Two Months Later
"Order Third Squadron to fall back to Waypoint Alpha," Dube ordered. "Second Fleet to fill in the gap in the lines. Battle Group Exeter to engage the Arcean Fleets Angel, Ophanim, and Seraphim here, here, and here." He tapped his stylus against the control panel, indicating the three golden ship icons that represented the massive fleets of Arcean fighters standing between his fleet and his objective. "I need an ETA on Black Hawks arrival time."
"Black Hawks indicate arrival within twenty-four hours," his adjutant said. "Right on schedule."
"That doesn't give us much time, does it?" Dube muttered. "All right, let's do this, then." He tapped a series of controls on the armrest of his command seat, and the condition lights on the walls of his ship changed from blue to red. "All hands, General Quarters. Target: orbital defense fleets. Arcea."
"It's starting," Quinn O'Malley said, as the blue fleet indicators on his main viewscreen moved in to interpose over the yellow icons indicating Arcean fleets. "Let's go."
"Not yet," Keller said. She touched the control panel on the arm rest of her command seat. "Not yet. We're still not clear."
"Damn it, Captain, they're getting murdered out there. . ."
"For us, Quinn," Keller said. "For us. Watch and wait."
Vashti reached across the aisle to take Quinn's hand. The young officer shook his head and slumped back in his seat. "I hate watching and waiting," he muttered. "Wish I was in that fight."
Dube was starting to wish he was anywhere but here.
The Arcean fleets were massive. Pushing past them was an ordeal. Every time one of his ships died, carrying with them thousands of crew and officers to a horrible death in the void, his heart sank. But he pushed on, pushed through, watching the numbers on his indicators start to rapidly decline in number, the blue numbers declining faster than the yellow. . .
"Tell the hard hats to do their thing," Dube said, softly. "Engage Phase Two."
And somewhere out there, an astounded Arcean commander saw the auxiliary craft in the back of the Terran fleet, the ones he had dismissed as mere troop transports waiting for the moment to strike, suddenly reconfigure themselves into a massive sphere, extending nanolathes and rapidly extending carbon nanotube spires into an intricate series of interlocking rings, slowly turning in space.
"Terror Star construction 100% complete," the adjutant said. "Now beginning power-up sequence."
"That's got their attention now," O'Malley said, grinning. On the screen in front of him, the yellow icons started to break off and attempt to engage the newly created space station, only to be stopped by the Terran fleet at every turn. Outnumbered and outgunned as they were, the capital ships were tenacious fighters, biting onto the fleets of stinging wasps and forcing them to engage, cutting them off from the nascent weapon of mass destruction. "Do you think they know what's going to happen?"
"They can't have a clue," Keller said. "Now we go."
"Understood. Quinn out." O'Malley flipped open the control panel on his command seat's armrest and cut off the comm. "All right, Vashti," he whispered. "Let's do this."
"I'm right with you," Vashti said, from the other seat of the tiny two-man fighter. "To the end."
"To the end," O'Malley agreed.
And the twenty-two ships of Strike Group Black Hawk powered up their engines and raced towards the Arcean homeworld, breaking through the weakness in the enemy lines. Twenty-two tiny fighter craft, each armed with a single weapon, as many engines as could fit onto such a tiny ship. . . and a Korath spore bomb tucked into its belly.
"When will we know?" Bradley asked.
"Fairly soon." Laramie placed the cup of tea by his desk. "The first reports from the nearer battle fleets should be coming by in a few minutes.
Bradley closed his eyes. It was a desperate gamble, one he never would have taken if there were any other choice. A single, last-ditch attack, bypassing the Arcean attack fleets to strike deep into their homeworlds. A single shot at victory. . . the final Hail Mary.
The Terror Stars were a simple extrapolation from the technology given them by the Krynn. The Spore Bombs. . . that was different. He wondered how the American scientists back in the 20th century had felt using Nazi rocket scientists to go to the moon. . . no. This was nothing like that. As monumental an achievement as that had been, it had been a mission of exploration. This was a mission of survival.
A soft chime was heard from Laramie's earpiece. She tapped the control on her pocket computer and listened closely, then nodded her head. "First reports are in, sir," she said. The screen in front of Bradley activated, depicting the image of a verdant, green world being rapidly consumed by a grey-green plague, staining the seas with dying fish and scum. "Gabriel IV confirms deployment of spore weapons. All enemy civilians confirmed dead. Fifth Fleet, in escort, destroyed to the last ship. Bucephalus III confirms deployment of spore weapons. All enemy civilians confirmed dead. Ninth Fleet, in escort: one surviving vessel, heavily damaged. Leonidas I confirms enemy defenses destroyed, spore weapons inbound. . ."
One by one, the grim reports came in through across the galaxy. They all meant the same thing. Billions dead, in an instant. Dozens of star systems wiped nearly clean of life. Dozens of vibrant ecosystems turned into dead worlds. The magnitude of the deed was staggering.
"Sir," whispered Kinnis. "I have a communicade from the Arceans. Their government has been decapitated by the attack on Arcea. They wish to negotiate terms of surrender."
Kinnis shook his head. "Tell them they can negotiate with my wife in hell. Continue the operation. Wipe every single planet clean of life. I want every single one of those slugs dead by the end of the week. Then order the surviving ships to escort the Terror Stars into Krynn territory. We're going to blast those damn sneaks into oblivion."
"Sir. . . Mister President. . . Alan, please. We've won. We don't have to. . ."
"We continue. We hold the line. We keep going. I was soft once. Never again. Never trust those fuckers again. Kill them all," Bradley whispered. He shook his head. "I need a drink. Laramie, tell me when the last report comes in. I'll review it then. . ." He staggered into his bedroom and closed the door behind him. The door clicked shut with an awful finality.
"We did it?" Quinn asked.
"It's over," Vashti sighed. She looked up into the clear blue sky, now rapidly turning grey. The fighter ship had crash-landed onto the peak of one of the many mountains of the Arcean homeworld. The green pods in its belly were now empty. She could hear invasion sirens far below. It wouldn't do them any good.
"Thought we were done when that fighter saw us coming in," Quinn sighed. "Keller? Did you see her?"
"I think she got away," Vashti said. Her skin itched. The breeze blowing through the cracked canopy of the fighter craft was cool and soothing. "
Quinn tried to raise a hand to light a cigarette before he remembered it was gone. The wound didn't hurt as much as he'd expected: the laser blast had cauterized the stump instantly. It was probably for the best. Cigarettes would kill you. "Sorry about this," he said. "Didn't think that guy would follow us all the way in. Shoulda zigged instead of zagged."
"Don't worry about it," Vashti said. She wished she could sit up, but the shard of metal through her stomach prevented that. "Like I said, I'm with you till the end."
"Till the end," Quinn repeated. He laughed. "Kinda wish I'd known you could have been nice earlier. It would have made things easier." He shook his head sadly. "How come we never got together? We could have gotten along pretty well."
There was no answer. When he looked over, he knew there never would be. He lay down in his acceleration couch and looked up at the rapidly greying sky. The world was silent except for the breeze. "Wish I could have a cigarette," he muttered, then closed his eyes.
As he slept, a world died.
And on Earth, Doctor Adelard Clef dropped his pen as he saw the final equation in the last encoded piece of information from the Krynn data packet, and felt a cold chill run down his spine. He understood, at last, what the Krynn were trying to do.
And nothing he could do could stop them.
To be concluded