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"Not again," Zoe muttered as the ship shook from another direct hit.
This had been going on far longer than usual, and it was getting worse. Though her quarters were deep within the center of the command ship's many hulls, she could still feel the energy blows against their heavy shielding, and how that shielding was fading. The communications stem in her ear let her know that the whole task force was in trouble and on the run. And not only their ships, but Asi ships were also scattering under the Hajim attack.
She knew her exasperation was inappropriate, as good people were fighting and dying on the ships around her. She honored their sacrifice, but she wasn't supposed to be in battles, and this was the third time in five years.
She'd ended up piloting a fighter during the first battle, and a freighter full of refugees the second time. She was a good pilot, but she functioned best as a diplomat. At least she tried. She left her quarters to make her way to the bridge.
The corridors were almost empty; the well-trained crew were all at their battle stations in response to the general quarters alarm. She was probably the only person not where she was supposed to be, but the need to be useful drove her. She might not be assigned to this ship, but she knew she was the best pilot in the whole Byzant Empire. It had little to do with natural talent and much to do with the enhancement modules that took up almost microscopic space in her brain. She was simply wired better than anyone else on board.
Why did this have to happen just as the talks were beginning to make progress? She smiled grimly at the naïveté of her own question, knowing full well that the attack was likely happening because the negotiations were proceeding. No matter how tight security seemed to be, leaks were always possible.
That the war had gone on for five years told her that she and all the other diplomats were failing at their jobs.
They failed not only the human worlds of Byzant, but the aliens of Kril, Denthera, and Asi. Only the Hajim did not know failure, for they refused to negotiate. They simply fought. Sometimes they forced others to fight for them, if not with them, but they made no true alliances. This war went on and on, the battle lines swinging back and forth across system after system.
Now the Hajim fleet had appeared to break up yet another attempt at negotiation.
The deck shook beneath her with another hit, knocking Zoe to her knees.
As she got to her feet, a side door cycled open. Jazoan, Zoe's bodyguard and the head of security detail, stepped to Zoe's side and steadied her as the strongest shock so far rumbled through the ship, then stepped back quickly.
She could tell by his grim expression that things were not going well at all. "Status?"
"That last explosion was a direct hit to the shuttle bay. The Denthera ambassador was boarding her shuttle at the time."
Zoe shook her head sadly at the loss of the enigmatic alien woman she'd sat across the table from a few hours before. "So now we'll never know if the Denthera betrayed the conference to the Hajim. What about the Asi ambassador?"
"The Asi have vowed not to be taken alive."
Zoe knew all too well what that meant, and she had to fight down nausea.
Jazoan took her by the wrist as the ship shook again. "It's time for you to go."
She wanted to say that she would not abandon the ship as long as her people fought on, but by a new law passed since those other battles the decision at such a time of crisis was not for her to make. Jazoan was head of the security detail.
"Our shuttle was parked next to the Dentherans."
"It's time," was all he said.
Silence stretched tautly between them while he waited. While the decision was his, he wasn't going to force her. Not yet. Zoe longed to do something, but she knew it was too late when the "abandon ship" alarm began to sound.
Jazoan hustled her back to her quarters, where she changed into the blue uniform of a navy lieutenant and made other necessary preparations as quickly as possible. The decks rattled and shook constantly while she was occupied; he stood with his arms crossed, his back braced against the door. Alarms blared, and by the time she was ready, the "abandon ship" warning had changed to a siren that sounded a harsh, doomed-sounding tone in her ears. Finally, she inserted a fresh ID chip into her right wrist.
While the pain of the insertion still stung, Jazoan took her by the elbow and led her into the controlled chaos in the corridor. There were people everywhere now, in navy, marine, and civil service uniforms. The pair of them blended into the crowd heading for the escape pods, and Jazoan guided her quickly to the front of the line. By now, the shaking from enemy fire had turned into the constant fatal shuddering of a ship about to disintegrate. The ship would self-destruct into its component atoms once everyone was off, leaving no evidence of the secret conference for the Hajim. She and Jazoan would be the only ones left with any information at all.
Zoe noted the fear on every face, but people calmly responded to the safety routines that had been drilled into them. It was well known that the Hajim took prisoners, but no one knew where the captives were sent. The important thing right now was to reach an escape pod and get off the dying ship.
To stay alive.
Escape would be better, but Zoe knew that she'd have to wait and watch and be patient until an opportunity presented itself.
Jazoan, with years of experience at dealing with crowds, got them to the pod deck quickly. Then the unexpected happened at the entrance of the vast hangar.
The young officer directing the loading looked at her in surprise, and stammered, "Porphyrgia! What are you doing -- "
"Lieutenant Alynn Ryan," she said, accessing information on the young man from the vast database implant in her brain. He was one of hundreds of service people she'd spoken to on a hospital visit a year before. She managed a smile for the brave young man now. "I see your wound has healed well."
His eyes shone. "You remember me? What are you doing here?"
He was flattered and flustered, but there was no time for it. Besides, she could see that Jazoan was not at all pleased at this unexpected turn. He considered anonymity crucial for her security. She didn't like the way he looked at the young officer. She gave a faint shake of her head, hoping this was enough to keep her protector on his leash.
"We have our duties, Alynn," she reminded the lieutenant, and touched him on the hand reassuringly.
"Of course," he answered. "This way."
He led her forward into the hangar bay, with many others crowding behind and then surrounding her. The ship gave the most violent shake yet, and the emergency lights went from yellow to red. Sirens howled, barely audible above a scream of crunching metal.
Zoe made it into an overloaded pod, one of the last on board before the hatch cycled shut. But by the time she was in the escape vehicle, Jazoan was no longer at her side. She hoped that he hadn't turned back to deal with the hapless young man, for her guard could be dauntingly ruthless in the name of the empire.
There was nothing Zoe could do but struggle to a free seat, strap herself in, and hope for rescue as the lifepod was ejected from the dying ship.
"Bad news, Doc," Corporal Arco said as he came up to Matthias in the middle of the wide dirt floor at the bottom of the central shaft. Arco pointed upward, where faint, filtered light flowed down through a haze of dust motes. "They've got another eighty in the processing camp up top."
Dr. Matthias Raven took the news with a fatalistic shrug. He was the highest-ranking Byzant officer in Camp Five, a brigadier general in the Space Marines, which put him in charge of the human POWs. He was also the only medical officer for humans in the prison camp. He had to deal with the prisoners, the Kril who ran the camp, and occasionally, the Hajim who forced the Kril to do their dirty work for them.
This wasn't what he'd signed on for when he joined the marines, but duty took many forms. He'd been in the vast underground dungeon of Camp Five for sixteen months now. At least he wasn't afraid of the dark, like so many others. There was a part of him that just wanted to take his chances and walk out. But -- duty...
"I assume you mean eighty humans, Corporal?" he questioned.
Arco nodded. "Word is that the Hajim came across a CC alone out on the Fringe and took most of the crew alive."
Doc eyed Arco suspiciously. "What would a Conquest Class ship be doing that far out? Alone?"
"The crew's reporting it as a simple FUBAR navigational malfunction to their debriefers."
"Bad luck. For all of us," Doc added.
"The Asi and Denthera aren't going to like this," Arco agreed. "We'll outnumber the alien prisoners now. Remember the snorting and snapping from the Asi when they brought in those two new humans a couple of days ago?"
"The rise in population isn't good for anybody," Matthias repeated. "You don't think the rations are going to increase just because we have more people, do you?"
Arco clearly hadn't considered this. Until now, he'd seemed rather pleased that there were more human prisoners being processed into the camp.
"Are you homesick, Corporal Arco? Or just forgetting why we're here?"
Arco gave a bitter laugh. "Come on, Doc -- sir. You know I was put into Five with the very first batch of human prisoners. And yeah," he added, "I'm damned homesick."
"Me, too. You did say eighty newbies?" Matthias asked.
Matthias shook his head. "I wonder what sort of fight the CC crew put up before they became prisoners." Some were bound to need medical attention. "I'd better get the infirmary set up for them."
His medical staff consisted of himself, one nurse, a couple of volunteers, and a very old biobot. They didn't have much to work with to keep the human inmates healthy; now they had more people to call on their already-stretched-thin resources.
"Prison commandant will want to see you first, Doc. They'll want you to give your speech, too."
Bureaucracy before compassion. It wasn't necessarily the Kril way, but the Hajim had forced the Kril to work for them, running all of their prison camps. Doc sighed. Before Arco's news, he'd been planning on finding a quiet spot to enjoy a smoke of recently smuggled in arja tobacco, but he'd have to forgo that pleasure until later.
"Go get word to the medical team about the new prisoners. I'll be there as soon as I can."
Copyright © 2009 by Susan Sizemore