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Characters: Tomás Darquin, Phoenix Command Crew

“Hale. Go.”

“Sir, sensors have detected another ship in hyperspace, parallel with us. Analyzing now.”

She tapped a key on her desk companel, answering with a cool, thin veneer of calm. “On my way. Command crew to your stations please.”

She emerged from her office, marching across the command deck to Morgan’s tactical station. Morgan began her report without preamble, keeping her eyes on her console readouts. “It’s definitely big enough to make its own jumps. I’m trying to get a fix now.”

Hale leaned to throw a question to the Science Station. “Do they know we’re here?”

“I don’t think so,” Kim said. “No scanning beams have touched us yet.”

“Probably out of range,” Morgan added.

Captain Hale went to her command chair. “Helm, let’s keep it that way.”

“You got it,” Carlacci said gently. “Maintaining speed and distance.”

The turbolift behind them opened to let Yoshino, Santiago, and Darquin onto the bridge. They were already on their way to their stations, with Darquin standing near the Captain’s Chair, before Captain Hale acknowledged them. “Potential hostile en route, everyone. Be ready for anything.”

“I’ve got a make,” Morgan cried.

Hale nodded to the crystalline holo-projection pillar beside her command chair. “Show me.”

The holoprojector unveiled the image as if it were a blooming flower. Hovering over the crystal pedestal, in front of the fiery backdrop of hyperspace, was a rusty cone-shaped vessel with fat wedges of metal lodged into the collar of concentric circles about the ship’s rounded nose.

Darquin watched the hologram. “Looks like a raider ship.”

Morgan nodded, grim. “Old Centauri freighter, with a carrier harness for fighters.”

“Wait a minute.” He moved to the crystalline base and planted a finger on the edge of its elegantly jagged crown, magnifying the image. “Half their fighters are gone. Christ, they’re already moving on the Abbai homeworld.”

“Damn it, we’re already set for Abbai 8–”

“Chief Engineer,” Hale called, turning her chair about, “can we jump on our own once we get there?”

Katia ran her hand over the Engineering console. “We’ll need more power if we have to jump out right after that.”

“If we used portside weapons only…?”

“It’s a good start.” With enthusiasm, Katia Santiago was already shuffling icons and Minbari script on her screen.

“Helm, plot a hyperspatial course from Abbai 8 to Abbai 4, but stay on our current flight plan.” Hale stepped out of the command chair, returning to the Tactical station. “Bring electropulse and fusion guns online, portside only. If we can hit them before they can react, we’ll be able to move on to Abbai 4 without delay.”

“They still have fighters, about nine,” Morgan said. “They might try to use them to cover their escape. Or threaten another ship to make us back off.”

“We need our own people, even just a few, to run interference for us. How soon can they launch?”

“As soon as we clear the jumpgate.”

“Do it. Call for battle stations.”

Darquin turned to Captain Hale as she took her seat. “Quick question, why don’t we just hit ’em now?”

“If they lost their engines in the attack, their entire crew would be lost in hyperspace,” she said. “I want them all alive. Besides, we don’t have anything to prove they’re committing a crime.”

“As long as we catch ’em before they do any damage.”

Terry Hale sighed. “I hope so.”

Morgan was finishing her call to the fighter bays when her board chimed. “Raider jumping out.”

“Okay, let’s see what they’re up to. Activate jumpgate sequence.”

In quick upward glances the bridge crew could see the flaming blue jumppoint punch its way through the hellish dreamscape of hyperspace as the jumpgate ahead obeyed the ship’s signal. Deceptive, calm starlight shone through the expanding tunnel between dimensions.

“Sir,” Morgan said quickly, “we’re being hailed.”

Hale exchanged a few glances with her and Darquin. “Let’s hear it.”

“Attention, incoming ship. Hand over your cargo or you’ll blasted out of the sky.”

The bridge of the Phoenix was suddenly populated by wide, disbelieving eyes as the raider ship slid into their view through the jumpgate tunnel. Turning to the Captain, Darquin held a contorted grin of disgust and sadistic amusement on his face. “Are they still passin’ out Darwin Awards?”

“The universe has a twisted sense of humor, I’ll give her that.” Hale hit the comm button on her armchair. “Gentlemen, have I got a surprise for you.”


 

Personnel on the raider ship, spectators on the orbital factories and passing freighters, anyone working near the Abbai 8 gas giant dropped everything when the alien ship framed by the piercing cobalt halo from the jumpgate–five times bigger than a White Star, with eerie indigo skin, sleek fins on the dorsal and flanking sides like a Minbari war cruiser, but lean and faceted like a knife hewn from ancient crystal. As it continued its forward surge into normal space with a gentle pivot, it struck the raider ship with a hailstorm of silver energy bolts. Alien fighters like elegantly sculpted talons descended from the Phoenix. Wedge-like interceptors broke from their carrier harness, sent drifting when the Zen’Thas fighters cleanly sliced off their engine pods with emerald green energy beams, circling the raider ship like carrion crows.

Then its voice came over every comm channel. “This is the Interstellar Alliance Patrol Cruiser Phoenix. All hostile vessels will stand down immediately or face the consequences.”

Spacers of every breed and stripe, on every trader ship and orbital factory, watched in silent awe. They were familiar with the sight of White Stars by then, but weren’t at all prepared for the experience of seeing their larger kin slide into existence with an ultimatum and an effortless, instantaneous victory.

A buzz of whispers invaded comm channels and sentient beings; a great interest, sometimes even excitement, about Delenn and Sheridan’s new Alliance. ISA sympathizers cheered. Others stared in either dread or fascination.


 

From the Bridge Tactical Station on the Phoenix, Morgan grinned as she recognized Ayeshalan’s voice through the excited radio chatter. “Message from Desell One, sir.”

“On speakers,” Captain Hale said. “Phoenix to Desell One, what’s your status?”

“Excellent, sir. The raiders have surrendered. Their main power systems including engines and weapon systems are offline.”

Reluctant to set free the sigh of relief in her chest, Hale nodded. “Good, I need you to take three ships and hold the area for the next standard hour. We’re taking the rest of the squadron with us to Abbai 4, then we’ll come back for you.”

“Affirmative, Phoenix.”

Hale brought her chair about to face the Tactical Station as the channel closed. “Power down portside weapons. Then coordinate with Mr Carlacci–execute the course change for Abbai 4 and jump the minute those fighters are aboard. Can we pick up any transmissions from Abbai 4?”

“Negative.” Morgan held her hand over a nest of shimmering crystals on her console. “I got a bad feeling they’re using jammers over there.”

Kim touched the corners of her Science console in rapid succession to compare the data on Morgan’s board with that of her own. Then she glanced up, concerned. “Very strong interference… I think you’re right.”

A chirp from Morgan’s console cut off the oath she was saying under her breath. “Desell Four through Eight aboard. Jumping, as ordered.”

Captain Hale leaned back in her chair, staring into the viewports and the expanding flame-colored jumppoint ahead. A dreadful thought began to take on the weight of unpleasant realism: that it could already be too late for some city or village or landing strip on the Abbai homeworld. Someone’s family, home, or livelihood might have already been turned to fire and ash.

She brought her mind back to the main bridge of her ship and became aware of a nervous silence permeating the place. The bridge crew were harboring the same dread as hers.

Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Darquin trudge to Kim’s station and lean on her console. “We gotta stop ’em in time,” he muttered.

Watching her console, Kim answered just as gently; and by the dull tone of her voice, clearly unsatisfied with her thoughts. “There’s only so much we can do.”

He shook his head, wearing a frown of loosely bottled frustration. “With all this damn Vorlon and Minbari hardware, we oughta be able to do something better than–” He looked up from the deck as if he’d been struck, the words left dangling in the recycled air.

Captain Hale turned her chair about. “Mr Darquin?”

He moved to face her, but his eyes and his mind were the last to follow suit. “We could distract them,” he said half to himself, “maybe give the Abbai some….” His eyes quickly snapped to attention. “Sir, I got an idea for fighter deployment.”

“Helm, what’s our ETA for jumppoint?”

“Seven minutes.”

“If you want something fancy,” Hale said with a grin, “you’d better hurry, Chief.”

He answered her grin in kind and, on his way to the lift, snatched up a datapad he’d left on a crystal pedestal. The lift doors slid behind him as he called into his link, “Darquin to Singing Wolf, report to Deck 18–”

Captain Hale wheeled her chair around to face the forward viewports, breathing deeply. “I’m almost afraid to find out.”


 

Darquin was already working feverishly on his datapad when Singing Wolf, Roland DeVries, and the other fighter pilots gathered around him on the hangar deck. Roland and his Narn wingman T’rar threw each other a few glances as they watched Darquin’s plans take shape under his fingertips.

“We’re supposed to hit air… just like that?” Roland said. “We don’t exactly have time to train for this.”

“That’s why we’re going to map out our positions ahead of time,” Darquin muttered, still drawing, “then input the data into our flight comps. The only tough part will be the turbulence.” He stopped long enough to look long and hard at Roland and Singing Wolf on each flank. “If that’s okay, I mean.”

Singing Wolf nodded and started to gather up handfuls of her night-colored hair. “Yes. I will do as you ask.”

Roland nodded to T’rar as he translated the Narn’s sign language. “We still need some element of surprise. We’ll have to hit the Blacklights sometime if we’re ever going to keep the high ground.”

“Break formation… fade to Black and regroup?” Darquin thought for a moment, then smiled. “Boom-cha–that’s even better. So you’re all okay with this?”

Roland DeVries scanned the confident responses of his pilots, then shrugged. “Okay, let’s put on a show.”


 

Emerging from hyperspace in a flickering oval shockwave of burning azure light, the Phoenix appeared above the verdant face of the Abbai homeworld. As soon as the jumppoint sealed itself in a flash, the Phoenix released two waves of fighters, the Thunderbolts of Storm Squadron and the remaining half of Desell Squadron. Barely seconds after launch, Storm and Desell had already begun shuffling into formation.

From the cockpit of a Zen’Thas fighter, Darquin watched the holo-image of his diagram in his front canopy, tracking each fighter icon’s slide into position. The design checked out on the computers, he reminded himself. This formation wasn’t going to be just a shapeless fireball. It had to work.

Situational awareness, seemingly ancient from years of flight time, brought him on himself and his place in the lopsided delta formation. With another Zen’Thas beside him, he gently manipulated the handlegrips and moved to the fore. He offered a self-conscious grin to Singing Wolf’s fighter. He had the training for Minbari spacecraft, but lying on an acceleration couch, his arms stretched out in front of him, felt more as if he were a child playing Superman than a pilot in a space superiority fighter.

The voice of Roland DeVries sounded beside his ear. “Desell, this is Storm Leader. We’re on ideal trajectory. What’s your status.”

Darquin took a deep breath, squeezed his fighter’s handlegrips. “Storm Leader, my board is good. I think we’re ready.”

“All wings, hold formation. Stay sharp and watch your screens. Atmospheric insertion on my mark….”

Abbai 4’s ivory clouds and forest greens quickly blotted out the stars, charging the pilots like a beast.

“Mark.”

Firestorms flooded their sight, bursts of silver and searing crimson. The fighter canopies shuddered around their pilots as the atmosphere pummeled them. And the screams came, the air of Abbai 4 scraping against their hulls to herald their entrance into a battle theater of sound and gravitational fury.

On the planet’s surface, Abbai city dwellers risked a glance out their windows when the distant shockwave announced a new presence overhead. There had never been any use in doing so before. The sight, whether it was alien spacecraft invading their skies or smoldering buildings belching debris into sacred waters, only sapped their strength. But the sounds were new. First, the awesome thunderclap. Now, villagers called out to one another with excitement, not fear.

Abbai were running into each others’ rooms and into the streets, carrying high-powered telescopes and mounting them in the roads. As Abbai looked into their telescopes, up into the eyepieces, moistening them with desperate and grateful tears. Near the edge of the sky, they could see a bird made of flame, exposing its wingspan as it descended. Others focused their telescopes enough to barely make out the glowing fuselage of a Starfury or two. Delenn and Sheridan had not forgotten them. Their vengeance had come on burning wings.

The firebird appeared on the raiding party’s screens as well, an omen born in fire and soon gone. They quickly rallied their fighters to prepare for an assault, racing for high altitude. But even as their scanners combed the sky, they detected no other aircraft.

Then the Minbari fighters appeared, four of them, surrounding the raider squadron. The first barrage of green energy beam fire sent a small fraction of the raiding party into smoking tailspins. As their falling comrades were ejecting themselves into the open sky, the raiders hit their afterburners and ran. Even the few who thought they could take the Minbari ships took evasive action, climbing and rolling into half-loops to escape. Panic and surprise had made them completely overlook the fact that the Zen’Thas fighters could’ve easily overtaken them… and that they weren’t even trying.

Starfury Thunderbolts instantly rippled into the raiders’ path and plowed through them. The raider squadron erupted into a plasma fountain of energy bolts and disintegrating metal, then screamed their surrender into every channel they could reach. They instantly agreed to Storm Squadron’s order to stand down and dove for the ground with suicidal speed.


 

On the bridge of the Phoenix, Morgan nodded to herself in satisfaction as she brought in a message from the Abbai homeworld below them.

“Ssumssha Southern Flight Control Delta to alien ship! Alien ship, are you receiving?” Terry Hale felt herself smile despite herself. The female voice was bubbling with an eager, nervous tone. An excited tumult of voices tumbled out of the speakers, almost childlike from the unbridled emotion that came out clearly even in the native language. “We have detected new spacecraft in our airspace! Can anyone confirm–”

“Yes, I’m Captain Hale of the Ranger Ship Phoenix. We just sent in fighter squadrons to stop a raiding party, but we can withdraw if you–”

“No, no, we want to give your people our thanks! They just protected our city! Please stand by, we will try to give you coordinates to land within the hour. Welcome, Rangers. Ssumssha out.”

Terry Hale exhaled sharply, looking about the bridge as she felt the enthusiasm building around her, searching for words. “Good job, everyone. It seems we are officially open for business.”

As the bridge crew broke into cheers and wild applause, she drooped deeper into her command chair and letting her tension drain out to the deck.


© 1999 Joe R. Medina. All rights reserved.