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Chapter 4

A Tenchi Muyo story
by D.B. Sommer

Disclaimer: Tenchi Muyo!, its characters and settings, © Hitoshi Okuda, AIC / Pioneer LDC, and Viz Communications, Inc.

All comments and criticisms appreciated. You can contact me at sommer@3rdm.net

This uses the OVA continuity.

Panic reigned on the bridge of the Rack N’Ruin as the various members of the crew took up battle stations and prepared for the incoming vessel. Funuyaki watched with a cool detachment that surprised even her as the crew armed lasers, primed shields, and prepared as though they were going to be in for the battle of their lives. Even the much-vaunted captain of the vessel seemed to be in shock at the sudden disruption in his so-called perfect plan.

But perhaps the most amusing thing to Funuyaki was Malgaunt’s reaction to the whole situation. His jaw literally hung open as he stared in surprise at the approaching Galaxy Police cruiser. She had always wondered how the ‘master planner’ would react when one of his plans fell through on him, although even she had not expected his reaction to be this extreme. It made her wonder how he had ever risen to his position in the first place. Surely he had tasted defeat on any number of occasions and he had to have dealt with it better than he was doing now. It would be interesting to see how he recovered, in any case.

The recovery was quick in coming. Malgaunt took a deep, calming breath— that seemed to do at least a little good— and bolted across the bridge. He cut in front of the captain’s chair, where Stargrave was still staring in shock at the viewscreen, and made his way to the sensor station. As he arrived, he stood directly behind the chair of a crewman handling the sensor arrays. For a brief moment, Funuyaki thought he was going to pull the man from the seat and take it himself, but patience seemed to win out as he settled for staring over the younger man’s shoulder and tried to get a better look at the dull blue screen.

Funuyaki followed at a much more controlled pace, still amused by the whole situation. She wasn’t sure why that was. Realistically, she should have been as concerned as the others; her neck was just as much on the line as theirs. Perhaps it was something as simple as seeing the people that had held the reigns of power over her getting jerked off their feet and falling victim to the winds of fate. Perhaps she wanted to see them squirm a little, just like she had for the last few hours, and see how they liked it. Perhaps secretly she wanted to see them fail.

Or perhaps she had just stopped giving a damn about the whole thing.

She arrived at the console and stood next to Malgaunt, her shoulder brushing against his as she inserted herself between her boss and the younger crewman. She leaned closer and watched the sensor screen intensely. If Malgaunt minded her intrusion, he gave no indication of it; his full attention was still riveted to the screen as well.

All of the information flashing across the viewscreen was quickly assimilated by Malgaunt. The Galaxy Police ship was still well outside both the Rack N’Ruin’s and dreadnought’s guns. Although at the rate it was approaching, it wouldn’t take long to close the distance. Not long at all.

"It’s definitely a standard Galaxy Police cruiser," Yent Streen, the officer at the sensor control, and with two Galaxy Police officers staring over his shoulder, confirmed.

"I thought you said that computer virus would render every one of your ships inoperative," Ariana said from her position next to Stargrave. The cold glare she shot towards Malgaunt would have made her attitude towards him known even if there had not been a tone of accusation in her voice. Her hand slowly drifted over the butt of the modified laser pistol she kept in the holster at her waist. Fractionally, Funuyaki’s hand drifted to her shoulder holster as well.

Malgaunt gave her little more than a contemptuous glance in return. "It did," he turned his attention to Stargrave, "assuming the virus was correctly manufactured."

Sa’bre reacted to the statement that was somehow both questioning and accusatory at the same time. "I guarantee it was, assuming the information on the computers anti-virus programs was accurate." Using his remarkable oratory skills, he matched the tone of voice he had received from Malgaunt perfectly.

Other crewmembers were less calm in the face of the approaching vessel. One of them shouted that they ought to leave before the rest of the fleet got there. The suggestion was immediately shared by the majority of the crewmen. The noise level rose in direct conjunction with the rising tide of panic, and threatened to take control of the situation.

"BE SILENT!"  Malgaunt roared before Stargrave had a chance to get his crew back under control. The crew fell silent before the order from the unexpected quarter. Before they had a chance to recover from their surprise, Malgaunt spoke to Streen once again, loud enough to be heard by the others. With a steady flow of information, Malgaunt hoped they would stay quiet until he could come up with a plan that would get them out of their unexpected predicament.

"Identify that ship. I want to know who he is." Malgaunt issued the order as he would with any subordinate of the Galaxy Police.

"How?" Streen gave him a helpless look.

Despite the tension of the situation, Malgaunt found his command confidence restored. Once again, he adopted the role of a superior instructing an incompetent officer. "Run its transponder signal through the decoding equipment I gave your captain several months ago to help prevent you from being captured. You did install it, didn’t you?"

Streen gave an embarrassed look towards Malgaunt. He waited until the program began running before he found the courage to say, "I forgot we had it. It wasn’t like we had to use it in all that time. No GP spaceship has come close to crossing our path."

"There’s no time for excuses," Malgaunt said coolly, effectively ending any further attempts by Streen to restore some of his dignity.

"What’s going on?"

Funuyaki looked away from the screen and toward the main door to the bridge. There was a hiss as the gunmetal gray door shut after disgorging its passenger. Apparently the warning klaxon had served as a wake up call for her fellow lieutenant. For Onita, the instant he saw Malgaunt and Funuyaki, he made his way over to them. He arrived at their position and stood looking over the other shoulder of Streen, just as the information on the transponder signal came in.

The sensor officer read the information out loud. "Its number is X71789. Name: Yukinojo. Currently assigned to Detective First Class—"

"Mihoshi," the three Galaxy Police officers said in unison.

Panic commandeered the bridge again.

"I know her! She captured Wiperblade Jones and his whole ring of spacejack thieves!"

"I heard she brought in ‘Bloody Hands’ Ciccone on her very first assignment!"

"She single-handedly busted the entire Starblast Bandit Gang. I should know. My brother was one of them!"

"I heard she’s the best officer they got! If she’s on the case, that must mean the whole Galaxy Police force will be here any minute! We have to get out of here!"

"BE SILENT!" Malgaunt roared again. Once everyone had quieted down, he took control again. "All of that was in the past. Right now she’s burned out and useless." Technically, that was only half true. Her performance rating had dipped incredibly low in the last year, but she had recently brought in the infamous Dr. Clay. However, rumor had it she had been assisted by Juraian royalty and possibly other sources as well. Still, it wouldn’t do to unnerve the crew unnecessarily. "She was assigned to some backwater system to keep her out of the way. She’s no threat." He gave a dismissive gesture to add to the point and calm the crew down. Or at least he hoped it would calm them down. Panic would ruin everything, and the plan was already starting to shown signs of strain. It would just be a matter of time before he knew how much strain it suffered from.

"What about her backup?" Ariana asked, not believing Malgaunt’s reassurances for a second.

That was something to consider. Malgaunt looked back over Yent’s shoulder again. "Are there any more contacts?"

"No, sir. But she is still getting closer." The crewman shifted nervously. Mihoshi’s reputation overrode anything Malgaunt could say to make him feel any better. The sooner they got out of the system, the better.

"There is no backup," Funuyaki surprised everyone, herself included, by taking control of the conversation.

"What makes you say that?" Sa’bre asked. He decided he had allowed things to play out long enough and that it was long past time to interject himself into the conversation.

"Because she’s operating blind," Funuyaki said. She slipped into her detective mode and began to analyze the evidence she had been presented with, hoping to fit it into a recognizable pattern so that she could anticipate what Mihoshi was going to do. "If she had known who we are, and what we were doing out here, she would have called for back-up and would be waiting for them rather than approaching us alone. But she didn’t. She charged right in, and now that she’s this close to the stars’ gravitational fields, there’s no way another ship would risk coming out of hyperspace so close to her. No, she’s alone, all right. I’m sure of it."

"Well done, Lieutenant," Malgaunt said with a trace of pride. He had come to a similar conclusion as well, though he wasn’t quite as certain as Funuyaki appeared. She was proving herself more valuable by the minute, just as he had known she would. How could Sa’bre ever have doubted his choice of subordinates for this expedition?

"Impossible," Sa’bre scoffed. "You can’t seriously be suggesting that she’s coming closer so that she can take both of us on at the same time? The dreadnought alone has thirty times the firepower of her ship. It’s suicide."

Stargrave studied each of the officer’s faces closely, receiving the answer even before Funuyaki said, "If there is any one person in the entire Galaxy Police force that would ignore the odds and try to bring us in, it’s Mihoshi."

"Wait a minute." Malgaunt held up a hand as an errant thought occurred to him. "I thought she had just been ordered on vacation."

"Yeah," Onita answered, feeling a little better about himself since he finally had something to add to their current situation. "Right before I went out to Centurex 4, to rendezvous with you and Lieutenant Funuyaki, we had a party celebrating her being off duty for six months." Onita began to shift nervously. "I was off duty when I was drinking, of course."

The man received a cold stare from Funuyaki; one that could have frozen ice. "Believe me when I say that after what you did today, no one cares if you were drinking on duty or not."

"She probably stumbled on to us," Malgaunt suggested. "While she was traveling, she might have caught our profile right before we made our last jump and followed us through hyperspace. You know how difficult hyperspace communication is. She wouldn’t be able to call for back-up."

"Impossible!" Fera snapped from the pilot’s seat. "No one could have followed us through hyperspace! Not with the way I fly!"

"Perhaps," Malgaunt conceded. There was a good chance there might be some difficult flying ahead. The last thing he needed was to further agitate an already wild Katasan. "It doesn’t really matter. The moment she enters the range of the dreadnought’s main guns, Officer Mihoshi’s vacation will be extended indefinitely. I just wish I knew why her ship wasn’t disabled by the virus."

"I told you not to take us off the predesignated routes. Now see what you’ve gotten us into," Yukinojo complained.

"How was I to know we’d end up this far off course?" Mihoshi asked. "Besides, I was sure I plotted it correctly."

"Well, you didn’t. And now, thanks to you giving up our reserve long-range antenna, we don’t have any way of contacting headquarters and getting our coordinates."

"Relax, Yukinojo," Tenchi said soothingly, hoping it would calm Yukinojo down. It usually seemed to help whenever Ryouko or Aeka lost their tempers, though. Sometimes, anyway. Okay, not often, but he had to try. Maybe he would get lucky for once. "Mihoshi was only helping someone in trouble. She had no way of knowing her own antenna would break down while in hyperspace."

"I suppose you’re right," Yukinojo relented, giving off a mechanical sigh as he resigned himself to his fate.

"Besides, we’re in luck. We can ask those two spaceships out there for directions," she pointed to the ships on the viewscreen that were getting larger by the moment. "Once we figure out where we are, it’ll be easy to get back on track. And this time I promise I won’t take us off our course."

"Ah, yes, about those ships," Yukinojo began hesitantly. "The only one I can get a clear reading off of is that larger one. That smaller one is too near to it and with the interference I’m getting from our close proximity to the sun, I can’t get an accurate reading until we get closer. Also, that large one’s design doesn’t match any of the ship profiles stored in my memory, though it’s giving off a great deal of power. And neither of them is transmitting their transponder signals."

Mihoshi considered that. Like every other AI on the fleet, Yukinojo had profiles on just about every ship in the galaxy. He was advanced enough that even if it was a heavily modified ship, he still should have been able to extrapolate what design it was. And then there was the problem with the transponder signals. Technically, all ships were supposed to transmit one that would make them easy to identify whenever they came into contact with any other ships. Usually the only people that didn’t use them were individual planetary military forces and Imperial ships during times of war. Currently, Jurai was at a state of peace, and there would have been no reason for even one of their ships to have shut down its transponder signal. Sometimes smugglers would turn theirs off to keep their ships from being identified, but usually they would rig up a fake code instead. "I don’t think they’re smugglers. That really big ship that looks sort of like a giant molehill is way too big to belong to any known criminal organization. And its configuration isn’t like any of the known planetary governments either. This is really weird."

"What are you going to do?" Tenchi asked.

Mihoshi shrugged. "We’ll keep getting closer and try to hail them so we can get directions. We’ll see what happens then."

A sweatdrop formed on Tenchi’s forehead. "Ah, isn’t that a bit risky if they turn out to be bad guys?"

"I don’t really think so," Mihoshi said, finding Tenchi’s naiveté about how things tended to work in space really amusing (though not in a condescending way). She reminded herself that it wasn’t his fault he lived on a world that lacked serious space travel capabilities. She would have to explain it to him, but in a nice way so he didn’t feel foolish. "That really large ship out there is of a new design and with a high power rating that would rival a Juraian battleship. I can think of it being only one of two things. It could be that it belongs to a whole new alien race we’ve never met before and this is an example of their technology, or it might have been built by a well to do planet or system. Now it’s illegal for anyone to manufacture a ship that powerful without the express consent of the Throne, and if there were such an agreement, I would have heard about it through my position with the Galaxy Police. That means they would have to have built it in secret, probably so they could create a fleet that could challenge Jurai and overthrow the Empire while setting themselves up as the new leaders. Now who would want to do something as terrible as that? No. I’m pretty sure it belongs to a new race we’ve never met before."

"Ah, okay," Tenchi said hesitantly, trusting Mihoshi’s judgment in space matters, even if it was suspect at times. It was still more than he knew. Although when she gave the latter reason, it made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up, almost like a premonition or something.

"Maybe we should prepare for the latter, just in case." Yukinojo was somewhat concerned. On one computerized AI chip, Mihoshi’s reasoning actually made a great deal of sense, even if she did seem to come to the conclusion with only a minimal amount of information. His own primary neural net hadn’t come up with those possibilities before Mihoshi did, which was vexing itself; she had used her brain to formulate a hypothesis faster than his own mechanical one could. On the other chip, her logic as to choosing one of those high percentile possibilities did seem somewhat suspect.

"Oh, you worry too much." Mihoshi went to the communications system and began playing the universal greeting program the ship had been outfitted with.

Yukinojo noted there was only one slight problem with that. "I’ve been trying to hail them since we arrived in system, but they aren’t responding."

"Maybe the suns are somehow interfering with communications," Mihoshi suggested. "We’ll get closer and keep playing the message over and over again. Everything’s going to be fine, and then we’ll get back on track for our vacation in no time. I’m sure of it."

The communications man fingered his headset as the message came in. "Sir." He turned to look at Stargrave, who still wore a mask of concern. "Mihoshi is hailing us."

Stargrave mistook the pause the man took to catch his breath as a sign that he was through informing his captain. "I don’t need to hear any orders to turn ourselves in. Let her meet static."

Given how often the captain enjoyed being told he was wrong, and that he was in a foul mood already, the officer decided not to correct the misassumption. Besides, how were they supposed to respond to a universal greeting anyway?

"The GP ship is hailing us," the communications man aboard the Yagdagron dreadnought fingered his headset as the message came in.

Captain Yolleth considered that. She had been planning to simply blow the ship into scrap and allow the remains to be vaporized by the sun. Perhaps it would be better to hear her enemy’s final words. "What does he have to say?"

"Umm," the communications officer was at something of a loss. Realizing there was no way he could explain it without sounding foolish, he decided to just come out and say it. "He’s just transmitting the standard universal greeting, sir."

Yolleth’s brow twitched slightly before she shot out of the captain’s chair and onto her feet, pointing an accusing finger at the ship on her viewscreen. "How dare he mock us this way! Vaporize that ship! I want that man dead, no matter the cost! Fire the main guns now!"

"Mihoshi!" Yukinojo cried out in alarm. He had altered the course of the ship slightly so that the long-range visual sensors could get an accurate reading on the smaller ship that was hiding behind by the larger one. The moment he got a precise reading of the unique vessel, he ran it through his recognition programs until he came up with a match. "That smaller ship is the Rack N’Ruin!"

Mihoshi gave a startled gasp. "Sa’bre Stargrave is the fourth most wanted criminal in the galaxy! We have to warn the aliens he’s dangerous."

She gave a quick jerk of the controls, a move that Yukinojo was about to complain about as being far too rough for his delicate systems, when a huge bolt of crimson energy emitted from one of the pointed projections on the front of the dreadnought. The wide beam of energy lanced through space right where the ship had been less than a second ago. Any slower and the spacecraft would have been destroyed by the direct hit, shields or not. Although in spite of Mihoshi’s quick movement, the ship was struck a glancing blow in the port engine by the outer edge of the beam. The passengers felt the shot as the ship rocked and red lights flashed across the control board.

"I think that second idea of yours might have been the right one," Tenchi said as he tried coming up with something to help Mihoshi, yet failed.

"I think you’re right," Mihoshi reluctantly conceded as she charged up the shields to full and began a pattern of evasive maneuvering to keep the dreadnought’s guns from correcting their earlier mistake.

"She evaded the blast!" Stargrave pounded his fist on the armrest of his command chair. Somehow she had known to move a moment before the blast was released. Given the shielding, suns, and distances involved, she couldn’t have known the dreadnought was going to shoot. It was impossible, regardless of how it appeared.

"That isn’t quite true, sir," Streen said as he looked over his readout. "Her starboard engine was hit and she’s leaking radiation. She’s turned away from us and is trying to escape, but the dreadnought is pursuing and continuing to fire."

"Is she faster than us or the dreadnought?" Stargrave asked.

"No," Malgaunt answered before the officer could. "She’s only at point six five lightspeed, and she’s had plenty of time to reach maximum velocity. That shot to her engines must have slowed her down. She can’t escape."

"Not that that’s keeping her from trying," Funuyaki pointed out as she watched Mihoshi’s ship continue to evade the storm of crimson energy blasts that came from the Yagdagron vessel. Somehow she was able to prevent taking any more hits, despite the closing distance between her and the far more powerful vessel.

At the pilot’s controls, a pair of vertical pupils surrounded by green irises grew larger as they watched the elegant dance of death the blood red ship of the Galaxy Police was performing. "Let’s take her." Fera increased speed and banked left, maneuvering the Rack N’Ruin clear of the dreadnought’s shadow and began pass with its swifter speed.

There was a twitch from the lump in coveralls. "Did I ever tell you about the time I was part of a smuggling ring and we got caught right between a Victory Class Star Destroyer and a Mon Cal Heavy War Cruiser? Boy, you should have seen the exchange of turbolasers those two were throwing back and forth, and the way they kept melting the armor plating we had—"

"No need to continue. I get the point." Stargrave directed his attention to his pilot. "We’re letting the Yagdagron handle this. Remain behind the dreadnought. I want it between us and Mihoshi, just in case something happens."

Fur bristled as Fera gained a wild look on her eyes that made her seem more bestial and less intelligent. Without taking her eyes from the foreword viewscreen, she half said, half snarled, "If she can fly while under that kind of fire and keep from being hit, so can I. We can get rid of her ourselves." There was a whine as the flow of power to the Rack N’Ruin’s engine increased and the ship picked up speed.

The Katasan did not have to turn around as she heard the familiar sound of metal on leather come from behind her; there was no one on the crew who would not recognize the sound of First Officer Ariana’s sidearm being drawn upon them.

"Just because you’re my best pilot doesn’t mean you’re my only pilot. Follow in the wake of the dreadnought." The panic Stargrave had shown upon first discovering the ‘Mihoshi Surprise’ was now gone. He was the model of control as he sat idly back in his chair, hand laying under his chin, while his first mate— and primary enforcer— kept her modified handgun pointed at Fera’s back.

Knowing that Stargrave ultimately considered everyone but himself expendable, and that he had a tendency to have people that placed his life in jeopardy shot, Fera eased back on the controls and fell back into position behind the dreadnought. She cursed her luck. How could the others have so little faith in her and her abilities? Anything a Galaxy Police detective could do, she could do better. And weaving through the storm of concentrated laser fire would be such a rush that she had to restrain herself from trying to follow Mihoshi’s course in spite of the fact Stargrave would see to it she was dead long before she reached her. The detective was showing skills worthy of a Katasan herself.

That fact triggered a longing in Fera. It had been a long time since her skills had been truly tested, outside of bringing the Rack N’Ruin out of the Anomaly and into the docking bay of Tartarus at high speed. If only the gods of light were willing, and the prey somehow escaped the dreadnought’s guns, then perhaps Fera could have the duel she so desperately wanted. She kept her eyes riveted to the forward viewscreen as both her ship and the dreadnought drew closer to Mihoshi’s vessel.

Aboard the Yukinojo, chaos reigned even as it had on the Rack N’Ruin earlier, although Mihoshi could cry harder than anyone on the other ship.

"All I wanted to do was ask for directions!" she wailed as she banked hard to port, just missing another energy beam the size of the ship. There was no real pattern to her dodging, which was one of the reasons why the Yagdagron gunners, some of the best in their fleet, were failing to hit her. There were no tendencies, no habits in her weaving that would allow them to anticipate where she dodged next. So they spent their time using all of their skills, and rubbing their good luck charms, firing as the dreadnought slowly gained on the smaller ship.

Tenchi held onto the chair that he had been formerly sitting in for dear life. He had neglected to fasten his seat belt before the firing started, and was now content to hang on while the ship was tossed back and forth. The internal inertial compensators weren’t coming close to keeping up with all of the dodging and weaving that Mihoshi was doing. Given the number of blasts that went past the viewscreen, Tenchi was just grateful they were somehow still alive. "Can’t we fire back?"

"My primary guns are in a fixed position in the front of the craft," Mihoshi continued wailing. "And my rear guns aren’t anywhere near powerful enough to even slow that big ship down. Besides, that would mean diverting power from the engines to the laser systems, and we’d slow down even more." An idea came to her in mid-spin. "Maybe we can skirt along the corona of one of the suns. The heat and gravity will throw off their gunners’ aims a little bit, and they’ll have to divert power from engines to shields to keep from having their armor melted off."

"We’ll also have to divert power from our engines to our shields as well," Yukinojo pointed out, still trying to figure out on his own how to elude their pursuers. The starboard engine was too badly damaged by the glancing hit to be repaired without someone going outside and manually fixing it. That meant they weren’t going to win the contest based on speed. The sun maneuver would buy them a few extra minutes, but someone was going to have to come up with another idea to save the day.

"It’s all I can think of right now," Mihoshi blubbered as she headed for the sun. "Oh, this is turning out to be the worst vacation I’ve ever had!"

"She’s moving into the sun’s corona," the pilot of the dreadnought told his captain.

Yolleth responded with a snort. "He can’t escape us that way. Divert power to shields and continue pursuit."

"That maneuver is only going to buy her some time," Malgaunt informed Stargrave, not that the captain needed the information. He had flown many variously sized vessels throughout his smuggling career. From cramped one-man snub fighters to oversized cargo vessels hauling cars of hundred thousand ton ore, he could fly them all almost as well as Fera and knew virtually every flying tactic there was.

"The dreadnought’s closing the distance more slowly now, sir," Yent said again. "They should be able to bring their smaller guns to bear on Mihoshi within the next five minutes." Instead of seven weapon clusters firing on the same target, it would be up to twenty-five. Once that happened, Mihoshi would be finished. No one could keep that level of firepower from vaporizing their ship no matter how brilliant a pilot they were.

"We can still increase speed and catch up to her." Fera had to squint her eyes slightly at the increasing brightness of the approaching sun, until the computer compensated by dimming the viewscreen.

"Remain on our course." Stargrave was becoming weary of Fera’s borderline insubordination. Words would be exchanged when they returned to their newest, temporary base of operations. Discipline had to be maintained, after all.

"Sir!" Yent shouted again, "she’s launched missiles at the dreadnought."

Stargrave laughed at that. "Nice try, but Yolleth is too experienced to fall for that one."

"What do you mean?"

Stargrave was surprised to see it was the usually quiet Onita who had asked the question. Sa’bre deigned to answer the man, just in case some of his crew were also confused. "It’s a delaying tactic. Officer Mihoshi hopes to force the Yagdagron to slow down by diverting power from their engines to their anti-missile system. But now we’re too close to the sun’s corona for the missiles to reach their target. The heat will cause them to detonate before they get halfway there. It’s an act of desperation."

In his seat next to the secondary weapons system, Autolycus said, "They’d make it if they were ray-shielded."

"Don’t be absurd." Stargrave gave a deep, boisterous laugh. "No one has even manufactured ray-shielded missiles in over a hundred years. They’re slow, present large target profiles, their homing sensors are a joke—"

"Sir, the missiles are over three-quarters of the way to the dreadnought!"

"— and they could withstand traveling through a sun’s corona without detonating." Autolycus finished.

Aboard the Yagdagron ship, the captain realized the same thing at the same time and activated her ship’s anti-missile system. The ray shielding on the VX-100 Hammerhead missiles, which had been so instrumental in allowing them to reach the dreadnought, began showing their well-known limitations. Despite the late start the weapon system had in being activated, it began tracking the older missiles easily and commenced shooting them down. Of the initial volley of thirty Mihoshi had fired, twenty were destroyed outright. Due to the fact the shields were becoming increasingly hard pressed by the heat of the corona, they were weakened enough that instead of the standard twenty-five VX-100 missiles it would have taken to even temporarily breach the shields, only five were needed to bring them down. That was long enough for the remaining missiles to get through and strike the dreadnought itself.

Of the five that made it through: one hit towards the rear of the vessel, the considerable overlapping armor plating of the hull taking the brunt of the explosion so that only a third set of backup emergency engine shutdown systems and the primary control to the cheese-whiz dispensers were destroyed. The second missile tore through the outer hull towards the middle of the ship, but did little else other than destroy all of the armor plating and slightly damage the interior wall of one of the less-traveled maintenance corridors. The third one hit the opposite side of ship, not even managing to breach the exterior armor. The fourth one directly struck one of the primary long-range weapon batteries, but not before it got off one last shot.

As to the fifth, and last one, by some remarkable stroke of luck (both good and bad, depending on which side one was on) it hit in exactly the same spot that missile number two had, meaning that none of the thick armor plating that would have muted the detonation was there. The explosion went right through and ripped through the vessel, billowing outward as it destroyed corridors, meal dispensers, crewmen’s quarters, crewmen, electrical wiring, numerous back-up systems, and a host of other important equipment. With each object the blast ran into, the remaining wave of force was lessened until it reached the primary armory. The walls of it were thick, but there was just enough energy left from the missile’s explosion that it breached one of the outer walls, making it just inside one of the armory’s various storage rooms.

According to the ship’s designers, the room that was destroyed was supposed to hold nothing more than a standard compliment of heavy particle beam rifles, chain guns, and ion rifles for the space marines to be used in land based operations, as well as the extra laser pistols that were to be issued to all ship personnel in case they had to repel boarders. Nothing that would have made any real difference had they been destroyed. However, due to the fact that the mission was to take place far away from any Yagdagron space colonies or outposts, and that if the Jurai had gotten wind of what was being delivered to the Yagdagron they would have sent every ship they could after the dreadnought, Captain Yolleth had made a special requisition for twenty-five extra ‘Ship Buster’ missiles, the most powerful kind the Yagdagron made. That would be enough additional firepower to knock out a half dozen Juraian heavy cruisers and still have several to spare. It also just so happened that since all of the primary missile bays in the armory were already fully loaded, the extra missiles were being stored where there was space, meaning in the outer armory room that Mihoshi’s missile had just enough power to penetrate.

And it had just enough energy left after that to set off one of the ‘Ship Buster’ missiles that was closest to the wall that had just been breached.

Of course, the ‘Ship Buster’ that was set off had more than enough power to detonate the remaining twenty-four missiles it was stored next to.

And then…

Underneath his white, expensive, genuine Yothblem gloves, his palms were sweaty. His palms never sweat. "How many got through?" Stargrave asked.

"Only five made it through to the Yagdagron ship before the shields were restored," Malgaunt said, beating Streen once again. Streen made a mental note to try to make it clear to Malgaunt what he thought of people that interfered with his job. After everything was over and assuming Stargrave wouldn’t mind, of course.

"That won’t be enough to even slow them down," Stargrave said as he relaxed and sat back in his chair again. Once the dreadnought regained its speed, it would run under the Galaxy Police ship. It was inevitable.

"Mihoshi’s been hit!"

That caught Stargrave’s attention. There was almost the sound of… something in Fera’s voice. Concern? It was hard to say, and would bear looking into later. At the moment he had to be more concerned with what it was his wild pilot was talking about. He turned his attention to the viewscreen. Now that they had closed the distance to Mihoshi, her ship was more than the blur it had been when they first entered the system. The long-range visual scanners now allowed the bright red vessel to be seen far more easily, though it was still small to Stargrave’s eyes. Yes, it did appear that the ship was leaving a trail of smoke behind it now.

"Confirmed," Streen beat Malgaunt this time. "She’s taken another hit from the Yagdagron and is starting to slow down. I think she lost her starboard engine completely as well. She’s pulling out of the sun’s corona and is going to be out of its range in moments."

That didn’t matter to Stargrave. He could now see that she was spiraling out of control, and though there was a habitable— and bereft of intelligent life— planet nearby, Mihoshi would never make it. If her ship didn’t break apart first, the dreadnought would blow her out of the stars.

"Sir! Energy spike coming from the Yagdagron ship!" Streen shouted. Malgaunt turned to look at Stargrave. The captain of the Rack N’Ruin scowled, for he saw not concern, but the first vestiges of what might have been fear in the former marshal’s eyes.

"Show me the dreadnought," Sa’bre ordered. The viewscreen’s picture shifted from that of Yukinojo to the Yagdagron’s starship. The giant, green armored flying molehill appeared just as it had before the missile attack, save for trails of smoke emanating from one breach in the overlapping armor plating on the starboard side. The smoke was already dissipating in the absolute cold of space, and seemed to be stopping.

Then, near where the first hole had been, the metal bulged, forming what appeared to be a boil underneath the surface of the vessel. The lump was a strange sight to behold, even on the molehill looking ship. It was there for a moment before it ruptured, spilling forth an odd mix of red and blue fire into space, only to have it die off with nothing to burn. Debris too had been shot out of the boil, and began to spill out into the void and drifted off, soon to be caught by the nearby sun’s gravity and incinerated forever.

That wasn’t the only one. Even as the fire from the first boil died off three more lumps joined it, one right after another. Again they exploded and belched forth red-blue fires. Then there was one that came from the other side of the ship, even larger than the other four combined. All over the ship the boils formed, but instead of the fires dying off from each one, these later ones were sustained.

"Its shields are down and it’s started to drift towards the sun!" the sensor officer declared. Stargrave stared in shock at the impossible display. It had only been hit with a handful of missiles. They couldn’t have done that sort of damage. It wasn’t possible. It just wasn’t possible.

And then the view of the slowly exploding ship changed as it drifted off high and to port and the stars appeared in its stead. Shock seized up Stargrave’s mind so that he didn’t respond right away. The dreadnought was entirely gone from the viewscreen before he shouted at Fera, "What do you think you’re doing?!"

Fera was half turned around in her seat when the explanation was delivered for her from Streen yet again. "Massive energy spike from the dreadnought! Ten times what was there before!"

Funuyaki quickly followed up the officer’s declaration with, "The fusion reactor on that thing is going to—"

The rest was cut off as a bright orange glow appeared at the right side of the viewscreen, and the ship found itself thrown as though a giant had picked it up and tossed it into the air. Many of the people not strapped in found themselves thrown off their feet and hurled to the hard gray metal of the deck.

Stargrave held onto his chair for dear life even as he saw Ariana fall to her side and grab onto the back. The explosion had produced no sound, of course, but its effects were not muted at all as the ship buffeted under the shockwave produced by the dreadnought’s death explosion. Stargrave heard one of his crew shout, "Our shields are down! Repeat, our shields are down!" somehow continuing to do his duties in spite of the clamor all around him. Sa’bre made a note in the back of his mind to give Joffry a bonus for keeping his head in such a chaotic situation.

For the briefest of seconds, the ship stopped shaking and began to settle down, allowing Stargrave to buckle himself in. As he did so, he noticed that Malgaunt and Onita had fallen near a couple of empty chairs next to the sensor controls. They scrambled into them before the ship tossed them around once more. Just as they finished buckling in, the ship was thrown about even more viciously than it had been the first time. Instead of the sound of the Rack N’Ruin groaning as it had when it was hammered by the shockwave, this time there was the sound of something solid striking the outer hull of the vessel. Two more impacts, one right on top of the other so that they sounded as one, echoed throughout the ship and terrified those that realized it was debris from the much vaunted, and now destroyed, Yagdagron vessel.

There was the tremendous sound of space-tree reinforced wood and multiple layers of metal being torn asunder from the rear of the vessel as the ship lurched forward again. Stargrave felt Ariana lose her hold from the colossal, multiple impacts the ship suffered. His hand lashed out and he got a firm grasp of her white shirt. At first, it took all of his own wiry strength to simply hold onto her, the force of the shaking was that powerful. Something shot past him on the left and even as he struggled to bring Ariana closer, he looked out of the corner of his eye to see what it was. Shoney Sylkes, his primary weapons officer, was the bundle that had been thrown out of his seat and sent sailing across the bridge. His impromptu flight was arrested for a moment as his head struck the metal corner of the pilot’s station, right next to Fera. Stargrave could almost have sworn he heard the snap of Sylkes neck as his body went limp and continued forward to strike the lower portion of the viewscreen before bouncing off. An errant memory of Stargrave’s childhood came forth as he realized Sylkes reminded him of the little rag doll that a girl he had grown up with used to carry. Sa’bre couldn’t remember her name. All he could see clearly was that she was usually dirty and had a fondness for tossing the doll up in the air. Sylkes was like that. All limp and tossed around the bridge. He even had the same hair color as the doll: red.

His burden shifted around in his grasp. At last Ariana regained enough of her balance that she could grab onto the seat's restraints as she helped Stargrave haul her into his grip where she would be safe. Or at least reasonably safe from being hurled about the bridge.

A higher-pitched shriek caught Stargrave’s attention. He turned to see that it was Lieutenant Funuyaki who had screamed. It had been a high-pitched noise that he had not thought the woman capable of; she seemed tougher than that. She was now in the grasp of her fellow lieutenant, Onita. The large man was far more powerful than Stargrave and easily hauled Funuyaki into his protective grasp, holding her in a similar position to the one Sa’bre now had Ariana in.

Off to Stargrave’s right, he heard another scream from someone that he failed to recognize, but it no longer mattered. He turned his attention away from the chaos on the bridge and focused it on who was currently the most important person in his life: his pilot. Fera now held his life, as well as everyone else’s, in her hands. Even from behind, Stargrave was able to see her fur standing on end and the muscles under that tawny blue-gray stretching taunt as she struggled to control the Rack N’Ruin on its runaway course.

"We’ve lost part of the rear portion of the ship!" Fera growled as another piece of debris stuck the Rack N’Ruin, although the noise it produced was nowhere near as loud as any of the other impacts the ship had suffered.

Another growl rose from the bottom of her throat as Fera fought bravely with the steering controls, intent on pulling the nose of the ship up— up being relative to the nearby sun that they were heading into. It could have been worse. If she had not sensed that the dreadnought was going to explode and pulled away before receiving instructions to do so, they would never have gotten enough distance in time to survive. But it might have been too little, too late anyway. The pieces of debris had finished what the shockwave had started. The hull was breached in multiple places, she only had one of the six engines on line, and something BAD had happened to the systems that controlled the steering. She had, at most, ten percent control over the ship’s direction. The ship she had piloted for the last six months, the ship upon which she had learned ever nuance, creak, and idiosyncrasy of how it handled and exactly what it was capable of, was being shredded into tiny pieces and flung across the stars.

It was all really quite exciting.

Luckily for the others, and herself, Fera had memorized the approximate distances and directions of all of the known celestial bodies in the system. During their wait for the Yagdagron, she had looked over and familiarized herself with the local star charts and knew that the closest world to the twin suns was habitable, nearby, and there was an outside chance the ship would hold together long enough to make it all the way there. All Fera needed to do was get the ship pointed in the right direction, keep it that way, hope that enough of the exterior hull was intact for them to survive orbital reentry, and find a nice soft place to land lest everyone die in a crash.

A combination of the shields being out and the close proximity of one of the stars raised the temperature on the ship steadily and, if it continued at the rate it was going, dangerously, Fera noted. But that was assuming they didn’t plunge into the star altogether first. As she struggled with the sluggish controls, Fera made a couple of silent prayers to Jajagua, greatest of the Katasan gods and the patron deity of worthy deaths. Her first prayer was to survive the landing and fly the spaceways with only her wits and skills once more. Her second was that if she was to die, to let it be a spectacular death worthy of granting her elevation to the highest station. Heading into the afterlife via an orbital crash landing with little in the way of control would surely be a worthy way to earn her passage into paradise.

Miraculously, one of the steering systems came back online, and she regained enough control to get the shuddering ship out of the sun’s gravitational field. It was a hard struggle that caused Fera’s arm muscles to ache in a matter of moments and sweat to pour from her, matting her fur down and making her swear at Stargrave and the other races that made her wear clothing at unnecessary times. They would pay for it later when she began to produce the foul odor that came with excessive Katasan sweat. Assuming they survived whatever landing she could come up with.

As the ship pulled away from the sun, Fera saw enough of the stars for her to regain their celestial bearing. Quickly, her mind plotted a course to the nearby planet and hoped that they could get to it before falling apart, and perhaps walk away from alive. She hoped the starcharts were accurate about the planet being habitable as Fera found she was going to have to test the accuracy of that claim and headed for the planet that had been simply numbered GH3449.

"We’re losing engine control too! If the steering goes out, we’re finished!" Mihoshi’s hands danced over the command console of her ship as she tried desperately to regain some measure of control over her badly damaged vessel.

They had almost made it, too. The missile salvo Mihoshi had launched gained results that would have left the worst oddsmaker shaking in his boots, but it had not come without a price. The long-range weapon’s battery that had been destroyed by Mihoshi’s fourth missile had managed to fire one last time before the explosion destroyed it. The lance of energy, one out of hundreds fired at Mihoshi, succeeded where all of the others had failed. It was not a direct hit— that would have destroyed the vessel completely— rather it hit the starboard engine and carried on through to shred a few feet of the left side of the Galaxy Police spacecraft. Neither the already taxed shields nor the layer of armor that composed the outer hull were enough to resist the beam as it sliced cleanly through both, gutting the ship and sending a steady stream of gray vapor to trail into the vacuum of space as it spun out of control.

Unlike the Rack N’Ruin, Mihoshi had never lost total control of the ship, but rather had the systems go out one by one as fires spread and the automatic extinguishers failed to deal with the blaze. A screen on a wall to Mihoshi’s left showed a schematic of the ship and up to the moment reports on what systems were failing. Red identified which systems were off-line and where. Red had gone from about ten percent of the tail section at the start of the fight, to about fifty-five percent and continued to rise.

"There’s an A-class planet with a breathable atmosphere nearby!" Yukinojo shouted, yet stayed calm. Emergency precautions built into the computer ensured that some of the higher emotional functions of Yukinojo were shut down as the ship took increasing amounts of damage. Even advanced AI’s sometimes fused their neural nets when faced with probable destruction, and the Galaxy Police had programmed their ships’ computers accordingly.

"I’m not sure if we can make it, but I’m going to try!" Mihoshi tried recalling what to do in an emergency such as this, but even when she was at the academy the simulators never ran a scenario that took this amount of damage into account. She just improvised as she simultaneously tried to maintain control, keep the remaining systems on line, head towards the planet Yukinojo had indicated, and cry. At least the last was not difficult for her to do.

Tenchi felt frustrated as he watched Mihoshi trying to keep the ship intact and save both their lives. He wanted to help, but there was nothing he could do. He had no idea of how the ship actually ran, how to repair systems, or even how to console Mihoshi. Their lives were in danger, and, for the first time in recent memory, he found himself completely helpless. There was a chance that if the ship broke up, he might be able to summon the light hawk wings and save both himself and Mihoshi, just like he had during the Dr. Clay incident. But the things were unreliable, and if they failed, as the light hawk wings might very well do, then he and Mihoshi were dead. Ultimately, their lives were in her hands.

The two terminally damaged ships approached the planet from different trajectories, not that either crew had the time to keep an eye on what had happened to their potential enemies. Parts of the Rack N’Ruin continued to fall off as the ship finally entered the atmosphere, leaving a trail of black wood and metal in its wake. Yukinojo held together better, but continued to have its systems fail as control of the ship became increasingly difficult.

On board the Rack N’Ruin, Stargrave maintained his hold on Ariana as he looked at the diagnostic readout on his control pad. Luckily, that program was still running and could still run a diagnostic on what parts of the ship remained. He saw that hull integrity in everything behind the forward command bridge was compromised. Unless someone had possessed the foresight to carry a space suit with them, they were dead. Only the survivors on the bridge remained of his crew, and he felt a momentary pang of remorse at losing thirty-seven… no, thirty-eight counting the now dead Sylkes, of his most useful men. It was momentary only because Sa’bre’s own life was still in danger and he could lose the rest of his crew as well.

"Temperature rising!" someone shouted as the red glow of orbital reentry encapsulated the viewscreen ahead. Even with all of the special alloys and materials that lined the forward command bridge, without shields it was conceivable Stargrave would burn up before ever reaching the planet. Still, one did not stay in the smuggling business as long as he had and not try to anticipate everything that could go wrong.

When Sa’bre had first gotten his hands on the Rack N’Ruin, he modified it as heavily as he could. The forward bridge was lined with adamantine alloys, not as powerful as true adamantine but still able to withstand a direct hit from a heavy anti-ship cannon and remain intact. As an additional precaution, he also built in a reserve micro-fusion system, in case something had happened to the primary power system, or the rest of the ship fell to pieces. Running on minimum power, it could give life support for up to a week. At maximum output, it could activate the shields for close to five minutes, or so the technicians that designed the system had told him.

Stargrave released his left hand from Ariana’s shirt and opened the special keypad built into the left armpad of his seat. He pushed several buttons, routing power into the shields and hoping the five million credits he had invested in the system hadn’t been wasted.

The red glow surrounding the viewscreen disappeared as the shields came on line. Fera found it easier to control the ship; the shields helped to minimize the buffeting of the orbital reentry. Praying once again that the primary viewscreen remained functional, she hit the button that activated the landing rockets. The ship slowed down marginally as the only still functioning rocket ignited.

Fera picked out what she hoped was a relatively flat plain and used every ounce of skill she had to bring the Rack N’Ruin down as she shouted, "BRACE FOR IMPACT!" and took the ship on its final descent.

"Sh… sh… shields are d… d… down to ten perc… cent!"

"R… r… right!" Tenchi shouted as tried to hold his voice steady. The ship was bucking so violently that both his and Mihoshi’s teeth were almost vibrating out of their mouths. The forward viewscreen showed what appeared to be a semi-flat plain that Tenchi hoped would provide a landing that both he and Mihoshi could walk away from. The landing gear was broken, and only half of the reentry rockets still functioned. Unfortunately, they were all on the same side, which made controlling the landing nearly impossible. The planetary map was up just long enough for Mihoshi to pick what she thought would be only a high risk landing area instead of an impossible one. Using every ounce of flying skill she possessed, she managed to bring the increasingly difficult ship into the proper landing trajectory and cried out how she had never landed under conditions this bad before, but at least she was used to the actual crashing and was pretty confident they had an over fifty percent chance of survival.

Just as they were a mile above the planet, the steering controls gave completely and the ship went out of control, continuing its downward descent. Just as the ship was about to hit, Tenchi’s life flashed before his eyes. In all of the things he had said, in all of the things he had done in his all too brief life, he was left with one burning thought that stood out from the others.

"Gee. I guess I really was being wishy-washy in not trying to choose one of the girls."

And then the world went dark.


To be continued.

Chapter 5
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