Chapter Fifteen – Survivors
Levene’s report that they had found survivors brought a brief moment of happiness to his masters. But now that Memnet had placed the fleet on high alert following Dranaa Nagesh’s declaration of war on the Alliance. The mood was sombre as they prepared for the inevitable clash with Drana attack fleets bent on destruction.
Seth accompanied the rescue teams down to the rock hanger. When the shuttle doors opened, he stepped out into a crowd of ragged, half-starved and exhausted individuals. Akhen made the introductions. As Seth took the hand of each in turn, he was perplexed by the makeup of the crowd around him.
“Greetings uncle,” a voice said, from the back of the group.
“Seti—is that you?” Seth could hardly contain the pleasure at finding his long lost nephew. Khan and Akhen exchanged puzzled glances. Seti, of all people, came from one of Cydon’s important families! Just when you thought you knew everything there was to know about someone, he threw a curve ball like this! Now he was related to the senior Nephile general. Akhen and Khan shook their heads in disbelief. Later on board the carrier, after medical treatment and rest, the survivors were briefed on the imminent situation. Admiral Memnet declared that under the special circumstances of their survival together, any Drana among the group would be sent back down to the surface rather than be executed. He added that Levene and his raiders would return to the penal units they had come from now their task was done.
Khan and the Drana were led away to a holding area to await deportation to the planet, while the raiders were escorted to the brig. Akhen and Iset saw Seti and his uncle concluding an animated discussion in the corner of the room. “While you look on them as brothers, Seti, the Alliance does not—I’m sorry.” The general turned and left the room.
“We can’t let this happen to them, Akhen. We’ve come through too much together to let our people be ripped apart now,” Iset pleaded.
“Don’t worry. I don’t intend to let it!” he angrily replied.
The senior officers of the fleet filed out of the admiral’s cabin and departed for their respective ships. They were now primed for action. Nine heavily armoured Drana attack flotillas were rapidly narrowing the gap, heading straight for Jalnuur. The scout vessels would be in range in four hours’ time. Memnet stood poker faced on his bridge, watching the final preparation for the first action of the new war. Shuttles sped back and forth while fighters increased their patrols through the fleet. Mine layers spread a curtain of death in the path of the oncoming enemy. Particle cannon tracked the incoming icons. Plasma torpedoes stared blankly out into the void beyond the fleet in readiness for the one and only flights they would ever take. Floating above the carrier focused on the leading enemy flotilla a giant array lay in wait in the silence of space beyond the fleet, gathering the energy it needed from the cosmos to deliver the deathblow that is the Armag. With luck, a demonstration of strength would curtail Nagesh’s senseless act. Maybe not, Memnet thought to himself, The Drana had never backed down before…
A Hapi class container vessel descended to the planet with its living cargo on the first of many stops in its delivery voyage. The coming hours would dictate the path that the unwanted war would take.
Chapter Sixteen – Kallorn
The pilot nosed the large container vessel inside the hanger and gently set her down. The massive door to her hold swung out and down, locking into place. A cargo crawler towed a heavily laden trailer over to the workshop at the rear of the hanger. The driver opened the door to one of the small containers on the trailer’s deck.
“Welcome back,” Seti said, as Khan, Shansur, and the rest blinked in the bright lights of the hanger. Akhen opened the other container and shook the hand of Levene and his men, as they dropped down to the floor. In all the confusion high above their heads in the fleet, the rest of the survivors had stowed away on board the container vessel, before the Drana and raiders were loaded for the long trip back to the penal colony and to Jalnuur. As well as Levene and his five raiders, there were now four additional members of the new nation who, with a little gentle persuasion by Apis, decided to end their haulage contract with the armed forces. The mercenaries and the civilian crew of the freighter were formally made welcome that night by Akhen and Khan.
While the reunited group dined on a feast prepared by Iset, in honour of the occasion, the enlarged gathering planned their next move. “Kallorn is inside the empire, Khan,” Misakk, the civilian co-pilot, said. “Are you sure about going there?”
“We’re sure,” Akhen replied, turning the chart around on the table. “It’s only a short distance away from here – only a miniscule fraction of a light year – and of no strategic value to the empire. In fact, apart from one brief exploratory expedition by the Drana science council two thousand years ago, no one from the empire has ever been back.”
“Why?” the container vessel’s pilot Benton asked.
“Because the planet has large salt seas like Earth, and we Drana are eaten alive by salt; it melts our flesh,” Manouf explained.
“The Human-Nephiles used the Earth’s salt water oceans to destroy the Drana invasion at Earth over eight hundred years ago,” Akhen added. While preparations went ahead in the mountain hanger for the exodus, high above the planet the first act of the war had opened. From the safety of the hanger door Manesh and Nefer watched the brief flashes of light from ships being ripped apart in the vacuum of space.
Llokk, the engineer aboard the container vessel, together with his team, stripped down the ancient Bentu freighter and began slowly rebuilding her for the journey to Kallorn. She was pathetically slow, well below sub light speed, but more than capable of the journey. Levene and others retrofitted the freighter, along with the contents of six armament containers from inside the vast hold of the Hapi class vessel, under the guidance of Kapinski and Hoetep. The outward appearance of the two civilian ships disguised their enhanced capabilities. Cursory inspection via sensors would only reveal unarmed civilian ships, either Alliance or Drana, depending on which recognition codes Temo and Raman entered into the new system they had designed.
Orz and Nemaar took a break by the force field. Orz lit one of Levene’s cigars and inhaled the smoke before setting it free in a large halo that rolling in on itself, climbed slowly toward the ceiling before disappearing. “Hard to tell who’s winning up there,” said Nemaar, sharing the cigar.
“We’ll know if the Drana won the battle soon enough,” Orz replied, spitting a wet piece of tobacco onto the floor, “when they come back to reclaim this planet, turning it into a mining hell-hole again!” Orz’ pessimistic outburst was ignored. The Alliance fleet seriously outnumbered the Drana. And the Armag array’s destructive power soon put an end to the flotillas. Nemaar and Orz witnessed the end in silence and then returned to work. Admiral Memnet’s fleet moved closer to the empire’s border, picking off retreating stragglers on the way. By the morning of the next day, Jalnuur was alone in space, free of its protectors and invaders.
Now the way was clear for the exodus to begin as soon as the ships were loaded with their precious cargo of pioneers. With Benton at the controls of the Hapi and Misakk flying the Bentu, at last the community could take their leave of Jalnuur forever. The two-day voyage to Kallorn was stretched to three. Their route took them through the tiny Mistraan nebulae and on to the Droiga asteroid belt, where all of Manouf’s navigation skills were tested to the limit. Taking a ship the size of a Hapi through it was like threading a needle blindfold. Crawling at less than half sub-light speed the giant craft narrowly missed colliding with asteroids on countless occasions.
Misakk kept his distance as he shadowed Benton through the swirling mass of rocks, seemingly bent on self-destruction. Their dangerous route, formed by the complex convergence of two stellar systems, ensured no one would follow them. When Manouf was given the navigational task, he had been in favour of shadowing the fleet. But Akhen and Khan were dead against the idea. Despite the new sensor identifications of the two ships, if they got close enough to be picked up visually, the Hapi would have been recognized immediately by the fleet’s secondary visual identification system.
They emerged from the asteroid belt mid-morning on the third day. Ahead lay the shining blue-green planet of Kallorn, waiting for them surrounded by its eight attendant moons. Bathed in the light of its three suns, one a double star, the planet was gradually emerging from an ice age. Large ice sheets covering the planet’s surface steadily retreated to the poles. In their place, forests grew to protect the land in the northern latitudes. On some of the newly exposed continents to the south, vast deserts spread their slow moving tentacles, suffocating semi fertile plains under billions of tonnes of fine sand. In other areas of the land masses, millions of square kilometres of prairies, peppered with deep ravines and long valleys between mountain ranges, extended from coast to coast. Deep freshwater lakes on most continents were filled by blue-white snow fed rivers. Nearer to the planet’s equator, several large land masses were carpeted in thick impenetrable jungles, which merged into fertile swamps, infested with insects and parasites on the shores of the oceans that surrounded them. The forests and jungles were home to a variety of small shrew like mammals. No hunting carnivores roamed Kallorn. Pockets of lizards scavenged any dead carcasses, acting as the planets cleanup detail. Best of all, the little band of pioneers who now stood on Kallorn for the first time, thought they were the only sentient inhabitants on the entire planet.
My cousin Tuluk had stowed away on board while the Hapi was still somewhere within the fleet. As part of the Khaz cerebral collective, he was another pair of ears and set of eyes of our High Council.
Benton and Misakk orbited the planet while Raman and Temo scanned each continent in turn, looking for a safe sheltered home. Eventually the two ships landed at the head of a large grassy valley surrounded on three sides by high snow-capped, forested mountain ranges in the northern hemisphere of Kallorn, well inland from the nearest salt sea to protect the health of the Drana among them. Over the next seven months, the pioneers established a small, self-sufficient community, turning parts of the valley into fields of crops to feed the new occupants of Kallorn. Akhen, Khan, and Levene organized and led exploratory expeditions around the small continent they had named New Cydon. They were hampered with incomplete ancient technologies at their disposal, with very little of the state of the art Alliance equipment. With the change of seasons, they settled down to wait out the winter months, planning new expeditions to other continents.
When the spring melt arrived, the Bentu was loaded for its journey. Khan and Hoetep put together a team to search a jungle covered continent eight thousand kilometres to the south of New Cydon. As the team made their final preparations for the journey, Akhen went over the last minute details with Khan. “Ready to go when you are,” Misakk said, climbing into the pilot’s seat. Khan and Akhen embraced. The two men were closer than brothers now. Orz and Apis loaded their field-packs into the webbed rack above their heads and took their seats, while Nemaar and Mdjat checked the securing straps on the crawler unit, and equipment in the middle of the hold. Hoetep sat in the co – pilot’s seat beside Misakk, going over his check-list prior to lift off.
Nefer and Akhen stood in the shade of the community lodge veranda, watching the Bentu rise into the air, then turn slowly ninety degrees on its thrusters, before disappearing towards the horizon. Their greatest frustration was knowing that the lack of workable long distance communication equipment meant that the expedition could not report regularly to their home base.
Next time – Chapter Seventeen