As we set out across the desert surface, one of our men noticed an object out on the horizon towards the equator. It looked like no more than a tiny stick rising very slightly from the surface of the planet. Not wanting to send a radio communication in the open where it could travel great distances, I set up a laser communication with one of the TF model Environmental Suits that was escorting us.
<Translated from Scimrahn>
“Pilot, do you see the object rising from the horizon?” I asked.
“I do not see it, where. . . no, now I see it. I hope that’s a Chezbah Food Carrier and not a Fighting Ship. I’ll keep an eye on it.” He replied.
“How far away is it?” I asked.
“It’s far, very far, but they’re fast.” He answered “I don’t think they can see us from this distance.”
“What do we do if it comes our way?”
“Scatter. There’s nothing we can do to fight it if it is a Fighting Ship.”
“How big is it that we can see it from here?”
“It is so large that it cannot move through the large doorways underground”
I thought about this for a few minutes. The doorways are eighty meters tall and one hundred and twenty meters wide. From what I could see, it looked tall rather than wide so it must be over 80 meters at least which would put it at least in the size class of a naval cruiser and it was flying.
“Keep an eye on that thing private, if it starts moving toward us you let me know.”
“You got it.” He answered.
I used the laser again to let the Captain know. “Captain, we have a very large bogey at 9 o’clock. Naval cruiser size, make is Chezbah.”
“The one that’s flying correct?” He replied.
“Yes Sir and according to the Scimrahn with us they have no countermeasure. I does not yet seem to know we’re here.”
“Understood Onix, keep an eye on it.”
For an hour we crawled along the surface as fast as we could manage. Even though our transports could out run the Freighters if the men held on tight, we would leave a third of our men behind. What was more worrying was that our transports kicked up dust in a way that the legged vehicles the Scimrahn were using did not. However because of our slow speed, we weren’t throwing up as much dust as we would have if we were moving at high speed.
The ground was exceptionally smooth and only occasionally was there any kind of bump to throw us. Because of our rubber tires and the dry air, our transports started to build up a static charge. The hairs on our arms stood on end at first this was disconcerting to us remembering the surface lightning that we had encountered before. This uneasiness soon passed and became amusing. Small pieces of paper we had with us stuck to skin and occasionally.
Then I noticed Parks, one of the other Communications Officers on a different transport waving to me. I looked at my radio, it was on but not receiving anything and the screen showed gibberish on it. It had been struck by the ground lightning before and was partially damaged but up until now was fine.
I looked around for something metal and long. I contemplated using one of the soldier’s rifles but decided against it. I then thought of breaking the antenna off my radio but decided that might make using it later much harder. I grabbed one of the soldier’s radio’s. They were not as powerful but some function was better than none.
I sent a laser to Parks. “This is Concade, my radio is dead from static build up.”
“I picked up a radio frequency that is encrypted but I couldn’t decrypt it.” Parks responded.
“Only one, it’s not hopping. It’s at six forty seven point three megahertz” he replied.
I tried that frequency on the soldier’s radio and only got static. “I can’t pick it up on this little thing, that either means that it’s distant or somebody is keeping their signal weak to prevent us from hearing it. Either way it means trouble. I’ll inform the Captain.”
I told Captain Gammons about the radio contact and my equipment malfunction and began relaying the information to the different vehicles.
<Translated from Scimrahn>
“That is a Chezbah signal” came the reply from the Scimrahn. “That means they are on the surface.”
“How far are we from a tunnel that leads underground?”
“Twenty grier at least.”
That worked out to roughly two hundred kilometers away. We were traveling at about sixty kilometers an hour so that meant we would still be on the surface for three and a half hours. There were only a few points that we could be moving toward so that limited the area that the Chezbah had to look in. What I did not know at the time was the Scimrahn had taken us on an arced path to our destination to increase the surface area that the Chezbah had to search. This was a trick that was picked up when a Scimrahn tribe miscalculated their route and a Chezbah search party passed by them in the distance.
At such a slow speed moving on the surface was excruciatingly slow. This was not the case for the light fighting vehicles the Scimrahn had. They had raced ahead and were already safe underground. Thankfully, if we were attacked they were so fast they could be back to us in five minutes. The E-Suits stayed with us to blunt any immediate attack.
Two hours passed. We were all starting to feel better about the situation. Only eighty kilometers left, the Cruiser hadn’t moved and there were no signs of any search parties.
I made a laser link with Parks again. “How’s six hundred forty seven megahertz?”
“It’s still there, I haven’t seen any drop.” He paused “Actually the signal has gone up a few db.”
“That’s not good, they may be moving toward us. Hang on, I’m going to try and get my radio working”
I needed to ground the vehicle somehow to discharge the static field that the dry air was causing. One of the engineers was on the transports with us.
“This static is killing my radio, I need to ground the transport somehow.” I stated to him.
He gave a curious look at my radio. “Shouldn’t do that, these things are supposed to be able to take interference.”
“It’s not the radio itself that’s malfunctioning, it’s the electronics. I think something got fried by that ground lighting a while back.”
“Hmm, alright, I don’t want to just drop my foot off the side, this thing has picked up quite a charge.” He rummaged through his tool bag and produced a spool of wire. “Viola!”
Stripping both ends a good foot, attaching the wire to the body of the transport and dropping it over the side grounded the vehicle. After the Engineer and I fussed over my radio for a minute we got it working. I picked up the Chezbah signal and found the encryption much stronger than anything we were using, there was no way we would crack it in any short order.
I sent a laser to Parks again. “Okay we need to triangulate this signal.”
“No problem Sir. Timing the signal now.”
The first measurement came in at ninety four kilometers. A second measurement came up with nearly the same result, nearly but not quite. That meant it was on the move. The computer projected the direction and speed. It was moving at three hundred kilometers per hour and it was moving nearly parallel to our heading. There was no way we could match that speed. One minute later we took a third and fourth reading, eighty nine kilometers and no heading deviation. It was going to cut us off but the strategy of not traveling directly to our destination had worked we would be able to move away from the search party fast enough to stay outside their sensor range but it would also mean moving away from our destination.
We told the Scimrahn about the Chezbah cutting us off and we slowly moved away from them. It would take us longer to get to the rendezvous point now but they would wait for us. We moved until we were another thirty kilometers away from them. The Scimrahn assured us that this distance was enough to keep them from detecting our presence.
The Scimrahn did not wait to send two of their scouts out to find out if the Chezbah would leave. The time we would have to wait was an uneasy rest, Parks and I continued to monitor the signal for a while but it eventually stopped.
“Why did the signal stop?” Parks wondered.
“Either they figured out we were picking up their signal, they went underground or something happened to them.” I offered.
“I was thinking the same thing but here’s another thought.” Parks paused formulating his thoughts. “They aren’t trying to find us, they were moving pretty fast, and if this is as far as we need to be to avoid their radar, then the radar is not designed for the surface. They’re there to keep us from getting to our destination, to outrun us.”
I considered this, “Alright, so if that’s the case, what’s their plan? All that buys them is more time. There must be another step to the plan.”
“Don’t know.” Parks said “That’s what I’m trying to figure out.”
I thought about what Osulo said about the Chezbah. That if the plan makes sense, they will be ready for it. I was beginning to think they had already seen this plan and were ready for it.
I considered this out loud “They know we’re not underground, we can tell that much from the radio signal but the signal is weak. That means that they’re probably not using it to communicate. They’re using it to warn us that they’re coming!”
“The whole thing is a trick to put us here.” Parks responded.
I tried putting it all together. “But they couldn’t know exactly where we were. It could be anywhere along the line or could it? They know an approximate time that we would have started to leave. They know how fast the Scimrahn’s freighters can move, that gives a distance but there are a few different directions we could have gone. That helps us but they must be planning to check all of them pretty quickly. In any event I’ll have to tell the Captain.”
“Sir!” One of the privates called out. He was pointing at the Cruiser. It was difficult to notice at a glance but it was moving directly at us! I ran for Gammons but many of the soldiers and Scimrahn had also noticed the cruiser’s movement. By the time I got within earshot of the Captain it was already obvious what was happening.
“No countermeasure huh?” Gammons said gruffly.
“No sir but I have a suggestion”
“Go ahead Concade.”
“Sir, the Chezbah play this like a chess match, they maneuvered us here. We need to think outside the rules and do something they don’t expect.”
“Okay I’m listening, what do you suggest?”
“Sorry sir, that’s as far as I’ve gotten so far.”
Gammons thought about this for a moment. “We don’t even know what the rules are, maybe that’s good. Find out what the Scimrahn do when one of those things comes after them.”
“I already got that answer Sir, they scatter.”
“Then we can’t do that. We stick together. We make a run for the underground. How fast is that thing moving?” He pointed at the cruiser.
I ranged it twice. “It’s just over a thousand kilometers away and was moving at nearly eight hundred kilometers an hour. That means it would get to us before we could get to the entrance.”
Gammons, closed his eyes. “No, the freighters can’t make it, but the E-suits and the transports can.”
“But we don’t have enough transports to carry everyone Sir.”
“There are enough to get most of the women and children out of here. The E-suits will have to escort them and we can try and slow them down.”
“How can we slow them down?”
Gammons smiled. “Sorry, that’s as far as I got. Tell the Scimrahn.”
I ran for Osulo. I thought this would be something the Enforcer should be handling but there wasn’t one at the moment.
<Translated from Scimrahn>
“Osulo, Osulo!” I called though the thin air.
“We are getting ready to leave. I suggest you do too.” she answered.
“Thats what I need to talk to you about. It seems that the Chezbah have known what we were going to do. If we scatter they will find us, they’re expecting us to scatter.”
“There is no other way! If we don’t, we will all die. If we scatter some of us may live.” she protested.
“There is another way, it may mean that many will die but we can save many of the women and children.” I explained the Captains plan. As I did several others came over and started listening.
The Scimrahn Warrior Bahninie approached. “This may work, it’s is better than just guessing that some may live. I will stay behind with my men and fight. We will fight and we will die.”
“Thank You Bahninie. We will fight and die with you. Osulo, please bring the women and children to our vehicles and load up any fast vehicle you have with the women and children. The ride will be difficult and dangerous.”
We loaded ninety women and children into the transports each one had one driver. They were instructed to stay immediately behind the E-suits and to drive at a hundred kilometers per hour, as fast as an unloaded Scimrahn E-suit could go and sent them to the underground entrance. Many of the tribe’s fast moving combat vehicles were already hidden underground. It was the slow moving freighters that would be unable to make it.
Bahninie approached me. “We are ready to die for our families, but there is something else that we can do. It might save us and if it succeeds, they will sing songs of our names.”
I saw a number of the Scimrahn taking fuel out of the freighters. The fuel looked like a thin clear gel but was a synthetic carbon fuel, commonly referred to as Liquid Carbon Fuel or “LCF”.
Bahninie continued. “The fuel is a powerful explosive. If we can get the Carrier close enough to the Fighting Ship we may be able to damage it.”
“You’re going to ram their ship?”
“Yes.” He said with eyes beaming.
“Then someone will have to fly it.”
“No! Our fixers are very good, they can make the Carrier fly by radio.”
“Won’t the Chezbah shoot it down? Have they seen this done before?”
“That is why we will be calling back our Deltas. They will keep the Fighting Ship busy while the Carrier approaches.”
“But even more will die fighting! I thought we could not win against the Chezbah ship.”
“The tribe will live, they will join with another tribe and make them strong. If we can stop a fighting ship, it will be the first time in two spans. It has only been done by the Farra-Lee. The Kwi will make history.”
I wasn’t sure what to make of this, we were trying to get the tribe away safely. Bahninie was actually going for broke. I wondered about if this sacrifice was worth it? I considered that they had been expecting to be completely wiped out so maybe they still looked at this as them coming out ahead. I could understand it to some degree. You cannot win a fight by simply defending. No matter how good the defense the attacker will eventually win. I could especially understand wanting to strike an enemy that had been chasing you your whole life.
They emptied three Freighters of their fuel. A little over three thousand liters of fuel and a thousand liters in the fuel tank of the Freighter to be sacrificed. It was one big slow guided missile. Would it work? Was that enough? The fuel is said to be like rocket fuel so I thought it might at least damage the Cruiser.
The transports were getting ready to leave and I saw Osulo directing the workers loading the fuel. “Osulo! Get to the transports!” I shouted across the distance. She shook her head so I jogged over.
“You’re going to miss the transports”
“Yes I am.”
“Because I have neither husband or child. If I take the place of one who does it is an injustice.”
“I understand. You’re right.” I walked away, I was needed for translating elsewhere.
Our men were setting up camouflage netting over shallow trenches. There was only twenty centimeters of dust built up over the superstructure of the planet. The engineers thought about blasting, but the material was hard, almost as hard as diamond. They had one of the E-suits use it’s laser to try and cut into the superstructure. The powerful ultraviolet laser made a small track in the material but not deep enough to set explosives into. There would be very little way to protect ourselves during an attack.
The Scimrahn set up the three freighters in a line between us and the Cruiser. They still had enough fuel to run for several hours. The freighters also had meager defensive abilities and were full of goods that would absorb attacks. It wasn’t nearly enough but it was something.
The Cruiser was growing larger on the horizon and I started to make out features. A bright blue glow radiated from behind it. On top there were two giant fins that seemed to move ever so slightly. It was tall and thin and gleaming white. “The pride of the Chezbah nation.” I thought. Then I tried to imagine Earth with such vehicles flying over sea and land. There would be nothing left.
“I have seen only two Fighting Ships closer than this.” I turned and saw Osulo standing behind me. “Both times we were running for our lives. They had taken me along in raids. I’m sure the warriors had seen many more.”
“Is there any way we’ll make it through this?” I asked.
She sighed “No.”
“I’m happy we’re saving the children. At least dying will accomplish something.” I remarked.
“It is better this way” She agreed.
Suddenly, a loud bang made us all scramble for cover. We looked over to where it came from and saw flames and fire spewing from the ground. The smoke was coming from directly behind the cover of the Freighters where our forces were taking shelter. Lieutenants were shouting “Get that fire out! Get that fire out!” as engineers and soldiers shoveled dust on the flames. After a few minutes the column of smoke died down.
“I have seen the ground burn when hit by plasma but it does not normally burn like that. If the Chezbah didn’t know where we were, they do now.” Osulo remarked.
“You’ve never seen that before?” I asked.
I ran toward the engineers. I hoped this was the key to our survival. I got up to the edge of the freighters and saw some of the engineers sweating over a shovel.
“What caused that fire?” I demanded.
“The Captain wants to try getting down into this stuff the ground is made of for protection for the men” The engineer defended.
“No, that’s not what I’m asking. How did you make the ground burn like that? The Scimrahn have never seen the ground burn like that.”
He shrugged. “We used a small charge to set off a batch of thermite. It was kind of a big batch and we wanted a complete burn so we used a bit more of a charge than I would have normally used.”
“Can you do it again?”
“Because it’s something the Scimrahn have never seen before. If they’ve never done it then the Chezbah don’t have a strategy for it yet.”
It started to dawn on him. “You’re thinking of a smokescreen. I get it. We’ll start a bunch of fires around us to obscure our defenses.”
“Actually, if we play this smart, we won’t have the smoke anywhere near us.”
“Huh? What good is it then?” he said puzzled.
“Thanks, I gotta talk to the Captain!” I saluted and ran to Gammons.
Gammons was discussing strategy with the Lieutenants. He barely acknowledged I was there.
“Captain, a word?” I asked.
“Quickly Concade, we’re running out of time.”
“Yes Sir, I have an idea that will help us break the rules in this chess game. The fire the engineer’s just started, the Scimrahn have never seen it before because they’ve never seen a thermite reaction. If the Scimrahn have never seen it, it’s never been used against the Chezbah.”
“Okay Onix, I see where you’re going, what’s the idea?”
“Give the Chezbah more to figure out when they get here. If we take some of the cargo out of the Freighters and then start fires around them, the Chezbah will pick up the cargo on their radar but won’t be able to tell what it is. It will make them have to figure out what we’re up to. There are the fires that could be weapons or something else.
Then there are the freighters, even if we use the fires as a smoke screen they’ll be able to pick up the freighters on their radar and will probably open fire on them.
We need to reduce the chance of them finding and shooting down Bahninie’s Freighter missile. It’s the only thing that they’ve said would even scratch that thing. If we add the Scimrahn’s fighters to the mix we just might get enough time to get the freighter airborne and close enough to the Cruiser.”
Gammons nodded. “Not bad, not bad. Lets work with this Bahnienie and see what else we can come up with.”
The plan was laid out and the fires started. It was decided to use all four freighters instead of just one the first one would attempt to impact the Cruiser, presumably with little effect. This would hopefully make the Chezbah view them as a non-threat. The fires and smoke would obscure our forces on the ground and the Scimrahn Delta fighters would supply air support. The second and third freighter would attempt to collide with the Cruiser at the same time. This would give the Cruiser two targets at the same time. The third Freighter would carry Soldiers and Scimrahn guerilla fighters and would attempt to board if they failed.
We put on our Vacuum Suits. They are normally used as short use low air pressure or space suits. We weren’t sure why they had issued these to us when we were deployed but the Scimrahn carried them so we figured they would be useful at some point. They also happened to be very useful for avoiding smoke inhalation which is why we were wearing them. The reason the Scimrahn carry them is that the pull of the stars on either side of the planet offsets the gravity of the planet near the poles. This means that the atmosphere is primarily concentrated around the equator and one can literally walk out of the atmosphere while on the surface. Underground traveling away from the core means traveling toward the Lagrangian point between the planet and a sun.
I was translating between Bahnienie and Captain Gammons but all the preparation was done, we all sat in silence surrounded by the cargo of vegetables that was in the freighters in an attempt to gain some protection from fire. We could tell it was coming, the smoke obscured all vision so we couldn’t see it coming but there was a feeling like a massive freight train was approaching, the air seemed to sway in a low rhythm. Strangely the ground wasn’t shaking, rather the air was. The enormous force of the gravity engine tugged at the gravity of the planet and sent out gravity shockwaves. On top of that the rocket turbine engines that moved the great beast at the same time wined a high pitch and rumbled like thunder. The vessel was an obscenity shouted against the sky in the way such a huge mass could defy nature and hold itself aloft with nothing visible lift it.
As we hid in the smoke, the Cruiser opened fire with it’s plasma cannons. Huge ribbons of fire and lightning tore through the air above us. Each ribbon punctuated by a rattling crack of thunder. With each bolt of super heated gas my radio went dead.
Either it was a lucky shot or they could detect the freighters because without warning, one of them collapsed the way the stream of smoke from a match does when blown on. This was the effect of the Cruiser’s huge particle beam cannons. Thankfully it was only one of the decoys.
“Get the Freighters off the ground now or they’ll be wiped out!” Bahnienie ordered.
As they labored off the ground we heard another sound, a series of booms that knocked the air out of our lungs! These weren’t explosions, they were the sonic booms of the Scimrahn Deltas arriving!
Almost immediately we saw three fireballs through the smoke. As quickly as they arrived three of the Deltas had been shot down. The Deltas let go of a furious plasma barrage. If it had any effect on the Cruiser I’ll never know.
The Cruisers engines had stopped, it now floated three hundred meters in the air through our smoke clouds and they danced as the air throbbed all around us because of the gravity engine. The effect was like tiny but forceful waves in water pushing on our bodies. More fire rained all around from the huge vessel. It actually flew over and past our freighters. The remote operators struggled to turn them around and repoint them at our adversary. Then two hanger doors opened in it’s belly and combat E-Suits leapt out ten at a time.
The Gun crews of the Cruiser now noticed the Freighters and massive lasers on it’s sides trained on one of them. We watched one of them light on fire and start to fall to the surface. Then it’s doors opened and our soldiers and the Scimrahn leapt from the flames. It was surprising that it took them so long to fall. One of the soldiers had the presence of mind to fire his Anti-Vehicle Weapon at the Cruiser. Sadly the effort was ineffective on the proud combat vessel. The missile passed into their shields and exploded without damaging anything.
The Deltas came around for another pass. Before their sonic booms they were entirely noiseless on approach. The appeared tiny next to the Chezbah’s vessel. Again they sprayed the enemy with plasma weapons. Four of the E-Suits were destroyed, and one pilot slammed into the hanger. The resulting explosion was disappointing. I watched as six more Deltas were set ablaze by plasma or cut apart by lasers from the E-Suits and the Cruiser.
Twenty more E-Suits poured out and dropped to the ground, their thrusters controlling their decent in a labored way. Then four large anti-gravity tanks came out. One descended toward us. One pursued the Deltas and two more floated as sentinels in front of the Cruiser.
The E-Suits were met with rocket fire from our Anti-Vehicle Weapons. Against these smaller targets the rockets were more effective. Forty rockets launched simultaneously. Some missed their targets and the E-Suits showed their agility by avoiding a few more. In the uncoordinated strike quite a few hit the same E-suits and as they detonated the ranks of the Chezbah dwindled but it was impossible to say by how many in the bedlam.
Then the anti-gravity Tank landed. This large and intimidating vehicle immediately drew the attention of all. Four plasma cannons blasted wildly into the smoke from the tank. Six legs descended from it’s body and it shifted it’s weight from the anti-gravity engine to them making it lurch to the ground facing away from my position.
“Focus fire on that thing!” Gammons ordered pointing at the tank.
I relayed the order through my faulty radio. “Concentrate all fire on the six legged vehicle!”
The Scimrahn focused their attack on the E-Suits while a second volley of rockets and machine gun fire was launched at the tank. Rocket after rocket hit the tank in a punishing display. As the smoke cleared however, the machine emerged blackened but apparently wholly undamaged.
I looked up to see the Deltas coming in again for a third attack this time engaging the tank that had pursued them. Even though the tanks were big, they showed surprising speed and maneuverability because of their anti-gravity engines and powerful thrusters. The exchange of plasma shone though the smoke clouds as the remaining Deltas were being picked off one by one by the powerful Chezbah tank. The exchange proved to not be one sided, after a long exchange of fire the tank careened and crashed into the surface. A few observant Scimrahn on the ground who noticed let out a victorious cry.
On the ground the tank was returning fire on our men, cutting swaths through scores of men with every volley. The E-suits added to the slaughter of soldiers and Scimrahn. One more AVW fired and struck the tank, the rocket didn’t make it through it’s shields. The remaining men fought back with rifles and grenades. Some fled only to be consumed by the Cruiser’s lasers as soon as they left the cover of the smoke cloud.
The third Freighter started on fire from one of the tanks attacks. I could not tell if it was the missile or the decoy. If it was the missile then we had lost. It labored and then plummeted from the sky. The flames, fanned by the air rushing by grew larger and larger until the Freighter exploded. I tried to gauge if the explosion was the kind the fuel would have made but through the smoke I just could not tell.
Then Bahnienie leapt from behind our barrier dragging a large bag with him. He let out a battle cry and rushed toward the Chezbah tank. He darted up and rammed the bag into the space next to the tank’s thrusters. He turned to run as the heat from the thrusters started the bag on fire. In another second the bag exploded killing Bahnienie. A second explosion erupted as the fuel on the Chezbah tank detonated.
The Deltas attacked the Cruiser and the two tanks. They seemed like flies attacking an elephant. Five more erupted in flames and fell to the ground. Then as they passed, the last Freighter collided with the Cruiser. It crumpled and started to fall from the sky noiselessly. There was no explosion and little or no damage to the Cruiser. Our hearts sunk as the freighter slid down the side of the invincible juggernaut.
Then a blue flame like a blowtorch erupted from the side of the Freighter. Then a fireball. Then a bang and a shockwave. Then everything went dark.