Chapter 5:      Surrender the Humans

    General Tragge burst out of the Council chambers. Assistants scampered behind him, taking careful notes as he barked orders.
    “Recall the outer fleet to Wallow Minor. Order the capital ships of the 9th Battle Group to return to Tanarac . . . flank speed. Support ships can catch up later. We need the firepower of those deep space heavies.”
    A junior officer stepped away from the fast walking group and began relaying the general’s instructions on his communicator. General Tragge’s anti-grav sled lifted off for the short flight to the Defense Center while he continued a steady stream of commands.
    “Energize all three planetary shields to fifty percent. Load the primaries so we can jump to full power, if needed. Extend the top shield beyond the local defense fleet. Call up the Air Reserves and assign them to lower atmospheric patrols. Transfer our experienced pilots to Tang and Obol class trans-atmospheric fighters. Put the Extended-Reserves on a six hour recall clock.”
    Minutes after the general’s transport landed, he and his staff entered the War Room.
    The general’s voice boomed over the noise in the bustling room.“Captain Ludic! Have we blocked those scanners yet?”
    A young officer, sitting in front of a dozen monitors, replied without ever taking his eyes off his screens.
    “No, sir. I can’t block their scans, so I’ve been feeding them lotsa false feedback. It’ll take em months to sort out all that electronic crap. They’re bracketing the planet with twenty-three picket ships, but all the scans are comin from their command cruiser. General, I got a lock on that mother ship’s scanning array. You want me to give'm a hot foot?”
    The old general smiled. He liked soldiers who spoiled for a fight.
    “What do you mean by ‘hot foot’, Ludic?”
    “I can match their scannin frequency and focus the entire power of our upper planetary shield onto their primary sensor array. It oughta fry the whole thing. Should take em at least two days to repair that much damage. How bout it, General?”
    General Tragge asked his radio operator, “Are they responding to our hails?”
    “No, sir. Been sending the standard request for a comm link since they entered orbit. No reply.”
    The radio operator’s report made the general’s decision easy.
    “Well . . . maybe this will get their attention.” General Tragge nodded to his electronics officer as he spoke. “Go ahead, Ludic.”
    The busy room became quiet as all eyes turned to the monitors above the electronics wizard. The largest monitor displayed an image of Tanarac with three layers of shields, each represented as a different color band, in concentric spheres, surrounding the planet. Outside the last shield, white dots showed the location and size of every vessel in the aggressor fleet as they hovered in geo-synchronous orbit. One dot was noticeably larger than the rest.
    The electronics officer worked rapidly at his console and data displays on several screens changed with each keystroke. The outermost shield on the big planetary display began to flicker and then it disappeared altogether. Loud klaxons warned of the shield failure.
    Captain Ludic spoke out loud to himself. “Okay lizards, I got your frequency. Yeah, that’s right, you’re still wonder’n what happened ta my shield.”
    He laughed, a wicked satisfaction in his tone, and narrated as he sprung his trap.
    “Shield projectors switched to asynchronous control.
    “Phase frequency singularized.
    “Redirecting surplus power to grid one.
    “Capacitance at maximum."
    Ludic sat back in his chair and poised his index finger above the enter key. “Here ya go, General. Three, two, one . . . GOTCHA!”
    All the display screens blinked and a single white line on the big screen marked an instantaneous burst of energy between the second planetary shield and the large ship orbiting above. The missing third shield then rematerialized on the main planetary display and the shield failure alarms turned off.
    The jubilant weapons officer directed the general’s attention to one of the monitors that had previously shown a steady stream of data. Now, those graphs were almost flat, only a few random spikes rising and falling with irregular sequence.
    “See there, sir, I killed their array. That oughta get their attention.”
    “Good work, Captain.”
    General Tragge positioned himself in front of the War Room’s holographic transmitter and spoke to the comm system operator.
    “Hail the Heptari flag ship. See if they’ll talk to us now.”
    After a few tense moments, the reptilian head of the Heptari commander formed in a three dimensional image. Electronic translators crackled for a second before deciphering and translating the alien language.
    “I am First Skah, commander of the Heptari battle cruiser, Dehseku. Identify yourself.”
    “I am General Tragge, commander of the Military Council of the Tanarac Empire. You are not authorized to scan our planet. Cease your actions and withdraw your warships beyond the outer Syntic region of our quadrant.”
    The Heptari officer ignored General Tragge’s instructions.
    “You attacked a command vessel of the Heptari Empire. Your aggression is an act of war. Until I receive instructions from my Central Directorate, Tanarac is under a blockade. We will destroy any ship attempting to enter or leave.”
    “I repeat!” General Tragge purposely ignored the Heptari threat. “You will leave our system immediately, or your fleet will be destroyed.” Heptaris only respect strength and he knew it.
    The reptilian image suddenly vanished, comm linkage severed by the space ship. Seconds later, it reconnected as abruptly as it had left. This time, the Heptari commander sounded almost conciliatory.
    “General, we came in peace. I am willing to overlook your aggression, if you cooperate. Our mission is simply to scan your planet for surviving humans. We have information that humans are living in secret colonies on your home world. If you voluntarily surrender them, your planet will be spared. We have no quarrel with the Tanarac people.”
    General Tragge replied without hesitation. “There are no humans on our planet. Even if there were, it would not give the Heptari military the right to enter our sovereign space without our permission. You will leave our space immediately, or we will destroy your fleet.” He made a throat cutting gesture to his radioman.
    The Heptari officer began a heated response, but the Tanarac radioman cut him off in mid-sentence.
    The general felt he just won the first skirmish. His counterpart blinked by changing his initial demand.
    “What’s the ETA for our deep space heavies?” He knew his intra-system, attack fighters could not defeat the large Heptari cruiser.
    “Eight hours, for the capital ships of the 9th. Their flagship is the DS Starship Folvic, commanded by Admiral Paad. The 9th has sixteen medium heavy to heavy star-class cruisers and a couple dozen fast attack cutters. The other fleets are on route to Wallow Minor, as you ordered.”
    “Good. The 9th has a lot of firepower, certainly more than enough to deal with these Heptaris. Order the local system fighters to remain under our shields. No sense in taking unnecessary casualties. Activate ground-based, heavy batteries and maintain a direct open channel from my command to their fire control.”
    “Uhhh . . . General, last month you approved retrofits for all three ground based cannon,” Captain Ludic responded. “Those upgrades won’t be complete for at least six months.”
    General Tragge looked over the tactical positions of the small Heptari fleet and turned to his adjunct.
    “Suspend the retrofits. How long will it take to get those batteries back on line?”
    Satisfied with the answer to his question, the general left the War Room, confident that the planet was secure under triple redundant shields. In addition, he had an entire deep space battle group on the way and ground-based cannons would be back on line within a couple days.
    The situation was under control.
    General Tragge returned to the government Council Chambers. His fellow politicians were abuzz with nervous energy as he bypassed normal protocol and strode directly to the podium. Everyone was anxious to hear his report and gladly overlooked his disregard for time-wasting formality.
    “Fellow Councilors, please forgive my departure from traditional protocol. Under the circumstances, brevity demands my actions. As you probably heard, a small Heptari attack group has surrounded our planet. All three shields are in place and the Heptaris have been ordered to vacate our sphere of influence. They claim to be here peacefully, scanning for human colonies. Of course, I denied the existence of the humans, and we were able to neutralize their scans. They pose no real threat to us with our shields up.”
    The general-politician took a sip of water.
    “I recalled our 9th Deep Space Battle Group to local space. Their most powerful ships should arrive within eight hours with enough firepower to forcibly remove the Heptaris from our space. The situation is under control.”
    General Tragge paused as an undercurrent of discussion broke out among his peers.
    “My esteemed colleagues.” He regained their attention. In addition to being the leader of Tanarac’s military, General Tragge was also a politician, and like all politicians, he was not above using the present crisis to promote his agenda. “For three hundred years, we lived with this human problem. Our motivation, in protecting the human captives, was noble. We spared no expense in our scientific efforts to rehabilitate this race, yet our efforts failed. Just last week, this legislative body made the courageous act of voting to terminate our human experiment. We chose an ethical closure, consistent with Tanarac values. I submit to you . . . ,” The wily old general knew when to allow pause for effect, “that it is no longer in our best interest to keep the existence of the humans secret.”
    General Tragge allowed time for his words to sink in while politicians argued among themselves, rehashing tired old debates. He gauged the reaction of his peers before selecting the ideal time to proceed.
    “My fellow governors, I ask your permission to inform the Heptari government of our resolution to end our human problem. This will assure them that their goal of human eradication will occur. With everything in the open, they should have no further interest in our space. We can resolve this crisis peacefully.”
    One of the junior politicians asked the obvious question.
    “General Tragge, what if they are unwilling to wait for the natural life span of the humans to pass?”
    Anticipating this question, the general replied, “Heptaris are powerless to do anything about our decision. Our military is certainly their equal. The Heptaris will complain about our approach, but they have no other choice than to wait. I see no reason to fear the Heptaris.”
    A senior member of the chamber requested, and was granted, permission to speak.
    “Honorable members of this Council. As you all know, I am Chairman Uleb of the Offworld Intelligence Committee. I disagree with General Tragge. We have been monitoring Heptari military activity for the past fifty-two years. During that time, they absorbed over one hundred small star systems on the periphery of their empire.
    “The story is always the same. Each system appears to invite assistance from the Heptaris, usually it’s some kind of economic help. Soon after, the governments of these small systems vote to become members of the Heptari Empire.
    “These transitions look voluntary, but we recently discovered that virtually all of those governments were newly installed dictatorships . . . dictatorships that came into power following violent insurrection. Arms and money for those revolutions were provided by the Heptari Empire.
    “Our reptilian friends attempt to disguise their activities, but in the opinion of our committee, the Heptari’s are engaged in aggressive expansionism. This human issue may be little more than a convenient excuse for more sinister intentions. I will support General Tragge’s proposal for the time being, but I do not believe this will bring the Heptari problem to an end. In light of this new threat, our peacetime military needs to be expanded. We need to allocate additional funds immediately to . . .”
    General Tragge interrupted the impromptu speech.
    “Thank you for your military support, Chairman Uleb. I am sure everyone in this chamber shares your concern, and I agree we should expand military funding. But that discussion should be at another time. Right now, we must resolve the present crisis and humans are at the center of the immediate dispute. I move for a resolution to acknowledge the existence of our humans and to notify the Heptari Empire of our Human Solution Act. Will anyone second my motion?”
    The second to the motion came swiftly and the Council’s Assembly-General called for immediate debate. Like politicians of every race, the Tanarac chamber quickly filled with argument as political agendas clashed. General Tragge waited patiently for an opening in the unruly debate. Under Tanarac legislative rules, it would require three votes to ratify his motion. He wanted to get the first vote out of the way as quickly as possible.
    Suddenly, the whole building shook with a violent jolt. Plaster dropped from the ceiling, papers burst into the air, and politicians dove for cover under desks and chairs.
    A young military officer ran to the podium where the general ignored the risks and surveyed the chaos. The officer relayed information as quickly as he was receiving it in his radio earpiece.
    “General, the Heptari flagship knocked out two of our shield generators and fired on the Council Chamber before the last shield could be raised to one hundred percent. The shield is holding for now. Sir, your sled is ready.”
    Without hesitation, General Tragge joined his military staff in the anti-grav glider. As it rose over the Council Chamber, he saw an ugly black scar of the energy weapon blast that stretched across the dome of the Tanarac seat of government. The general clenched his teeth in anger while his staff briefed him on the situation.
    “General, the third shield is preventing them from hitting the ground with full weapon power. Heptaris are trying to take out Shield Three now. The Hep command cruiser took a low orbit directly above their projector array and they are throwing everything they’ve got at us. Captain Ludic doubled the shield strength directly above the generator but those guys over at the shield array station are taking a beating. All our fighters got off the ground and they’re holding under the protection of the shield, as you ordered. The 9th is still over six hours away.”
    The young officer waited anxiously for General Tragge to respond. The general considered the situation and weighed his options as his staff offered their input at his request.
    “Sir, our system fighters don’t have a chance against that deep space cruiser. We can take out the smaller vessels in the blockade, but that cruiser is the big threat.”
    General Tragge agreed, “Order our fighters to engage the blockade ships on the opposite side of the planet. Let’s see if we can draw the command cruiser away from the shield generator to protect their smaller ships.”
    “Warn our pilots to keep a safe distance from the cruiser. Just try to draw her away from the shield site. Contact ground bases near the Shield Generator and have them send their portable shield generators to Site Three. I’d rather lose a few air strips than risk losing that last shield.”
    General Tragge and his entourage re-entered the War Room.
    “Ludic, talk to me! How are we doing with that shield?”
    “It’s holding, General . . . for now. They caught me by surprise on those first two shields. Sir, I didn’t know they had such powerful weapons. Never read anything in the intel reports about new Heptari cannon development. They blew right though the first two fifty percent shields. I doubled field density over Site Three before they could recharge their primary coils, but I had to protect the generator at the expense of shield density everywhere else. That’s why some of the energy got through the shield when they fired on the capitol building. Sorry about that, sir.”
    “Good job, Ludic. You made the right decision. Will that shield hold until the 9th arrives?”
    General Tragge was already formulating backup plans.
    “I had to re-route power from the city’s energy grid to Site Three. The good news is, we’ve got 110% shield strength, for now. The bad news is, it will depend on how long the city power grid holds up. Neutralizing that new Heptari cannon takes power at an incredible rate. Can we do something about that cruiser, General?”
    “Let me worry about that cruiser, Ludic. You just keep my shield healthy.”
    General Tragge surveyed the monitors. As ordered, his fighters were engaging and destroying small enemy ships on the far side of the planet, but they were struggling against two larger blockade ships. More importantly, the enemy command cruiser did not leave its position directly above the third shield generator, as the general hoped. Its main weapon continued a relentless assault on the shield above that last generator station.
    “Get me Retired-General Frox on a crypto-comm channel in my staff room. He’s at the Decom Depot in the intra-system belt.”
    Moments later, General Tragge lifted a red phone from his desk in his private quarters.
    “Frox, Byn Tragge here.” The general listened for a moment before continuing. “You already heard? Yeah, we’re taking a beating down here. I could use your help, my friend. What’s the status on that old Kyome we sent you last month? Yeah, I know it doesn’t have any weapons. Is she still operational? Good! Here’s what I need . . .”
    As General Tragge walked back into the War Room, he called for a status report.
    “Shield strength is dropping, sir. City power grid's collapsing. Wouldn’t mind seeing the 9th about now.” Captain Ludic said what everyone else was thinking.
    Minutes passed like hours. Most of the light Heptari vessels were now destroyed, and the two surviving medium class spaceships relocated close to the heavy cruiser for the benefit of collective firepower. Small Tanarac fighters could not penetrate the combined threat of the three larger ships.
    “Order the fighters back under the shield. They’ve done all they can. Convey my thanks to the pilots.”
    “Sir!" Captain Ludic called out, "I’m losin Shield Three!”
    Ludic feverishly tapped every power source he could find on the planet’s integrated energy grid. Each one collapsed quickly after being drained by the enormous power demand of the shield generator.
    General Tragge encouraged the electronics officer.
    “Hang in there, Ludic. Get me five more minutes.”
    General Tragge stood near a monitor showing empty space above the southern hemisphere of the planet. A small dot appeared on the display and rapidly grew in size. He clenched his fist and forcefully uttered, “By the grace of Vaal-al, we fight back!”
    The growing dot soon took on a familiar shape. It was a deep space battle cruiser, closing on the Tanarac home world at close to light speed. Everyone watched the approaching starship. Even the Heptari cruiser suspended its bombardment on Site Three to assess the approaching threat.
    Ludic used the precious moments to restore some of his collapsing energy grid.
    The Heptaris quickly figured out that an unarmed starship posed no real threat, and they resumed their particle beam attack on the last shield site. The two medium Heptari picket ships left the safety of the cruiser to intercept the incoming Tanarac starship.
    “Is that the 9th, sir?”
    “No,” replied the general. “It’s an old friend, come to help us out. Send all our fighters to engage those Heptari mediums. We need to take some heat off that old ship.”
    The Tanarac starship masterfully executed evasive maneuvers as both Heptari mediums fired weapons at its command bridge. The three battling spaceships disappeared around the western horizon of Tanarac with dozens of small system fighters in chase. Space sentinel satellites provided witness to a ferocious firefight as the combatants rounded the planet. The little intra-system fighters swarmed the two larger Heptari ships while the enemy vessels poured their main firepower into the old Tanarac deep space warship, ignoring the pesky system fighters.
    General Tragge inhaled deeply, his chest swelling in admiration as he watched the heroics of his brave pilots. The intense engagement rose on the eastern horizon, having circled completely around the planet.
    Without warning, the decommissioned Kyome battleship accelerated away from the other ships and angled down into the upper stratosphere. Its leading edges glowed white hot from atmospheric friction. The old ship penetrated deep into the atmosphere until the trailing Heptari mediums changed course, apparently satisfied that the big Tanarac ship would crash into the planet.
    “Too late!” General Tragge shouted and pumped his fist in a defiant gesture.
    The Heptari command cruiser struggled desperately to gain altitude, all its weapons now firing at the big Tanarac starship as it began rising out of the planet’s atmosphere. Completely surrounded in flame, the retired warship seemed to be gaining speed and closing on the fleeing Heptari command cruiser.
    Moments later, a massive fireball filled the sky as two star-class vessels exploded on impact. The brilliant detonation subsided quickly in the vacuum of space, leaving dark wreckage that tumbled slowly away from the planet. Every few seconds, a flash of light burst from the blackened tangle of metal as secondary explosions marked small quantities of escaping antimatter.
    An odd silence settled over the War Room while the remaining medium Heptari picket ships disappeared from all screens in a hasty retreat to deep space.
    General Tragge listened to post-conflict damage reports as they started coming in. The crisis was over.
    Captain Ludic spoke first.
    “Sir, Shield Three is up to seventy percent. Local power grids are thirty percent restored. Full power to all grids will take another four hours. Repairs are under way at the other two shield generators.”
    Another officer handed the general an electronic pad that accounted for all battle damage and casualties. He summarized the list for his commander.
    “General, we destroyed twenty-one of their ships at a cost of seventy-one fighters. We recovered all our pilots from escape pods. Twelve are injured, none dead, sir. And uhhh . . . we lost that battle cruiser. We don’t know what ship that was. She had no beacon signal. We have no idea how many spacers were aboard her.”
    General Tragge looked at the monitor showing the blackened hulk that was once a proud Tanarac command ship.
    “She was the Vaal III. She’s a decommissioned Deep Space Kyome from the scrap yard. Thank God, she had one more battle in her. Her crew was only one pilot, retired General Frox, Ja Frox. He was a good soldier.” The general paused for a second before adding, “And, he was a good friend of mine.”
    General Tragge forced himself to turn his thoughts away from his personal loss.
    “Did we take any prisoners?”
    He already knew the answer to his obligatory question. The Heptari military tradition of fighting to the death was well known.
    “No, sir. They all died in their ships.”
    General Tragge wondered how things had gone so terribly wrong. He thought he had a good handle on the situation. He never expected the Heptari fleet to attempt a blockade, much less fire on the Tanarac home world. The thing troubling him most was how easily they defeated his first two shields. Those shields were the very best Tanarac technology, designed to withstand the most powerful weapons known to exist. Yet, a single Heptari cruiser almost brought his home world to its knees, using a new cannon, the likes of which, they had never before seen.
    A nearby audio speaker began crackling loudly with static. It was the private comm channel reserved only for general-rank staff officers. Everyone in the War Room looked in the direction of the sound, expecting one of the generals to come on line. An excited voice flooded the War Room.
    “Byn . . . hey Byn! You there? We got em, Byn! Just like you said . . . good call . . . skippin off the atmosphere from the opposite horizon. I almost rode that damn ship in! Had a helluva time getting my escape pod to launch through all that fire. Byn, you there?”
    General Tragge broke into a big smile and crossed the room to respond personally at the Senior Officer command station.
    “Ja Frox, you tough old warrior. You did it! Thank you my friend. Are you okay?”
    “I’m fine Byn, but I could sure use a lift. I’m bobbin around out here in the Northern ocean in wunna them old style escape pods. Byn, the damned thing’s leakin! Don’t mind dying in space, but I’d hate ta drown out here in the stinkin ocean, after all the fun’s over.”
    Everyone in the War Room laughed. One of General Tragge’s aides was already coordinating the rescue.
    “I’ll see you when you get back on dry land, my friend. And, thank you again, Ja. Thank you from all of Tanarac.”
    Relieved, General Tragge’s thoughts returned to the situation at hand.
    “Recall the fighters. Get me Admiral Lorm Paad of the 9th Battle Group.”
    General Tragge was too good of a military man to take any satisfaction in this small victory. Besides, something didn’t smell right. Many years ago, he learned to trust his intuition. Now, some instinct warned him that there was a lot more to this attack than a few humans.
    An aide handed him the communicator.
    “Admiral Paad?” The general waited a second while the comm technician completed the link. “Yes Lorm, we’re okay for now, thanks to General Frox. I’m sending you a complete transcript of the past few hours. Do not . . . I repeat . . . do not continue your course to Tanarac. Take position outside the system at the fifth asteroid ring and await further instructions. Make sure you send out patrol ships at minimum intervals and maximum scouting duration. I have a hunch we didn’t see the entire Heptari fleet.”
    General Tragge paused for a moment while the admiral relayed the new instructions to his navigator. Then, he offered one last bit of advice.
    “Lorm, the Heptaris have some kind of new particle-beam cannon. It’s twice as powerful as anything we have on record. Avoid engagement, if possible.”
    The general responded to a few questions from the admiral. “Yes, we recalled all our deep space fleets to Wallow Minor. We’ll bring in more heavies from there, after they reach full strength. That should take a few more days. Until then, you’re all we’ve got. My electronics warfare officer found a way to modulate our shields against that new weapon. I’ll put him in contact with your ewar techs, maybe he can help you guys out. Good luck, Lorm.”
    General Tragge stared at the Deep Space screen. All the sentinel satellites around the Tanarac system displayed normal visions of asteroids or stars, framed by the black void of deep space. To the average person, everything looked right.

    The old General knew different.
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