Chapter Seven – Alliance Response
Apis and Seti had spent days exploring Linkaas, capital city of Opaal, while they waited to see what the Alliance response would be—if any. Finaa, Degan’s deputy, arranged a trip into the Melusian Mountains, a place of tranquillity frequented by Suraa from all across the planet. Apis loved the place and under different circumstances would have stayed there forever. Seti, on the other hand, quickly grew tired of staring at endless forested mountains and valleys as well as the twin suns and countless moons of Opaal. “We’ve got to get out of here, Apis,” Seti said, munching on a Golal nut. “Don’t you miss everyone?”
“Of course I do,” Apis replied, spitting seeds out of his mouth as he spoke. “But we can’t return until Degan gets a decision from the Alliance. So we’ll just have to stay here and enjoy ourselves,” he said, wiping his mouth with his sleeve.
A week later Degan sent for them. The Alliance had made a decision but not the wholly diplomatic one he and the other Suron Chief Ministers had hoped for. An Alliance peacekeeping force would be sent to surround Jalnuur until a delegation had travelled to Dranaa and met with Nagesh in an attempt to achieve a diplomatic solution, to prevent the situation escalating into war with the Alliance. Apis and Seti said their goodbyes and once back on board, the hyper-ship set coordinates for Jalnuur. As the ship re-entered hyperspace Apis sensed danger. Were they returning too soon or was it just his over-active imagination? Seti was already fast asleep. Apis lay awake for a long time worrying before finally drifting off to sleep.
The sensor system aboard the carrier sounded an alarm. “Admiral, a Minaas class hyper-drive ship has just appeared,” the young captain said from his station on the bridge.
The admiral showed little concern. At that moment one unarmed ship appearing inside the fleet was of no interest to him. The planet below was more important. “Ignore it!” the admiral said.
“But sir, it’s the one which went missing from Nazuur. We should intercept it!” the captain insisted, daring to answer back.
Admiral Shimuh was not used to being spoken to in such an insolent way by his subordinates. He stood up and beckoned to the captain. “Might I remind you who is in charge here?” Shimuh hissed. “We are here to retake the planet. One insignificant Minaas class ship reappearing after a few days is not a priority.”
“But sir, it was stolen; we should at least reclaim it,” the captain replied, with a hushed voice.
Shimuh dismissed him with a wave of his hand. He despised the new type of officer being turned out by the academy. Not a warrior among them, just pen pushing clerks more concerned with inventory than fighting honourably. Shimuh shook his head. Give me someone with a field commission every time! he thought to himself. Then changing his mind, he bellowed, “very well captain, take a scanning team over, and check the damned ship out if you must!”
“Aye sir”, the captain replied, quickly leaving the bridge. Shimuh thought to himself that at least while he is occupied with the hyper-drive ship it will keep the damned idiot out of the way while I concentrate on the task ahead!
Apis leapt to his feet as the ship broke out of hyperspace starring at the screens on the bridge console. “Seti, wake up!” he shouted.
Seti rubbed his eyes. “Whatzamatter,” he mumbled, still half asleep.
“We’re back and right in the middle of a Drana fleet.”
Now fully awake Seti jumped up, banging his head on the upper bunk. “Get us out of here Apis, before they fire on us!” he said in panic.
“We can’t; we’re too close to some of the fleet to jump out of here,” Apis replied, checking the screen.
“What are we going to do then?” Seti bleated.
The admiral’s shuttle locked onto the outer hatch. When it slid open, the captain went inside the hyper-ship followed by the scanning team and two commandos. “Begin your survey, chief,” he ordered. “I want this ship thoroughly searched – every compartment – understood?”
“Aye sir,” the chief replied.
“Follow me,” the captain said to the commandos, as he moved towards the cockpit.
“The ships deserted sir,” the chief reported, after his team had completed a three-hour search.
“What, nothing—no one at all?” the captain asked, completely puzzled. There had to be someone on board! These ships were not designed to operate automatically. “Search again chief, and this time check every compartment and every inspection space beneath every walkway – clear!”
No one aboard heard the Admiral’s shuttle disengage from the hull and slip away into the fleet, locking itself onto one of the cargo-ships. In the dimly lit belly of the ship, two ‘troopers’ joined the next patrol to go down to the planet. When the patrol formed up in the ruins of the hanger and marched off towards the stairwell, the two ‘troopers’ stopped at the entrance to what once had been the hanger workshop. Seti watched the patrol disappear. Nodding to Apis, the pair stole off in the opposite direction, heading for the old turbo-lift shaft and down to the first level.
Commander Shansur stood in the middle of the former Khaz command centre. The engineers had just landed. Soon the tunnel would be open once more. “Master sergeant, report,” Shansur spoke into the microphone in his helmet.
“Engineers at work sir.”
“How soon before they clear the turbo-car tunnel?”
“The lieutenant says ten to fifteen minutes to cut a hole through, sir, providing the tunnel roof doesn’t collapse in on them,” Manesh reported.
“Very well; inform me when it’s safe—out.”
Apis and Seti moved away from the command centre door and back to the hanger. “We have to get back to Cydon-1 and warn them, Apis,” Seti whispered.
“They’ll already know,” Apis replied. “We need a ride back across the surface—any suggestions?”
“Ever driven a surface crawler?” Seti replied with a grin. The pair marched across the hanger and climbed inside an empty crawler. It would be a long dangerous journey but it was better than hanging around. “Nice of the commander to leave these maps just lying around on the bench wasn’t it,” Seti chuckled, as he pulled the geologists survey maps from his pack.
Apis set a course for Cydon-1 using information from the old maps, and fed it into the crawler’s automatic navigation system. Providing all went well, they would be there in about five days’ time. The crawler moved off into a storm, which had rapidly descended onto the mine complex. At least for now the bad weather would keep the Dreyga class fighters and the fleet from spotting them. Plus, the troopers would be reluctant to cross the surface in bad weather.
“What is it, trooper?” Shansur asked.
“Sir, my surface crawler is missing,” the trooper reported.
“Don’t bother me now. Go back and check again. It’s probably being used by another unit – dismissed!” Manesh and his recon team watched the engineers from a safe distance as they went about the business of shoring up the tunnel roof before clearing the blockage. The lieutenant signalled to the corporal in charge of the mobile laser cutter team to begin. The corporal aimed the cutter at the centre of the rock fall and pressed the trigger. Instantly the rocks changed colour from grey to cherry red before evaporating in a cloud of steam. The cutter gradually opened a hole big enough to crawl through. Its smooth sides glowed as the rock cooled.
The lieutenant beckoned Manesh over. “The passage will be cool enough for you in about twenty minutes, master sergeant. Once you and your men have gone through we’ll open the tunnel up properly.”
“Thank you, sir,” Manesh replied with a salute. He reported to Shansur and then went back to his men.
Jansha stood in the empty space that had once been the eighth level. Shadows etched into the surface of the floor were all that was left of whoever had been there. The place positively stank of death. “The sooner I’m back at the surface the better!” Shansur said nothing in reply as he searched through the maps and plans on the bench. Where were the geology maps?
“They’ve broken through the rubble, Akhen,” Mentep said. The sensor system in the tunnel showed five advancing life forms.
“They still have to get through the laser mines,” Assan said, checking the mine layout on the screen.
Khan and Qetesh watched the surface sensor screen. “Only one vehicle moving out there in the storm,” Qetesh said.
“Mmm, surface crawler,” Khan grunted, adjusting the magnification. “In this weather they’ll get lost, or with any luck, disappear over a precipice or into a crevice in the ice – nothing to worry about there.”
Manesh and his men carefully picked their way through the rubble on the tunnel floor looking for any sign of recent movement. The light on his helmet cut through the darkness of the tunnel like a knife. No one knew exactly how far the tunnel system extended. This was going to be a long boring search. His men were grumbling to themselves as they slowly moved forward in the darkness. One of the troopers spotted something at the edge of the turbo-car track. Manesh crouched down and looked at the discovery. A motion sensor – someone had definitely gone this way in the past, but who and how long ago? Standing up, he waved the troopers on. He and his troopers’ attention dulled as the kilometres slowly took them farther away from the mine. Fatigue and hunger inevitably took their toll on the recon team, and finally Manesh called a halt. The flame from the cooker cast an eerie glow around the troopers as they ate yet another unappetizing meal, courtesy of the kitchen staff back on board the carrier. While freeze-dried military field rations bore no comparison to real food, a hungry trooper did not necessarily care so long as it tasted alright and filled his belly. After Manesh worked out the guard roster for the night, the men turned in. He lay in the darkness listening to the sounds of over-tired men trying to sleep.
Akhen and Nefer ate their food in the deserted dining hall. Iset and her small team were busy in the kitchen preparing emergency ration packs for those on watch. “The waiting is getting everyone down, Akhen,” Nefer said, with a sigh.
“I know, I know!” he snarled. The tension was getting to him as well. Keeping the troops at full alert for much longer would dull their senses. “Pass the word to everyone on watch to take it in turns to stand down for an hour—sorry I snapped.” His feeble attempt at an apology went unnoticed. She was too tired to get angry with him. There had always been an unspoken bond between the pair since childhood. When Akhen had called for volunteers for the abortive mission to Andras, Nefer had been the first to join. Even though Akhen would never openly admit it, she was the one person he trusted completely, who would instantly back him in any given situation. More warrior than woman, Nefer’s prowess with weapons was legendary among the young Nephile fighters. Most people who did not know her only saw a beautiful young woman quietly and efficiently going about her business within the community. When the time came, Nefer would be there guarding Akhen’s back, ready to lay down her life for the man she loved.
“What is it, Khan?” Akhen asked when the Drana sought him out.
“They’re on the move again,” Khan replied, pointing to the nearest screen. “In a couple of days they’ll encounter the first minefield. If they get through that and make it to the junction they’ll get no further,” Khan said with a gleam in his eye.
“Admiral, the weather is clearing,” the officer of the watch informed him.
“Very well; launch the fighters. Carry out a full sweep of the planet’s entire surface.”
“Aye sir.” The young lieutenant pressed the launch light. Down in the launch bay the first flight of Dreyga fighters flew out of the carrier, forming a ‘V’ wing, before descending into the planet’s atmosphere.
“They’re launching Dreyga!” shouted Qetesh, as he disappeared, seeking Mintaka.
Khan watched the steady build-up of fighters at the edge of the planet’s atmosphere on the screen. Five squadrons assembled in the stratosphere before dividing into pairs, each taking a different compass direction, and began descending towards the surface of the planet where they flew an expanded grid pattern.
“They’re searching for us. At this rate, they’ll find us in a matter of hours,” Khan said, turning to Akhen.
“Full alert,” Akhen’s order rang throughout Cydon-1 over the intercom. “This is it, Khan!” He grimly gripped Khan’s hand. The two men left the communications room. The darkened room stood silent except for the gentle hum of the sensor equipment. Mentep’s face was illuminated by the display in front of him. Behind him, in the shadows, Assan sat listening for tell-tale signs from the acoustic sensors out on the planet’s surface. Mentep checked his fusion pistol and bandoleer of plasma grenades. Assan absentmindedly stroked the disrupter rifle lying across his knees. Neither man spoke, as they became Cydon-1’s eyes and ears.
From the shelter of the ice cave, Seti and Apis looked out over the distant valley far below them. The snow-covered hub of Cydon-1
glistened in the clear air. “Damn the weather!” Apis cursed, as Seti wandered back inside to the crawler.
“We’ll just have to stay here now the Dreyga fighters are back,” Seti mumbled, with his mouth full, as he munched on a Drana
energy bar. Apis sat for a long time inside the cave mouth staring out across the valley. If only there was some way to let them know we’re here, he thought to himself.
Manesh froze in his tracks. The dust kicked up by his boots had exposed a laser beam. They had walked straight into a minefield. “Nobody moves,” he said, sweat pouring down his face. The visor of his helmet began misting up as his heart raced and breathing increased. “Why haven’t they gone off!” he said aloud. Carefully turning around he looked behind him. The minefield had been rigged to let them in, then trigger the laser – ingenious! Lemas would be pleased to know his idea had worked. Mentep watched the recon team and smiled. The five icons on his screen momentarily increased in intensity then faded from view. The tunnel was blocked once more…
Next time – Chapter Eight