There was a moment, a brief, incandescent moment, when Creed Harlow could have chosen death.
It would have been so easy.
Instead, he’d hesitated ... just a beat too long ... and now it was too late. By default, he had chosen life. And now he’d have to live with it.
The Vasudan gunner was damn good. In that fateful moment of Harlow’s crucial hesitation, the gunner had taken out the Apollo fighter’s entire port weapons bank. One shot. The Banshee cannon pulse-blast had sheared the entire bank of
secondaries clean off their mounting struts, like a laser scalpel slicing through soft tissue. And now Harlow had nothing left to fight with. The starboard weapons bank had already been destroyed, along with the primary disruptor pods. The
Vasudans knew that; they could easily see where the GTF Apollo fighter had been crippled, shot to pieces as if some gigantic sledge hammer had knocked huge chunks right off it.
The amazing thing was that the cabin still maintained integrity. The life support systems were still functioning, even with the shields gone and over half the ship reduced to slag. And they wanted to mothball these puppies, Harlow thought.
The Apollo was one goddam terrific piece of hardware. He had been lucky. If anyone could call this luck.
The Vasudan squadron got in close under the pretext of providing escort, which was always welcome in this sector ever since the Shivans had appeared in the Ikeya system, coming through the node with some kind of huge, Cruiser-class vessel
rumored to be about the size of Rhode Island, capable of launching somewhere between several hundred and over a thousand fighters. Intelligence was a little wonky on that score. The reports were mostly secondary sources, panicked subspace
frequency transmissions that sounded hysterical and incoherent ... until they were cut off abruptly. No one who had actually seen the Shivan Cruiser was ever left alive to tell the tale. So when the Vasudan squadron had shown up and offered to
help fly escort duty for the heavy freighter to the Tombaugh station, Harlow could almost hear the collective sigh of relief over his com. And that, in itself, felt weird.
For fourteen years, fully half his life, the Galactic Terran Alliance had been at war with the Vasudan Empire. Harlow had grown up hating the Vasudans. Long before he had ever laid eyes on one, he hated them with a passion bordering on the
pathologic. Among his boyhood friends, there had been no worse insult than being called Vasudan. Epithets such as "Vasudan slimeball" or "Vasudan scumbucket" were not just fighting words, they were invitations to mayhem. He had grown up with the
daily newscasts reporting distant space battles, body counts and numbers of ships lost, and colonies destroyed and bases decimated, and then, when he was seventeen, his older brother’s ship vaporized in an attack upon his squadron. Harlow had
enlisted the very next year, on his eighteenth birthday.
His mother had cried.
His father had been proud. "Go get ‘em, son," he’d said. "Go get those Vasudan bastards."
You spend half of your goddamn life hating the sonsabitches, Harlow thought, and suddenly, one day, they’re your allies. And not because they wanted to make peace, but because they had no freakin’ choice.
For years, humanity had wondered what would happen if they ever encountered another intelligent race. As far back as the late 20th century, probes had been sent out with little plaques upon them showing Earth’s position on a stellar map –
not too smart, perhaps – with a little arrow pointing, as if to say, "We are here." Then one day, after all those years of wondering, the discovery of FreeSpace, followed by ... contact.
No one could ever seem to agree on what, exactly, started the Terran-Vasudan War. Mutual distrust was about as good an answer as any. But it went on for fourteen years, with neither side managing to gain an upper hand ... until the Shivans came.
So far as Harlow knew, no one had ever even seen a Shivan. They just saw their ships. Black and red fighters, shaped like some kind of space-going arachnids, deadly fast and lethal ... and now the SuperCruiser, as someone had christened it,
which no one could describe, because no one who had actually seen it had been left alive to give a complete report. What little was known about it was that it was BIG. Really big. And it was out there ... somewhere.
Fourteen years of warfare with the Vasudan Empire had ended in a treaty and an alliance that could, at best, be called uneasy, yet rendered necesarry by the simple imperative of survival, because the Shivans didn’t come to conquer. They came
to annihiliate. Pure and simple. If it lived, and it wasn’t Shivan, it was slated for extinction. It became apparent, very quickly, that the only chance of survival the Terrans and the Vasudans had was if they made peace and joined forces
against this new, implacably destructive foe that seemed far stronger than either of them ... but maybe, just maybe, not stronger than both of them together.
So when the Vasudan squadron had shown up on their scanners and made contact, Harlow had swallowed his natural antipathy, nurtured for over half his life, and accepted their offer to join the freighter escort conducting the Orion
Maru to Tombaugh Station. He had met Vasudans before and though he couldn’t say he liked the ugly brutes, he was able to put up with them. Just barely. The common good of the alliance and all that.
He still recalled the first time he had heard about the treaty. It was in the officer’s club back at the station. "So we’re supposed to trust the bastards now?" he’d said. And he had vowed he never would. He hadn’t been alone, either. Not
by a long shot. But to his surprise, and just about everybody else’s, the Vasudans had lived up to their end of the treaty. They had shared their resources and technology and, at least so far as any of the experts could tell, had not held
anything back. The results of combined Terran/Vasudan research and technology had been better ships, better weapons and significant spinoff from defense-based R&D.; Regardless of his personal prejudices, Harlow had been forced to admit that
the alliance was working and the Vasudans were living up to their end of the bargain. So, when the Vasudans had shown up and offered to join the escort, Harlow had done the one thing he had sworn he’d never do. He trusted them.
And now he was the only one left.
He didn’t especially want to live. Not now. The entire squadron had been blown apart. At least half of them were rookies. Kids. They hadn’t stood a chance against the veteran Vasudan fighter pilots. What was left of their ships drifted
in space around him like so much scrap metal. The Orion Maru had been gutted. Several of the larger Vasudan fighters had made fast to it and sent boarding parties in to loot.
And it was all his responsibility. His blame. He was in command. And after his fighter had been crippled, and he was drifting, without any ability to navigate at all, there had been that one moment, when he still had function in his port
secondaries, when he could have fired a final shot at the Vasudan fighters that surrounded him and demanded his surrender. One shot. And then, of course, they would have finished him. But he had hesitated, and given them the chance to take out
those port secondaries before he could change his mind. With that hesitation, he had chosen. He chose to live.
God help me, he thought.
As the fighters encircled him, he sat there helpless, impotent. "What do you want?" he said through gritted teeth, inside his helmet. "What the hell do you double-crossing bastards want? Finish it, goddamn you!" And then he spotted the
Vasudan squadron’s mothership coming in.
It was a Scorpio-class vessel, to use the human name for them, about the size of a GTA Destroyer, well over 2 kilometers in length. And as the message came in through his com, identifying the ship as the IVS Hammer and informing him
he was a prisoner of war, he suddenly realized who his captors really were. Vasudans, yes ... but renegades who did not recognize the treaty. Branded traitors by their own kind, they were members of the Imperial Vasudan Fleet who had followed
some psychotic admiral in a mutiny against their government, religious fanatics who saw the Shivan invasion as some kind of "cleansing" foretold in some obscure Vasudan prophecy. Deathheads, as the Terrans called them. They called themselves
"The Hammer of Light."
According to the scuttlebutt, they had been the "Praetorian Guard" of the Imperial Vasudan Fleet, the top guns, the elite of the elite. And after seeing what they had done to his squadron, Harlow could believe it. It had happened so fast,
so goddamn fast... they took apart the squadron like a school of spacegoing piranha ... saving him for last.
"We have been monitoring your transmissions, Commander Harlow," the translated voice came over his com. His name,
incongurously, came through as ‘hollow.’ Which was exactly how he felt. "Prepare to be taken aboard," the Vasudan said. "Further resistance would be pointless. You have fought well and you shall be treated with all due deference to your rank,
according to your own long-standing tradition of the Geneva Conventions. Do you accept these terms?"
Harlow grimaced. "Have I got a choice?"
"No, Commander, you do not. Death, however honorable, is no longer an option. We prefer to have you alive. But out of respect, we would like to at least observe the formalities."
Harlow snorted. "Well, that’s mighty goddam human of you," he replied.
"Sarcasm," came the reply, followed by a peculiar, grunting sound that might have been a chuckle. "Derision. Irony. The
use of words meant to convey the opposite of meaning. A uniquely human concept. I have studied this. I shall hope to have the opportunity to learn more from you. It will be interesting to make your acquaintance, Commander. I look forward to it.
Son of a bitch, thought Harlow. Admiral Tallanis! The old death-lover himself. The most decorated Vasudan officer of the T-V War. And the leader of the mutiny. What the hell does he want with me?
They did not take any chances. As soon as they brought the blasted hulk of his fighter aboard through one of the launch
bays, they threw up a cordon of security around it, Vasudan Elites armed with lightweight energy weapons. A low setting would merely stun. Full setting would disintegrate. They had their weapons leveled at the cockpit as they waited for him
to retract the canopy, just in case he had a sidearm and decided to try committing suicide by coming out fighting. He’d never have had a chance. They’d simply sweep the cockpit with stun blasts and he’d wake up in a day or so, nursing the
mother of all headaches.
As it happened, they had no cause no concern. He was not wearing a sidearm ... and he couldn’t even get the cockpit open. The canopy would not retract. They had to call their engineers to cut him out of there.
Once they had him freed, they helped him out and then the senior officer of the Elites approached him and snapped off a
passable imitation of a Terran salute. It stuck in his craw, but Harlow returned it. If they were going to show him proper military courtesy, he’d be damned if he wasn’t going to respond in kind.
"Follow me, you should, sir," the Vasudan officer addressed him. Harlow nodded curtly. No restraints. No rough stuff.
There was no need for it. He was hopelessly outnumbered. They formed up on either side of him and marched him through the corridors of the Vasudan ship.
Physically, the Vasudans were imposing. They were larger than humans, though not significantly stronger. Their armored uniforms tended to make them seem bigger than they were. Harlow knew that, superficially, they possessed many similarities
to humans. They breathed the same air, had similar metabolisms and similar modes of communication, though their vocal cords could not reproduce the necessary sounds for Terran Standard. They needed to wear translators to make themselves
understood. Beyond that, appearances started to diverge.
Vasudans had brown, mottled, leathery-looking skin, with longer, bonier limbs and broader shoulders. They looked, to Harlow’s eyes, like exaggerated skeletons with a little bit of skin and muscle layered over them. And there was something
peculiar about the way they moved. They looked like effects from those old 20th century stop-motion animation films, as if their brains were sending their muscles hundreds of little messages a second, each designed to translate into a single
millimeter of movement, resulting in motions that had a vaguely jerky flow.
Alien, thought Harlow. No matter how liberal you wanted to be about it, you just couldn’t think of them in human terms, because, when it came right down to it, they weren’t.
He was escorted to the bridge, where he was brought into the presence of the old death-lover himself. Admiral Tallanis swiveled around in his command chair to face him as Harlow was brought aboard the bridge. Their gazes locked. What Harlow
wanted to do was spit right in his eye. What he did, however, was salute a superior officer. "Permission to come aboard, sir," he said, with a strong hint of irony in his tone.
Tallanis returned the salute, Terran-style, with textbook precision. His shoulders shook slightly as he gave that peculiar, grunting chuckle. "Permission granted, Commander," he replied, using a mini, throat-mounted translator. "Welcome
aboard the Imperial Vasudan Starship Hammer. I am Admiral Gar Tallanis."
The name, Harlow knew, was merely a translator approximation of the actual Vasudan name. To Harlow, untranslated Vasudan sounded like a cross between a camel grunting and Chinese that had been recorded and then played backwards.
"Commander Creed Harlow, 101st GTA Fighter Wing, Black Eagle Squadron," he replied.
Tallanis made a pigeon-headed movement that passed for a nod among Vasudans. "I am familiar with the reputation of the 101st Fighter Wing," he said. "The Black Eagles distinguished themselves during the war."
"A war you’re apparently still fighting," Harlow said.
"No, Commander, not the same war," Tallanis replied. "A different one. A holy war. As you Terrans might call it... a jehad."
"That’s Arabic, not Terran Standard," Harlow corrected him. "There may still be some Terrans who believe in the idea of a holy war, but most of us regard it as an outmoded concept...a contradiction in terms. There’s nothing holy about war,
Admiral. Killing is just killing."
"I beg to disagree, Commander. There are many different types of killing. There is the killing that one does for self-defense, and the killing that one does for conquest or suppression. There is the killing done out of personal necessity,
and the killing done out of duty. There is the killing which can produce personal satisfasction ... and the killing which produces only regret and a sense of loss, as in the case of your squadron. Their deaths were necessary, but I took no
satisfaction in them."
Harlow snorted with derision. "They were just a bunch of young rookies. Not counting myself, there were only two pilots in the whole squadron who had ever flown a combat mission. You never even gave ‘em a chance. Your fighters came in like a
bunch of common sneak thieves, offering to asssist in flying escort, and like a fool, I agreed. You wiped them out before they even knew what hit ‘em."