PHASE II : THE TYR ARC ( 9 of 28 )

: “ Hostile Takeover ”


BWS Valeria; Bridge
Tyr System, Union of Border Worlds
February 2nd, 2681

“Captain, we're receiving an after action report from Captain Colby, CO of the 15th Destroyer Squadron," the Valeria's comm officer reported. "It's an eyes-only addressed to Admiral Hanton."

Captain Sang Que debated with himself for a second, but only for a second. He had the bridge for this watch, which just happened to be the graveyard shift. Most of the ship's crew were asleep in their cabins, including the Admiral. The proper procedure, of course, would have been to divert the message to her cabin, but Sang Que was reluctant to disturb her for something as simple as an after action report. The Admiral had as usual pushed herself right to the edge, pulling a double shift while trying to coordinate the massive fleet operation in Tyr, and she would be first officer back on the bridge in the morning. Admiral Hanton believed in leading by example.

"Let's see the message, Lieutenant," Sang Que said. Reading a report meant for a superior officer would have been a major breach of discipline in the Confed Navy, but no one would even raise an eyebrow here in the Border Worlds. Border Worlders believed that most rules simply got in the way of getting the job done. Even an ex-Confed officer like Captain Sang Que had to adapt to that way of thinking to function in the Border Worlds Navy. When you spend eight years in the Border Worlds, you either learn to go with the flow, or you go insane.

"Aye, aye, sir," the comm officer said, and then started reading the message, "Admiral, the 15th has completed our mission as discussed. We managed to take out three of the enemy destroyers, and 25 fighters. We lost five of our own fighters in the mess, however. We were able to rescue one pilot, but lost the other four. Combine these with 23 other casualties aboard the destroyers for our total losses. Destroyers sustained minor damage; we should be able to repair those systems within a few days. As of now, our scans report that a small group of about eight destroyers, five corvettes, and a single cruiser in pursuit. Aside from slightly larger casualties on our side than had been anticipated, everything is roughly going to what was planned. I will update you further as the need arises. Unless I receive additional direction from you, I will proceed as initially planned. Respectfully submitted, Colton Colby, Captain, TCN."

"Excellent," Captain Que said, leaning back in his chair. The 15th Destroyer Squadron had staged a hit and run strike on the Nephilim fleet as soon as they had known that the bugs were in the system. Several other capship squadrons, along with strike groups from the other carriers, would also be carrying out similar strikes over the next few days. The idea was to confuse, harass, and split up the Nephilim fleet, drawing them off in several directions. That would stop the Nephilim from advancing straight ahead to the major populated planet in this system for a few days. In the meantime, Battle Group Valkyrie would try to coordinate the evacuation effort, trying to get as many civilians off Tyr VII as possible. If everything went according to plan, the other units would keep the Nephilim too busy to interfere with the transports. Of course, no plan survived contact with the enemy, so the Battle Group Valkyrie pilots would have to provide a heavy escort for each and every group of transports.

"Pass my congratulations to Captain Colby on carrying out the strike," Sang Que said. "Also, divert the 18th Destroyer Squadron to link up with 15th. Tell Captain Colby I wanted him to wipe out each and every one of those ships that are chasing him." Taking out the pursuing ships hadn't been part of the original plan, but the chance to kill a cruiser and several smaller ships was too good to pass up.

"Aye, aye, sir," the comm officer said, turning back to his comm station.

Captain Que leaned back in his chair once again, keeping a eye on the crew working around him. He had acted on his initiative in diverting the 18th, which was something else that Confed wouldn't have tolerated. Still, he knew that the best way to manage a fleet operation this large was by staying on top of the situation. So far, Admiral Hanton's plan seemed to be working smoothly, but there was no room to get complacent. Only time would tell if they could get the civilian population safely away from this system in time, or if they would be seeing another slaughter like the ones in Dakota, Alcor, and Hellespont.


BWS Valeria; Wing Commander's Quarters
3rd, February 2681

"... And that's my performance evaluation on Major Lee Xiang, recommending that he be given his own squadron as soon as one's available," Lt. Colonel Chrys "Mirage" Rhodes, the CO of the 121st Squadron said, dumping another folder on Raptor's desk.

"Uh huh," Raptor said, as he quickly scanned through the folder, jotted his initials in the right places, and then finally signed it, just like he had done for the dozens of other folders that had gone across his desk in the past few days. The holo-vids made being a wing commander out to be all glamour and action. In reality though, the day to day work of coordinating a flight wing was both routine and tedious. There were nine combat squadrons and two support squadrons serving with Battle Group Valkyrie, which meant a ton of work for him.

"And the maintenance schedules for our Retaliators. There are at least two that need a major engine overhaul in the near future."

"Right." Scan, initial, sign. Just like last time.

"Requisition form, nine dozen each of IR, long range IR, and FF missiles for our next mission." The Retaliators could mount up to eighteen missiles per fighter, which meant that it took a lot of missiles to arm the entire squadron for a possible combat mission.

"Uh huh." Scan, initial, sign. Just like last time, and the time before that, and the time...

"Requisition form, a dozen G-strings for the Altairian dancing girls."

Scan, initial... wait a sec.

"Didn't I tell you not to inhale that stuff Skywalker's been handing around?"

"Just checking if you were paying attention," Chrys said with a smile, leaning back against the desk and folding her arms across her chest. She knew very well that he hadn't been paying attention, even if he had been able to catch the slip in time. They had known each other too long to be able to fool each other.

"You look tired, Rap," she added more seriously, watching him closely.

"Gods, I feel tired. Not to mention bored out of of my skull," Raptor said, leaning back in his chair, and rubbing his eyes. "And you're not helping much, either." He said with scowl, waving at the pile she'd just dumped on his desk.

"Just paying you back for all the work you dumped on me when I was your exec."

The two of them had met when the 121st Squadron (AKA the "Reaper" Squadron) had been formed, back during the Border Worlds Conflict. Raptor had been posted to the squadron as its executive officer, while Mirage had been a flight leader. When the 121th's CO was killed by a Confed Hellcat, Raptor had been promoted to squadron commander, while Mirage had become the squadron's exec. That was the way it had stayed for the next eight years, until Raptor had been promoted to Wing Commander, and Mirage had taken command of the Reaper Squadron.

"Bet you do the same to your exec. Getting dumped on is what execs are for," Raptor said.

"No I don't, and no they're not. You just took advantage of my good nature. Shamelessly."

"That wasn't the only thing I took advantage of. Shamelessly," he said with a smile, wrapping his hands around her waist and pulling her closer to him.

"Yeah, and you should have been court-martialed for it."

"As I recall, you were a willing participant. Enthusiastic, even... ow!" He broke off as Chrys reached down and tweaked his nose. The two of them had become a lot more than squadron mates during the years they had spent working together. They had first been friends, and then lovers, and then soulmates. Now he couldn't even imagine what his life would have been without her.

He wrapped his arms around her and hugged her hard, simply enjoying the time they had together. That had always been their problem, they never had enough time for each other. That, and the fact that they could never get their priorities straight. Somehow, the Confeds and the Kilrathi and even pirate raiders always ended higher up the list of priorities than being with each other. They had both committed themselves to the Union long before they had met each other, and that shared ideal had been one of the things that had kept them together all those years. At the same time though, that prior commitment had kept from committing fully to each other during the years they had spent on the front lines. As long as they were both flying, both fighting, they couldn't do the things that most people took for granted, simple things like marrying and having kids.

All that had seemed to change when the Treaty of McAuliffe had been signed. The Union had been secure for the first time in its history, and they finally had a life of their own. He had come so close to asking her to marry him during those few quiet months they had spent at the Academy. Just when he had finally worked up the courage though, Sang Que had shown up at the Academy, and the Kilrathi started screaming about Kn'thrak, and the two of them were right where they had started. Maybe when all this was over...

"Hmmm?" Chrys asked quietly. He must have spoken out loud without realizing it.

"Nothing," he said, kissing her gently. Definitely when all this was over.


BWS Valeria; Flight Wing Briefing Room
About An Hour Later

"All right, let's get started," Raptor said. The flight wing's senior officers were gathered in the briefing room for another of those informal strategy sessions. The plan to move the civilian population away from Tyr was just getting into gear, so it was important that everyone was kept up to date on what was happening. The squadron commanders and their execs who were based aboard the Freedom and the escort ships had been shuttled over for the meeting. Several Marine officers and NCOs were present as well, as the Marines were the ones who would be running the actual evacuation.

"Now, let's start with the good news," he continued. "Most of you have probably heard this by now, but for those who haven't, the Black Angel Squadron made contact with the Nephilim yesterday. The Angels managed to take down several Nephilim fighters for no loss. Nice job, Strife."

"Thank you, sir!" Commander Jarin "Strife" Beleforte, the CO of the VF-78 "Black Angels," said as he jumped to his feet and took a mock bow, earning a few wolf whistles from the females in the crowd.

"Moving right along," Raptor said as Strife sat back down. "The 15th Confed Destroyer Squadron also made contact with the Nephilim yesterday. The 15th staged a hit-and-run attack against the Nephilim picket lines. They managed to ice a few Nephilim capships, and just as importantly, they managed to draw off several other ships and lead them on a wild goose chase. The 8th Confed Cruiser Squadron and the 6th BW Corvette Squadron should be making similar attacks about now, along with fighter groups from Endeavour, Yorktown, and the other carriers. They'll make sure the Nephilim are too distracted to make a major push towards Tyr VII for a few days."

"Now, as I'm sure you've heard by now, our job is to try and get as many civilians off Tyr as we can in that time. We'll be covering the transports as they load up and move towards the jump point. The Marines will be handling the actual evacuation, so I'll turn the briefing over over to them. Before I go though, there's just one last thing I want to say. I've been hearing that some of you have been giving our Confed liaison pilots a hard time." He smiled. "All I can say is... keep up the good work."

That got a few laughs from the people in the room. Raptor noticed though, that Lt. Colonel Ryan "Knight" Speares, the most senior of the Confed exchange pilots serving with Skywalker's Taipan Squadron, did not look amused. Neither did Lt. Colonel Erik Martin, who, ironically, also used the callsign Knight. Raptor had picked up a few bad vibes when he had been briefing Lt. Colonel Martin's squadron a few days earlier. He had looked over Martin's file, and it had been easy to spot just why Erik was so uncomfortable around Confeds. Erik had lost his family to the Black Lance attack on Telamon. Like a lot of other Telamon survivors, he seemed to hate Confed as well as the Black Lance. In a way, that was understandable. Not necessarily logical, but understandable.

The trouble was, Erik wasn't the only who uneasy around the Confed pilots. It seemed that the new pilots weren't fitting in all that well with the rest of Taipan Squadron. Raptor had already called several Taipans on the carpet after a brawl in the ship's lounge. None of the Taipans were willing to say what had started the brawl, but the number of black eyes was ample evidence that it was a lot more than a standard punch up. There had been a couple of other incidents as well, all involving the liaison pilots.

Raptor knew that a lot of his pilots wanted nothing to do with the Confeds. Hell, if he was going to be honest with himself, he wasn't too fond of Confeds either. Confeds and Border Worlders had been staring at each other across the gunsights for years, and old prejudices tended to die hard. The Border Worlders thought of Confeds as arrogant, back-stabbing SOBs. For their part, a lot of Confeds thought of Border Worlders as backwards, ignorant, inbred hicks. But the thing was, they were all on the same side now. Confeds and Border Worlders had to learn to work together, had to learn to trust each other. They would be flying a lot of missions alongside the Confeds, and they would literally have to trust each other with their lives. He knew there was no way he could just step in and order them to work together, which was why he'd made that last comment. It was a way of letting the squadron leaders know that he knew there was a problem. Hopefully, the squadron commanders would take it from there, and keep discipline within their squadrons. It wasn't much, but it was a start.

Raptor had taken a seat as soon as he'd finished speaking, and two Marine officers, a man and a woman, stepped up to the front of the room. The man could have been a poster boy for the Marine Corps. He was tall, heavily muscled, blond, and handsome. The woman was also blond, but was much shorter, barely clearing five feet, and looked too slender to be a Marine. The man cleared his throat and began speaking.

"Okay, I'm guessing that none of you fly-boys even knew we Marines exist, so I'll start by introducing myself. I'm Lieutenant Erich Hess, Jaeger to my friends. I command Battle Group Valkyrie's Alpha Platoon, and I'll be in charge of the overall ground operation. Alpha Platoon, along with the Marines from the other carriers, will be shuttling down to Tyr VII during the next two hours. We'll co-ordinate the evacuation from there. The government has already set up evacuation centres near the major spaceports, so we should be able to start moving people soon. From there, we'll use the shuttle craft from all eight carriers to move people up to transports waiting in orbit.

"Now, we're not planning to move these people any great distance, because we have neither the time nor the transport capacity. Admiral Hanton estimates that in spite of all our delaying tactics, the Nephilim will reach Tyr VII within three or four days. That means we only have time to do a simple snatch and run. We're planning to scoop up as as many people as we can in, cram them into the transports like cattle, and then make a run for it. We're planning to take them to Masa, which is only one jump away, and dump them there. Our own fleet will be retreating through Nephele, so hopefully the Nephilim will follow us instead of going after the transports. If not, well, the civvies are going to be buggered.

"Our big problem is going to be transport capacity. There are about 100,000 people on Tyr, and only enough transport capacity to move about 50,000 of them. That's counting everything that can carry people and jump, including short haul transports, cargo carriers, passenger ships, medical ships, the lot. Some of these ships are so old that we're not even sure if they can survive a jump, but we're going to try anyway. There is no way that we can get any of our own troop carriers or cruise liners here in time. The good news, though, is that part of the Tanfen Sector fleet is already in Tyr. Tanfen seems to have gotten word of the Nephilim attack, though we've got no idea how, and it seems they want to get their own assets and equipment out. They've got enough transport capacity to evacuate another 50,000 to 60,000 people, so they can take the rest of the population. They're not too interested in evacuating the civvies, but Admiral Hanton has authorized us to commandeer their ships, by force if we have to."

"That's where I come in," the woman said. She was smiling as she said it, but there was absolutely no humor in her smile. "My name's Lieutenant Kyra Kaslowski, CO of Bravo Platoon. My platoon and I will be boarding the Tanfen ships, just to make sure the Tanfenners don't have second thoughts about helping us once our backs are turned. People tend to be a lot more patriotic when they have a gun pointed at their heads. We'll be making a move on the Tanfen ships within the next six hours. I think that just about covers everything, right, Colonel?"

"Just one other thing." Raptor added. "The Reapers, Dragon Riders, Taipans and Harbingers will be flying cover for Bravo Platoon as they make the grab. I want all squads prepped and ready for take-off in six hours. Okay, any questions? No? Dismissed, then."


Retaliator 001 (Reaper Lead)
Tyr System
About Seven Hours Later

It's amazing what you can do when money's no object, Raptor thought, as he got his first good look at at the Tanfen's fleet. There were dozens of civilian transports and freighters, most of them brand new and state-of-the art. Each of those ships could carry several thousand tonnes of cargo, or over a thousand people. What was even more impressive was that this was only a small part of Tanfen's total transport capability. Tanfen had money to burn, and it made sure that it had best equipment money could buy.

It was a just a pity the Corp's sense of social responsibility was a little lacking. Raptor could understand the Tanfenners wanting to look out for their own interests, and taking care of their own people before they helped outsiders. What he couldn't understand though, was how anyone could leave thousands of people to die while evacuating cargo and assets. Money or assets lost in the invasion could be replaced, but human lives couldn't. This just seemed to confirm the worst that many people believed about Tanfen.

He shook his head slightly at that thought. The only things more dangerous than the things we don't know are the things we 'know' that aren't so. Hehad forgotten who had told him that, but he had found it to be true throughout his career. Tanfen was so secretive that most of what people "knew" about the Corp was based on rumor and gossip and urban myth. Raptor didn't know if Tanfen was the cold hearted monster that some people made it out to be, or if the Corp was just so focused on its own interests that it had lost sight of the wider picture.

Still, the Tanfenners were going to help evacuate Tyr VII, whether they liked it or not. The Border Worlds fighters and Marines were going to make sure of that. The Reapers, along with the Jaguars and Bearcats from Harbinger and Dragon Rider Squadrons, were escorting half a dozen Marine shuttles, each packed with heavily armed troops from Bravo platoon. This was literally going to be a hostile takeover, and the Border Worlders were prepared to get as hostile as Tanfen wanted them to get. There was no time for diplomatic and social niceties, not with tens of thousands of lives at stake.

"... repeat, identify yourselves," a Tanfen comm officer demanded for about the sixth time. Just like before though, the Border Worlders refused to respond. They simply kept flying straight towards the Tanfen ships, and giving no hint of what they were about to do. They needed surprise on their side if they were going to keep the bloodshed to a minimum. There were about two dozen Homeguard Hellcats and Thunderbolts escorting the Tanfen ships. In theory, Tanfen Homeguard units were loyal to the Union first, and to Tanfen second, but that had never been put to the test. The last thing anyone wanted was a shooting match between Union Space Force and Homeguard pilots.

For their part, the Homeguard pilots kept their distance, unwilling to make a hostile move against the Space Force fighters. The Border Worlds fighters kept moving steadily towards them. When they were about 10,000 klicks away from the Homeguard Fighters, the Retaliators lit their afterburners, racing towards the startled Homeguard pilots. The Hellcat and Thunderbolt pilots had no time to react as the Retaliators raced towards them. Before they knew what was going on, they found themselves surrounded on all sides. The implication was obvious. One wrong move, and they would be caught in a deadly crossfire from the heavily armed Retaliators. The Jaguars, Bearcats and shuttles kept moving forward, closing in on the Tanfen ships.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" the Tanfen comm officer demanded. He sounded like he was about to suffer a stroke.

"Admiral, I think that's your cue," Raptor said. The senior officers aboard the Valeria had been monitoring the entire operation. Now was a good time for the Admiral to step in.

"Thank you, Colonel," the Admiral said. Her voice was being broadcast across multiple frequencies, so the Tanfeners were sure to pick it up. "This Admiral Erin Hanton, commanding officer of the combined Confed/Border Worlds fleet and Battle Group Valkyrie. I want to speak to whoever is in charge."

There was a long pause before the Tanfenners answered. "This is Lord John Tan, CEO of Tanfen operations in this sector. You'd better have a very good explanation for this... outrage, Admiral."

"I do. We need your ships, sir. There are several thousand civilians on Tyr, and we're not about to leave them to the Nephilim."

"Tanfen has already made its position perfectly clear, Admiral," Lord John said calmly. "We're not the Red Cross, and we don't do charity work. Right now we've got our own interests to think about."

"I don't think you heard me. We need those ships, and we will have them, whether you like it or not."

"You can't be serious!" Lord John said, sounding as if he wasn't sure if he should laugh or be furious. "You can't simply take our ships just because you feel like it. These ships are private property, and the military has no grounds for taking them. Taking a civilian ship by force is considered piracy under Union of Border Worlds law. Last time I checked, that was a capital offense."

"Yes, it is," Admiral Hanton said calmly. "Always assuming, of course, that Tyr is being governed under Border Worlds law. As of right now, in accordance with Emergency Decree 45A, this system and everyone in it is under martial law. That means that the law is whatever I say it is. I suggest that you check with your lawyers, Lord John. They'll find the relevant law was added to the statute books about a week ago. While they're at it, have them look up the penalties for refusing to cooperate with the military authorities. Believe me, I will do whatever I have to, including clapping you in chains and throwing you into the Valeria's brig."

Lord John came back a few minutes later. "According to our lawyers, your Senate's Emergency Decree may well be a breach of the Border Worlds Constitution. We intend to challenge it in court, and have no intention of complying with such an obviously illegal order. We will resist any attempt to commandeer our ships."

"Don't say I didn't warn you, Lord John. Colonel, take out their fighters."

"Yes, Ma'am!"

This was what the Retaliator pilots had been waiting for. Two missiles streaked away from each fighter, slamming into the Homeguard Hellcats and Thunderbolts before the pilots could react. The Excaliburs from Taipan Squadron decloaked at the same time, adding their missiles to the deadly crossfire. The shields of the Homeguard fighters flashed blue as multiple warheads smashed into them. Within seconds, all the Homeguard fighters were drifting dead in space, their power drained by the leech missiles. They would be out of action for the next hour or so.

"You see, Lord John, we are serious." The Admiral leaned back. "Now, are you going to surrender... or not? Or do we have to send in our Marines?"

"It will be a cold day in hell before Tanfen submits to piracy, Admiral, even if it is by the Border Worlds Navy. I'm quite prepared to destroy these ships rather than let them be taken by force."

Raptor swore under his breath as he listened to the exchange. This was definitely not working out as planned. They had thought that the Tanfenners would comply with the Emergency Decree (as they were legally bound to do), or if that failed, to the threat of force. They had badly misjudged just how stubborn the Tanfenners were. Sending in the Marines now would result in a bloody fight, or Lord John Tan might even carry out his threat to blow up the ships. He seemed just stubborn enough to go down in a blaze of glory.

The stand-off continued for nearly twenty minutes, with Admiral Hanton and Lord John hurling threats and legal arguments back and forth. Just when it seemed that things couldn't get any more FUBURed than they already were, Captain Sang Que broke into the channel.

"Colonel, we're picking up a group of about 40 Nephilim fighters heading your way. We think they might have picked up on all the comm traffic. They should reach your position in fifteen minutes."

Raptor closed his eyes and groaned softly. Some days, nothing worked out as planned. He almost wished that he and Chrys had just called in sick and stayed in bed together. Still, it wasn't a total disaster. Between them, the Reapers, Dragon Riders, Taipans and Harbingers should be able to easily hold off the Nephilim fighters. Of course, they wouldn't have any back-up, seeing as they'd just leeched the Homeguard fighters. He swore again, and then switched to ImRec missiles and hauled the Retaliator's nose around sharply.

"All right, all fighters, this is Reaper Lead. Reapers, Harbingers, we'll be doing a high speed intercept. Taipans, I want you to..."

"Belay that order, Colonel," Admiral Hanton broke in. "All fighters and shuttle craft are to return to the Valeria at once. There's nothing here worth fighting for."

Raptor choked slightly on that, and he was sure he wasn't the only one. Without their fighters, the Tanfenners would be helpless against the Nephilim. Just abandoning them would amount to murder. As stubborn, arrogant, and selfish as the Tanfenners seemed, they were still Border Worlds citizens.

"Say again, Valeria?" he asked.

"You heard me, Colonel. Right now, you and your pilots are whole lot more valuable to me than the Tanfenners are. I'm not going to sacrifice pilots in a battle that will gain us nothing."

"You can't do that!" Lord John all but shouted. It was then that Raptor remembered that the whole conversation was still being broadcast to the Tanfenners. He kicked himself for underestimating Admiral Hanton. One of the things that made her such a great commander was the fact that she seized on any opportunity, no matter how small, and exploited it to the full. That was what she was doing right now.

"I can and I will, Lord John. If you won't help us, then you're of no further use to us. I'd rather keep my pilots alive to protect the people down on Tyr."

"You can't do that!" Lord John said, rattled enough to start repeating himself. "You can't just leech our fighters and leave us here to die!"

Admiral Hanton narrowed her eyes. "You were willing to let thousands of Border Worlders die. Goodbye, Lord John."

"We're Border Worlders, too! We have a right to military protection."

"Really? Border Worlds citizenship comes with responsibilities as well as rights," the Admiral said "If you ignore your responsibilities, you give up your rights. Make up your mind, Lord John. You can't have one without the other."

Lord John was fast enough on the uptake to understand the stark choice Admiral Hanton was offering him. If he didn't do what the Admiral wanted, and use his ships to help evacuate the civilians, the Border Worlders would leave him and his people to be slaughtered by the Nephilim. For all his talk of blowing up his ships, he didn't want to die. More importantly, he wasn't going to let thousands of people he was responsible for die just to satisfy his own pride. He most certainly didn't want his wife and unborn child to die needlessly. He was a proud man, and he hated having to beg, but Tanfen lives were more important than Tanfen pride. The choice Admiral Hanton was offering him was really no choice at all.

"You're one tough bitch, you know that?"

"So I've been told. What's your decision?"

"All right... very well, we'll do it!"

"Not good enough," Admiral Hanton said coldly. She had Lord John Tan by the balls now, and she wasn't willing to let him off so easily. "How do I know you'll help us once we take out the Nephilim?"

"You have my word as a Tan!"

"Very well. Colonel, we launched Black Angel and White Knight Squadrons when we got word of the Nephilim. They should get there just before the bugs do. Kick some butt."

"Yes, Ma'am!" Raptor said, smiling slightly. Admiral Hanton hadn't really had any intention of abandoning the Tanfenners. The fact that she had launched the two fighter squadrons proved that. Didn't it? He wondered what she would done if the Tanfenners had refused, and then decided that he didn't really want to know the answer. It was all very well to chalk it up as a case of "the ends justifying the means," but that was the same reasoning that Tolwyn had used. This wasn't a clear cut case of "good guys" and "bad guys," just two groups of people doing what they thought was right.

The battle itself wasn't all that spectacular. The Nephilim were no match for human fighters or human pilots, especially not when the humans had a near three to one advantage in numbers. Between them, the six squadrons of Border Worlds fighters were easily able to wipe out the Nephilim, blowing most of them of them out of the sky with concentrated missile salvos, and finishing the rest off with gunfire.

"Well, Lord John? Are you man enough to keep your word?" the Admiral asked once the last Nephilim fighter had been hunted down. It was really a rhetorical question. Backing out now would be a massive loss of face for Lord John Tan, one he simply couldn't afford. Face was everything in Tanfen's culture.

The silence that followed dragged on for several minutes. When Lord John finally came back on the comm, he sounded defeated. "Tans always keep their word. All right, what do you want us to do?"

"For a start, our Marines will be coming aboard your command ships. Just to make sure that you don't have any thoughts about leaving the system, you understand..." Admiral Hanton didn't believe in taking chances, even when it looked like she had won.


Shuttle Valeria Delta
Tyr System
About The Same Time

Lieutenant Kaslowski hefted her assault rifle, making sure it was loaded, and then clicked the safety on before loading a fragmentation grenade into the launcher slung under the rifle barrel. It looked like the Tanfenners were going to behave themselves, but any boarding operation was fraught with risk. Her orders were to avoid bloodshed if at all possible, but if anyone started trouble, she and the other heavily armed Marines would finish it.

The Marines were concentrating on three transports at the centre of the Tanfen fleet. These looked like VIP transports rather than simple cargo carriers or passenger ships, and were probably the command ships for the entire fleet. Taking them was the key to making sure that the Tanfenners kept behaving themselves. She braced herself as the shuttle she was on swooped towards one of the transports, braking hard at the last second. The pilot must have known what he was doing though. The docking itself was much smoother than she had thought it would be.

"All right, move!" she ordered, as the shuttle latched on docking port on the ship's starboard side. Another shuttle would be docking on the other side of the ship. She released the webbing that held her to her seat, and then clicked the safety on her rifle off. The other Marines were quickly into position, ready to storm the ship if they had to. If this had been an all out combat operation, they would have blown open the doors of the docking port, and then gone in firing. As it was, the doors opened easily.


Aboard The Tanfen Command Galaxy Starry Memory

Two of the Marines went through the doors fast, their rifles sweeping the corridor in front of them, while several more Marines covered them, ready to lay down a deadly blanket of fire if they had to. The cover team rushed through as soon as the two point men had reported an all clear, with another group of Marines taking their place. They repeated the process until all the Marines were clear of the shuttle, and in firm control of the corridor near the docking port.

About a dozen Tanfen security troops were waiting for them as they exited the corridor. The Tanfenners were armed, but they kept their hands well away from their weapons. They obviously didn't want to start a fight. Just to be on the safe side though, the Marines quickly disarmed them. All it would take would be one fanatic to start a blood-bath.

"Lord Maximilian sent us to escort you to the command deck," one of the Tanfenners said sullenly as the Marines relieved him of his of Archer pistol and combat knife. He wore Lieutenant's bars on his combat vest, and he plainly wasn't happy with the situation. Then again, no soldier would be.

"Very considerate of him," Lieutenant Kaslowski said evenly, wondering just who "Lord Maximilian" was, and if she could trust what the soldier was telling her. He might simply be trying to lead the Marines into an ambush. Still, the Tanfeners would have to be terminally stupid to try something like that when there were six squadrons of heavily armed fighters right outside the ship. Besides, her team's goal was to secure the command centre, anyway. The team from the second shuttle would be sweeping through the rest of the ship.

"All right, take us to the command centre," she said, biting back a perverse urge to say "Take me to your leader." There was no sense in aggravating the Tanfenners any further. The Marines fanned out along the corridor, keeping an eye out for ambushes. As it turned out though, they reached the command deck (just aft of the cockpit) without incident. The Marines quickly secured the command centre. The Marines from the second team checked in soon after, reporting that the rest of the ship was secure. Lt. Kaslowski quickly checked in with the rest of her platoon, who reported that they had secured the other two command ships, including the one Lord John Tan was on.

Now that the ship was secure, she turned her full attention to the people in the area. One person in particular caught her eye, a young man with red hair and brown eyes. His clothing was a cut above what everyone else was wearing. Three other people, a man and two women, were clustered around him. They had the look of bodyguards about them. Though they had all been disarmed, they still looked dangerous, glaring daggers at the Marines.

"You're in charge of these people?" Kaslowski asked as she stepped towards the young man. She deliberately ignored the three bodyguards. She knew that her Marines were watching them. They'd be dead the instant they made a hostile move.

"Yes. I'm Lord Maximilian Gan. Welcome aboard my ship," the young man said wryly.

"Lieutenant Kyra Kaslowski, Border Worlds Marine Corps. I suggest you tell your guards to stand down before they get hurt."

Lord Maximilian nodded to his guards, who all relaxed slightly. "I thought the Marine Corps helped fight piracy, not commit it."

"Admiral Hanton has already explained our reasons," Kaslowski said, refusing to rise to the bait.

"Do you know how many lives you've placed in danger?" Lord Maximilian demanded. "We have thousands of non-combatants aboard these ships. My God, my Aunt is in labour aboard that medical frigate out there! You had no right to put them at risk."

"Look, there are tens of thousands of people at risk on Tyr," Kaslowski said evenly. "These ships are only hope we have of getting them to safety. Believe it or not, Lord Maximilian, we weren't sent here just to make your life difficult."

Still, she couldn't blame Lord Maxililian for feeling the way he did. In his place, she would feel much the same. What they were doing had to be done, but it was a bitter pill for Tanfen to swallow. No one like having property taken away by force or threat, no matter what the reason.

Lord Maximilian glared, and then began to laugh helplessly, drawing odd looks from his own people as well as from the Marines. "Funny how things sometimes work out, isn't it?"


"I made the same suggestion to my uncle. About evacuating the civilians, I mean. I got over-ruled. I can't say I like your methods, but..."

"I take it you're planning to cooperate with us?" Kaslowski said warily. It sounded like Lord Maximilian was going to be much more reasonable than his uncle, but she had to be sure.

"Officially, no. I'm only working with you under protest. Unofficially, well..." He smiled broadly, the first welcoming expression the Marines had seen since they arrived.

"Good," Kaslowski said, returning the smile. It was difficult not to like the youngster. Still, likable or not, she wasn't about to let her guard down. "All right, Lord Maximilian, you're going to..."

"Max. Lord Maximilian is kind of a mouthful."

"All right, Max. You're going to move these ships into orbit around Tyr VII, where you'll loading as many civilians as you can carry. From there, you'll take them to Masa, where hopefully they'll be safe. And the sooner you get started, the sooner you'll be free to go on your way."

"You heard the lady," Lord Maximilian said, nodding to his pilot. The ship's engines fired up a few seconds later, and it slowly began to accelerate towards Tyr VII. The other command ships had already begun moving, and the rest of the fleet followed. Lieutenant Kaslowski bit back a sigh as she glanced towards the distant planet, wishing she was one of the Marines down there on the surface. She'd much rather be helping get people to safety than playing nurse maid to Lord Maximilian. Still, if the Tanfenners kept behaving themselves, maybe the next few days wouldn't be as unpleasant as she had thought they would be.


Meanwhile, On The Gan Estates, New Maynah

Back on the Homeworlds, a woman wreathed in a prismatic looking dress finished murmuring something as she finished placing a candle before a mantle filled with candles. All of them were different, and of all sizes. Though she did not light the candle, one gesture caused it to flare, and then burn with a steady but odd greyish glow.

The one she had just placed was tall, and elaborately carved with images of rampant stallions, but it, and the flame that burned in its wick was gray. Staring into it gave the impression of a grey fortress. Indomitable, proud and solid. Another candle, this one set in a constellation of others was just as tall, and its flame burned with the bright red of passion and zeal. This candle was carved with symbols of blazing half moons and stars, and to look into it gave an aura of determination, combined with patriotism and loyalty to a cause greater than life, maybe even greater than love.

"So shall they burn as they reflect the life they give," Schala murmured as she watched the constellation of soul candles she had placed give off their own gentle light in the darkened sanctum in the Estates. Hundreds candles had already flared out and crumbled, but the remainder seemed to burn all the more brightly, as if to resist the dark wind that was attempting to blow out every candle on the mantle.

Nevertheless, the outcome was grim. The dark wind was strong. Very strong.

And what the Tarot and the Scrolls told her was equally grim. Six tarot cards lay on the table beside her, along with other tools of her craft. The first lay at the crux of the Celtic Cross spread she had laid out. The significator card; the one that gave meaning and context to the rest. It was Judgment. A card that showed an angel calling forth the souls of the fallen from their graves. It meant that a time of accountability, and the crux of a major decision was either near, or had taken place.

Then came two cards, forming the arms of the cross, and forming the opposing arcanum of the deck. One was the Star, showing a gamine sprite pouring forth water from a jug under a moonlit sky. It signified someone, or many people tied down to earthly glory and material wealth and ties. It could also mean loyalty to pride, emotion and material wealth.

The other was the Empress, showing her sitting astride her throne, master of all she surveyed. It showed someone powerful, a symbol of great willpower and steadfast energy. A leader of many. However, that power itself could be turned to stubbornness, or brutality. Nevertheless, it showed the other end of the cosmic scale of events that balanced the Star. What, she could not divine. That showed the present, or what was to become the present. If unity of purpose was not achieved, everything would come to ruin. She could only hope that whoever the Star and the Empress represented could come to a fusion of purpose. She could perhaps guess what cause or purpose they represented, but she had long ago decided to give up on that. Too often, the other world had different interpretations of reality, and of events transpiring or in birth.

The final three of the cross made her shudder. At the apex laid the Wheel of Fortune. A great change in the matter of things was to come, something major. Something that would change the scheme of things forever after. Next came strength, showing a queen taming a raging lion. There was a force somewhere in the scheme that had the charisma and determination to succeed, yet its combination with the Star at the end of the upper cross emphasized its negative qualities. There was misplaced pride and duty and complacency. Last was the Hermit. A wandering purveyor of knowledge that sought it out for its own sake as well as to share it to all. It meant generosity of spirit and ingenuity of mind, as well as loyalty to a greater cause. But it also meant a long journey, fraught with hardship was in the future.

A gentle voice, and a knock disturbed her from her interpretation of the Tarot. "Come in."

Constance came in, looking concerned. "Milady Schala, please, you have been up for the past three days. You must rest."

Schala gave a gentle smile. "I will, Constance, when I have the time. My presence is required here, in the sanctum, until the night has passed. 'Till then, I must play silent spectator to the struggle going on far away from here."

She turned back to the twinkling constellation of candles, forming a galaxy of lights here in the darkness.