shuttles took off and landed at insanely short intervals, scarcely landing long enough to be loaded before taking back off. Into this frenzy of activity Aeryn stumbled, trying to keep her balance as she was once again pushed forward hard to encourage her to move faster. The level of activity shocked her. The only time she had seen anything comparable was when her Command Carrier was docked at a major Peacekeeper base. But barely a solar day had passed since she had been captured. The humans couldnít have such a base so close and have it remain a secret in the Uncharted Territories. Again her escort gave her a shove to get her to move quicker.
Each prisoner had an escort and all the prisoners - with no exceptions - were in restraints, even those that were injured and on gurneys. So when she caught a glimpse of John through the crowds she was shocked to see that not only was he not restrained in any way but was also wearing the uniform of the Imperials. Her sense of shock and betrayal was immense, especially when he glanced around and clearly recognised her. He stopped and pointed to her, it was only then that Aeryn noticed that blonde tralk Dietz was with him. She said something and he laughed and, with a cheery wave to Aeryn, turned and entered a nearby shuttle with not even a glance over his shoulder. When her escort shoved her once more she staggered off balance, trying to regain both her physical and mental balance.
Silence reigned aboard the shuttle. The meeting between Crichton and Gemmell was all she could have hoped for. Their instant dislike for one another was a joy for her to behold. They had managed somehow to keep an icy measure of decorum and respect for one another's ranks and positions, but it was evident that John would be a willing participant in her plans for Gemmellís demise. Now that the shuttle trip was almost over she felt herself begin to relax slightly. She had a well-placed ally and once she stepped foot on the Command Node she would be outside of Gemmell's authority. All in all a good day she felt.
His meeting with Crichton could have gone better, Gemmell felt. It was, he mused, partly his fault. He couldnít stop some of his dislike of Crichtonís previous actions from creeping into his tone as they talked. It was clear that Crichton picked up on the fact as his own demeanour flash froze instantly into an aloof and icy manner. Oh, the respect due to Gemmell's rank was present, barely, but it was clear that Crichton now regarded him as less than nothing.
He glanced over at Dietz who had never left Crichtonís side, she saw the glance and gave him a small smirk. He glanced away again, cursing his luck. He would have to get the most paranoid operative of the Intelligence Directorate. He knew she had no evidence against him but he also knew that she would get it or manufacture it. She might not know his true allegiances but in the end it wouldnít matter. Still he knew he had time. For now he was immune because of his supposedly Ďheroicí actions, but once the glory faded she would bore away at him until she found something to destroy him with. And he had just given her a high placed ally. Of course knowing the rumours surrounding Crichton the chances were that he had already been her ally.
In Arch-Strategos Winkler's private office they sat in a semicircle facing his desk, Gemmell and Crichton on either side with Dietz in the middle. Winkler had yet to make an appearance but his aide who had ushered them in assured them he would be "but minutes" and they should make themselves comfortable. The icy silence continued to permeate the air. When Winkler made his appearance they all stood respectfully for him then waited for him to sit before resuming their own seats.
"First of all let me welcome you home, Lord Crichton. I have a personal message for you from the emperor offering his praise for the success of your mission." With one hand Winkler slid a data crystal toward Crichton across his desk. It halted precariously upon the edge but he made no effort to touch it.
"Thank you sir. Iíll look forward to viewing it later," was all he said.
"Yes, well." Winkler seemed slight perturbed by Crichtonís disregard for the message but shrugged it off, after all, the boy knew that they were all computer generated anyway. He turned his attention to Gemmell next. "I also have a message for you from the Emperor thanking you for your part in the safe return of Lord Crichton as well as a commendation for your actions against these Peacekeepers." Again he slid a data crystal across his desk. This time its intended recipient collected it.
"Thank you sir. I am sure I will view it with great honour. But much of the credit should go to the crews of my ships."
"A letter of commendation has been placed inside each survivorís personnel file. Medals and commendations for the dead also of course."
With that he pressed a button on his desk and a holographic representation of the Empire appeared.
Gemmell couldnít help but notice that the Takara sector was still coloured red, signifying that it was still held by the Ďenemyí. His sense of relief over this fact was immeasurable but also silent and inscrutable.
"I donít wish to speak out of turn sir, but I see the Takara sector is still held by the enemy. Can I ask what went wrong with the incursion?"
"What went wrong was that they knew we were coming. They knew our attack timetable and our ship numbers. They even know about the Knossos Device and that was one of our most closely held secrets." Winkler's face turned brick red as he spoke; his anger over the failure of the assault upon the enemy sector clearly apparent.
"Since you have been gone we have had a spring cleaning. We found far too many officers with sympathetic leaning towards these damn rebels. But they have been dealt with." His tone clearly indicated just how they had been dealt with. "Our losses were heavy but then again so were theirs and we can absorb ours with much less impact than they can. So I am putting together a new plan, which will take full advantage of the abilities of the Knossos Device as well as another surprise we have." Leaning back in his chair he gestured to Gemmell. "Scott I want you to go over the numbers of the failed incursion and see if you can identify the weaknesses the enemy exploited." He held up one hand stalling Gemmell as he started to ask a question. "Yes it has been done before and many times since, but I trust your intuitive tactics and want to see if you come up with the same analysis as my people already have. My aide will supply you with the necessary information. But for now your are dismissed with my thanks." Winkler stood and walked around his desk to shake Gemmell's hand before ushering him out the door.
Dietz felt a strange surge of relief as the door shut with Gemmell on the other side. She hadnít until that moment realised just how off balance he made her feel. She was slightly disquieted by John's earlier actions, but put it down to having Gemmell so close. John rose to his feet and stepped forward and hugged Winkler.
"Hello Uncle Dimitri." With a laugh Winkler pulled John into a hug.
"John my boy, it is good to see you back alive. Not many people expected it, but I certainly did." He said taking a seat in Gemmellís vacated chair, shooing John back into his own.
Winkler glanced towards Dietz then back at John. He noted how close she sat beside him and clearly put two and two together to make five. "So you two are back together again are you? Good. Glad to hear it," he continued overriding any possible attempt by either Dietz or Crichton to disagree with his statement. Strangely enough neither tried. "Now my Boy, you must tell me all that has happened."
Dietz sighed and settled in for a wait. The old boysí network was alive and well and operating out of this room.
The ride in the shuttle was nothing spectacular for Aeryn. It was as cramped and smelly as any drop shuttle she had been on as a Peacekeeper. What was unusual was being secured to the bulkhead by chains. There was a shudder then a heavy thump as the shuttle landed wherever it was going. With trepidation Aeryn watched the doors open. Armed troops entered and started to remove her fellow prisoners. When it came her turn they simply unshackled her and directed her out of the shuttle.
Her first reaction on leaving the shuttle was one of shock. The bay was immense. You could have fit a Command Carrier inside and still had room. It was obvious this was a major base, there were armed troops everywhere, either simply standing guard over unfamiliar equipment or patrolling the area.
There were also lots of what could only be medical personnel, wounded were being triaged not far from Aeryn and the others. She watched, as one of the medics, injected something into one of the wounded men, there was a spasm then he died, quickly and efficiently. Change the uniforms and these people could be Peacekeepers, she thought. It was a thought that brought her no comfort. Once the last of the prisoners from this shuttle was off loaded, they were all marched to a vehicle that carried them away.
"Now, that is quite a story John," Winkler said once Crichton had finished his monologue on his Ďadventuresí. "And thatís just the condensed version. Iíll look forward to seeing the entire report from you." With a sigh Winkler leaned back, the vertebrae popping audibly. "Unfortunately, I am afraid we have to get back down to business now, my boy." He stood and walked back behind his desk, where he rummaged through one of his drawers briefly before pulling out a stack of flimsies and sliding them over to John, who this time picked them up with interest.
"These contain details of your new command. Itís a plum job, and since it is at my discretion as to who gets it Iím giving it to you." He turned his head slightly upon hearing a barely audible snort from Dietz. "Yes Amy? You have something to say?"
On being caught in her contempt for the machinations of the old boy network, she sat bolt upright before regaining her composure and relaxing slightly. "No sir. I have nothing to say."
"Oh relax Amy. You're family again." This assertion from Winkler didnít bring her any peace of mind. After all the more prominent a family you belonged to, the uglier your potential death was. While this was all going on John had obviously been studying the information contained on the flimsies in his hands.
"This is quite an assignment Uncle Dimitri, but since when has commanding a Dreadnought squadron been a Tetrarch's assignment?"
"Oh did I forget to mention that? Youíre not a Tetrarch once you leave this room. You have been promoted for Ďconspicuous gallantry in the fieldí." The quotation marks were clear around his phrasing. Everyone in the room knew that was just a stock phrase for granting a promotion. "Congratulations Cohortach Crichton." Winkler grinned and leaned forward to shake Johnís hand over his desk.
"The timing of your return could not have been better. Your new squadron is unique in our forces, for now at least. They rushed the final fitting of these ships due to the debacle in the Takara sector, and there are still one or two bugs to be ironed out but thatís all." Punching a control on his desk a ship appeared.
It was a totally unfamiliar class to Dietz. It had the look of an Imperial ship but it was like no Dreadnought she had seen before. It seemed to radiate power. "Impressive isnít it?" Winkler said, his attention focused on John. When Amy turned to look at him, he was leaning forward, his eyes wide as they absorbed the details of the ship.
"It is call a Warlock class Dreadnought. It is one and one half times the size of a standard dreadnought and was designed from the beginning to incorporate our new anti-matter weaponry. That gives it over three times the firepower of a standard Dreadnought, and I am giving you six of these ships to command at your discretion. Under my orders of course."
"Of course." Dietz couldnít help smiling at the wistful tone in John's voice as he answered. She shook her head ruefully. Boys and their toys. Do they never grow up?
"And so in conclusion the primary weakness in the incursion plan for the Takara sector was that it relied too heavily upon complex timing and the fact that there was no cohesive fall back plan. Once something started to go wrong, we were caught in a domino effect. It was obvious whoever planned their defence had advanced knowledge of not only our plans but also our attack schedule. With it he was able to move ships and troops from unthreatened sectors to reinforce those we wanted to take, then move them back before the next wave of attacks was scheduled to take place on that sector." With that Gemmell shut down the holo projector he had been standing before while giving his analysis of the events in the Takara sector.
Winkler nodded in agreement with his assessment. "Yes, thatís what our earlier analysis came up with as well." He grunted as he levered himself to his feet. Getting too old for this. "Well ladies and gentlemen, once again we hear that our plans were revealed to the rebels by spies. What disgusts me even more is that those spies wore the same uniform and swore he same oaths as I did. Thankfully that is no longer a problem, all spies have been dispatched from our service making it pure again." As he said this Dietz thought she seen his eyes flicker toward Gemmell then away again, but it all happened so quickly she could not be sure.
He switched the projector back on and fed it a new data crystal. "What you are now looking at is the plan for our assault on the Takara Sector Capital. The most heavily defended region of space outside that of Terra."
Those words froze Gemmell's mind for a second. He was convinced that he couldnít have heard correctly. It would be nothing more than suicide to attempt it. And the cost itself would be huge, one not even the massive Imperial Navy could absorb. He glanced over at Rameriez, seeing that she was as shocked as he was. Subsequent looks around into the audience showed that everyone else was pretty much experiencing the same emotions, except Crichton. He was sitting with a small smile on his face. That alone was enough to cause Gemmell to worry.
"The plan is simplicity itself. We insert our forces around the system, draw out the defending forces and destroy them by the numbers. But we make no move until all our ships are in place."
Dietz waited until the briefing was over before approaching the Arch-Strategos. She knew that he trusted Gemmell and her doubts about him would most likely go unheeded, but given the immensity of the planned assault she knew she had to at least try. A loss like the one suffered earlier would cripple morale throughout the Empire. More importantly John would be involved in this one.
"Sir, I was wondering if I could have a word with you in private?"
Winkler stopped a moment and sighed. "What is it with you young people, always wanting to talk in private? First itís John and now you. Iím not a pimp or a marriage counsellor you know." With a shake of his head he put his arm around her shoulders and guided her to a secluded spot in the auditorium.
"What can I do for you? And before you ask, if you donít know what John wanted I am not going to tell you." His statements confused Amy for a moment, but she chose to disregard them for now.
"I have, doubts; about the loyalty of Cohortach Gemmell and his Flag Captain sir." She spoke plainly, hoping the truth of her words would shine through.
She watched, as Winkler slowly looked her over, head to toe. She found it a most unpleasant experience. "You do, do you? And what exactly makes you doubt him?"
"It is nothing solid, just certain things donít add up. And he was deeply involved in the planning for the original incursion wasnít he? He helped draw up both the list of targets and the attack schedule." She watched as Winkler gnawed at his lower lip as if trying to decide something important. Finally he gave a sigh.
"Ok Amy, Iíll tell you this but only you is that clear?" He waited for her to nod before continuing. "I have my doubts as well, in fact more than simple doubts. All the spies we captured indicated that there was a spy higher in the command structure than they, but they had no idea who it might be. Slowly information has been gathered and more and more of it points to Gemmell as both a rebel sympathiser and a spy."
"Then why tell him the plan? You risk everything."
"Who said I told him the plan?" he grinned at her and a smile spread across her face in response. It seemed that she wasnít going to have to wait to watch his destruction after all.
"This is madness," Rameriez hissed at Gemmell. "If we get caught then theyíll change the plan and nobody will be in place to tell them of it." She had been shocked to find upon their return that her network of sympathisers had been decimated. The few that survived the pogrom were poorly placed to relay to this information. She could understand his reasoning but she still felt the risk was reckless and unnecessary.
"We have been over this Gillian, this information is more important than anything we have ever had. Even more so than the plans for the incursion on the Takara sector." As he spoke he finally managed to slip the tuned resonator crystal out of the comm assembly.
"Donít you think someone will notice a Flag Officer and his Captain doing routine maintenance on the comm array and find it a little odd?"
"Thatís why I have you here Gillian, to watch my ass." He glanced over his shoulder at her and saw her doing just that. "I meant the corridor Gillian." He mumbled with a grin spreading across his face.
"Oh sorry, I got confused. Put it down to me being of the weaker sex." With a grin she turned her attention back to the service corridor but not before she seeing a wince flash across Scott's face. Serves him right.
Gemmell winced as he jabbed his hand against the inside of the resonator coil of the comm array. Gingerly he slipped his crystal in to the space emptied by the one he removed. The diagnostics panel bleeped confirming the correct placement. With a grim smile he began to download the information of the assault on the Takara Sector capital to Takara Central Command.
"Comm interruption. Section twelve A." Winkler looked over at Amy and John. "It seems we have a bite children." A rueful smile appeared before vanishing like it never existed.
"What now?" John and Amy asked at the same time. They glanced at each other and shared a small smile.
"We wait of course. If we compromise him now, they will suspect the plan to be false and try to anticipate where we will strike instead."
Gemmell was relaxing in his quarters when his personal comm beeped, signalling he had received a call. When he pulled the message up, the first thing he noticed was that its origin was missing. The next was what it said. A cold sweat covered his body as he re-read the message even as he frantically tried to contact Gillian.