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The Starlight Fortress

Chapter 28

Author: FionaR Total hits: 4836 User hits: 29 Date: 03-21-2014

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Vice Admiral Rafael Tait, now the combatant commander of the Thypholian Third Imperial Fleet, was standing in the bridge of his flagship and waiting for further instructions from Admiral Bobbins. Since the destruction of the Storm Center during the Battle of the New Pathway, the emperor had decided not to use a centralized commanding system, but they hadn’t quite worked out a similarly efficient structure. Now each combatant commander had a lot more freedom than before. Still, any major maneuver of the fleet must be issued by higher levels.

Through the window he saw a huge metal grid in the distance. The image behind the grid clearly mismatched the surrounding starfield—it was created by the transmission of an interstellar Pathway. That was Rafael’s target, and the target of the two hundred planes and fifty warships forming the hemisphere around the exit of the Trawtle.

Well, that was the emperor’s target. The fortress. Pompey was taking it personally—everybody could tell that—after the Battle of the New Pathway and the recent futile attack. Now they kind of knew there was some “gravity” thing going on, but the Thypholians couldn’t figure out a way to counteract it. Not before they knew what it was! In fact, Rafael suspected that the major goal of this battle was to get rid of the fortress.

He snapped to attention as Bobbins’s face appeared on a screen. Although they were both combatant commanders, Bobbins ranked higher than him, and needless to say, Bobbins’s Fifth Central Fleet was considered more superior than his force.

“We have evidence that Target will try to break in soon, Admiral Tait,” said Bobbins. “Please tell your captains to open fire at the sight of anything coming out of the pathway. Remember, do not aim at any part of the fortress. Fire as randomly as they could.”

“Sir.” Rafael moved closer to the screen. “I think we should take a look at the object before …” He didn’t finish the sentence as he saw the suspicion and contempt in Bobbins’s eyes. This wasn’t the first time he met that type of look after he came here, although the emperor seemed to trust him.

“This is the order I received directly from His Majesty,” Bobbins said with dignity. “We know it will be the fortress, and we can’t wait for it to unfold and deploy its … tricks.”

Swellhead! People who forget to be prudential at battlefields always pay bitter prices. Knowing further objections would not be taken seriously, Rafael passed the order along to his captains.

They waited quietly for a while. Then something large emerged from the pathway at a high speed and bumped the grid away. No, it wasn’t right. “Check fire!” he shouted, but the missiles were already on their way. The object exploded into numerous pieces, shot off in all directions, and smashed into his planes and ships. It couldn’t be metal. It was probably a mini asteroid.

Almost falling to the shaking floor, Rafael grabbed a bar mounted on the wall and regained his balance. The carrier he was in could easily sustain the impact of flying stones, but some of his planes must have been damaged. He leaned over to the window, trying to take another look at the pathway, but the visibility was low as the dust storm raved in the nearby space. Then he saw several beams of bright light penetrating the mist, and a large black silhouette stretching out like a blossoming flower. One of the lights was aiming right at his direction. Damn it! He ran to the control panel. There was no time to contact the conning officer, but fortunately these new carrier models offered the admiral direct maneuver of the ship. Shortly after he pushed the lever to move the ship downwards, an alarm beeped from the damage-report screen. The top of the ship was hit several times, but it could have been much worse had he not acted quickly.

“Admiral Tait,” one of his officers asked, “shall we gather our force?”

Rafael left the control panel and studied the situation map. His ships had been spreading out into a hemisphere. What his officer suggested would be the right action to take under a normal condition in which they intended to engage the enemy. But they alone were no match for the fortress, and he doubted the enemy would want to waste its time here. Besides, the Sparklish fleets would probably follow in now that the seal was lifted.

“No. Everybody move to the periphery, and let them go.”

On the screen, the large hemisphere opened up from the center and re-formed into a ring. Meanwhile, enemy warships emerged at the exit of the pathway, went through the limbs of the fortress, and headed in the direction of Planet RB-4.

“Admiral Tait, what are you doing?” Bobbins’s face appeared on a screen. “Did His Majesty appoint you as his receptionist?”

Rafael flew into a rage. How dare that guy blame him? If they hadn’t rushed to shoot their target, by now they might have taken down the fortress. He remembered the days he worked under Oakley, when he could exert his command with no interference.

“We are unable to fight enemies three times of our number, sir, plus the fortress.” He managed to calm down. Now that the Sparklish was heading to the near-planet battlefield, he was sure the fortress would soon depart for the other battlefield to join the Sunpherean fleets, where they were in a greater disadvantage.

What should he do? Rafael thought quickly. This was his first battle here. He had to prove to Pompey that he deserved his trust. Better yet, he needed to show up during critical moments and solve nasty problems. Soon he would have to confront the fortress. But not now.

“Sir, if you could intercept the Sparklish on their way, I will attack them from behind.”

* * *

After the fortress left, Rafael gathered his twelve squadrons and waited until the last enemy ship was out of sight. Then they followed the Sparklish course for a short while and stopped.

To Rafael, the Sparklish officers were a bunch of dumbbells and cowards, most specialized in hauling ass. Now that Bobbins’s fleet had blocked the second half of Sparklish troops, if he went ahead to help Bobbins, they’d take the enemy with no problem, but Bobbins would get all the credit—that was why that guy had agreed on this arrangement. And needless to say, he, the inferior, would be solely responsible for the earlier failure to ambush the fortress.

So Rafael asked his twelve squadrons to split into three parts and move aside. He could tell his officers were getting impatient. Since the beginning of the battle, they had achieved nothing but humiliation. “You’ll get your turn, boys,” he said quietly.

In less than an hour, they started seeing defeated enemy ships running back one after another. Being chased by Bobbins’s ships, the Sparklish failed to realize they were heading into an ambush, or maybe they saw it but didn’t know what else to do.

“Now you don’t need me for a while,” he said to his officers, ready to take a coffee break.

“Admiral!” someone called him up and pointed at a screen. “Could you take a look at this?”

On the screen, he saw a small ship running in the direction where the fortress had gone. The image was fuzzy, but that was probably due to transmission interferences. Strange! It looked like an old model that should’ve retired from battlefront years ago. Could still be used as a Pathway Escort, though. What was it doing here? He frowned. Whatever the enemy intended to do, it would be adverse to them.

“Waste it,” he said and left the bridge.

A minute later, the image on the screen was turned into a ball of flame.

* * *

Geneva sprang up from the couch and gasped. The dimly lit room was spinning around her. Where was she? She wiped the sweat on her forehead and looked around.

“Are you alright, ma’am?” a maid opened the door and asked.

So she was in the meeting room inside her temporary command center. Geneva shook her head. It was just a nightmare. She took the cup of tea handed over by the maid and felt the weight on her chest gradually lifted up. “What time is it?”

“Four in the morning.”

She finished the tea and headed to her desk in the room outside. She browsed through several pages of printed text messages sent from Sunphere and requested a connection to headquarters. They told her that the arrival of the fortress helped the Sunpherean and Rainprain fleets to resist their enemy, although it was still unclear when they could begin an organized retreat. Their allies’ situation at the other battlefield was a lot worse: since it was closer to Thyphol’s home planet, the enemy had an easy access to their supplies.

A question burned at Geneva’s lips, but she was afraid of asking.

“So we’ll see!” Wilson’s voice had turned hoarse after commanding for twenty hours straight. “Admiral Howard just called from the hospital. Her surgery went well, and she’s ready to depart for the RB to turn on the gravity program if … if …” Wilson staggered. His face flushed as if something bad had just slipped out of his mouth.

Geneva’s heart sank. “Has … hasn’t Captain Presley arrived at the fortress?”

“Not yet, but I’m sure he’ll be there pretty soon. He notified the fortress when he first went through the Trawtle. That was … three hours ago? Swinburne should have a better idea about his situation, ma’am, but he’ll be there soon. I’m sure!”

Geneva nodded at him and disconnected the talk. She stared at the blank screen for a while before she left the conference room and entered the long corridor. The whole palace was quiet in this early morning, as quiet as an imperial tomb. She walked through the chilly air, passing by endless of closed doors. The torch-shaped lamps on the walls seemed to cast no shadow of her. Was she already a ghost?

She stopped in front of Rainprus’s room suite and smiled back at the royal guards who saluted at her. “Is Admiral Swinburne here?”

She didn’t hear what they said, though. The palace swirled around her as she fell to the ground.
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