This is the rest of the story. Click here for the beginning
* * *
Admiral Karsh stared at her screen. The ships she’d sent out were racing into position to intercept the fanatics, but it was clear they weren’t going to be anywhere close to them in time.
“How fast are the fanatics moving now?” she asked.
“Three times as fast as anything I’ve ever seen,” replied the captain. “And still accelerating.”
Karsh stared at the screen a little longer, then spoke in a leaden voice.
“Prepare the Pentol Protocol.”
“What… sorry Admiral… are you sure? You think those ships could represent a danger to the Empire?”
“They appeared from nowhere. We still haven’t established what parent ship they launched from, if there even is one. They’re moving three times faster than anything we could use to intercept them. They’re threatening to destroy an entire planet, and we have to assume they have that ability. They are religious fanatics who are very unlikely to listen to reason. Do you think they don’t represent a threat to the Empire?”
“I… I’ll get on it straight away.”
Karsh nodded. She understood the captain’s surprise. Karsh couldn’t think of a time the protocol had been invoked in her lifetime, but every senior officer knew about it. When faced with something that could be a threat to the Empire itself the most important thing was to get word out.
Several dozen small ships from the fleet would be launched with details of what they had faced so far, each sent in a different direction. Three larger ships would go too. The rationale behind that was as sensible as it was chilling. Faced with a danger of such a magnitude there was a risk an entire fleet could be destroyed, leaving the Empire unaware of the danger it faced. Sending so many ships increased the chance that at least one would escape.
It would take a couple of minutes to prepare everything. By that time the fanatics would be well past the interceptors. So far none had turned towards Karsh’s fleet but she wasn’t going to risk anything. The fanatics were demonstrating technology far in advance of the Empire’s, or any other technology the Empire was aware of. That would be chilling enough, but the fact that the fanatics seemed to be on some form of crusade made it terrifying.
* * *
“Admiral, the protocol will be ready in thirty seconds,” Captain Webb said. “We are analysing the fanatics’ ships and will ensure the latest data is included when our ships leave.”
“Thank you,” Karsh replied.
She was staring at the readout, which showed the fanatics’ ships now moving nearly five times as fast as the interceptors could manage… and still accelerating.
How was it possible? They weren’t using hyperspace technology, at least nothing that showed on the Tempestuous’s sensors, and the technology most ships used to move through normal space shouldn’t be able to reach anywhere near such speeds.
The drives on a ship interacted with the underlying fabric of the universe, using it to provide traction to move, turn and slow. Whatever the fanatics were using, it was something much more advanced.
“Pentol Protocol ready to be implemented,” Captain Webb said.
Karsh paused for a moment, the gravity of the situation weighing on her shoulders. Was she doing the right thing? She looked at the speeds the fanatics’ ships had reached and knew she was. She opened her mouth to give the order.
“Admiral, Captain, wait…” shouted the sensor officer. “You need to see this!”
Captain Webb snapped her head towards the officer.
“What is it Ottley?” she demanded.
“The fanatics’ ships… they aren’t using high-tech… they’re using low-tech… really low-tech… I can’t believe it…”
“Stop babbling. What exactly are you trying to say?”
“Look at this picture. Now their ships have passed us we can see their drives. Look how they’re lit up. Those are chemical drives! They’re using chemical fuel.”
“I don’t understand. What…”
“I do,” Karsh said, hope flaring in her chest. “Think of flitters and other craft which fly on a planet. You can’t use a ship’s drive. They use fuel for propulsion instead. That’s what these are doing. But how much fuel could they possibly have? How are they going to deliver their attacks and pull away?”
“I don’t think they are, Admiral,” said Ottley. “I think they are the weapons. Even at this speed each of them would cause a massive explosion when they struck a planet, enough to devastate a continent. If they keep accelerating then the devastation they cause is just going to increase.”
“Hardly good news,” said Webb. “Whether they’re using high-tech or low-tech they’ve still managed to get past us and can destroy the planet. If anything, this is worse! Suicide attackers are almost impossible to scare away, no matter how many losses they take.”
Karsh’s eyes widened as an idea hit home. It was a long shot, a very long shot, but it might just work. If not then everything living on the planets in the system was going to be obliterated. What did she have to lose?
* * *
The Prime watched the displays, smiling gently at what he saw. Truly Zokas had blessed his people this day. Though at first it had seemed the opposite was true.
The system they had spent so many generations approaching had not been a paradise as they’d hoped. It was crawling with heretics, but now the Prime saw that as a good thing. Zokas had brought his faithful here to wipe out the heretics, to leave the system free for more of the faithful to settle in a few hundred years. The Prime would lead his people on to the next world, handing on his responsibilities to those who followed after when his time came to join Zokas.
Today was a good day. The attack ships of the faithful had easily outdistanced the ungodly ships sent to intercept them. Now nothing stood between the faithful and their holy destiny. They would cleanse the planets in a massive wave of fire.
In fact the first would already be there — light from the events was taking long minutes to reach the faithful’s ship where it coasted through the edge of the system. That too was good. It was right that Zokas witnessed the destruction first while the Prime and the rest of the faithful had to wait a short while.
The Prime frowned as something happened on his display, then smiled as the truth hit him. The heretics’ main fleet had vanished, all their ships destroyed in the blink of an eye. Zokas had taken a direct hand in events, removing the heretics himself. Truly this was a great day!
The Prime watched as the faithful’s ships continued on unimpeded, still gaining speed with every moment. He knew some would soon run out of fuel but it mattered not. At the speeds they had reached even a slight course change would require significant effort, but there was no need to do such a thing. The planets weren’t going to step out of the way. Nothing could stop the righteous cleansing now. Nothing.
Alarms flared suddenly. Something had materialized in front of one group of the faithful’s ships as they approached their target. Ships. Ships had appeared in front of the blessed, coming from nowhere.
For a moment the Prime worried that the ships were directly in the way, that they were sacrificing themselves to thwart his plans, but no, they were slightly off to the side. There would be no collisions.
Still, what did they hope to achieve? The faithful’s ships were moving far too quickly to target. They would flash past the stationary defensive forces in the blink of an eye.
The moment approached. The faithful’s ships neared the defensive forces, but they didn’t flash by. They flared into blinding points of light which vanished almost immediately, leaving nothing behind. The faithful’s ships were gone.
More alarms flared. Ships had appeared near the path of another set of the blessed. The Prime checked their position and ice wrapped his heart. This group of his ships were further away than the first so the light had taken longer to reach him. Allowing for that difference they were being ambushed at the same time as the first group. He stared at the other groupings of his attack ships. Had they been intercepted too? If so, would they be thwarted or would some manage to break through?
The answers came in over the next few minutes. Every ship he had sent out had been destroyed before it could reach its target. Whatever trick was being used by the enemy it was devastatingly successful.
Failure left a bitter taste on the Prime’s tongue. He knew he would have to step down, clearly his dedication to Zokas was lacking. He had failed, and that could not be tolerated.
First, though, he had to see the generation ship to safety. Luckily he’d ordered the blessed pilots to make several course changes before transmitting anything to the heretics. There was no path leading back to the mighty ship. It hadn’t fired its drives in some time and it would not do so now. The gravity of the star would be enough to slingshot it off in another direction.
* * *
“That’s the last of them destroyed,” Captain Webb said. “I still can’t believe that worked. Our weapons would have destroyed some of the fanatics’ ships, but not all of them at that speed. What on earth made you think of using our rubbish?”
Admiral Karsh smiled.
“I thought of those ships differently. With the speed they had I realised changing course or slowing down would be almost impossible over a short period of time. They were a bit like rogue asteroids — travelling too fast and with too much energy to be easily deflected.”
“I still don’t see the connection.”
“It goes back to a training simulation I took years ago. The setup was that my flagship was disabled, unable to move, and by bad luck a large asteroid was heading straight for it. The ship’s shields were up but were no match for the asteroid.
“The obvious solution, turning the fleet’s weaponry on the asteroid, was ruled out. The remains would still strike the flagship with enough power to destroy it.”
“But there was a solution?”
“Yes, there was. Sacrifice one of the smallest ships in the fleet to save the flagship. There was just enough time to evacuate that ship’s crew, but nowhere near enough to evacuate the flagship.”
“How many times did you take the simulation?”
“Five, and I was one of the faster ones to solve the problem. Some people never did. Anyway, the point was the asteroid was moving with such energy that putting anything significant in front of it caused it to be destroyed, and in a way that spread the energy across a much larger area than using weapons would have.”
“But you didn’t want to use ships this time?”
“No. Losing one ship might have been acceptable to Command, though not to me. Losing many wouldn’t have been acceptable to anyone. I needed something we could spare but which would still cover enough of an area to guarantee destroying the enemy ships. The rubbish fit that bill.”
“Well, it certainly worked, Admiral.”
“Only because we have hyperspace drives. We would never have caught them otherwise.”
“Is that why we don’t see anyone using chemically fuelled thrusters, do you think? Our drives let the ships be much more manoeuvrable, more able to avoid attacks, even if their top speed isn’t so high.”
“Yes, I think so. That and the fact their range would be severely limited by the amount of fuel they could carry. Now, we need to find out where they came from. I can’t see them having had hyperspace capabilities on such small ships when their drives were chemical. That means they came from a ship, and it might still be out there. Find me that ship.”
As Captain Webb turned away the Admiral reflected on what had happened. She was glad she hadn’t activated the Pentol Protocol. The fallout from her seeming to overreact would be embarrassing at the least and potentially career limiting.
The word would have to go out, though. Even if they managed to find the source of the fanatics there might still be others out there. If she hadn’t been through the particular training simulation, or if she hadn’t remembered it at just the right time, several of the fanatics’ ships would have made it through to each target. Tens of millions would have died on the planets. It was easy to look down on the fanatics for their use of such outdated technology. Easy, but deadly.
* * *
“Admiral, we’ve found them,” reported Ottley.
“Where?” asked Admiral Karsh.
Ottley brought up a map of the system.
“Here. They’re coasting through the system. It looks like they’re planning to pick up a slingshot effect and head on out. They’re running very dark, that’s why we had trouble finding them.”
“Good work. Captain Webb, have the fleet form up. We’re going to call on our visitors.”
* * *
The Prime jumped as shrill alarms rang out. Space around their generation ship was suddenly full of ungodly ships. Once again the heretics had demonstrated their ability to leap huge distances in moments. Why had Zokas allowed the unworthy to gain such knowledge yet withheld it from the faithful?
He immediately shook his head. Such thinking was blasphemous. No wonder Zokas had turned his face from them when his Prime harboured such doubts. Did the scriptures not say the journey was as important as the destination? So bypassing the journey would be to turn their face from Zokas.
“I’m sorry, my Lord,” he said, bowing his head. “I have been weak in my devotion. Once this is over I will step aside for someone more worthy. In the meantime I humbly beseech thee to help your servants, despite the unworthiness I have shown.”
He paused at the end of the prayer, then turned his attention back to matters around them. They needed a way out, if one was possible, but if not they needed to make the heretics pay. He was certain they would want to board the ship, to learn its secrets, which would give his people their chance. Some of the heretics’ ships were large but all were dwarfed by the generation ship. The faithful would far outnumber the attackers.
* * *
“Look at the size of that thing,” said Captain Webb.
“You’ve never seen a generation ship before?” asked Admiral Karsh, smiling slightly at her captain’s reaction.
“Not in the flesh, no. I knew they were big but… well…”
“They are monsters, I’ll give you that. I saw one that had been kept as a museum piece years ago. They have to be that size, though, to be able to support dozens or even hundreds of generations of people as they move between systems. That means having multiple redundancy for everything.”
“How many people do you think are on board?”
“Thousands at least. Probably tens of thousands, maybe even more.”
“All of them spouting that religious nonsense?”
Karsh grimaced. Almost as soon as they arrived beside the huge generation ship they’d been bombarded by messages declaring Zokas as the one true god, telling them they were all heretics and listing the many inventive ways in which they would be punished both in the current life and the next.
“We can’t possibly take it, then. We’ll need to send for a large detachment of marines. A very large detachment.”
“Or we destroy it,” said Karsh quietly.
“What? No, Admiral, we can’t! You know that. The ship is no longer a threat. That means we should take prisoners and learn what we can.”
“How many prisoners? Do you think they are going to give up an inch of that ship without fighting us all the way? Many of them will die, and so will more of our forces than we can afford.
“And what will we do with the prisoners we do take? Prisoners that will have no hesitation to slaughter thousands, millions, of us if given the chance? Will we keep them locked up for the rest of their lives? What sort of life is that? And what if some escape?”
“I don’t like it Admiral, but orders are clear.”
“Let me ask you a question, Captain. Are you certain that generation ship isn’t hyperspace capable?”
“Well, yes, I think so. Why would they have a generation ship if they could enter hyperspace?”
“You’ve heard them. They’re fanatics. Maybe their god told them to take the slow way between systems for some reason. Imagine that’s the case. Imagine them disappearing before our eyes, escaping in hyperspace and taking their insanity with them. Could you live with knowing you’d let that happen, knowing the death of an entire system could be down to your choice? That’s what is at stake here. So I’ll ask you again… are you certain that ship isn’t hyperspace capable?”
The captain stared into the distance for a few moments, considering what her Admiral had just said. Karsh waited as patiently as she could. Finally the captain spoke.
“No. I can’t. I can’t even say it’s likely they don’t have the ability. You’re right — they could have it but have all sorts of reasons not to use it… except in dire situations.”
“Which this definitely counts as. So we’re agreed there is clearly a potential threat which has to be neutralised.”
“Yes. Yes, Admiral. I don’t like it, but you’re right. We can’t risk it.”
“Believe me, Captain, I don’t like it either. It’s the best of a bad set of options, though.” She paused for a moment, taking a deep breath. “Order the ships to prepare to attack, but leave the final order for me. I’ll take full responsibility for my actions.”
* * *
More alarms flared, but the Prime didn’t need them. He knew the generation ship was under attack, he could feel it shake as the heretics’ weapons smashed into it. The shields quickly failed. Chunks of the ship started to be destroyed, and with them went large groups of the faithful.
The control room where the Prime sat would be the last to go. It was housed in the centre of the ship, a safe inner sanctum. Safe against most things. Nothing was going to withstand this onslaught.
Revelation struck the Prime, driving him forward and onto his knees to give thanks. He had been so blind. Everything that had happened had been according to Zokas’s plans. This was what was destined to happen.
This wasn’t a defeat, it was a victory. Zokas had led the faithful here and Zokas had provided the means by which they could move to the next level of existence. Zokas needed them for a reason, and the faithful would respond to his need.
As he knelt there praying every new alarm brought him pleasure, every impact strengthened his faith. He was still praying and still full of wonder at the revelation he’d received when the command centre was obliterated in a final burst of destruction.
* * *
Admiral Karsh stared at the screen which now showed nothing but her fleet. She was going to catch trouble for her choice, she knew that, but the decision had been necessary. Had the huge ship been capable of reaching hyperspace? Almost certainly not. Almost. Now she had time to stop and think she realised there was another hard decision she had to make.
“Captain, prepare to enact the Pentol Protocol. We need to spread word of these fanatics, of their methods and how to counter them, and we need to do it quickly.”
“You think more of those ships could be moving against our systems right now?”
“Probably not, but we can’t take the risk. Imagine if ships like it suddenly arrived at ten of our systems in a coordinated attack, or a hundred of our systems. Think of the loss of life. We have to ensure everyone is warned. Send out the ships as soon as they are ready.”
Karsh leaned back, massaging her temples. She’d never expected to use the protocol, now she’d issued the command twice in a single day. It had been a very strange day, though, one she hoped never to repeat. But something inside warned her she wouldn’t be so lucky.
Somehow she was sure they hadn’t heard the last of Zokas and his followers, and when they resurfaced it was definitely going to be a bad day for the Empire.