City Of Exile, part 7
The penultimate episode of the Antares fiction by Tim Bancroft leading up to the narrative in The Dronescourge Returns.
Batu Delhren and his band of exiled Freeborn have been captured by Ghar aboard a huge, ancient starliner under Shaltok, an old nemesis of Batu’s. Unfortunately, Shaltok has just been Outcast by the Empire and has been betrayed by his former Slavemaster-Techs so a Rebel Cruiser can attack. With no other way to go, Shaltok was forced to make a temporary alliance with Batu in the promise the ship can be temporarily repaired and the Rebels repulsed.
The previous episode can be found here.
Around Shaltok, the screens showed images of the interior of the ship, invading Rebels bearing an assortment of weapons: mag guns, plasma weapons, lugger guns, disruptors, X-launchers and even more esoteric weapons apparently cobbled together from other, bastardised weapons. The Rebels compromise themselves with unreliable human weapons, as powerful as they may be. In the lead were a few battered suits, obviously assembled from several different sources: each had plasma claws fitted in place of normal combat claws.
Other screens showed Dramak escaping from his heavily damaged troopship in the City of Triumph. He was scurrying along corridors, taking random turns, running down what stairwells he could find. He’s lost. But heading towards the Control Centre. All Dramak had with him now were ship’s crew, some heavily injured, all armed with luggers. A few Outcasts had disruptor cannon and were scuttling along behind. Shaltok searched for Dramak’s assault troopers, found them accompanying one of his own squads. They’ve made their decision, moved fast. He could not see the human Freeborn but feeds went dark erratically. They have better control of the surveillance than I do.
“Weapons!” barked Shaltok.
“Sir, they went offline,” replied Bredt.
“I said ‘Weapons’: I do not expect to repeat myself,” snarled Shaltok. “Take out the weapon batteries able to bear on us.”
Officer Bredt scurried back to his position by the screens. “Fire all weapons,” he said into the Ghar comm system, then repeated the order to his human slave controllers. He jumped when the screens showed weapon fire erupting from the City’s weapon batteries – ancient and Ghar, alike. Foornyn’s cruiser shook as the TOR’s weaponry disintegrated the launchers and QA generators facing the starliner.
Bredt turned to Shaltok, his eyes wide with surprise. “Sir, err, weapons are active.”
“I can see,” said Shaltok, drily. “After disabling the weapons, target the cruiser’s main engines.” Shaltok watched the mix of weapon systems tear the stricken cruiser apart. He took a moment to relish the turnaround. Now to deal with Foornyn. He switched focus to the screens tracking Foornyn’s forces. They were moving slowly, taking care at each intersection as they negotiated the maze of corridors. They are still heading towards the control centre, probably using saved maps. Foornyn’s dispositions remained solid: flitters and tectorist scouts out in front, assault suits to either side and his main force of Outcasts backed up by… Have the Rebels combined human Algoryn weapons and skimmers with Ghar crawlers? The walkers were ungainly, with overpowered plasma reactors, but moved fast, creeping like insects. Shaltok searched the flitter formations for variants that his own treacherous technicians had designed, picked out the bulky disruptor bombs with flitter wings attached.
Shaltok formulated a new plan, then sent warnings to Tren and Dobat about Foornyn’s new equipment. He ordered suited squads and unmounted troopers to accompany wreckers to blockade points on the most likely routes of attack and force Foornyn’s troops onto specific routes. A small group stayed as a mobile reserve, their refreshed plasma amplifiers on standby.
Watching Foornyn and his cohorts struggle through the complex maze of corridors made Shaltok realize one important lesson. I am where I should be, guiding my troops. Much as I enjoy a battlesuit, a commander’s role is here, where he can see everything. Once more, he wondered if such a reaction was part of his genetic pre-conditioning, then shrugged it away. I cannot know. The surveillance data on the screens before him was easily mapped to the information on his own combat array, now detached from his suit but reconnected to the jury-rigged Ghar governors and adapters his crew had assembled. The combat array was superior, felt Shaltok; he both saw and sensed the battle through its feeds, could quickly adjust his troop dispositions in response to Foornyn’s actions, send reinforcements to the exact location they were needed via decks above and below those through which Foornyn was advancing.
Shaltok checked on Dramak: they had encountered the Freeborn Commodore and his troops – it seemed Dramak had been heading for their partly-functional ship, after all. But the Freeborn were now armed and armoured, and some were as fanatical fighters as Ghar. He watched Dramak fall to a… Shaltok replayed the feed; yes, a curved axe took off Dramak’s head, wielded by one of the savage-looking humans. Dramak’s crew were now retreating before the Freeborn, leaving his body behind. That is one problem resolved. They kept their word.
His attention was drawn to a conflict in vacuum amongst blackened and torn metal on top of the hull: the Sheep in vac-suits swinging from ruined girder to new cabling, chasing down, then tearing apart his former Slavemaster-tech and his cronies. And there goes another problem. The Sheep are loyal. Which begged another question: Are they really Outcasts anymore?
Foornyn’s mounting losses were beginning to tell. Many corridors had battle scars, craters and ruined floors and ceilings where the bomb flitters had exploded, but Shaltok consoled himself. It is still only a tiny part of this ship. He thought of the several different types of unintelligent drones he had seen. And the ship tries to repair itself. It will survive. The Rebels tried to shoot out surveillance cameras where they could see them, but the images were quickly reinstated through cameras at slightly different angles. Foornyn may have numbers but I have the troopers and vastly better intelligence.
Foornyn’s Rebels rapidly backed off, creating a lull in the fighting. Shaltok opened a Ghar comms channel to Foornyn. “Commander Foornyn, this is Captain Shaltok of the City of Triumph. Your success is no longer assured. Surrender.”
Foornyn responded immediately. “I underestimated you, Shaltok. I propose a temporary truce so I can retreat.”
“My success is guaranteed. Why should I?”
“Because if you do not spare us, we have nothing to live for: Karg has declared us outlaw. The crew can decouple the limiters on my cruiser’s power plants. The resulting explosion will be enough to destroy us all.”
He has a point. Shaltok thought quickly. “Then retreat. We will follow to ensure you leave. Be warned: we have total surveillance.”
“I realise,” said Foornyn. He paused. “I ask again, Shaltok: join us. Join Fartok on his mission to return the Ghar to their glory. Karg has corrupted the Ghar – you must know this. We could do with a loyal and true Ghar like yourself.”
He is right, thought Shaltok. Karg has corrupted us. A primitive, nagging guilt felt deep in his chest could not allow him to formally betray his kind. “Offer declined, Foornyn. You have fifteen minutes to retreat. Shaltok out.”
* * *
Batu slumped back against a corridor wall and slid down. For the last hundred yan he had been carried by his bodyguard, the Shamasai Shard leaching nutrients and body mass to maintain his armour and his contact with the ship’s surveillance systems. Right now, the drone was feeding off a power line that had been exposed by damage to a corridor wall.
Batu checked the surveillance feed.
Foornyn’s cruiser detached itself from the TOR, the flank facing the massive liner revealing craters and turrets torn apart by the TOR’s own weaponry and shorter-range Ghar disruptor weapons. There was still no firing, then the Rebel cruiser’s GA drive kicked in and it accelerated towards the system gate. Moments later it was swallowed by the gate and disappeared.
“Looks like Shaltok and the Rebels made a deal,” croaked Batu to Baray. “They’ve withdrawn.”
Baray’s tone was grim: they had lost some vardanari and Tamalair in the scuffle against Dramak. “I think we now need to deal with Shaltok. We’ve done his dirty work for him.”